Forgotten Anniversaries

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These last two weeks I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten someone’s birthday, someone close to me. In other words, a date that should be committed to memory forever and always.

But when I go through the list: husband, children, parents, in-laws, nieces, nephews, siblings, and good friends, I come up with nothing. Nothing but the tug that I have missed celebrating a milestone.

Yesterday it dawned on me. Seven years ago, on March 30, 2010, after three months in the NICU, Wagner came home. Two days later, on April 1st, Michael followed.

Chiara was only three years old at the time, and we made a banner to hang in the dining room: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL AND WAGNER!” We made thank-you cards for the doctors and nurses and everyone else who’d stood by our side during those three long months.

We took pictures to commemorate the day. Pictures of Michael’s nurse with her finger on the “off” button of Michael’s monitor. Pictures of Chiara’s artwork that we’d hung over the boys’ isolettes. Pictures of our locker in the family room. We brought home souvenirs: bottles, preemie diapers, thermometers, and even oxygen-saturation cuffs.

With each photo I knew I was committing our NICU stay to memory, finally allowing myself to exhale. We’d made it this far. Taking our three-month old babies (who were really newborns for all practical purposes) home.

It was a day I vowed I would never forget.

But then I did. This year March 30th and April 1st came and went without acknowledgement. When I did remember, the boys were swimming in Grandma’s Florida pool, splashing and shrieking, playing some kind of intricate game of tag with the pool noodles. You can still see the scar from their PDA surgery that traces the edge of their shoulder blade, but if you know what to look for. Other than that, you’d never guess.

You’d never guess that they were born three and a half months early. Or that they weighed about a pound and a half apiece. You’d never guess we had to do special exercises for their joints or that Michael didn’t breathe on his own until the week before he was discharged.

If you looked at them now, you’d see very little evidence that they had any challenges at all. No traces of what impacted their first two years of life. None of it has any bearing on their lives today.

But I don’t think that’s why I forgot our homecoming anniversary. I think I forgot because I’m not the same person I was seven years ago. I’m not the person who was so terrified to be vulnerable.

The irony is when I vowed forever and always to remember our NICU stay, I began writing about it. And writing. And writing. I was writing to remember but I was also writing to convince myself that I wasn’t affected by our experience, not negatively anyway.

The more I wrote, the deeper I had to dig. (I should point out that this was not by choice—the deep diggers were my writing partners, critique groups at writing conferences, and later, my developmental editors.) As I revised and dug and polished and repeated the cycle, truths emerged. Such as, yeah, that NICU stay was pretty awful. And, yeah, I’m not cut out to be a family advocate for parents of preemies.

As a ballet dancer, I spent a lifetime evading truth. You have to. If you acknowledged what you look like in a white leotard and tights, you might never have the nerve to get on stage. Embracing the truth as a writer meant that I had to get on stage anyway. Little by little, I changed. Until the one thing I vowed to remember became an event that I didn’t need to commemorate.

Vacation Responder: Blame it on the kids

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31Days KovacIt’s totally acceptable to disguise a plea for help inside a vacation responder. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. 

 

SUBJECT: Unable to respond to email

I am in trapped in a car with three small children until October 31st. I’d love to respond your email sooner but bad things would happen. Worse that being trapped in a car with three small children.

 

God–What’s There To Say?

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firstcommunionA week from today my daughter will make her first communion. It’s a big deal. I know it’s a big deal. But I’ve only been Catholic for a year. I feel a little awkward attending classes with my daughter, trying to guide her through something that I myself don’t quite understand.

There’s so much I still don’t know. For example, am I supposed to genuflect every time I go into the pew at Mass or just the first time? Can I still use my rosary even though the cat ate one of the Our Father beads? I don’t know.

And for her—do we need to get a veil or something for next week? Or white gloves? We haven’t covered that yet.

I have no nostalgic anecdotes to share with my daughter. I don’t have that story that begins, “When I was your age” or “At my first communion” because our experiences are so different.

In my RCIA prep classes no topic was off the table. We talked openly about our feelings toward the church’s stance on marriage. We talked about the implications of having a Pope Benedict versus a Pope Francis and how it made us feel as parents to join a church that we felt still had to answer for the scandals brought to light in recent years.

I came to the church from a place that needed to take the doubt and cynicism that I had harbored for many years and reconcile it with the good feeling I had when I came to Mass. My daughter comes to church because we bring her there every Sunday.

So what I am going to tell my eight-year-old about what it’s like to be Catholic?

Two weeks ago we sat a table in the cafeteria across the parking lot, where we have the Faith Formation classes, filling out worksheets, sounding out words such as “chalice” and “Eucharist.” She was doing the little dance she does when she’s excited about something, wiggling a little from side to side. This was different from when we did homework together, something had shifted. We weren’t working in tandem anymore. A part of her mind was someplace else, a place I don’t have access to.

We were sitting in the green-tiled room that is so familiar to her. She had her first Easter egg hunt there at St. Augustine’s in that room. At Halloween, she paraded around the tables with her brothers. Last year during one of my RCIA classes, the family decorated Christmas cookies there, baked in the ovens in the cafeteria’s kitchen. This is her home. A place that keeps the figurines for the Nativity scene in the basement and has an organ in the balcony, and she knows this because we come to decorate the church several times a year. In November there’s an altarcito where we put out a picture of Grandpa. In October there’s Bless the Pets day when we bring the cat (to be forgiven for chewing on the rosary).

For her the church is very simple. The Pope is a nice man in a white hat. The God she knows is Social-Justice Jesus, who hugs lepers and reminds us to be nice to people. This is the community that she knows—this is the community she is going to join.

I watch my daughter. She’s glowing from the inside out, chewing on her lip. Her eyes are shining. And as she hums to herself and spells “communion” with three m’s, I realize that I don’t always have to be the one who teaches. She doesn’t always have to learn from me. That maybe this time I am learning from her and her idea of the church.

Q is for Questionnaire

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The idea to have a questionnaire in the anthology came indirectly from my sister-in-law.Q

Ten years ago my parents retired as teachers. Between the two of them they had taught high school English for about seventy years. My sister-in-law sought to contact as many former students as possible (no small feat, as Facebook had not been invented yet) and asked them to write letters to their former teacher. We put the letters into a binder for my parents and presented it to them at their retirement party.

I thought I knew this side of our parents—nurturing teachers whose students would visit after graduation, even coming to the house for dinner. But I didn’t know the scope, the breadth and depth of the effect my parents had on their students that was so clearly remembered so many years later. Some former students had gone on to be English teachers themselves. A few even became writers like my father—citing him as their initial inspiration.

Later that summer, Matt and I were getting married and since everyone offers wedding advice to young, unmarried couples whether solicited or not, I thought I’d give our guests an official forum through which to dispense their wisdom. Our questionnaire asked married couples simple information such as where and when they’d gotten married as well as asking them to reflect on the best parts of the ceremony, reception, and honeymoon.

We learned that one aunt and uncle were married in Chicago the day after Kennedy’s assassination and that another had been married for 47 years—nonconsecutive. We learned that my brother was not the only groom to loose his wedding band on his honeymoon.

The responses were arranged into a reading for the ceremony. Totally recommend it for the next time you get married.

So picture this—the Editorial Group is at Bittersweet and we’re looking through our manuscript. It’s good. We like it. It’s a little short but more than short it feels incomplete. We’ve got a great thing going with the group. It’s special, but in a way that should be ordinary. So many of us shared similar struggles when we sat down to write or as we sent our writing into the world. Similar, yet unique.

We thought, why not ask our contributors, “What keeps you in the chair? What makes it difficult to prioritize writing? What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had?”

I can’t tell you the answers, of course, that would be cheating. You’ll just have to buy the book to find out for yourself.

(Plug, plug, shameless plug.)

M is for Math-head

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MMichael is my little math-head. He counts in his spare time (sitting in his car seat, sitting in the bath, lying in his bed at night) in his four-year-old way.

“Twenny-seven! Twenny-eight! Twenny-NINE! What’s after twenny-nine, Mama?”

All the way up to “Nine-y-one! Nine-y-twoo! Nine-y-tree!”

I’m so happy one of my kids is a math-head. Chiara couldn’t care less about math when I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t crunching numbers. If there had been an Excel Etch-a-sketch. I would have had one.

Now, this doesn’t mean I was very good at math. I just really loved it. Or maybe more precisely, I was really good at math in the ordinary sense. The sense of high-school algebra and SAT geometry. But by the time I got to set theory and discrete math, I was out of my depth with regards both to skill and talent. And the deeper I got into probability theory and statistics, the more I relied on my counting on my fingers. Not a good sign for a programmer. Turns out I’m more of an addition-and-subtraction kind of girl with a soft spot for long division.

But I still like math. Sort of the way I still like baseball although I can’t play to save my life.

Chiara is not a math-head. She couldn’t care less about counting and called all currency “gold coins” until she had to make change for her book and then she became suddenly adept and counting bills. But because initially she showed such little interest, I was afraid that maybe I just didn’t make math-heads. Maybe my offspring just wasn’t wired to like numbers.

So it warmed my heart to see Michael enthusiastically counting on his fingers, declaring that our car could fit three grownups and three kids, calculating how many cookies each child could eat if there were six cookies left. It was validating.

Even when he finished counting: “Nine-y-seven, nine-y-eight, nine-y-NINE, NINE-THIRTY!”

Same love. Same limitations.

B is for Bittersweet

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BIf we were to chart my writing in Set Theory, there would be the set of all things written at Bittersweet Cafe and the set of all things not written at Bittersweet Cafe.

I suppose you could also chart my writing in terms of the set of all things written in Mary’s living room and the set of all things not written at Mary’s living room. But I have known Bittersweet longer than I have known Mary. Maybe that will be my “M” post.

I’m not sure how any writing is accomplished without the aid of chocolate, which is far easier to come by than your own office at a chocolate cafe. (As a matter of fact, I am writing this in an airplane—in February, as it turns out, instead of April, which is not the point and yet I’m going to leave that in anyway—where I am happily typing away and eating chocolate.)

I’ve heard that writers (as well as eccentric actors) often didn’t have phones but instead could only be contacted through the telephone at their pub of choice. OK—I made up the part about “often didn’t have phones,” but doesn’t that sound about right? Back when all the writers were drunk white guys who didn’t want to go home. You know, the Jacks: Jack London, Jack Kerouac, Jack Handey.

I always order a spicy hot chocolate. If it’s morning, I’ll order granola and yogurt to go with it. In the afternoon, I’ll take a tea cake. If it’s a Friday, chances are Mary and Joanne are there, too, eating chocolate gluten-free zucchini bread. If it’s a Tuesday, I’m at the other location, where I can get steel-cut oatmeal with dried coconut and cranberries.

Wednesday afternoon I’m with Chiara and she gets the smallest drop of hot chocolate allowed by her hypocritical mother (poured into a demitasse cup usually saved for shots of espresso).

The day of the week also tells you what I’m working on. On Tuesdays I meet with Rachel and write about the twins. On Wednesdays Chiara I work on the next installment of Violet and Ruby. If it’s Friday I’m working on the anthology with Mary and Joanne and if it’s any other day, I’m obviously working on my addiction to chocolate.

And Now For Something Cheery

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I’m lying. This isn’t cheery at all. It’s a thought I had (I’ve been having a lot of them lately) about babies and mothers. Particularly this time of year when every day provokes me to reach back four years ago. What was happening four years ago this day? Four years ago this day (January 8th) we got a call from  Wagner’s doctor. He was eight days old. His weight hovered around the one-pound mark. He’d had a pulmonary hemorrhage. He had blood in his lungs.

There’s a tribe of Native Americans whose custom was for the mother to carry her stillborn baby until his soul was safely transferred to the other side. The vital organs were removed and replaced with sawdust and she’d carry the tiny corpse in a sling that she wore with her everywhere. I know why this is so.

We always talk about the soul as if it is something that resides on the inside of a person’s skin. But really one’s soul is the radiance that is emitted, like rays of sun. And so a mother carries a child for nine months and his rays roll together with his mother’s, like fog and sea air. When he is born, he takes some of her radiance with him. And if he dies before he grows into his spirit, his mother needs to hold the body until she can reabsorb his soul back into her skin.

There are parts of the corporal body that are not matter.

This is what pulls her shoulders to the ground, why she slouches. Why there is no color in her face, her jaw is weighted and drags the corners of her mouth down. They buried part of her soul when they put that little body in the coffin. They trapped it in that little pine box. On Sundays she goes to visit that bucolic place, the green hills and the large oak tree. Wisps of hemlock green waft into the air, like smoke escaping from a smoldering church. They find their way back into her body—through her ears, her nostrils, the pores on cheeks, the hair on her arms. She drinks in this lost life—not his, but hers.

This grieving process would have healed much more quickly had they just let her carry a corpse with a ribcage full of straw.

The funny thing about memory is that it gets folded. I didn’t hear about this anecdote until a few years ago. And yet, the story is fused with the memory of standing over Wagner that night on January 8th, 2010. Back when reaching for hope was like trying to find the light switch in a dark room. Because there’s a physical aching after your children are born. Like an amputee. If I could have just held Wagner. Close to my heart. Or better yet, inside my skin. It could have healed us both.

Life at Our House

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©DeluxePhotography2012This year I decided to do something different with our Christmas cards (in addition to actually mailing them).

You see, I just couldn’t send out a blank card with our family picture in good faith. It shows you what we look like, (sort of, it’s actually from Christmas 2012) but it doesn’t give you the faintest idea of what we’re like. See how quiet, still, and fully dressed we are? Yeah. That never happens. We cling to this one photo with the idea that we could be like the clean and quiet, fully-dressed people in the photo and you could put a card like this on your refrigerator and be fooled into thinking that we look like this, but really, this photo is a bold-faced lie. True, we do smile a lot, but we’re also a lot stickier, stinkier, and more naked than any Christmas card could (or should) convey.

So I thought I’d have our family answer the 10 questions that James Lipton asks his guests at the end of each episode of Inside the Actors Studio. If you’re a fan, you know that these questions were adapted from Bernard Pivot questionnaire. If you’re not a fan, you can either take my word for it or look it up on Wikipedia. Or you can decide you don’t care. Doesn’t matter. These 10 questions give you an idea what it’s like to be in the Kovac household in 2013 in a way that a family photo cannot.

Here goes.

1. What is your favorite word?
Michael: Yes!
Chiara: My favorite word is Oompa Loompa.
Wagner: (to Janine) Your favorite word is “Mama.”
Chiara: (to Wagner) Your favorite word is “L-o-o-o-v-e and kis-issssses.”
Michael: Can I have another bowl of cereal?
Janine: Let’s go on to the next question.

2. What is your least favorite word?
Chiara: My least favorite word is…that’s really hard. Hey, wait—what are you writing down? Why do you need our favorite words and our least favorite words?
Matt: Kumquat.

3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Chiara: What does that even mean?
Janine: It means, “what helps you be imaginative and what helps you think of God.”
Chiara: Um… my brain?
Wagner (pointing to the laptop): Are these letters of the alphabet? Is ‘W’ here? ‘W’ is a letter of the alphabet.

4. What turns you off? (Rephrased to: “What makes it hard to be creative?”)
Chiara: (in the doorway from under a blanket) People who are really loud and make it hard [for me] to think with my brain. (to brothers) Come here and be part of the dragon. Chinese New Year! Chinese New Year!
Boys: (chanting under blankets) Chinese New Year! Chinese New Year!
Chiara: Be careful! Don’t step on the kitty!

5. What is your favorite curse word? (Rephrased to “What do you say when you are mad?”)
Michael: Stinky Face!

6. What sound or noise do you love?
At this point Janine is following her children around with a laptop, yelling questions at them. She walks in on a game of “Let’s Pretend to Cook the Cat” in which Wagner is the cat and the guest bed is the oven. Janine decides that she loves the sound of laughing children.

7. What sound or noise do you hate?
The children are still playing their delightful game, but Janine is afraid it might quickly devolve into sounds she hates: children screaming. Mannheim Steamroller’s “Carol of the Bells” is a close second to screaming Kovac children.

8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? (“What do you want to be when you grow up?”)
Michael: A fireman!
Chiara: A teacher who teaches ballet!
Wagner: I want to be a arch-ee-ol-oh-gist.
Michael: Yeah, I want to be that, too.

9. What profession would you not like to do?
Chiara: A sea diver! It seems dangerous.
Michael: A fireman!

10. What would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Chiara: Welcome, Chiara!
Michael: Welcome, Michael!
Wagner: You mean Jesus?
Janine: Yes, Jesus. What do you think Jesus will say when you go to Heaven?
Michael: Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel! I made it out of clay!
Wagner: I don’t know what Jesus will say but I think it will be something not what I think Jesus will say.

That pretty much sums it up. Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy New Year! See you in 2014.

Gratitude

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I’m a huge fan of gratitude. So much so that I edited an online gratitude journal for the Greater Good Science Center for the better part of two years. (The journal has now morphed into this cool research project.)

Here’s the original NICU gratitude post:

The nurses at the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley knew who I was before I’d even stepped onto the floor. Not because my boys were born at just 25 weeks’ gestation and were the youngest in the NICU. Not because, at 1 pound 12 ounces and 1 pound 9 ounces, my twins were the smallest in the NICU. The nurses in the NICU knew me because of our Aunt Rita.

“Tell your Aunt Rita ‘thank you’ from us,” nurses said to me, over and over as they stopped me in the hall or came by the twins’ hospital room. “What a wonderful person!”

Aunt Rita remembers birthdays and sends thoughtful gifts for no particular reason. She and her husband host a family reunion every summer at their home in the Midwest. know that she’s wonderful and fabulous but I couldn’t figure out how these Berkeley nurses knew that, too.

For the first month of the twins’ lives, they were in such critical condition, that each boy had a nurse standing at his bed side around the clock. The nurses showed me how to take my sons’ temperature (which had to be done every four hours), change their diapers (which were smaller than an iPhone) and touch them without over-stimulating their tiny underdeveloped nervous systems (with one hand resting firmly on the top of the head and the other hand firmly on the soles of their feet—no pats, no strokes, no light brushes).

These were the kind of details I posted in our private blog for family and friends. The day the boys were born I’d recounted brief details of the birth. When Aunt Rita saw the post, she sent a huge edible bouquet to the staff at the NICU. There were stems made of carrot and celery sticks and flower blossoms carved out of pineapples.

“Thank you to the doctors and nurses who are taking care of my nephews,” the card read.

“That bouquet was eaten in about twenty minutes,” one of nurses told me. “Even the kale.”

The metaphors for gratitude belong to a family of “moral accounting” metaphors. We say

we have debt of gratitude or that we pay our thanks. We say, “I owe him a thank-you.” Appreciation is earned. (Incidentally, many of the same metaphors are used for forgiveness: “Iowe him an apology.”) Moral accounting metaphors are often subconsciously used in bribe and reward reasoning, and ideas about sacrifice, guilt, punishment, and judgment of others. Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons would have said that Rita’s thank-you was freely given (one of the kinds of gratitude that makes us feel the happiest, for both the “thanker” and those who are thanked).

Wait, there’s more! It’s all here.