Straightening the Spine: The Risk, Cost and Necessity of Change

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

— W. H. Auden

Barbie as you've never seen her

Barbie, posing post scoliosis surgery. Mock-up for the full-body cast my mom wore for 9 months.

One whiff of isopropyl alcohol, and I am hurtled back to the summer of 1974, the year I learned my first lessons about the costs of change. Though I was too young to know it then, I was destined to learn that summer and over the years to follow, just how necessary to our survival ––but how painful, risky and costly––change is.

Those were hard and tactile lessons, as hard as the shoulder-to-groin body cast my mother wore for nine months, and as tactile as her waxy scars she allowed me to touch. Her “Frankenstein scars” as she called them, came from traction rods that had run through her knees, and from the four screws that had been drilled into her skull. The longer, purplish incisions that snaked down her spine and all over her torso came from surgical scalpels.

My nightly job was to swab with big wads of cotton the visible scars that were still healing, as well as the sore patches of skin around my mom’s arms, hips and at her jaw line.  These were being rubbed raw by every one of her awkward movements against the pumice-stone edge of plaster.

Mom’s change was no figure of speech. Her change was her figure, literally. She had undergone a complete restructuring of her spine to correct severe scoliosis, which series of surgeries that I’ll describe here, if you have the stomach for them, saved her life.  Straightforward as that.

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The collapsing and twisting of her spine (begun at puberty and exacerbated by four pregnancies) was far more than some mere cosmetic bother. No, she couldn’t wear most clothes from stores, as they didn’t fit her curved back.  And no, she couldn’t sit in a normal church pew without shoving two hymnals under the hip that was three inches higher than the other.  The real problem was that the scoliosis had advanced to where her lungs and other internal organs were severely compromised. Even her thoracic cavity was showing signs of being cramped.  She didn’t have full use of both lungs.  There was pressure on her heart. Doctors vigorously encouraged intervention.

But this, remember, was the ‘70’s.  The surgical procedures for correcting spinal collapse were still experimental. Surgery was risky. And my parents, university instructors, were of modest means.  Surgery was also costly. But the risks and costs of not undergoing the change were greater than the risks and costs of not making the change at all.

Off to grandmas house with my baby brother, Aaron

Off to grandma’s house with my baby brother, Aaron. Note the length of my Mom’s kaftan.

And so this was going to be our Summer of Change.  My mom was going to be rebuilt.  Lee Majors was The Bionic Man on TV at the same time, and so the idea of a Bionic Mom was appealing.  We four children were farmed out to relatives, and my dad and mom drove to Minneapolis, tugging a camper trailer across the ominous aridity of America’s Midwest.  In St. Paul, my mom was admitted to the hospital.

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There, on July 1st, she was put in traction. This meant that she lay flat on her back, skewered through the knees with steel rods, to which a pulley system threaded overhead was attached. At the end of the system were tied progressively heavy sand bags. They stretched her downward, toward the foot of her bed.  At the same time, she was fitted with a metal halo, literally screwed into her skull at four points, and to that halo, another pulley contraption was tethered, and sandbags stretched her to the top of the bed.

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For six weeks she lay in traction. She never lifted or turned her head. Never twisted to her side without two nurses’ assistance. Never went to a toilet or looked out her window or shook out her hair. Never as much as bent her legs or reached down to scratch her shin. Immobility tested her patience, if not her sanity. The threat of blood clots was constant. But in recounting those long weeks, she focuses on watching (through pulley cords and from a mirror positioned above her hospital bed) Nixon’s televised resignation and his famous waving departure on a helicopter. “He looked as miserable as I felt at the time,” she said, “but more stiff.”

From that lateral position and after six weeks, she was hoisted directly onto a mobile operating table, wheeled into the O.R., and surgeons made a long curving incision across her rib cage. They removed a rib, ground it up, and like master chefs, kept the ground rib to the side like a bowl of dry oatmeal.  For later mixing.

Then they made another incision, this time along the crest of her pelvis. From there, they dug and scraped, harvesting more meal. That bowl they also set aside. They would need her own bone mortar for packing in around the base of her spine when they performed the final and major reconstructive surgery.  It involved making a long incision down the entire length of her spinal column, laying the flesh open, then packing like sand in a sand castle her own bone meal in and around the lumbar region of her spine, then bolting two long and delicate titanium (Harrington) rods to her spine and, in essence, jacking her up like a car on lifts.

Risk accompanied every phase of this surgery.  Just how serious the risk was, was brought home dramatically when sirens went off in her hospital room.  Her roommate, just returned from the same surgery mom was to undergo the next morning, had gone into cardiac arrest. Surrounded by screaming family and frantic but ultimately helpless doctors and nurses, the roommate died. Mom was surreptitiously wheeled out of her own room.

In the hallway that night, against the accompaniment of wailing and thick terror, my parents determined that in spite of every known risk, Mom would still undergo the surgery.

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back scar

Chrysalis, anyone?

Chrysalis, anyone?

I recall when my Mom came home. She was wearing a jersey red polka top and white pants grown suddenly too short, under which fit that bulky full body cast with its chin-high collar. The airplane crew drove her to us in one of those golf carts in which she sat primly, robotically, artificially erect. She was taller, thinner, weaker.

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But she was stronger. She was changed. And although to this very day her bionic spine sets off the occasional airport security system everywhere she travels, she travels. She’s around to do so. If you were to ask her now, on what is nearly the 40th anniversary of our Summer of Change, I am certain she would say that every fear and every violet scar was more than worth it.

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the worlds' most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the world’s most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

Reflecting on the changes I’ve faced in my life, I’m drawn to Auden’s keen assertion that, for the most part, we’d rather be ruined (let our spines collapse within us) than be changed (undergo risk-laden and costly improvement.) Many of us, myself included, sometimes accept the deadly or deadening way-things-are, only because change fills us with dread. Or it’s at least kinda scary. We’d rather die of the kind of fear that cramps the torso, leaving us only one lung-full of air, and room for only half a heart, than climb the “cross of the moment” and discover new life.

I didn’t know back when I was rubbing my mom’s chafe-marks with medicinal alcohol that one day I’d inherit a vertebrae or two of her bionic spine.  But I see I have.  We are anticipating our own Summer of Change. No life-altering surgeries (we can only hope) but some big realignments, including launching another book, sending a returned missionary daughter back to university, saying goodbye to a son when he heads off on a 2-year volunteer mission, and, yes, taking a new job in a new country.

I’m stiffening that spine. And if things get rough, sniffing isopropyl alcohol.

Less sullen then, but less strong

Less sullen then, but also less strong

Global Mom: Mr. Psy

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Cont’d from previous post, “Stress, Depression, and Teeny Blue Pills”)

Driving through town

Driving across town. . .

Mr. Psy had wavy salt and pepper hair and a softly lit office at the Hôpital Americain in Neuilly. Feeling oddly kept-womanish, I almost cancelled the appointment. Then, when I forced myself to drive there, I nearly chose to wait out the whole extremely pricey nonrefundable hour in the parking lot. I was conflicted, questioning what my problem was, wondering if I was not really depressed but simply self-pitying. Pitiful. An expatriate Stepford wife and maudlin. Triple scoop of loathsome.

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“But this is easy,” Mr. Psy said, removing his glasses and folding his manicured hands while leaning forward on his frosted glass desk top. “You’re an artiste. You have the tempérament d’une artiste. You feel things profondément. This is a qualité. This tristesse is simply the price you pay pour l’art.”

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My problem now resolved to his liking, he wanted to discuss music and painting and favorite sopranos and Glenn Gould’s Bach recordings.

I thanked my artsy Psy, left with a prescription for little blue pills, and never saw him again.

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What I had not succeeded in helping him understand was what I scarcely understood myself. It was gnawing my soul out, though, that sharp-toothed conviction that I was utterly and fully a failure, I was a dithering fool, my life a waste. Clearly I was profoundly spent, my body was screaming that much, but my mind kept responding, Spent? But spent for what? I’d been working hard for so many years, it seemed, but couldn’t show anything substantial for it. Every time I built something — established myself and our family in Norway, penetrated Versailles with my children in local activities, or literally built up or renovated a home and buttressed and held up my children — in the very instant I’d gotten to that spot, this international job track leveled what I’d built. Any time I felt I got an inch of grip, I’d be back at zero, starting all over again, knowing that whatever grip I got this time around would be ripped out and disposed of again.

Disposable. Like the rotted mattresses and moldy clothing which slumped against my hallway walls, sneering at me. Useless. A wasted life. This was the voice of the mattresses and the clothing. It spoke loudly and incessantly in my head. I could hear little else.

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The seventh day after beginning the blue pills — “Take one a day, Madame,” Mr. Psy had said, “until you feel things start to uncoil,” — I awoke feeling like a cello whose strings had been muted. Or a big bell with a four-inch-thick felt lining. Or like a mother moved to the heart of Paris, and someone had turned the city to one of those sidewalk chalk drawings done by Dick Van Dyke’s character Bert in “Mary Poppins”, the drawing that washes to a swamp in the rain. Indistinct and dissolved. A mirage.

I tossed the remaining fifty-three pills in my bathroom wastebasket.

(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Going Home, or How to Be Present. Fully.

From Global Mom: A Memoir

We were moving to a Heartland Homeland and in many ways the American Dream Land. A 30-minute drive south from Randall’s company’s headquarters, it is a bucolic, historic swath of Americana with 200-year-old farm houses. . .

Early American home, Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Early American home, Bucks County, Pennsylvania

. . .and snaking stone walls surrounding horse farms and apple orchards. . .

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. . . a place known, as my new neighbor dressed in a Phillies T-shirt told me, for its Blue Ribbon schools and Blue Ribbon beer.

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Despite that appealing description, there were early indications the adjustment was not going to be so easy. Parker was immediately called “Frenchie” at a middle school that had a two percent rotation rate, meaning that people were born there and schooled there and never moved away. Next to zero international influx.

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Our children were mortified when everyone but them knew to stand in perfect unison at the beginning of the school day and recite, “Verbatim, Mom,” Claire said through gritted teeth later, an “Allegiance chant,” Parker cut in, all gluey and glum. “I had to lip sync, Mom,” he went on.

They had never heard it. Never knew it existed. And how would they? But they knew the Norwegian and French national anthems by heart, and I suggested they teach them to their classes as compensation.

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Getting to know Philadephia

Getting to know Philadephia

Then the girls on the elementary school playground were tittering in a tight clump about someone named Lizzy; her clothes, her hair, the way she talked, what she did this week and the week before and what she might do next week. And Claire, a month into this new world, interrupted to ask, “So. . .who’s Lizzy? Is she new here at school like me?” To which all the girls stared. And laughed.

“Lizzy McGuire, Mom,” Claire told me later, not crying, but looking stern, like an anthropologist who’s just spotted a member of an endangered species. “Lizzy, M-C-G-U-I-R-E. We have got to get American T.V.”

Dalton's first ever American soccer league: The Guppies.

Dalton’s first ever American soccer team: The Guppies.

And Dalton was having his own adjustment issues, not spitting at children this time around, thank heavens, but doing other things his teacher was trying to manage. “Twenty-two years as a teacher, Mrs. Bradford, and I have to tell you I’ve never seen anything quite like your dear Dalton.”

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At thirteen, Parker would have probably been riding the plate tectonics of an identity crisis anywhere, but here he was trying wardrobes and body postures and accents in order to fit in. When asked were he was from, he never mentioned a word about his real upbringing, would no longer speak anything but English with us although we’d always hopped from Norwegian to French to English in our home, in our private conversations, to keep secrets as a family when on the streets. It seemed he’d made an overnight decision to be a new person.

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Where, Parker? Where’d you just tell that guy at the gas station you were from?”

“Fully” he tipped his head on which he now wore a flat-rimmed cap tilted strategically off to one side. “Fullydelphia.”

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My son — maybe you remember him from barnepark and the Versailles Club du Basket? — had morphed in the course of exactly 0.6 minutes, into a boy from the hood. From the Fully hood.

After having written an essay for entrance into an honors English course for his school, Parker reported to me later how it had gone.

“So, ça va, mon cœur? How’d it go?”

“’Salright, I guess. I finished the thing. Wrote a good full three pages.”

“Sounds good! What did you write on?”

“Eve.”

“Eve? As in Eve . . . Adam and Eve—Eve?

“Yuh. Eve.” He was adjusting the hat and letting his oversized pants bunch sufficiently around his untied basketball shoes. My boy from Fully. Where’d this kid materialize from?

“As in, you wrote about the Bible story? Or, uh, what?” I kept smiling, taking it easy, knowing that I was now in a country where the separation of church and state is at times maybe a bit smudgy. But. . . Eve?

“They gave me three choices to write on,” he said, “And I picked, ‘Describe the life and accomplishments of your favorite First Lady.’”

“And Eve. . .She was the—”

“The First Lady.”

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Comparing: Grief Olympics

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My friend Andrea is a prodigious athlete.  She runs for speed as well as for endurance. She fenced in college (she’s a wizard with weapons), then took up competitive running long ago, and has since finished or placed in I cannot tell you how many biathlons and triathlons.

The gal frightens me.

As she does anyone who gets in front of her on the track, because – eh-hem, move over – this is one driven creature.

That she’s also a scientist frightens me, too. (We already know how I feel about things numerical, and I recall science requires a few numbers here and there, and so we’ll just move swiftly along from that topic so I don’t break out in isosceles-trapezoidal boils.)

But what gets my attention more than anything Andrea is or has done, more than her fencing jumpsuit or orange lycra shorts for her latest what-have-you-thalon or even her mad scientist lab coat, is the heavy cloak she wears as a mother.

She has three boys and one of them, her firstborn, Ethan, is severely handicapped.

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Ethan suffered hypoxic brain injury at birth. This left him with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, severe developmental delay, no purposeful movement.  He cannot form words, he cannot crawl, sit up straight or walk, he cannot care for himself in any way, he cannot see. He is ten years old but his developmental equivalency is measured in months. His unending medical needs make Andrea and her husband Chris’ home a battle zone with concourses of nurses and therapists trudging in and out both day and night.

Then there are those wars with school systems. The wars with insurance companies. The wars with the armies of medical professionals.  The wars within Andrea’s own chest cavity. The list of assaults goes on.

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My firstborn, on the other hand, was ill precisely three times in his whole 18-year-and-five-months of mortality. A few hours total of illness, I’d wager. Maybe twenty hours, tops.  A mild allergic reaction to citrus juice. A normal inner ear infection.  And of course that one time I gave him food poisoning with a bad batch of bolognese. All that night, my 12-year-old convulsed and heaved between polite color commentary, assuring me from his crouched position over the toilet that it was (barf) not my fault (buuuurrrrrlch) and that he (puke) would be okay for (whaaagh) basketball (hurl) tomorrow.

That, in a nutshell, is what my son knew of illness. That’s all I witnessed of my firstborn son’s conscious suffering.

In the time we’ve known each other, Andrea and I have exchanged notes on the nature of major loss. In these exchanges, I have never felt that she has pitted this grueling day-to-day loss of her son against another loss she does not know, the sudden death of my son. She has never even intimated there’s competition between the two, a sort of Grief Olympics, you might call it. And I try, I do, to give her and her stunningly beautiful Ethan the same respect. I hope she senses that. I readily admit to not knowing the air pressure of the kind of galaxy Andrea and her family inhabit.

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But layer by exhausting layer, her story has given me the gift of beginning to understand something I did not understand five and a half years ago, at a time when I swore to heaven I wanted to experience Andrea’s galaxy firsthand.

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It was that first night I stood in the ICU over the body of my robust, muscular, athletic but comatose son.  That was the night I poured out my tears to my Father in Heaven and vowed that if He would let my child live – in any state whatsoever, just live – I would care faithfully for this child of mine. I would consecrate all I was and would ever be to caring for my boy as God would.

Let me keep my son,” I wept and pled and begged and insisted. I picked a fingertip-deep hole in the naugahyde arm of the metal-legged chair, I remember, drilling the idea into Divinity’s head. “I can already see in my mind where we’ll set up his hospital bed in the Munich apartment. Right there. I know where I can find daily medical care. I’ll educate myself, I’ll suction his lungs, adjust his oxygen, do nothing else in life besides care for him, stay with him. Read him Goethe and play him Brahms and stroke his stoney limbs.  God in heaven, don’t take him from us. We’ll all die.  I need him. I’ll die. . .”

They were furious prayers. I get sweaty just writing them.

What was I asking for? I didn’t know then in my breathless desperation. Andrea has an idea.  But I did not.  In that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the cliff that we were standing on that had us dangling over the abyss. Had God granted those pleas, I don’t know what person I would be now, stroking the arms of whatever remained of my son, herding strangers in and out of my home, funneling every nanogram of energy and every last cent into sustaining a life that is disintegrating before my eyes anyway. I’ll tell you: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be writing books. Or writing this blog you are reading right now. I would have no surplus anything for such an undertaking. I would maybe have to take up running really hard and really fast for the sole purpose of  metabolizing the raging hurricane that bangs relentlessly in my thoracic cavity. Maybe I would become a triathlete. Maybe I would crop my hair to a snappy-sleek black Powerwoman ‘do.

And I would wield some real as well as some figurative swords. Maybe.  But can I know? Can any of us know what we would do with someone else’s lot? Maybe instead of becoming stronger I would cave. Maybe my whole family would die and I would die, too. I would hope not, but really: how can I know?

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Observing Andrea, I get a flimsy, fleeting glimpse of just a corner of only the slightest edge of an expansive world I was asking for that night in the ICU. And I marvel, thinking I wouldn’t make it.

But then I think, well.  . . I ‘ve made it this far through something else. . .

And finally, I must digest the plain reality that my fate and my loss have been of another sort.

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“Isn’t it odd?” Andrea wrote in a treasured email exchange, “You’re grieving the son you once had and lost.  And I’m grieving the son I never had but am losing every day.”

And she will lose him. She knows that. Which makes the enormous effort in keeping him alive that much more – how can I describe this? – that much more godly, in my eyes.  Andrea moves hour after hour after week after month after year along that crazy split path that reminds me of two side-by-side moving sidewalks, the kind you’ve stood on in airports – with one going quickly in this direction,  and the other going quickly in the other direction – she straddles that impossibly schizophrenic and simultaneous divergence of both frantically sustaining and inevitably losing the life of this beloved, perfect son.

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Now you tell me: is there any harder race than the isometric marathon of the soul?

So my friend Andrea, a weapon-wielding, race-running, warrior of a mother would be the last to say she’s in some competition about whose loss is worse. As if, with all that she and her family are dealing with, she has bandwidth for enlisting in some sort of Grief Olympics.

But she does have an Olympian’s spirit, which her oldest son, who coos like Chewbacca and sighs like the newest initiate to Mount Olympus, has inherited in full.

ehtan alone smiling

For starkly beautiful descriptions of Andrea’s ongoing life with Ethan, go here and here and here.

Freshly Pressed?

Here we are, five of our six. I'm including today a selection of my favorite photographs from my previous posts.  All of them, with the exception of this one taken by Rob Inderrieden, I took. Enjoy! So glad you're here.

Here we are, five of the six Bradfords. I’m including today a selection of some of my favorite photographs from several of my previous posts. All of them, with the exception of this one taken by Rob Inderrieden, I took. Enjoy!

Hello, everyone. It is great to have you here.

Judging by the variety and number of readers this week’s Freshly Pressed incident (and what doyou call it?) has drawn here, we’ve got some rich times ahead. One of my readers suspected that I probably didn’t fully “get” what it means to be Freshly Pressed, but that reader was gracious in suggesting that it was probably best that way.

And I didn’t.

And it is.

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I don’t mind this little flurry of recognition. It would be false to say much else, since we serious writers ache to create something someone will find worth reading. And we’re a bit tired of being that Someone, reading to ourselves. (Oh, the echoing drone of one’s own voice in the caverns of one’s head.)

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So it’s heartening to have you here, reading as you apparently are. Your presence is invaluable to me, and I want to honor it with vivid, meaty material that will invigorate thinking and stir feeling, and open up the possibility of a nourishing connection between us, all of us.

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I write because for me, writing is a physical and spiritual imperative. Is it also like that for you? If the significant happens – in my world, or in The World – I feel compelled to engraven it, pin its largeness down, trap it somehow. Then I lean close and marvel at watching its complexity or simplicity crystalize on the page. My readers, I hope, share in that marveling, not, of course, because I am marvelous (although my husband seems to think I am, dear guy), but because the potential of our human reach irrefutably is. Words stimulate and facilitate that reach. Almost all of us, when we were babies, reached – and touched and connected and established ourselves as a teeny but proud pinprick part of humanity – first with words.

So. Here we are. May I explain some things?

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I write long.
You’ll want to get a drink. And oxygen tanks.

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I write books.
Two are in either the editing or legal approval phases as we chat right here, you and I.

The first to be published (with Familius and later this spring) will be Global Mom: A Memoir, and is about our family’s 20+ years on the international road. I’ve been posting excerpts of that manuscript here every week for some time, now.

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The second book is an anthology (with a chapter-long essay as introduction) on loss, grief, and adaptation. Its title is Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward. Here, I post liberally from its 300+ pages of wise and varied voices.

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I also write short.
I am a published poet and will post some of my (long-ish) shorts here. I’ve posted several pieces already; dig a minute and you’re bound to find them.

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I also write creative personal essays.
Some have been published in journals and other blogs, and one recently garnered an award. I’ll post excerpts of them here, too.

I am beginning a children’s book
It will address loss and living onward and will be done in collaboration with a gifted illustrator. I’ll ask for your input. You’ll meet the illustrator if and when she’s ready to be revealed. Her work alone is worth hanging around for.

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And finally,

I am a poser of a photographer.

I’m learning to blend my newfound wonder for photography with my life-long and hard-core passion for the written word.

That’s this cozy sky blue/ocean blue blog you’re sitting in the middle of right this very moment.

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What else, you ask, can I expect when I come here to visit Melissa? (Besides, you mean, long-ish, probing posts that sometimes leak tears and sometimes crackle with laughter?)

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The last posts, as you’ve perhaps read by now, have treated some “Don’t Do’s” of co-mourning: Don’t judge or preach, don’t disregard or disappear, don’t enforce arbitrary deadlines, etc. Over the coming posts, you can expect me to examine the nature of “Can Do’s” in the face of great grief. In two posts from now, for instance, I’ll tell about the necessity of “Continuing” by introducing you to Antonini, a family friend, who was the last survivor of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Enough to reduce to moltenness any brittleness in our spines, that post should not be missed.

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Through the posts beyond that, and with your help, we’ll delve into the experience of the death of a beloved. What does it mean to a mother? A father? A sibling? Grandparents? A friend? An extended community? Strangers? What are the implications of tragic loss for our faith? For our non-faith? In other words, what can we learn, broadly and specifically, from death and other losses? What meaning do we deliberately or indiscriminately assign to suffering, to “mortality’s primary companion,” as one insightful reader here put it?

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At that point, I’ll update our Table of Contents. By then, Global Mom will be ripe for public consumption and you’ll probably want to return with me to those excerpts and our family’s years living in Paris, (where I last dropped off my readers somewhere on the rainy cobblestones near the Louvre), then continue to Munich, then Singapore and finally to where we live now, in Switzerland.

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There’s plenty to share with you about Switzerland, as there is about Sicily, where our daughter lives as a missionary (really – who’s going to believe this?) among the Mafia.

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And I will faithfully update you on news on Grief and Grace.

**

Before we all finish that morning cup, stretch our arms and brush the wrinkles out of our pants, a parting quote from Peter Wehmeier’s, Picasso und die christliche Ikonographie.

If I can claim a personal mantra as a writer, this would be it:

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In the face of death, art’s duty – indeed, her raison d’être – is to recall absent loved ones, console anxieties, evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, surmount isolation, and facilitate the expression of the unutterable.

**

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Again, thank you for coming here. For all the reasons listed in that quote, I hope you’ll come often.

Distraction (and Avelut)

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In my last post where I walked through a small segment of the Book of Job, I mentioned shiva. Shiva, as you probably already knew but I’ll explain just in case, describes the first seven days of mourning within the Jewish tradition. The strict rites of shiva make for a formal, communal focus on the experience of grief. Among other guidelines, one of these traditions requires that visitors to the house of the bereaved sit in silence on low mourning benches. They, as we saw in Job’s three friends, do not speak out of awe at the loss and respect for the sorrow. Their responsibility is to wait until the bereaved himself initiates – or does not initiate – conversation, and then quietly follow suit.

And when [Job’s three friends] lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent everyone his mantle. And sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.
—Job 2:12, 13

I like shiva.

But I don’t expect everyone to, including everyone who is bereaved.

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Although we knew little if anything about shiva before we knew about traumatic loss ourselves, we as a couple followed some of the rites by instinct in that week after the zero point. And I have to say that if I were to revisit that holy week, I’d follow more of the rites and politely ask others to follow them with me. That week, and that general stretch early on after the death of your beloved can be a powerfully charged period for learning things of a spiritual nature. The last thing one would want is to miss out on such tutoring by being somehow distracted or having the world crowd in and crowd out the Spirit.

What follows shiva in Jewish tradition is avelut. I knew absolutely nothing of this stage of ancient mourning practices until well into that woeful first year. Quite accidentally, I stumbled upon this Hebrew word while researching different cultures’ responses to death, and was surprised to find that without having known I was doing so, I’d already been holding strict avelut for several months.

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What is avelut? It is, as a Jew would explain it, the year-long period of private and social behavior outlined for the bereaved, especially children who lose parents and parents who lose children. In keeping avelut, the avel (or the bereaved) does not run from his grief through any number of common escape routes which research and history prove are our favorites; alcohol, drugs, obsessive work, excessive sleep, infidelity, angry rampages, gambling, shopping sprees, you-can-fill-in-the-blank.

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Instead, the avel retreats from the world and from worldly things. This is, however, no passive shutting down. No dark mood, no passing funk. Neither is this depression. And it’s certainly not some kind of pathological anti-social behavior.

This is a measured, deliberate choice to neither flee grief nor be passively detroyed by it. Here’s the logic: Ancient wisdom suggests that in this raw, skinless state, an avel is highly receptive – maybe more than any other time in his life – to learning the fine-particulate matter, the things of the spirit. Those spiritual things will give understanding and with that understanding will come strength, comfort. This period of such exceptional receptivity is brief. If one runs from it, one has lost a rare opportunity to be tutored.

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I’d like to share with you what avelut meant to me and my family.

From the introduction to Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward:

“Resurrection is for those on both sides of the tomb,” writes Presbyterian pastor and theologian, Laura Mendenhall, in an Easter sermon given shortly after the death of an infant girl from her congregation. Of that truth, I am living proof. When your most beloved dies, when your profoundly bonded flesh and blood dies, you die too. It seems the inviolable law of nature. My “death” manifested itself physically: the heart palpitations, the anvil crushing my chest for months on end, the weakness, the fatigue, the overwhelming longing for blue-black drifts of oceanic sleep.

Resurrection, at least a metaphorical one, takes both a staggering amount of effort and a continuance of God’s life-giving grace over a very long period of time. That, I might add, means much more work and far more grace and many more years than anyone uninitiated in traumatic loss seems to ever fully realize at the start.

Like a literal resurrection, ours began from what felt like underground, while buried in sorrow, entombed in grief. Our souls instinctively needed solitude and retreat, a wilderness place apart, a certain protection from the glaring and blaring invasion of the world at large. This meant holing up. As a result, that first year was about as close to monastic living as a nice married Mormon couple with children could fashion. In case I make the refuge or us sound a bit too holy, I want to make it perfectly clear that nothing felt holy enough. But Randall was obliged, after only a few days back in Munich, to return immediately to the necessarily worldly atmosphere and incessant demands of his career. Given the teleconferences on marketing strategies, unavoidable business dinners, and a major structural reorganization taking place right then in his company, the holiness he’d felt for days on end, as much as he longed for it every hour, could not be his daily habitat. If he removed himself entirely from his work at just this moment, many of his colleagues’ jobs would be at high risk. He couldn’t abandon them. So in just that sense, the human one, his work held some meaning. But the professional competition now felt meaningless, even hollow, and his soul hungered to stay close to the nourishing reverence we’d experienced those first few days after impact, close to where we always felt the Spirit and Parker, where their strength and light were accessible. We did all we could both together and individually to hold onto that holiness.

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As I withdrew from the outer world, (no music, no shopping, no television, no movies, and very little if any social contact), I entered an intense journey of meditation and prayerful study. This meant that for more than a year, every morning after the children left for school and Randall for the office or for the airport, I turned to my daily pattern of digging amid piles of books spread about me in a circular mountain range. I sat cross-legged on the floor with sometimes twenty books open at once: the Bible; poetry anthologies; the Book of Mormon; a modern French novel; the Doctrine and Covenants; a German lyric; a prophet’s personal journal; a Norwegian memoir; the Pearl of Great Price; a commentary on the Book of Job; a stack of professional journals on parental grief; collected talks from prophets and apostles past and present; discourses from Plutarch and Plato; my Riverside Shakespeare; accounts of the Mormon pioneers; accounts of Holocaust survivors; accounts of 9/11 survivors; accounts of tsunami survivors; and Parker’s own words, captured in his journals, poetry, school essays, letters, and lyrics.

For hours to days to weeks to months on end, I hunkered down in profound concentration, spelunking and pick axing through others’ writings. Why, of all things, was this my response to grief? For one thing, I was hunting for community, or better, for communion. I knew no one in Munich and no one knew me. As important, no one knew Parker. I had no community to validate my feelings or give me a control group against which to check my sanity at a time when I feared I might be losing my mind from sheer pain. In the thousands of pages I read, I held out hope that I might find someone who would understand something of the state of acute confusion and alienation we were living in. Perhaps, too, I would find someone to sit quietly and weep with me.
I was also looking for words, literally. From the earliest minutes of arriving at the ICU and throughout the months that followed, I realized that there was no existing vocabulary for either the horror or the holiness we were experiencing. Never had I needed so desperately to be understood, yet never had I felt so misunderstood. Would this tragedy drive me to permanent silence, me, a woman whose whole education, profession and delight had been tethered to words? Maybe, just maybe, I thought, somewhere in the hundreds of thousands of words I was raking through, I would find one passage that would give voice to the devastation I could otherwise find no words for.

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But above all, I was searching for knowledge. I ached for meaning, yearned for truth. I was mining for wisdom, for enlightenment, mining like a tenacious scientist on the trail of The Great Cure of the century, but instead of a cure or a release from the constant pain we were now experiencing, I yearned for knowledge and understanding of it. Though I’d always been a student of the gospel, I now sought more than ever a greater knowledge and understanding of God. It would be God who would offer true communion, I knew that. And it would be God who would understand my several questions for which I had no language. And it would be God who would reveal meaning and truth. It would be God, ultimately, who would provide an answer to the question that now consumed my life: How could I live on with the death of my son?

When in my research someone’s words hit the bedrock of Spirit, I knew it in half a breath. There were revelatory moments when an insight stunned me to immediate tears, or, more often, head-to-toe stillness. At times my heart would leap a hurdle or my eyes would stretch wide open; other times I would hold my breath or exhale audibly in gratitude. Whatever my physical and intellectual response, every time a writer got it, I’d quickly type the words into my growing laptop files.

**

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That mining for light, as I’ve just described in that substantial quote from the introduction toGrief and Grace, gave me hundreds of pages of quotes that have been edited into something I pray might be of help to others facing the abyss of great loss.

Beyond that, however, and what I consider a far more precious result of that once-in-a-lifetime concentrated retreat, avelut revealed many essential and practical truths about our son’s accident, details unknowable unless someone was guided spiritually to certain sources and people with specialized knowledge. Thanks to the searching we did during that first year of our unwitting avelut, we also learned things of a spiritual nature I choose not to speak about but on rare occasion and in special circumstances, and though I have written it all down, that is material I do not share openly. But they are concrete realities and have offered to me and my family testimony after testimony of the truth that life is eternal and loving, familial bonds endure beyond this sphere.

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

So what if instead of choosing to face and enter my grief, I had chosen, instead, to distract myself from it, to run from it? To dance a fake jollity jig? To amuse myself away from my son’s death?

Or what if I’d been in a community that had insisted, all with the best intentions, of course, on distracting me from my grief? Cheerleading me away from it? Coaxing me into a mall? Or a bar? Or a spa? All the time moving me away from that time of fleeting receptivity and all that could have been learned only there and then?

Would distraction have provided a quicker healing? Strengthening? Fortifying? A faster way through? Or would it have been a feverish detour, maybe, the kind you’ve driven before that brings you right back to that same main road with all the messy construction anyway, back to that same bleak stretch, back to the only way through?

To some, I imagine avelut might sound, I’m not sure, masochistic, draconian or even just an unnecessary drag. But because of my small but potent experience during that time of sacred retreat, I believe that avelut was above all things a rare and precious blessing. It taught me about holding onto holiness, how vital yet how hard it is, and about the importance of creating the necessary climate where personal revelation is as essential as air and where God’s merciful presence is real, real in its fiery power, real in its muscular grace.

**

From Grief and Grace:

The world in which we live lies in the power of the Evil One, and the Evil One would prefer to distract us and fill every little space with things to do, people to meet, business to accomplish, products to be made. He does not allow any space for genuine grief and mourning. . . .
The voice of evil also tries to tempt us to put on an invincible front. . . . Someone once said to me, “Never show your weakness, for you will be used; never be vulnerable, for you will get hurt; never depend on others, for you will lose your freedom.” This might sound very wise, but it does not echo the voice of wisdom. It mimics a world that wants us to respect without question the social boundaries and compulsions that our society has defined for us.

–Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 8, 9

In the end denial, bargaining, binges, and anger are mere attempts to deflect what will eventually conquer us all. Pain will have its day because loss is undeniably, devastatingly real.
—G. Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 59

I was a character from an opera who might at any moment let loose with an aria, and generally people tried to cover it up with conversational ragtime. People changed the subject. They smiled uncomfortably. Some tried extraordinary juggling acts, with flung torches of chitchat and spinning scimitars of small talk.
They didn’t mention it. They did not say, I am so sorry or How are you?
I felt in those first weeks, meeting people I knew, like the most terrifying object on earth.
Who knows what people think? Not me, and especially not then. Still it surprised me, every time I saw someone who didn’t mention it. . . . I am trying to remember what I have thought when I’ve done the same thing, all those times I didn’t mention some great sadness upon seeing someone for the first time. Did I really think that by not saying words of consolation aloud, I was doing people a favor? As though to mention sadness I was “reminding” them of the terrible thing?
As though the grieving have forgotten their grief?

—Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of A Figment of My Imagination, 92–93

When people outside the immediate family are encountered who do not allow. . expression of emotions and thoughts about the deceased children, it creates a resentment that is difficult to control. Subsequently, the time comes when parents begin to separate themselves from insensitive and uncaring people in their environments who insist on keeping channels of communication closed.

Many times a wedge is driven between those suffering the loss and very dear and close friends. We can refer to this as a “wedge of ignorance”—ignorance about the great importance of open . . . communication.
—Ronald Knapp, Beyond Endurance, 31–32

While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates.
—Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 21

Across the years I have met countless men and women who have used drugs, alcohol, sex, food, gambling, work, hobbies, or shopping to drown out the painful scenes [of the death of a loved one] in their minds. My drug of choice was work. My hectic schedule was a convenient distraction, and it was something I used in my attempt to outrun the pain. . . .
Along my grief journey I have met countless men who, like me, have tried to outrun their pain by replacing it with something else. . . . For grievers, the message is clear: if we try to stifle, ignore, outrun our sadness, and not talk about the pain we feel inside, there will be serious consequences down the road.

—D. Apple, Life After the Death of My Son, 32–33

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12 Don’t Do’s

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(All photos are from last week’s visit to Le Petit Palais in Paris, where the boys wanted to go to mark our wedding anniversary.)

This is the twenty-second post I’ve tried to write since my last posting. I’ve thrashed around in thought, and thrown every last draft away.
All insufficient. All too much.

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All these lurching starts:

In a study on grief conducted at Yale University. . .
In a study on major loss conducted at Columbia University. . .
In a Stanford University survey on bereavement. . .
In a Mayo Clinic study on the physical repercussions of traumatic loss. . .
In The Other Side of Sadness from George Bonnano. . .
In Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s The Truth About Grief. . .

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In church meetings on Sunday after the Sandy Hook shooting rampage, I sat dizzy with sleeplessness and sorrow, holding my arms crossed stiffly on my lap, a posture I felt would help contain the emotions boiling behind my sternum. Six and seven-year-olds surrounded me. I tried not to stare at them too intensely, tried not to feel too much, focused on not letting tears come again, since I imagined tears would confuse and frighten those around me, especially the children.

That’s when Tina, one of my Primary children, appeared from nowhere. She draped her small fresh body dressed in white and lavender frills across my lap.

“It’s my birthday today,” she whispered as she looked up with her missing front teeth and haphazard ponytail. Then she wriggled onto my lap. I dropped my head onto hers, closed my eyes and smelled her hair. I felt how her small hand – it weighed as much as a passing memory – stroked my sleeve.

“You know, today I’m turning this much!” she lisped, her eyes lively, alive. She held up seven fingers. And though I’m sure that in that moment I maintained outward composure (it helped that the pressure of Tina’s shoulder blades pushed against that heaving sorrow behind my sternum), I began crying inside the safety of my mind, sobbing and running and falling through the sloped fields of my mind.

****

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Delving into this topic with anything more than clinical analysis – in other words, with passion, transparency and candor – has paralyzed me. It occurs to me that I’ve never wrestled so fiercely with anything I’ve ever written. My master’s thesis (written a lifetime ago) was a total, flitting breeze in comparison. A pleasure. A joy.

Now, I have to admit to being locked in place with self-consciousness, which has turned into self-incrimination, which has in turn become a deepening swamp of thick sorrow. Everywhere my mind turns, I know there are vital things that need to be said about this topic, the topic I find compelling beyond all others not because it is my story, but because it is the story at the absolute center of all human stories.

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Yet everywhere I turn I also feel the pointlessness of trying to say these things.

Why?

Because who, really, wants to hear about grief?

And who, really, can stick with it and hear the full and heavy load?

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And who, once hearing, wants to bear it?

Who can bear it?

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Author Joan Didion, in the first paragraphs of her grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking pins down at least part of the problem as I see it. She writes, “The question of self-pity.”

But when I first read her, it struck me that there was not a single teardrop in the entire volume. Its pages are dry as a bone. Dry as Didion.

Still, critics have called her work a “ploy for pity.”

Know what? You just can’t win.

For me, that question of self-pity arose before I ever read Didion, already in the first two weeks after losing Parker, as a matter of fact, when a few observers of our loss softly warned that we parents should not “dwell on it”, should “move on”, should “be strong” and should “beware of self-pity.”

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So before we had really even entered the marathon of grief, we were offered from some on the sidelines instructions about how our grief should be run. Though I’ve long since forgiven the well-meaning onlookers for their unsolicited advice, I haven’t forgotten those words, nor have I let go of Didion. Her voice echos: the question of self-pity. That question follows and hobbles my every move, my every written move.

There are other questions, too. They are the questions that turn my writerly self into an immobile chunk of illiterate limestone:

The question of relevancy.
The question of self-indulgence.
The question of comparison.
Of humility
Of propriety.
Of stoicism.
Of honesty.
Of faith.
Of pain.
Of life.
Of death.

**

In two days it will be 2013. Another New Year. And I am already bracing myself against the probability that the horror at Sandy Hook (and Aurora, and Norcross, and Jackson, Chardon, Pittsburgh, Miami, Oakland, Tulsa, Seattle, Wilmington, Milwaukeee, Texas A&M, Minneapolis and Brookefield) will end up being no more than part of our nation’s Year In Summary.

Can we do something more than summarize? With regards to grief, can it even be summarized? Can it be encased in words? Is this why writing about it is so hard for me? So intimidating?

So intimate?

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Major loss and its attendant grief have been and continue to be the most intimate experiences of my mortality, more intimate than birthing into life or anything associated with producing or giving life. By “intimate” I mean warmly entwined with the Divine while setting me in a place apart from those around me, so many I wish to commune with.

And it is precisely that great difficulty in sharing grief that typifies grief. Grief isolates. That isolation can, if not recognized and met with an empathetic community, engender a kind of chronic loneliness that can lead to crippling alienation.

In other words, grief – misunderstood, misjudged or rushed – can carve a chasm between the bereaved and her community. Grief, in short, can drive her out.

Does it need to be this way? What can we do so it is not?

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Recognizing that grief is impossible to summarize, and saying right off that I’m not much of a fan of addressing big questions with little lists, I’m going to begin with a list anyway.

Here are 12 D’s, or 12 Don’t Do’s to consider when faced with great grief, yours or another’s.

(Take heart, they’ll be followed by 12 C’s, or 12 Can Do’s.)

DEADLINES
DOGMA
DOUBT
DISTRACTION
DIMINISH
DISMISS
DISALLOW
DISCARD
DISREGARD
DISASSOCIATE
DISTANCE
DISPASSION

The first point, Deadlines, is where I’ll begin in the next post, since it seems the most common yet damaging of responses to grief. It has to do with the tendency to impose arbitrary time limits on grief and its sister sensation, yearning. The Deadline mentality seems to quip, “Time heals all wounds”, then sets the clock, watching anxiously for living proof of a false premise. The Deadline mentality has been fueled by the globally popularized yet long-since-debunked “Stages of Grief” theory, to which I will return in detail.

Hope to find you here then.

Global Mom: Le Crash

To their credit, the two oldest absorbed new information quickly, flooring and softening everyone.  They worked hard.  I’ll never forget their drive.  Dalton’s month in a cast somehow dried up his spitting complex. And at subsequent parent-teacher conferences, there were far fewer concerns about their academic abilities or social adjustment. In fact, at mid-semester progress reports, Claire had hopped over her reading group, and skills along with confidence and independence had improved.  Parker’s semester report described him as “conscientious and talented”, his music teacher described him as “gifted,” and his home room teacher wrote in red pen that he was “exemplary.” Dalton, the spitting teetotaler, won himself a girlfriend named Marie-Celestine.  And though these three children were always energetic and outspoken, and although the two oldest still used Norwegian idioms translated awkwardly into English, and the younger for a while made up French words like “zee cozee peellow” and “zee grand scoop d’ice cr-r-reem”,  they ended up being strong, even delightful, students.

That first autumn, then, we’d had three children enter new school systems, one in French, which meant learning a new language, and two in English, which meant relearning an old language.  We’d had a fire ant infestation that left all the children with visible welts on their bodies, a flood in our basement, (and three more that I  just don’t have the heart to write about.)  Our heater had broken down during an unseasonably early October freeze, we still had no closets, we had no personal parking places for our two cars, we all got the flu — all of the Île de France got the flu— we had a bat problem (I forgot to mention that?), I had back problems (I forgot to mention the spasms and bed confinement?), we had one broken foot that kept one child from school for a month, and we had been warned that if our oldest two didn’t “get up to speed”, they’d be expelled from their school — the only one in the entire Île de France in which we had secured places — post haste.

In the midst of all this, we’d figured out banking, basketball, baguettes, BCG. We’d found all new doctors, plumbers, fishmongers, dry cleaners.  New ways of walking, greeting, shopping, running in the gardens but not running in the streets and certainly not running into the baker’s shop, new ways of dressing, eating, breathing, existing.

It almost felt like the worst of The New was behind us.

Then winter, the dead season, started early.  Streets were slippery.  And one Sunday morning on my way to conduct meetings at church (I’d accepted an appointment in the presidency of the women’s organization of our congregation) something horrible happened. I nearly killed my children.  I’d buckled them in their seats before dashing to pick up a young American girl living as an au pair with a French family in Versailles.  She’d slept through her alarm and was calling last minute for a ride to church.  One moment of poor judgment and poor visibility, a frosted-over no left turn sign, a left turn, speed on ice, another motorist whipping up the opposing road while going over the speed limit, and the sound of metal against metal and glass splintering like a galactic trash compactor.

Our small car spun around twice, then punched its nose into a parked car.

We’d been struck broad side.  The other driver was uninjured though he’d been coming at over 50km.  My children were flung around violently in the car, Parker’s head hit the passenger side window shattering it, everyone had cuts and lacerations, and the au pair had chipped teeth, a gouged tongue and whiplash.

And me?  I only had a cold metal pole of terror and guilt punched cleanly through my abdomen.  The instant we’d hit, I’d known I was at fault. I was completely my fault. Everything (the pole started twisting) was completely my fault.

“Two weeks earlier,” the mustached police officer whispered to me in a French that was oddly crystal clear above the blur of sirens and a crowd of Sunday morning bath-robed onlookers on the street, “Just two weeks, Madame, at this very corner and at this very hour, another driver did the same as you. And he was not as lucky.”

So I was lucky?

I felt toxic, lethal. The Wormwood totem.

Emotionally, it took a while to climb out of that whole jumbled period which, in my mind, seems to lurch and grope and flash in hot, streaked colors, faster and faster, until it culminates with the hollow ice-encrusted wail of those Sunday morning ambulances behind those Versaillais onlookers in their bathrobes and leather house slippers shivering and huddling and kindly but awkwardly stroking the hair of my daughter who had red splattered down her new French church dress.

My mind slows and settles on a dark-suited line of French policemen, politely questioning my somehow stoic and suddenly French-speaking nine-year-old son. There are gashes on his forehead where he’s hit the window.  The blood drizzles into his right eye.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: From the Garden of Eden to Les Jardins de Versailles

Moving from Norway to France meant trading in one splendid extreme for another equally splendid, but strikingly antithetical one. It was a move from north to south. . .

From Nordic to Latin; from a calm island to the bustling Île de France. . .

From the tundra to the Tuileries; from craggy fjords to the sleek Seine. . .

From the untamed spirituality of Brønnøya. . .

to the crafted symmetry of the Jardins de Versailles;

From the Land of the Midnight Sun. . .

To the Land of the Sun King. . .

From stark homogeneity. . .

To vibrating variety; from two kinds of cheese to 378+; from hot dogs and dried fish. . .

To haute cuisine and patisseries. . .

From IKEA to Louis XVI; from the comfy lilt of the economic Norwegian tongue to the highly stylized lavishness of le Français; from cooperation to competition. . .

From the community to the moi; from rigorous obedience to la Révolution; from no-nonsense androgyny. . .

To the religion called la Beauté; from muddy park dress. . .

To starched parochial uniforms; from Birkenstock sandals to Charles Jourdan stiletto pumps.

From innocence. . .

To experience. . .

From Eden. . .

To the World. . .

Or more specifically, to the old world, since we began our French years in Versailles.

**

You know of Versailles.  I had known, too. I thought.  But I had not known that for the French, “Versailles” is as much a concept as it is a city or a château. When the French refer to Versailles, they are referring to la vieille France—the old France—and all that implies; nobility, Catholicism, traditions, and families who today live in the same home their ancestors built back when the Place Hoche had a guillotine for public executions.  “Versailles” as concept means both the extravagantly gilded and velvet-heavy furnishing (things overwrought yet serious about it are très Versaillais), and so are the five or six children dressed in navy skirts or knickers and white knee socks, trailing a mother with a practical chin-length bob locked in place by a navy hair band.  That phenomenon is also what my neighbor, in a whisper, called très Catho, or übercatholic.  Versaillais implies le patrimoine, which has much to do with the preservation of historic France as it has to do with lineage, which is signaled by the family names beginning with “du”.  The city’s slogan, if you asked me to come up with one, would be, “What was, is.”  As commoner newcomers to the kings’ court, we were about to learn what “was” was.

Around the corner from the rive droite train station, was a renovated turn-of-the-century home with a white stucco facade and an oval window smack dab on its front. If you opened up the navy blue double front door, you could look directly through the depth of the house (it was one room deep) into an enclosed backyard with four small round bushes placed like thumb tacks in each corner of a table cloth of green.  The house had a bright white interior with emerald green trim throughout and tasteful tiles in all its four bathrooms, a kitchen with glossy yellow walls that reminded of Provence, a side view straight onto the dome of the Église de Sainte Jean d’Arc, and a back view onto the local synagogue.

  It was a fifteen-minute walk to the Place du Marché where the bi-weekly open market had stood since the thirteenth century. And only a fifteen-minute jog down Boulevard de la Reine, crossing Boulevard du Roi, and through the gilded gates of the sprawling Château de Versailles and its even sprawlinger Jardins du Château de Versailles.

Like a movie set. Except for the hoards of white-athletic-shoed tourists who could have been extras out of costume in an otherwise period film.  They came directly from the train station or in enormous buses that parked in what used to be the Royal Horse Stables.

With time, everything in Versailles turned out to be a former “royal.”

The home was also directly across the street from the private Catholic (or catho, if you insist) École Hulst.  From all appearances, this was the most prim and trafficked preschool in toute la France. Fascinated, I peered through my kitchen window, gulping and plotting, rubbing my hands together guardedly, hidden behind my kitchen window the way I’d been hidden behind the steering wheel of my car looking over Blakstad barnepark.  I applied my same methods of observation, wanting to be part of it all and could have sent little Dalton there, until I learned I would have had to have put his name on the waiting list the hour I thought that maybe I might want to get pregnant with him.

Okay, so Hulst was in demand.

But it was also demanding. At least for a loosey-goosey fresh-from-barnepark mother and child duo like us.  Watching the children scooting in and out every morning, I could have sworn they all came from the same navy blue gene pool.  Dalton, in contrast, (and myself, for that matter), seemed to lack that certain oui-oui chromosome needed to slip in without causing a tide change.

Granted, that could have all been in my perception.  But to be honest, I was too intimidated by what I observed as the school’s “was-ness” — its exacting French A-lines, the one boy in a blazer and burgundy velvet knickers, all that crispness  — to enroll my son. Not without at least a few months in a preliminary crisper.

I went around the corner and down the Rue Remilly to l’École Maternelle Richard Mique, which was public, ecumenical, and visibly less crisp — comfortably wilted, let’s say — and set my sights on enrolling Dalton there.  Following my barnepark method of attack, I stalked the Richard Mique premises in off hours. I then loitered at corners during drop-off and pick-up, noting the habits of local adults.  I listed the children’s gear, shoe styles, hair cuts, behavior.  I then made eye contact, greeted mothers and fathers, took Dalton there by the hand twice, just to practice the trek. And to build nerve.

Eventually, I dared approaching a real person on the street to question her about the school.  I’d selected her, actually, over a few days scoping for The Most Open Face in Versailles. Her name was Rita. She was wonderful. She became a friend.  With four young children herself and relatively new to Versailles, too, she could instruct me in Annie Sullivan French about applying a month late to the school, as I was doing.  And wouldn’t you know it? Like Johanne from Norway, Rita told me to go directly to the main office the next day and request a place for Dalton.  “Mais vite, vite”—but hurry!—her wide eyes insisted.

There was no chain link fence around Richard Mique as had been around Blakstad barnepark. But there were serious-looking walls and gates that were padlocked at all hours but the 15 minute intervals at morning drop-off, lunchtime pick-up and drop -ff, and afternoon pick-up.  Timing it precisely, I was able to enter and find the directrice’s office, where I was greeted by a brunette woman who resembled in no way but hair color our dear tante Britt.  There was no snow-blown look or red  front-zip barnepark jumpsuit.  No thermos of coffee.  No messy hair and ruddy cheeks.  Instead, this delicate woman wore perfume. And pearls.  And a fitted skirt.  And heels.  And she sat behind a large desk sipping a porcelain cup of tea.  I felt myself suck in my gusto and make myself as absolutely  French as physically possible without turning a shade of puce, and approached her with soft, alluring steps.  She was not ready, I’ll bet, for the slaughter I made of French, but she was genteel and was used to working with people a tenth her age, so when she spoke at me with single syllable words and those large semaphore movements, I was able to discern just enough to know what she told me.

Rendez-vouz.  Need of one.  Speak with school director.  Come back  with another faith.

(Whuh?)

Oh. Right.  Come back another time.

To this day I still wonder if those red cowboy boots might have grabbed her attention, upped my chances somehow of getting a slot right off.

As it was, I smiled, thanked Madame profusely, scooted spritely on my way, and went home to re-wax my legs and knuckles, starch even my underclothing, and prepare my speech and posture for the next morning’s private audience with Madame directrice.
**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.