Saturday, March 12, 2016

Hyde Park, November 1978 - On Becoming A Mother, Again
The back of the photo reads, “Hyde Park November 1978.” I flip it over it hoping to find some secret to my parent’s pre-child existence inside the curling and peeling white border. Mommy in tartan trousers, a navy wool sweater with her monogram, RAF, in the center and her omnipresent pearls stands near the top of a rolling green-brown hill.  I can’t see the pennies in her loafers but I know they are there. She’s bearing her teeth with clenched jaws like she does in all photos – incapable of generating a friendly-looking smile if she says “cheese.” Her underbite gives the distinct impression of perpetual annoyance at the photographer.
In the foreground, I see Daddy’s long shadow. His legs balance, tree trunks planted in his two-feet under two-knees, under two-hips stance- perfected during his time on the USS Orriskany. I imagine he’s wearing Levi’s and an Aran fisherman’s sweater – his weekend uniform. His pre-Top-Gun Ray Ban aviator sunglasses are on top of his head. Daddy died young. It never occurred to me that this photographer’s error would later become emblematic of his presence in all of our lives – a shadow. The sun must be close to setting but my parents’ bodies indicate mid-afternoon – no fatigued slumping hinting that the autumn day is nearing its end. Even the dark fall blue of the sky is lightened and faded adding to the illusion of midday, nowhere near rest.
That’s how I remember them when they were together, always in mid-action. Mommy puts on diamond and emerald earrings while Daddy adjusts his green bow tie for the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick ball; Mommy leans back in her chair while Daddy drags on a Marlboro Red in mid-sentence; Mommy puts her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand while Daddy takes a slow sip of Remy Martin and smiles at her. When Daddy was home there was always music playing on the Hi-Fi – it was always silent when only Mommy was home. They reserved a certain silence just for each other, dancing to silent music and speaking silent languages only they could hear. I felt like an intruder or a spy whenever I watched them in these everyday moments. The normality of their interactions had the effect of heightening their intimacy. What does my marriage look like to our daughter?
Hyde Park, FDR’s house on the Hudson, sits atop a steep hill overlooking the Hudson River.  It’s a museum and National Park but it still feels like a family home. Years later, well after Daddy died, Mommy and I drove up to Hyde Park and spent the day there. It’s her favorite house in the world. I can see how it impacted her own personal brand of Irish-Preppy interior design – a club chair covered in chintz perfectly at ease next to a country French arm chair, both angled around a slightly nicked wooden coffee table.
My mother is pregnant with me in the photo, but not showing. I marvel that she climbed that hill and then realize they probably started at the top. She started a stir in the extended family by deciding not to tell anyone she was pregnant with me until she was in her third trimester. She doesn’t like attention for what could be perceived as weakness.
My hand reaches down to my own newly pregnant belly. Was she afraid of things like spina bifida, trisomy 13, 18 or 21? Noonan’s syndrome, Turner syndrome, fragile X? Did they even tell anyone to fear things that happen 1 in 120,000 people? For now, these are my own secret worries. Will my teeth strain to grin in photos now?
My eyes trace the edge of the hill in the photo. After the nuchal translucency ultrasound, the tech did not smile at me. Rather, she said, “You can get dressed, the doctor will want to talk to you in his office.”  Apparently, an enlarged sac of fluid behind a fetus’ neck could mean anything from no problems at all to a fatal birth defect. The renowned maternal-fetal medicine specialist, wearing reefs and a shark tooth necklace (these are the times I want to be back in New York with a slightly patronizing doctor wearing a tie and wingtips) asked, “Could be cardio-vascular. What runs in your family?”
“Well, umm.” Came out instead of,  “My father died of a cerebral aneurysm complicated by smoking and Von Willebrand Disease.” My six-year-old daughter was sitting in the chair next to me because I couldn’t get a sitter. Her face looked like mine should have. I had to be brave and matter-of-fact for her sake. Thanks to modern genetic testing, we already knew that we’re having a boy. “Well, I guess we’ll schedule the amnio. Thank you for your time.”
As I walked out the door, Dr. Waiting-to-hit-Mavericks said, “Good luck.”
I place the photo on the table and ask my mother, “Was this at the FDR museum?”
“Yes. That was probably after the Holy Cross game at West Point. We took a lot of road trips that year. I was pregnant. It was nice to escape the city sometimes.”
“But you had that great apartment in The Village.”
“Yes, I did.”
“It was the Carter years, Kate. No one knew what the hell was next.”
She’s right though, “no one knew what the hell was next.” She probably expected a long happy life with my father. Instead, she was widowed at thirty-eight with a small freckle-faced eight year-old. If nothing else, it explains the reactionary political climate in her house. What the hell is next?
Is that her way of telling me as mothers we are always at a loss to know our children’s fate? We are hurling through space without at map, doing the best we can and nothing about parenting has really changed? Or, is she simply trying to avoid my tendency to over-analyze everything?
What I would give to be able to tell her that I am afraid of having a boy. I am afraid that he will have inherited some curse to die young – that I will love him and have to say good-bye too soon. No parent can imagine anything worse than something happening to his or her child. My fears for this boy extend beyond his nuchal translucency. What if I put a ticking time bomb in his brain? You can’t see that in a blood test, on an ultrasound screen, or even when he’s born with ten perfect fingers, ten nubby toes and electric blue eyes just like his sister.
All biological parents give their children DNA, that’s how the whole thing works. Yet I feel responsible for infusing his DNA with some unknown danger he never chose. Even worse, this risk marker could mean be nothing at all. How do I cling to the 80% chance that nothing is wrong instead of the 20% that something is indeed a problem? Why are genetic counselors allowed to call anything “normal?” My mother would tell me to stop “spinning.” She’d be correct but she never gave me the DNA that knows how to do that, as if such a thing exists.
That’s the full extent of our conversation. My mother isn’t one to reminisce. She has a way of ending her sentenced with a special kind of period – hers are extra final. No more discussion welcome here. Go do something productive with your time instead of noseying around my old photos.
Like my life and belly, she is in perpetual forward motion. Then again, according to physics – so is the Universe – expanding into infinity and rarely looking back at the dark matter trapped inside it and pushing it ever outward.
What will this new child see in photos of me? Huge sunglasses and an imperfect Us-Weekly pose? Will he know that I picture him with his older sister learning how to build a block tower on a sunlit afternoon, running while he laughs with mouth wide open? Will he know that all the knowledge we’ve gained since 1970’s, while miraculous has served only to make me more afraid for him? Will he know he is loved, even now when he resembles a microscopic round sea-horse swimming inside me? Perhaps it doesn’t matter because I know these things. For now, that’s all the assurance I can give.
EPILOGUE - 20 weeks later

John (Jack) Thomas Thome was born with 10 fingers and toes two weeks ago. We lived through an amnio, some concerns over my health, and a “very long” labor for a second child. He’s sliding right into our family of three and we are thrilled to have him here. Somehow, I know he knows he is loved. Welcome little one.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Ghosts and Citronella Candles - A Parenting Lesson from My Father


When I was in the second grade, Halloween fell on a Saturday which meant that as a family, we could escape the city for the weekend for our cottage in Westhampton Beach. The best part of this was trick-or-treating with my best friends who lived next door. After that, we went to a party at the elementary school complete with apple bobbing, hanging marshmallows, and a terrifying haunted house courtesy of those larger than life sixth graders. My neighbors dressed as bunnies. I dressed as a bumble bee. Another friend was a “ballerina fairy.” Such was the simplicity of little girl costumes.

That was the last Halloween I spent with my father. He died that winter. I still remember his walking with my friends’ mother, keeping a safe distance and a close eye on the little girls collecting their pennies (yes, pennies), candy corn and pop corn balls at each neighbor’s house.

The ballerina fairy, who had been left in the care of my parents for the weekend, refused to wear a jacket over her costume. A litigator, my father knew better than to negotiate with a child. Without raising his voice, “Claire. Just. Put. The jacket. On.” Then he walked away. She hurumphed but put the jacket on. For some reason, this is one of my most vivid memories of his “parenting style.” It’s probably because I struggle with it. Perhaps I’d say, “Claire, the temperature is falling, put your coat on, please.” I would open the door for the inevitable, “I’m not cold.”

Jack Lowe parenting lesson #1 — Don’t open the door for discussion. We don’t negotiate about coats with seven-year-olds.
Even years later, when something just had to be done (say snow boots with that Betsey Johnson miniskirt in high school), those of us who watched Claire’s coat battle would say, “Claire. Just. Put. The Jacket. On,” and dissolve into giggles.

Even then, I knew there were ghosts everywhere. Many houses on the street were already closed up for winter, haunted with the summer before, suspended in time until the days grew longer and the owners returned for another season. Ghosts hid in the unraked leaves crunching under our sneakers, in the tunnel underneath the giant rhododendron in the front yard, in the little red shed with the spider web covered windows out back. What I didn’t understand were that the ghosts, figments of my imagination, would persist and co-exist in my life as memory and dreams. When they used to hold just enough power for me to fear them, now they hold the power to ground me. They come when I least expect them, but most need them. Halloween holds magic for children — it’s different than other holidays because they invent it for themselves as they dress-up and decorate homes. They are the characters, not some abstraction in a red suit. This year, my own daughter will dress up as Laura Ingalls Wilder. She’s been waiting for this for weeks. Our yard has a “friendly” ghost hanging from a tree that has the effect of scaring me every time I see it out of the corner of my eye.

This morning, as I went to wake six-year-old Ellie, the smell of her citronella shampoo took me back to that house. My mother lit the evenings eating on the porch with yellow citronella candles in metal buckets. I remember that Halloween and can only hope that she’ll remember this one some day. That smell is the ghost of that house and those days, just back for a brief visit. Happy Halloween!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

5 Things I Wish You Knew About The Suicide Griever

Today is National Suicide Prevention Day. I lost a friend and father figure to suicide when I was twelve. In many ways, I believe that loss had more effect on me than the loss of my own father when I was eight.  I can never speak for all the grieving or any of them. Either way, here are some things I wish people knew.

  1.  I don’t tell you about this loss because I can’t stand the look on your face when I do. Many people in the U.S. are very uncomfortable with death and mortality. When it comes to suicide, it’s even more pronounced. That flinch – you know the one I’m writing about – it says “Oh I’m so sorry,” and “Please don’t let that happen to me.”  It also says, to me, “Didn’t you know?”  Of course I didn’t (at least not at the time) and for that I am forever sorry.
  2.  My head knows it wasn’t my fault but my heart does not. Every time I think about the night he locked himself in that basement, I wonder if I hadn’t tried harder to open the door, blocked him as walked down the stairs, behaved better, whined less, showed my love more and a million other things if he’d be sitting across from me today. Clocks only turn in one direction and I don’t have that choice to make again. I have different choices.
  3.  Mental illnesses can be terminal. There are people walking around today with profound depression. We don’t understand and they aren’t getting the help they need. Their illness is as acute as someone with stage 4 liver cancer but we don’t think of their illness that way. When they die, we don’t think of them the same way as we do someone who died of stage 4 liver cancer. It is because we still blame the person even if we don’t mean to. This is wrong and we must change our thinking.
  4. I can’t unsee certain things, but that doesn’t mean I am broken. The memory of his body being wheeled out in a black zippered bag, attached to a stretcher with yellow stretchy seat-belts, will forever haunt me. I saw it from my bedroom window. It bounced, without reverence, over the lawn into an ambulance in the driveway. It’s dark and horrible, but it’s always there. If I look like my mind is far away, it probably is. Even with that, I am able to live my life. Just because have a traumatic memory doesn’t mean I can’t live a happy, mentally healthy life.
  5. Life with him was wonderful. When someone dies from suicide there in an underlying assumption that person was visibly depressed, possibly making bad choices, and hurting others around them. That’s not the case for me. My neighbor was capable of the greatest joy of anyone I’ve ever known save my six-year-old daughter. I never knew an adult who could play with such childlike enthusiasm and abandon. We played an elaborate game of tag. He was lizard-man. His long arms were his jaws snapping at us as we ran away to base squealing in delight/terror. I miss that and only hope that I can bring one tenth of his warmth to my own play with my daughter.

My neighbor loved us. I know that he did. I still love him and remember his capacity for joy, excellence, and compassion. He understood what it was like for me to have lost my father when I was eight because he did too. It took me a long time to realize how ill he was – to comprehend that he was a terminally ill man living his life right in front of me.

This year, I promise to ask the questions I am afraid to ask. I will not be shy if I think someone is struggling. It may not help, but it may stop one child from growing up without a dad, a father-figure neighbor, or always worrying that someone they love is going to die.  I can do that. We all can.