On the Front Lines

My husband is a second year pulmonary and critical care fellow. His specialty threads the needle for the coronavirus which (I’m sure you all know by now) attacks the respiratory system. He works in a busy ICU in Pittsburgh. He sees the patients who are at their worst – the ones who need to be ventilated or need EBUS or need lots of other care that seems to involve a lot of acronyms that I frankly don’t understand. Lately, he’s been clocking 70-85 hours of work a week. He comes home exhausted and emotionally drained. He throws his scrubs directly into our washing machine, starts a cycle on extra hot, and goes straight to the shower to wash off any potential remnants of the virus that may have hitchhiked home with him from work. While this daily routine happens, our son Townes crawls towards him in a chasing sort of “tell me hi!” way that is both adorable and heart-wrenching at the same time. He doesn’t understand why his dad can’t hold him.

Ode to Adam from Rosen Fine Art’s Pandemic Series (Source)

Being the wife to a healthcare worker always has its challenges. No one goes into a marriage with a physician thinking they will have a spouse who works a typical 9am – 5pm job, but being a wife to a physician on the front lines during a pandemic brings about a whole new set of challenges. There’s something about being in a relationship with someone who is saving people’s lives all day that somehow makes the regular 40hr/wk job of a non-medical spouse seem less important, less valuable, and less difficult. Toss in the weight and stress of a global pandemic and that non-medical spouse now becomes the lifeline at home who keeps the family ecosystem functioning.

For the first six months of the pandemic, the responsibility to keep our home life functioning felt rewarding. Managing the day-to-day concerns of our home and family seemed to give Jason the support he needed to get through the week. I felt as though I was playing a very small, behind the scenes role in helping him not get burned out – in turn helping people get the attention and compassionate care they need from their physician. I was (and always am) so proud of my husband. He has a unique ability to connect to his patients personally, no matter their circumstances or age. We can typically both trudge through tough times with no complaints and pick up each other’s slack when the other is drained.

But now, 10 months into this, I’m worn down and growing increasingly frustrated. There has been a lot to adapt to this year with becoming a new mother, balancing a full-time job at home, and being disconnected from friends and family. Jason’s 70+ hour work week only adds stress to the adaptation. His workload adds a pretty heavy weight on my shoulders that has slowly morphed into my bones for the unforeseeable future. Sometimes, I feel like a single mom on a foreign island, and recently I’ve noticed myself shift into a person who lives with genuine anger, frustration, and fear.

A lot of times, my anger and frustration is directed towards random people whom I barely know – like people on social media who claim this pandemic isn’t real. I’ve found myself recently responding to posts I never would have entertained in the past. I am offended, frustrated, and amazed at how inconsiderate and selfish people’s actions have become. Perhaps one of the more surprising things about all of this is that Jason doesn’t share my frustration. It doesn’t bother him that he works tirelessly to save people’s lives who didn’t believe that this virus was real. It doesn’t affect him to hear people demand medications that have become popular from obscure propaganda and have no scientific backing. He has a sort of natural ability to just continue to help – no matter the circumstances. Meanwhile, I’m in a tireless fit of rage over people broadcasting their feigned knowledge of the situation to the world. At first, I chalked my defense to these claims up as a way to defend my husband’s work, but now I realize they are a bratty plea for someone to see the struggle our little family has gone through. A plea for someone to recognize the individual lives that are shifting and working tirelessly without praise, without support, and without a collective belief in the threat they face daily. This isn’t a hoax, the numbers aren’t inflated, and no one is choosing to live the challenges this pandemic brings for a political agenda.

This isn’t one of those posts that ends with a happy, uplifting tone. I’m in a rough season of life along with so many around the world. I live 18 hours from home. My local support circle is my husband, who is also playing the supportive role to so many patients and their families. I am exhausted. I want to sleep. And I feel so fucking bratty for wanting all of those little luxuries while numerous people around the world are experiencing worse. This post is for solidarity. To tell the other spouses of medical workers that I am with you, and I hope we can all come out of this together with love and compassion.

Eleven

Life knocked and waited 

delayed breath – a boy! 

You nearly fainted. 

Breathe in health;

Breathe out fear. 

We chanted loudly

for only three to hear. 

Look at us now; we made it. 

Mom and Dad and Townes

for nothing could it be traded. 

Breathe in health;

Breathe out fear.

Together, always – 

another year. 

On Tour

A boy, a mole, a fox and a horse: the recipe for a Christmas bestseller |  Books | The Guardian
@charliemackesy

The track moves straight,

it’s headed out from here.

You can’t turn back,

to relive the years.

So go on slow

and steady,

but don’t forget

where you’re headed.

I’ll come along with you

until your ready.

I’ll go along with you –

as long as you’ll let me.

 

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Dear Sweet Fig

When I first started on this journey, I thought deciding to become a mother would be the most difficult part of motherhood. It feels naive to admit to you now, but I couldn’t imagine a version of myself with children. What will I do on Saturdays or after work? Will I keep a job? Will I still be good at my job? Can I travel? Will I have friends? Do I have to join a mom circle? Will my old friends like the new me? Will I grow to love poop jokes and wiping bums? Will I turn into someone who nags their partner and envies their freedom? WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO MY VAGINA?

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Drawing by @charliemackesy

It was (and still is) a role and experience I couldn’t fully grasp. Sure there are books on parenting and parents who will divulge the gruesome details of delivery you didn’t request, but that information always got jumbled up and stored as various fears in my mind. I was really looking for a clear depiction –  a look into the future that showed me exactly how life would be once little kids didn’t just call me “Aunt Cap” but also “Mom”.

I took a deep dive into motherhood research hoping to obtain a better picture. I steered clear of the flowery books that would rave about what a gift you’d be to the world and stuck with the gritty ones like, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. I listened to podcasts about women who regretted becoming mothers, polled all of my close friends on their thoughts on motherhood, and conducted a month long Facebook investigation on every mother in my 1,200+ friend list. The research was futile. I’d only swam a million feet deeper into murkier water.

Over the next two years there were lots of little moments that started to help build a picture of motherhood in my mind. One of them I remember most was Christmas Day 2018. Your dad and I stayed in New York for the holiday. We had a lazy morning drinking mimosas and opening gifts. Then we went ice skating in Central Park and ate a fancy dinner at Augustine in Lower Manhattan. Sitting next to us at dinner was a family with two girls. One seemed to be about eleven or twelve years old and the other around eight. The eight year old’s name was Cleo, and she was dead set on ordering steak for dinner. Her mother offered to split the steak with her, and Cleo refused. She wanted the whole thing to herself.

I looked at your dad with an eye roll locked and loaded thinking, I would never let my eight year old order a $50 steak. But Cleo’s parents said, “Okay, how do you want it cooked?” She answered in a very sophisticated manner and knew both the temperature she’d like her steak and the side dish she’d like to go with it. My eye roll faded, and I fell in love with Cleo’s independence and ability to make decisions that differed from her parents. I’m sure this may sound a bit crazy to you (and btw you cannot order a $50 steak), but I realized then that children are not just the outcome of their parents’ successes and/or flaws. You have the ability to be autonomous.

Who you are, what you like, who you decide to be, and what you decide to do is up to you – not me. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to shunt the responsibility of parenting onto you while you’re still in utero. I only mean to say that I realized it’s not all up to me. We can steer the ship together, which makes the idea of motherhood sound more like a fun adventure than a solo task filled with guilt and regret.

The trouble is now – after I tackled the decision to become a mother – I realized the fears and challenges of motherhood don’t stop. You quickly grew from an idea, into a heartbeat, and now a baby that kicks and makes themselves known, and the more you become you the more I realize deciding to become a mother was the easiest part of all.

Now I have to learn how to be a good one.

 

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On Dying in the South

I sat on a pew. The room was quiet and solemn and smelled like a box of stale potpourri. I remembered sitting there before. Not on that specific row, or even in that specific room, but I’d been there before. You were beside me, doodling crosses into grids and connecting each grid line with meticulous care to another cross on the page. At the end of a two-hour Sunday service, you’d have a whole maze of crosses connected.

Today you were front and center. You asked for no flowers, but we put them anyway. You didn’t want a fuss of speeches, but we did them anyway. You didn’t want anyone in heels or suits, but we wore them anyway. I imagine you would have liked your hair done differently, and I think you’d prefer our hearts were alert to the gospel and our eyes were open to change.

On the pew, the fears you carried about your legacy – addiction, poverty, success – all found their way into the chaos of my mind. In a second that felt like a lifetime,  I understood the language of parental love and how it often translated into criticism through my ears. I wanted to rewrite my childhood and rebuild my memories with the new understanding of love and fear you carried with you everyday. Your words would sound so differently to me now.

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Art by Pat Perry (@heypatyeah)

I didn’t want kids until that day on the pew. I imagine it sounds weird to say your death inspired life, but it did. You taught me the impact of generational growth, the honor in legacy, the love that stings and shapes change. At your service we talked about the time you worked all day logging woods for a few nickels, the day you walked into a tent revival in 1972, the summer you met Corrine in that diner in San Francisco, and even the day you beat someone up for not paying for a job well done. Isn’t it funny how a life gets remembered? I wonder what you’d like us to say in our stories about you.

I think you’d like to know you are loved, respected, and missed. And you are –

Loved, respected and missed.

 

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nine

Do you remember breaking up in

high school

college

and those 20 minutes in 2010?

Me neither.

 

Do you remember crying over

new cities

empty back accounts

and eating beans for a whole week?

Me neither.

 

Do you remember fighting about

dirty dishes

tree roaches

and those seven years of no sleep?

Me neither.

 

Do you remember

that girl?

that guy?

that time we realized there were other people in the world?

Me neither.

 

Do you remember saying, “I do”?

Me too.

 

our wedding

 

 

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Eight Years

Year One

Rules:

(1) Don’t touch my face or

(2) Watch me shower or

(3) Slap my ass in public or

(4) Open pickle jars for me or

(5) Wake me up before I’m ready or

(6) Let me oversleep or

(7) Say anything about working out or

(8) Buy me flowers when you know I like plants or

(9) Open doors for me or

(10) Tell me not to cry.

DO YOU UNDERSTAND? 

I don’t like tree bark or pomegranate seeds or when roots cling to plants that are already dead.

DO YOU UNDERSTAND? 

I can’t think about space. DON’T MAKE ME. There are too many little parts in one picture; too many small things swirling together. Dark Matter. Gas. How did you even find me?

I DON’T UNDERSTAND.

I like birds because they are bovine. You are the only one who knows that. They are not feeble or angelic! Eight hollowed bones in each wing and they spend all day nesting. MORONS.

NO ONE ELSE UNDERSTANDS. 

Year Eight (365 days times 8 plus 2 leap years and 3 hours)

Rules:

(1) Never leave me.

DO YOU UNDERSTAND? 

You are my star; my nested bird in chaos.

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Be Good if You Can

My grandmother, Corrine Cotten, is shockingly aware and vocal about her human finitude. When I visit, she writes my name on little sticky notes and attaches the yellow squares to items of hers I may want one day. If you open a closet at her house, chances are you’ll see a pile of old quilts, pillows, hand-made vases from her sister Norma, or jewelry from her “wild days” labeled with the names of my cousins, aunts and uncles on the same little yellow squares. You can even see the various family names etched in sharpie marker on the back of larger items that are still in daily use throughout the house. Like packing up for a big move, her house is always on the cusp of that final transition. It is a weird mix of death and life, past and present, memory and moment, and I am uncomfortably aware that nothing she passes on will ever feel the same without her around. The kitchen table, for instance, is only special if we are playing SkipBo together with a cup of coffee in hand, and the jewelry from her “wild days” is only fun when she wraps it around her body and shows me the best way to move my belly so that each metal string shakes and chimes. Heirlooms won’t have that same Corrine spirit when she’s gone, but I love her gifts that give insight into her past – even if they are tinged with acceptance and muddled with final farewells.

At age 16, she sent me off with a rad, 1970’s gold belt and the most beautiful blue and crystal screw back earrings because, as she said, “you never know what will happen”. Last year at Thanksgiving, Corrine was wearing an old shirt from a church revival that said “Riot ’88”. 1988 is my birth year and I’m obviously a riot, so I LOST MY SHIT. I raved about how cool it was for a solid ten minutes until Corrine snuck off into the back room, changed into a pretty blue sweater with blue heart appliqués, and handed me the “Riot ’88” shirt that was just on her back two minutes earlier. This is who Corrine is. She is selfless, but strong with a firm voice and a soft heart. She is the cliché perfect grandmother that every child reads about in YA novels.

Riot 88

Continue reading “Be Good if You Can”

One Girl’s Letter to her Dad

When I was in the 5th grade I won an essay contest for D.A.R.E.  In the essay, I had to explain my pledge to stay away from drugs.  I wrote something very cheesy and expectant for a typical elementary kid.  You know, something really thought provoking like, “drugs are bad.”

I’m pretty sure my essay would have left that “Heaven is for Real” kid in the dust though… had our sentences been juxtaposed.

The essay wasn’t life changing, but I wrote it with passion. And it wasn’t because the DARE officer showed my formative brain horror videos of drunk drivers and families abandoned by victims of drug overdoses, but because I had already witnessed that in real life. When I look back on the essay, I realize it was a pledge to you.  It was me promising I would never turn out like that, while somehow simultaneously begging you to come back. Today, I’m writing a new essay.  Not in hopes that you’ll put down your habits (I mean, I do hope that too), but in an effort to say, I get it.

Continue reading “One Girl’s Letter to her Dad”