Ritual Confessions

March 11, 2008

Last week’s Monday meme, borrowed from Corina

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 6:42 am

Thirteen things that crossed my mind this week: 

1. In response to a country song by Bucky Covington, A Different World, with the following lyrics:

We were born to mothers who smoked and drank/our cribs were covered in lead-based paint/no child-proof lids, no seat belts in cars/rode bikes with no helmets and still here we are/still here we are…

The thought that crossed my mind: Yes, and conveniently, your dead and brain-damaged peers aren’t in a position to weigh in on the subject.

2. I don’t think of myself as someone who is easily shocked. And I am shocked. Shocked! By what’s going down with Eliot Spitzer. I really thought that guy walked the walk.

3. I haven’t received a New Yorker in weeks. My subscription must have lapsed, or maybe it fell through the cracks with our address change. I’ll have to look into that.

4. My policy when I do the laundry is to fold all my own clothes, all of Charlotte’s clothes, and all of the joint household items like towels, sheets, etc. Until now, I’ve been letting Nick fold his own clothes. It occurs to me that folding his clothes as well would be a relatively small thing — a pain in the ass, sure, but the message it would send would probably outweigh the tedium. I’m going to start doing that.

5. The scenery around here — the mountains, the trees, the sunsets — all of it is breathtaking beyond words. I feel lucky to look at it every day.

6. It’s been forever since I’ve talked to my friend Joy. I need to call her sometime soon.

7. It’s also been forever since I’ve talked to my grandma. Her dementia makes talking to her very difficult and sad for me. I should do it anyway.

8. Within the next few weeks, I will be an aunt, Nick will be an uncle, and Charlotte will have a cousin.

9. I’m jealous of the people in the northeast and midwest who have been inundated with snow.

10. Mac is a dazzlingly handsome and endearing cat.

11. For some reason, the sex Nick and I had on the night of his birthday was probably the best it’s ever been.

12. My new favorite flavor of tea is black peach. It’s irresistible with half & half.

13. When I take the time, in the evening, to lay out Charlotte’s clothes for the following morning, getting her ready for school the next day is somehow light-years easier than when I don’t. That is, this simple act yields a payoff that seems wildly disproportionate to the effort. I highly recommend it to the mothers of young children. (It crosses my mind also that this is the kind of prattle I once thought I’d drink my own urine before I’d join in.)


Sunday’s post — worrying about Charlotte

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 4:49 am

There’s an awful medical term — failure to thrive — which I can hardly stand to think of in relation to my little girl. It seems nearly impossible, in fact, that it could apply to her. My daughter is an exceptionally sweet-natured toddler who smiles easily and often. People remark upon her happiness almost daily. She’s incredibly social, physically adept (walking well and climbing everything within reach), active, intrepid, curious, interactive, talkative, mischievous, and playful.

There’s just one major worry. She is all but indifferent to food during the best of times. She comes close to avoiding it completely when she doesn’t feel well. And she has had cold after cold ever since starting pre-school. Her bug of the last week has been particularly oppressive, to the point where I took her to the doctor last week to rule out strep throat or an ear infection. While we were there, I had her weighed. She was 18 pounds ten weeks ago. And she is 18 pounds now. Totally off the charts for a 15-month-old.

This isn’t the first time her weight has been an issue. Last summer, I took her to a feeding clinic because at 8 or 9 months of age, she had no interest in or willingness to try solid food. All she wanted was breast milk. Moreover, most kids her age put everything in their mouths. She brought nothing to her mouth. After several regular visits to a team of specialists, she was coaxed past this aversion and began to tolerate being fed.

Now she’ll bring things to her mouth just fine. She’ll feed herself — a few Cheerios. A sip of milk. A crust of bread. A taste of chicken. Not long ago, she adored yogurt, which was a godsend — all the protein, calcium and many of the vitamins she needed in the course of a day. Now she’s refusing yogurt, she won’t have much to do with cheese, and despite being offered all kinds of other temptations many times a day, she just isn’t eating nearly enough to gain weight.

There are lots of things she doesn’t enjoy that are non-negotiable. I could enforce the move from our bed to the crib. I can enforce riding in the car seat whenever we need to drive somewhere. I can enforce washing her hair whenever necessary.

I can’t make her eat.

And I don’t know what to do. 

March 10, 2008

Saturday’s post — Nick’s birthday

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 3:33 am

Yesterday was Nick’s birthday, so I was pretty much out of commission all day. It was a very low-key birthday, compared to the ones I’ve planned in the past. A couple of years ago, while we were still in New York, I rented a car that I barely knew how to drive and generally risked our lives on the Westside Highway en route to a small, private airstrip in New Jersey. Where Nick got to fly a glider plane. Then, that evening, I took him to dinner at Caviar Russe, a stunningly elegant spot where we had what Nick claims was the best fish he’s ever eaten.

How far we have fallen. We have all been sick for many days running, and I’ve spent most of this week home with Charlotte, unable to take her anywhere but to her doctor, while fighting off my own illness. So his day this year consisted of my springing for all the boy-toy-type paraphernalia he needed to rig up the garage doors to open automatically, and watching the baby for the majority of the weekend so that he could devote himself to this project (which really did seem to make him very happy). I also got a sitter last night so that I could take him to dinner, and I rented and agreed to watch the movie of his choice, which was the two-and-a-half-hour Downfall, about Hitler’s final days in his bunker. Nick’s a World War II buff, but let’s just say that nothing could have induced me to sit through this flick on any of the other 364 days of the year. It was seemingly endless, and repetitive, and oppressively heavy, and though at least some of the characters were clearly supposed to be admirable, I was unwilling to invest in any of them because they were all nazis. Who cares if they stood up to Hitler and protected innocent German civilians? Any one of them would have snuffed out a Jew like a roach.

I realize that I haven’t mentioned where we had his birthday dinner this year. I offered to take him anywhere he wanted, and I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to confess the spot he chose. When he announced this choice, I was chagrined, and offered him several alternatives that were, if not on par with Caviar Russe, at least light-years above this particular joint. But he would not be dissuaded. I’ll only say that it’s a cheesy chain and a mutual guilty pleasure, and it was amazing to be able to order sizzling fajitas without worrying about Charlotte getting burned. And as if to counter my stance that it was hardly birthday-worthy, it seemed that every other table in the place was celebrating one… the wait staff just kept on singing.

Next year I’ll be back in charge.

March 8, 2008

Message (end)

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 4:46 am

Nothing could have been more natural than for Beatriz to fall in love with my brother. I’ve seen it so many times: people grasp at romantic attachment in the face of death for so many reasons. Desire is an affirmation of life. It’s a desperate distraction from the unendurable. And my brother must have represented so many different archetypes: the healer, the savior, the man of the family. But like every other aspect of this hospital vigil, it was painful to watch. My brother loved Beatriz as Giovanna’s mother, but his feelings for her went no deeper than that. Besides, he had been with his girlfriend, Nan, for some time already. Beatriz never declared her love for him outright, but it was unmistakable. In this as in so much else, I was terribly, desperately sorry for her.

Giovanna died on April 27th, 2004. Nan accompanied my brother to her funeral.

“She’s not very pretty,” said Beatriz wretchedly to me, soon afterward. “They don’t seem like a very good match.”

Our friendship didn’t last long beyond Giovanna’s death. Beatriz would make plans with me and then show up flagrantly late, or not at all. She wouldn’t return phone calls or e-mails. I knew better than to take it personally. One other person she’d been very close to during Giovanna’s illness was their favorite nurse, Kelsey, who had since moved to California. Beatriz had made plans to visit Kelsey at her new home, and in light of these impending travels, she struck up an internet romance with a stranger who lived in Kelsey’s new city “since I’ll be going there soon.” Afterward, she reported that she’d spent the entire visit with her online beau, blowing Kelsey off entirely, and that understandably, Kelsey was furious with her.

So again, I didn’t take Beatriz’s behavior personally, and I knew she was wild with grief and probably not accountable for anything she did, but neither did I wish to continue this relationship indefinitely. After a while, my contact with her lapsed and neither of us made an effort to revive it.

And then, several days ago, her voice spoke to me from one of my cell phone messages.

“Hi, Elissa, this is Beatriz, Giovanna’s mom… I was thinking about you today and I saw your phone number and I’m just calling to see how you’re doing… it’s been a long time but I never forgot about you… you were a very important person in Giovanna’s life, and so was your brother, and I always have you people in my heart. So when you get a chance, if you have time, give me a call…” and she recited her phone number, which hasn’t changed.

The day I received this message, Jen was still here. After that, Charlotte and I were both ill. Charlotte stayed home from school most of the week and I was woozy, congested and fatigued. I wanted to call Beatriz back at the right time, when I could be fully present and lucid and engaged.

It’s too late on the east coast right now, and tomorrow is Nick’s birthday. I imagine I will call her back on Sunday. But I dread it. There will hardly be any way to avoid the news that I have my own baby girl now. That my brother married Nan. That she’s expecting their first child this month. I don’t want to have to tell Beatriz any of these things. I can only pray that she’s in a relatively good place herself — that somehow, she has good news of her own. At least I’ll also be able to tell her, with complete honesty, that I think of Giovanna all the time. And that, for whatever it’s worth, my grief over her suffering and passing has taken on a whole new dimension.

March 7, 2008

Message (continued)

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 6:49 am

On Christmas Eve, in fact, I slept over, crashing on the daybed after Beatriz and I watched Bad Boys, a Will Smith / Martin Lawrence movie that actually made us laugh pretty hard. It felt great to laugh with her.

Hours later, I woke to two nearly simultaneous sounds: Giovanna letting out a moan and Beatriz’s bare feet on the linoleum as she leapt up and ran to her daughter’s bedside. It was as if she had trained herself to react with lightning speed and precision while still half-asleep.

Generally, a hospital room is invaded all night by medical personnel, coming and going like apparitions in the near-dark. Somewhere in the early morning hours, I was aware that a doctor had come in and was consulting the monitors, adjusting the equipment, around Giovanna’s bed. Without my contacts, he was no more than a compact figure in a doctor’s white coat. When I sat up and leaned closer, I realized with a shock that it was my own brother. (My baby brother! He was still in residency; I wasn’t yet used to thinking of him as a doctor.)

Here it may be noted that it was my brother’s fledgling status as a doctor that allowed him to attach to Giovanna in the way that he did. Never before (for lack of circumstance) and never since (as a matter of necessity) has he let a patient so profoundly into his heart. Doctors have to walk an impossible line of caring deeply and yet not attaching to their patients. If they can’t maintain some level of professional detachment, they won’t be effective and won’t survive emotionally. He admitted as much when describing an incident where Giovanna coded (suffered a cardiac arrest) and he was the one to respond. He managed to do all the right things, but with none of his usual composure. As he later described it to me: “It was as if you had coded, or mom. I was trembling; I felt that scared and sick.”

After Giovanna, he would resolve never again to let a patient affect him on such a personal level. But during her time in his care, he surrendered to his feelings with relative abandon. He brought her presents. He painted her toenails. One evening he stopped into her room to visit after working for more than twenty-four hours straight. She was asleep. He dropped into the chair beside her bed and was out like a fuse. When he woke two hours later, she was holding his hand.


March 6, 2008

Message (continued)

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 1:02 am

I went home shaken by such close proximity to the truly devastating: a gaunt, bald little girl in constant pain, very likely to die. Her (single) mother’s only child. I wondered how my brother could bear countless scenarios like this one as a matter of course.

I didn’t think I had been especially good company for Giovanna or her mother. I had been unsure about how to talk with them. I didn’t want to adopt the bright, chipper tone of so many hospital personnel and volunteers; nor did I want to be tragic. I tried to stay low-key, soft-spoken, fully present but not overbearing. Nonetheless, I felt like the outsider I was.

A few days later, then, I was surprised to learn that Giovanna had asked that I come back and visit her again — surprised as well at the joy this brought me. I immediately agreed, and came back uptown with a stack of books to read to her. This began a pattern of visits that continued for the next many months. I came at least once a week, sometimes more. I brought books and crafts and baked goods and Beatriz’s favorite mocha drink from Starbucks, and anything else that I thought might distract and delight.

When Giovanna, who was Catholic, asked, “Why does God hate me?” I brought my friend, Father James, a Jesuit priest dressed in full clerical regalia and the most convincing authority figure I could find on the subject, to her bedside for a counseling session. He assured her that although we don’t understand everything God allows to happen, there was no doubt whatsoever that God did not hate her at all — that, in fact, God loved her dearly.

I brought hundreds of swatches from my paper collection around various holidays, and we used them to make holiday cards. I brought gingerbread cookies for her to decorate on Christmas and sugar cookies for her to decorate on Valentine’s Day. Because of these visits, I saw my brother more regularly and frequently than I had in years.


March 5, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 5:25 am

A few days ago, I got a voicemail message from someone I haven’t heard from in years: Giovanna’s mother, Beatriz. Giovanna was an eight-year-old patient of my brother’s who had a particularly insidious form of leukemia. This was during his residency at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Washington Heights, New York. She was his favorite patient, and he talked about her all the time. He had a fantasy of spiriting her out of the hospital and taking her someplace fun, and to this end, he asked whether he could bring her to my Halloween/pumpkin-carving party, which was very child-friendly. I told him that of course she was more than welcome to come. But on the evening of the party, she was far too sick to make the trip, let alone to enjoy an evening of contrived normalcy. My brother suggested that we have our own little carving party at the hospital instead, so a few days later, I hauled a few very heavy pumpkins uptown on the subway.

Giovanna was every bit as beautiful as my brother had described. Chemo had left her without her long black hair, but she had wide dark eyes and an incandescent spirit. There was a costume party at the hospital that day, and Giovanna was dressed as Josie from Josie And The Pussycats, complaining that her wig was making her itch. Beatriz was busy in the corner washroom, putting the finishing touches on her own costume: a cow. She was painting black spots on her already whitened face.

Soon everyone repaired to the ICU playroom and the carving commenced. My brother joined us. There were a few moments of levity during the next several hours. At one point, Giovanna cried out: “Look at Mommy!” Beatriz had stuck two balloons into the chest portion of the costume for an udderly bodacious effect. At another point, Giovanna put her wig on my brother’s head. He was so absorbed in carving that he barely noticed. Just above his heavy black brows, which were furrowed in an expression of fierce concentration, there was a tumult of blonde feminine curls. The effect delighted Giovanna to no end. But for the most part, it was a hard afternoon. Giovanna was in a lot of discomfort. I had never spent extended time with such a sick child.


March 4, 2008

My to-do list

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 4:47 am

I would like to finish my screenplay.

I would like to finish my third book.

I would like to lose fifteen pounds.

I would like to study Russian every night via Rosetta Stone, which I pay for on an ongoing basis, and which amounts to mostly wasted money.

I would like to figure out a way to fight the State Department regarding their denial of permission for my in-laws to visit this country, so that they may meet me and their only grandchild, and see their older son for the first time in almost ten years.

I would like to be fully present with Charlotte during all the time I spend with her.

I would like to finish getting this house in order, and especially to set up the two rooms that remain in limbo: the art room and a little extra romper room for Charlotte.

I would like to find some semblance of a Jewish community in Vancouver or in Portland, the kind of community we can truly relate to, rather than the Hasidic couple who have been very generous with their social invitations but with whom there can be no real dialogue because there’s too great a divide between us.

I would like to build my own business, where I provide writing, editing, and business development services. A lot of the people who need writing help are entrepreneurs starting their own companies. I would like to provide help with press releases, website content, business plans, media kit materials, newsletters, etc. I can even imagine helping to sell the products that particularly appeal to me. I would also like to help fiction writers with their stories and novels. And high school students with their college application essays.

I would like to create a collage for the baby my brother and his wife are expecting later this month.

March 3, 2008

The wall

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 5:17 am

Nick and I had an agreement about how to divide child care this past weekend: he took Charlotte all day yesterday, so that Jen and I could be unencumbered during her last day here, and I had her all day today. I knew today would be a challenge, although I failed to fully consider a few factors. The first was that having an out-of-town visitor is exhausting, even if she’s the model guest, which Jen is: neat and clean and considerate and thoughtful nearly to a fault. It just takes a lot out of you, I think, when you feel responsible for someone else’s physical and emotional well-being in your home and city for many days running. The second unfortunate factor is that Charlotte woke me up this morning at 3:40 and I failed to fall back to sleep. So, I got up officially at around 6:00, had dropped Jen off by 7:00, and had to figure out how I was going to get through the next twelve straight hours with my lovely toddler.

From a parenting perspective, I haven’t hit a wall like this in months. There have been other days over the last few weeks where I’ve had her for twelve straight hours and it’s been fine. I’m very emotionally vulnerable to fatigue; there have been times when I’ve felt savagely (if very temporarily) depressed amidst even the rosiest of external circumstances if I’ve had very little sleep for many nights in a row.

By 2:30 this afternoon, at one of the play spaces we frequent, I was shedding tears of misery and feeling nearly crushed by the guilt of being in this state. Charlotte was giving me no trouble at all. She was being her sweet, joyous self. My head spins when I think of all the single mothers in the world who don’t get long breaks during the week, who don’t have a partner in parenting, who don’t have such nice play spaces near them or the resources to use them, whose children aren’t healthy… and then, too, I have only one child. And such a well-behaved child! I felt ferocious self-contempt, which made everything worse, and yet the fact was that I couldn’t believe how slowly the day was going, how many more hours there were before me, how unequal I was feeling to the task at hand.

I came home around 3:00 and an hour later, when I was able to put her down for a nap, I lay down myself and was out the moment I closed my eyes. When I woke up an hour and a half later, I felt like a new woman.

March 2, 2008

Last day of Jen’s visit

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 6:41 am

Today was the last day of Jen’s visit to Portland and Vancouver. Never has a guest failed so profoundly as a tourist; never has a hostess failed so profoundly as a tour guide. She never saw the Pearl District, or 23rd Avenue NW (the main drag over there), or downtown, or Alberta Arts. She could barely be persuaded to look at the city when we were driving past some scenic overlook. She saw the bagel cafe and Grand Central Bakery a few times each. We drank too much coffee and she smoked too many cigarettes. We talked a blue streak and figured out a few things.

To her dismay, it emerged that her novel-in-progress would work far better as a screenplay. Also that my screenplay-in-progress would work better as a screenplay, rather than as too many pages of exposition in script format, masquerading as dialogue. She knew what its other problems were as well, and best of all, she knew how to fix them. Together we crafted a query letter to a publisher she’s interested in. We went over all the short stories in my would-be new collection and how best to resolve the unfinished ones.

Last night when I came to bed, Nick revealed that he had spent the past couple of days fantasizing about an incident I described to him long ago, where Jen and I were sleeping at the home of Suzanne and Rich, a couple we were friendly with, who had an apartment on the border of Harlem. We were in our early twenties then and somehow we ended up making out on their (campy, ironic — at least to them) red-satin-sheeted bed. It amused me that this had been on his mind. I had forgotten about it. In fifteen or sixteen years of friendship, it happened only once and there wasn’t the slightest strangeness or awkwardness afterward.

Tomorrow she flies home at an ungodly hour. My prince of a husband is planning to drive with us to the airport. Back when we were visiting the city ourselves with a half-baked notion of moving here, we would take the single direct Jet Blue flight from JFK airport, which got in at midnight if we were lucky, closer to one in the morning or even later when we weren’t. Upon our arrival, I was always deeply moved not only that my friend Josie would come to get us at that hour, but that her partner would wake up and come too. I didn’t ask Nick to extend this similar courtly courtesy; it was his idea. But I love him for thinking of it.

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