Tag Archives: navel-gazing

the bad flight

This happened a long time ago. And I wrote this a long time ago too but didn’t give it its own post until now.

The Bad Flight. April 2006.

The flight was only about an hour and a half long. A domestic flight from Yogyakarta to Jakarta, Indonesia, with my partner, our daughter, his parents, his brother, his sister and her boyfriend.

The flight was delayed. Brother-in-law S. strides confidently to the airline desk and puts up a fuss until they agree to get all of us onto another airline leaving right away. I’m used to being the one to organize things – check us in, argue for better seats, fill out immigration forms – but this is one of S.’s fortes and with baby Akka strapped to my chest in her carrier, and some very recent digestive turmoil (thanks to some nasty nasi-goreng), I sit myself down with my in-laws and settle into being taken care of.

It did cross my mind then. We changed flights at the last minute. The flight we’re about to get on is not the flight we were supposed to be on.

Because we are last-minute additions, we have the whole last row of the plane, plus a couple of seats one row up. I take the aisle, as I always do, across from K. and next to his parents. His mother, the slowest and the least mobile, is at the window seat, three seats in from the aisle.

It is evening. Landing soon after dark. We descend and I briefly look out to see the lights of Jakarta. It takes a while before I look out again and notice that we’ve gone back up. I mention it to K.: “We didn’t land. We came in for a landing but we didn’t land”.

I don’t think any more of it but S. starts asking questions of the flight attendants. Something wrong with the landing gear, they say. I wish I didn’t know that. I start to feel a creeping sense of dread. I pull the straps on Akka’s carrier tighter.

Ages go by. I’m mostly ok, but playing games with myself – what if the wheels don’t come down? Don’t think about that. That’s nonsense. I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m sure it’s nothing.

We’re circling. Silence from the cockpit. Finally, finally, someone comes on to say we’re preparing for an emergency landing. My whole being sinks. I go blank and cold. I’m actually afraid I’m going to shit my pants. I’d spent much of the day in the hotel bathroom thanks to that bad meal the day before so losing control of my bowels is not a long-shot, even if I hadn’t been bathed in fear.

Deep breaths… we all look to one another with weak smiles, wide eyes: can you believe this? Is this for real? K. holds my hand. Akka is asleep – has been through most of the flight. I keep pulling the baby carrier’s straps tighter and tighter.

Ages go by. The pilot never announces why we’re having an emergency landing. But we know because S. keeps stopping the flight attendant to ask questions. The nose gear isn’t coming down.

I just want to get off. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to participate. I don’t want to participate in an emergency landing. Not for me, thanks. My whole body is tingling and cold. I feel numb. I feel very very tired. I just want to get off.

The flight attendant crouches down next to me, specifically, to show me how to brace for landing with a baby on my lap. I’m to hold her facing me (which she is already, in her carrier), lean over her and protect the top of her head. I don’t see them instructing anyone else on how to brace. I’m not sure they even announced anything about bracing, unless that part wasn’t translated.

I hear someone throwing up. The flight attendants start to come through the cabin and collect everyone’s hand luggage from under the seats. They’re filling up the toilets with all the bags. I’m still worried I’m going to need a toilet and now that option is gone. They pull out megaphones, first-aid kits, red and orange emergency packages of something. S. stops one to ask her if she’s done this before. She says no. I wish I didn’t know that. People stand up from time to time to grab things out of their bags in the overhead bins and put them in their pockets. It’s very quiet. Several people are praying aloud.

K. gets up and puts our passports and wallets into his waist belt. I tighten Akka’s straps. K’s father taps me on the back a little. I know they’re more worried about me and Akka than they are about themselves.

This is what I think will happen:

We’ll brace for landing. I’ll hold Akka tight tight. I’m glad we’re in the back row because the rear wheels are working and they are under us and they will touch first. But then we’ll pitch forward. The plane may roll over or up on its side. I imagine we’ll be thrown up. I imagine what the force will feel like to be held to my seat by my hips while tipping or rolling. I’m glad I have the baby carrier and that this awful, awful airline that I hate has let me keep her in it rather than insisting that I hold her in my arms as I’ve been made to do on other flights.

I remember a flight that over-shot the runway in Toronto and caught on fire. But everyone got out. I’m going to get out. I’m on the aisle, in the last row. I have the baby. I’m getting out first. I have my eye on that door. The small guilt I feel for knowing that I will rush out, that I will not wait for anyone, is offset by the nine-month old baby strapped to my chest. I’m doing it for her, I’m getting her out. I know my father-in-law won’t leave without his wife. And that she can’t move fast. I don’t know what K. will do. I hope he’ll be right behind me but I won’t stop to check. I have the baby. I tighten the straps.

I think briefly of my parents and my sister. But that overwhelms me and I can’t let myself go there. I try to push the thought away. I look at K. and realize that if we all die, he’ll die with his whole family. They all will. Except for S. whose wife and son are waiting at their home in Jakarta. And R. who is like me: on this trip with his partner’s family; his own family a long way away, knowing nothing of what we’re going through; of how long this flight is suddenly taking.

I keep kissing Akka’s head. She’s still asleep. K. reaches over from time to time and touches her hand, her head, her arm. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I brought you on this plane. I’m sorry I thought we could take you all over the world and bring you home again safely. You didn’t choose this trip, this flight, this life, and you’ve had only nine very, very short months. I’m sorry.

We finally come in for a landing. I’m so tired of thinking about it, of wondering what will happen, of planning how to survive it, that I’m almost relieved to get on with it. Let’s do this. We brace….and we don’t land. There’s a surge of engine power and we go back. Back up. Back up. I can hardly stand it. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t keep coping with this. I just need it to be done; however it turns out.

But it’s another circle. Another 20 or 30 minutes to fear, to think, to plan. I’m so tired.

No explanation. I imagine they’re spraying the runway with fire extinguishers. I wonder if they sent us back up so they could round up more ambulances. My legs are heavy. I’ve been in this seat for a lifetime.

It’s time again. We all look at one another; I can’t wait for it to be over. As we lean over to brace, Akka wakes up. She has no idea. She’s fighting me. I’m pushing my body on top of her, trying to hold her head. K. reaches across to try to help. I keep half-sitting up to try to tuck her under me, to fold myself over her. I can’t see how low we are. I don’t know if the jolt will come when I’m properly braced or when I’m adjusting. She pushes and fights and somehow, somehow, we’re simply on the ground. We’ve landed. There was hardly a bump. All the wheels were there. It’s over. People clap, people laugh. We can hardly believe it.

Almost immediately, I’m angry, confused. Did they know the wheel was down? Did they put us through this for nothing? What were all the aborted landings? Why isn’t anyone explaining? I can’t believe how quickly I moved from being afraid for my life, for the life of my child, to being a disgruntled customer.

We walk out, wait for our bags. Everyone keeps looking at each other and smiling, almost giggling. I feel somehow betrayed. All that fear and dread. All those terrible minutes spent trapped, unwilling, required to think of my own death, of the death of my baby, of who will miss me, or if I survive, of who will die, of how they’ll die, of how I’ll explain that to Akka when she’s older. And it culminates in nothing. No crash. No running from the flames, the smoke. No tense, long seconds waiting for someone to get the doors open. No bodies pressed into each other rushing to get out. It’s like I went through all that hell for nothing. I’ve spent the last hours twisting myself into a tightly coiled spring, quivering with airplane-crash-surviving tension. I can’t just unwind; I feel I almost needed the crash to release the pressure.

We have another flight in two days. We’ve planned a trip to Bali. And even if we don’t go on that trip, we’re still in Jakarta. And we’re living in Colombo. We still have to get back there and then on to Toronto next month. I joke about taking the boat home. Half-joke.

pruned thumb

I cut my thumb. I was pruning a tree in my neighbour’s backyard when the saw slipped from my right hand onto my left thumb and did a surprising amount of damage. I thought it just needed a couple of stitches but after we consolidated the kids at the neighbour’s, got turned away from the Urgent Care Centre (they don’t do hands), got in to see the doctor at the ER (swiftly! Thanks C.C.), and failed the bend-and-straighten test, we were told that I’d need stitches both inside and outside, a cast for several weeks and a month or more of thumb rehab. We cancelled our dinner plans.

They called in the plastic surgeons to repair my tendon. When I get this cast off and admirers notice the youthful perkiness of my left thumb in comparison to the saggy and weathered look of my right, I suppose I’ll have to admit I’ve had work done. The surgeon spent an hour or two reconnecting things while K. watched eagerly and I alternated between cringing at the wall, practicing my meditation breathing, eating my dinner of chips, and calmly watching them explore the inner workings of my opposable digit. I knew I’d regret not watching at all but I did have trouble getting the image of my well-lit gaping thumb-wound with white tendon and violet sutures out of my head that first night. Thankfully the doctor, peering through her little spectacle-binoculars, knew what to attach to what. I’ve now got a gash along the top of my thumb – longer than the original injury as the doctor needed to open it further to fetch the tendon – neatly stitched up and encased, along with my wrist and forearm, in stylish black fiberglass.

When I cut my thumb it didn’t hurt much. I grabbed it, went inside to wrap it up and squeezed it tight. A few moments later a wave of uneasiness washed over me. That was my signal that something was damaged – that my body was hurt. And I’ve been surprised by how long it’s taking me to bounce back after the injury. For the first week I needed a nap every day. I think because these things are fixable – there are patient and well-trained people who know how to repair the physical damage – we tend to think that injuries are no big deal. They heal, and thank goodness for that. But just because I couldn’t feel them poking, prodding, sewing and pulling at my thumb innards doesn’t mean I didn’t feel it.

These past weeks I’ve been reminding myself that our bodies know when something is amiss. When my body needs to grow new tissue and heal itself, I have to give myself a break and understand that it wears me out. I gave myself this freedom – to be tired, to do very little – when I was pregnant. I used to tell people it was tiring growing a whole human! It’s tiring growing new tendon too.

Now it’s been two weeks and I can type (obviously) and do most of my regular daily stuff. But I do many of them with careful deliberation because I have to do them with all of one hand and four fifths of the other:

  • Opening twist-off things. Without a thumb I can’t grip anything with my left hand so unless I can hold the thing with four fingers and twist the top off with my right, I have to wait for K. to get home or challenge the puny kids to do it. I never knew how many twist-off openings my typical day required until now. Cooking curries? Every spice in a separate jar. Sugar for your tea? In a jar. Kids want peanut butter and jam with applesauce? Jar, jar, jar. Laundry detergent? Twist-off top. The toothpaste tube, the shampoo bottle, the goop I put in my hair…
  • Trimming the fingernails on my right hand: can’t be done. K’s job now.
  • Showering: I have perfected the cast waterproofing (long narrow plastic bag from a loaf of bread, secured at the elbow with an elastic) but some washing tasks are difficult. Let’s just say that there have been undignified moments of squeezing the shampoo out of the bottle with my knees. Only one armpit is getting the attention it deserves.
  • Holding my beer glass at an angle to pour. I know; I’m very brave to be surviving this one. Pity and pouring assistance are most welcome.

I can’t do dishes. Can’t grip, can’t get wet; can’t do dishes. That one is easy to get used to. Still, I’m looking forward to washing dishes if it means I can also double-squeeze my kids, stretch my wrist and perform a few other useful two-thumbed tricks like shifting gears on a curve.

a year of photos

We’re settled in to a cold winter at home. I’m taking a photo out the back window every morning and posting them here: http://www.shuttercal.com/calendar/lbirnbaum/. For now it’s all snow and grey skies but in a couple of months it will look wet and muddy, then maple syrup season starts, then the tree will bud and leaves will block the view of the sky. Hopefully the garlic we planted in the fall will grow. The patio furniture will move around the deck and toys will come and go from the scene. I’ll plant vegetables and be finishing the harvest as the leaves turn yellow and drop. By early November the yard is covered in leaves. When winter comes again it’ll be intermittent – snow, then thaw, then back to frozen stillness with grey skies a year from now.

breathe

When you become a parent, things that didn’t used to be scary become scary.

When my nephew was a day or two old his mother and I took him for a walk. I marched happily along the sidewalk, carrying the baby, while she started cowering by the hedges. Suddenly the cars were too loud, she felt. And they whizzed by too close to us. We took the baby home.

Later, when I had my own kids, I felt the same thing. I could no longer drive in Sri Lanka with them in the back seat. I developed a flying problem. I noticed that my mind would wander off in horrible directions when I was least expecting it. Before I had kids, if I saw a child standing near the edge of a ditch, I’d think ‘Hmm. Hope that little guy doesn’t fall in. Probably wind up with a bad scrape.’ Now, if one of my kids stands near a ditch, my mind involuntarily does this:

  1. Calculates how far I am from the child.
  2. Assesses the quantity, position, orientation and permeability of any obstacles between me and the child.
  3. Mentally locates cell phone or nearest pay phone.
  4. Scans area for bystanders.
  5. Itemizes things within reach that can be used to stop bleeding. T-shirt? Handkerchief? Is it clean?
  6. Plays out the scenario of seeing child fall in ditch, leaping to the rescue, clearing all obstacles, jumping in ditch, scanning for head injuries, assessing whether or not to move child, scooping up child, yelling to that bystander to call 911, describing to him/her exactly where my phone is and how to relay our precise location to the dispatcher.
  7. Wait – where’s the other child while this is happening? Silently rehearse a stern voice telling the non-ditched child to sit down now.
  8. Times out variations of scenario to find most efficient one.

This all happens in a split second. Meanwhile Akka or Malli is surefootedly negotiating the edge of the ditch and possibly gearing up to start whining for a snack.

The airplane scenarios are not good. The busy-road scenarios are terrifying.

On the subway I imagine what I’d do if I got off but one of them didn’t. Or vice versa. (Answer: if I’m on the train but you’re not, put your back against the wall, sit down and stay there. I’ll come back. If you’re on the train but I’m not, get off at the next station, put your back against the wall, sit down and stay there. I’ll come and get you.)

Then I remember to breathe. I learned some basic meditation to get myself back on airplanes. Air goes in. Air goes out.

Think about air going in.

Think about air going out.

This is how the air feels going in.

This is how the air feels going out.

This is what it feels like in my nostrils going in. It’s cool.

This is what it feels like going out. It’s warm.

The kids are fine.

on birthdays

I’m a big fan of birthdays. I’m not a big fan of birthday parties. With kindergarten and pre-school come birthday invitations. We’ve had five in the last month. Here’s what each entails:

Check the calendar, see if we’re free. Figure out whether both kids are invited or just one. Figure out which parent will take the invited kid and whether or not parents are supposed to stay or drop off. Buy a present. Try to get the kid to make a card for the birthday kid and help wrap the present. Go to the party. Stay at the party or drop off but rush back before you know it. Collect sugar-high kid and accompanying loot bag. If both kids attended the party, listen to fighting since they were given sex-segregated loot bags and now have to compare them, complain about what they got, grab each other’s stuff, get in trouble, give it back and sulk for a while. If one kid attended the party, listen to the other one complain about not getting a loot bag, attempt to make the first child share the stuff, resist temptation to grab the bag and simply confiscate the whole thing since that would be a cop-out and wouldn’t teach them how to overcome unfair situations. Never book any family things on weekend days because there’s a birthday party almost every weekend and one doesn’t want one’s child to be the only one who didn’t attend when they’re all talking about it on Monday at school.

Birthdays. The anniversary of the birth. Pretty special day! Worthy of celebration! But the whole thing seems very far removed from simply getting together to celebrate a lovely child’s full rotation around the sun.

I know that parents put a lot of work into these things. I don’t want to be ungrateful. The kids do have fun and they look forward to the parties and they talk about them afterward. But I’m finding that these parties are just taking up way too much space in our lives. I get it that people want to celebrate. I want to too! When it’s my kid, I do. When it’s not my kid… not so much.

Akka is already talking about her fifth birthday in June and its associated party. I’ve been wrestling with how to handle it all since I don’t want to do nothing (I like celebrations, remember?) but I don’t want to impose our desire to celebrate on ten other families.

The way I see it, there are three categories of people who need to be involved in my child’s birthday. In the first group, we have our family. Those of us who know and love Akka. Those of us who live with her or near her. Who remember the day she was born and witnessed all the changes and transformations she’s been through since then. Those of us who, in June, will marvel at this little girl and what one tiny human life can become in five short years.

Then there’s the second group. These are the kids Akka plays with now; her increasingly important circle of friends. The girls with whom she giggles, shrieks, compares her outfits and invents songs. The kids she imitates and bosses around and imitates again. These kids matter, and they should celebrate with Akka, but they don’t really care that she’s turning five. The idea of her turning five doesn’t make them count through the years and catch their breath the way it does the first group.

The third group are those who share their lives with the second group. They’re Akka’s friends’ parents. They all have their own children whose birthdays matter most. My daughter’s birthday party is an obligation to them. If they’re more generous than me, they think of it as a fun outing. If they’re not, it’s three hours of their lives they’ll never get back.

Then there’s the issue of presents. We’ve had seven kid-birthdays in our family. Four for Akka and three for Malli. Each year, we bought a present or two for the special kid. We snuggled in bed in the morning and told them their birth stories. Later, we invited our own friends over for dinner and cupcakes. They brought their kids. We drank wine and called it a birthday party. No presents, please.

The cat is out of the gift bag now. Akka has been to enough parties to have seen the loot. I’ve also recently lightened up on the issue of toys. There are certain toys that I don’t mind if she owns, but I’d never buy them. Skinny little dolls with big eyes, sparkly things that label one as royalty, tiny plastic tradable breakable things. I’m prepared to have her be girl-toy literate; I’m not prepared to be the one who puts the things into her eager little hands. Letting birthday presents fill the gap allows me to maintain my snobbery while avoiding passing a holier-than-thou attitude on to my child.

There are other options: asking guests to bring donations rather than gifts. Asking them to bring cash; half of which would be used to buy a present for the girl, the other half to charity. I’m not convinced of either. When we live comfortably, we know we ought to give back. This is a good lesson for kids. This is a good lesson for grown ups. But, to me, this is not a good lesson for birthday parties. I don’t want to tie Akka’s special day to her duty to give back. I’m ok with giving her one day a year that’s all hers. And yes, that means its up to us to help her figure out how to give back on all the other un-birthday days; whether that means giving money to charity or volunteering at the food bank or running for office or inciting revolution.

So what to do? How do we celebrate in a way that satisfies the first group, her family; shows the second group, her friends, a good time, and doesn’t impose on the third group, her friends’ parents? No weekends. No obscure locations. Clarity around siblings’ and parents’ expected involvement.

It’s shaping up to be a Tuesday lunch at the park. Kindergarten winds up at 11:30am. From there, we could head to the park for lunch, cake, screaming, running and climbing. Gifts appreciated but not at all necessary. It’s not perfect: it excludes the kids who get picked up by daycares after school. But the morning is still ours – to give her her gift, to tell her her birth story and to marvel at what a tiny little human life becomes in five short years. The evening is still ours to serve her a cupcake, blow out a candle and fill up the camera’s memory card. And the weekend still belongs to all those busy families whose kids share some, but not all, of our daughter’s life.

mommy brain

I know how many days it’s been since your last bath and whether or not we washed your hair.

I know when you last ate vegetables. I know how many cookies you’ve had.

No matter where I am in the house, I can hear you opening the fridge.

I know where your hairband is. I know where you left your mittens.

I know whether your nails need to be trimmed and I know how long to wait after you fall asleep so that I can clip them without waking you up.

I know you’ll never notice if I put this toy in the give-away pile. I know you will be devastated if I put that too-small shirt in the give-away pile.

I saw that! And I know you can hear me.

I know what that look means. You say you’re ok but you don’t feel ok.

I know you have to pee. I can tell.

I know that squiggly line on the page is really a robot arm.

I know that ever since Tuesday, it has become vitally important that you butter your own toast.

I know when “I’m not tired” means you’re not tired and when “I’m not tired” means please, please put me to bed right now.

I may close my eyes at night without having cleared the table or loaded the dishwasher or scrubbed the pots and pans. Without having put away the laundry or picked up the boots and jackets scattered by the front door. But I never close my eyes at night before making sure that the path you will walk at four or five in the morning between our two beds is clear of obstacles.

No matter how deeply I’m sleeping, I hear your footsteps in the hall and I know when you crawl in beside me. I know which one of you it is.

I know I haven’t brushed my hair.

I know I’m wearing yesterday’s clothes.

I know we all need an afternoon nap.

I know I’m not giving the person on the telephone my full attention because I see you reaching for the scissors.

My mommy brain is sharp. I’m not distracted and I haven’t lost my concentration.

I’m busy.

H1N1 x 3

We’ve been flu’ed. We don’t know if it was the flu – H1N1 – the swine flu – but it was fluey and it’s now, thankfully, on its way out. Toronto is all a flutter with vaccine line-ups and vaccine shortages and vaccine debates and elbow-coughing and anti-virus stockpiling and hand-sanitizer-mark-ups and other general flu madness. Just as the hype started ramping up, I took to my bed with aches and pains. The stories of healthy children succumbing to the flu had been enough to make K. and I decide to vaccinate the kids but the clinics had just opened and we hadn’t done it yet. So, with flu in the house, I banned the rest of the family from my bed and used my occasional out-of-bed hours to disinfect faucets, doorknobs, light switches, hand-rails and drawer handles. I contained every cough, every sneeze. I’ve never washed my hands so often.

There were news reports of young women being hit particularly hard by this flu. I felt pretty sick but was never really worried. Besides, I had a trick up my sleeve to fool that flu. While lying in bed all a-fever’d, I ceased to be young and susceptible and turned 35. It was a crappy birthday but that virus woke up to find itself being fought off by a woman of respectable age. It never stood a chance.

The night of my birthday Malli’s fever started. Now we were scared. This is the boy who was hospitalized for pneumonia at five months old after waking up panting one morning after many nights of fever. We counted his breaths, called a Telehealth nurse who reminded us of all the worrisome warning signs, none of which he had, and made plans to have him seen by a doctor the next day. That night was long and hot. K. stayed with Akka in the healthy bed and Malli came to my sicky bed. I slept either holding his hand or with my arm resting next to his body so I could feel his tummy rise and fall. It reminded me of the first few nights with a newborn when you can’t really sleep because you have to check every twenty minutes to see that they’re still breathing.

The doctor prescribed Tamiflu for him. Then Akka’s temperature floated up and her prescription got called in the next day. The boxes of medicine say “for stockpile use only” on them. I wonder what they’re worth on the street? And I find myself feeling like I have to justify why my kids got some. It wasn’t hard to get – both the Telehealth nurse and our family doctor suggested it. The pharmacy had it in stock. But with people jumping vaccine queues (mostly, it seems, hockey players) and stockpiling Tamiflu in their fridges, it’s odd to hold two courses of the stuff in my palm.

However, we have it, and we’re using it, and we’re sleeping better knowing that the kids’ flu experiences will be shorter and less onerous because of it. Plus, it really works. The fevers come back each day but the kids aren’t miserable and, in fact, have a little too much energy for my liking. I don’t like them to be sick but I do like them to sleep during the day and those two often go together. Not on Tamiflu, apparently.

The biggest challenge has been getting the drug into them. It comes in powder-filled capsules. The kids can’t swallow them (we tried) so we cut open the capsules and sprinkle the powder on something they like to eat. In this way we’ve now forever ruined their taste for lime jello, cappuccino ice cream and honey. They’re growing suspicious of yummy spoonfuls coming at them twice a day. Akka spent over half an hour this morning licking microscopic bits of Tamiflu-laden honey off a spoon, making faces and gagging. She finally took it when I spread the drugged honey onto a chocolate chip cookie and let her eat that. Ridiculous. And familiar.

When I was small we lived in Lesotho for a couple of years. When we traveled to places where there was malaria we took chloroquine tablets. My parents would crush the bitter-tasting pill between two spoons, add some sugar water or jam, and feed it to me. It was awful. I can conjure up the taste now. I’m sure they balanced a precious dose on a spoon and said all the things I said this morning: “You have to eat it” “Just do it fast – it’ll be over in a second” “It’s just a taste” “Come on honey, it’s time” “That’s enough fussing – take it!” I remember worrying about the pills days before a trip. I remember thinking I’d do anything to get out of having to swallow them. Now I look at my daughter and I think ‘I know how you feel’. And now I also know how it feels to be your mom and to want to protect you. And although I’ve been on both ends of that bitter-tasting spoon, I haven’t thought of anything better than a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.