Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloweeniversary (Babble)

Ian and I met on Halloween in 1989.  I can’t believe that was twenty years ago.  I have now known him half my life.  Halloween is one of the harder days to be without Ian.  The only other time we’ve been apart on Halloween was his last deployment in 2006.

We met at a party where everyone was asked to wear black and bring something grotesque sounding to eat.  String musicians own a lot of black clothes, so that part was easy for me, and I brought a box of vanilla pudding I figured we could call phlegm.

The party was loud, and I ended up wedged between my stand partner from orchestra and what looked like a young republican in a suit.  My stand partner was annoying and I really didn’t want to have to chat with her outside of orchestra, so I was stuck turning to suit guy.  On closer inspection I realized the suit was an ROTC uniform.  I come from a family of artists.  I thought ‘Hair’ was a very patriotic movie when I saw it at age nine.  I didn’t think I’d have anything in common with an Army guy.  I remember having the very conscious thought, “Well, not fair to judge a book by its cover….” and I said hello.

I find it impossible to picture my life today if I hadn’t gone to that party.

No Ian in his ROTC uniform means no Aden, no Mona, no Quinn.  I might not even be in violin making because Ian supported me and gave me encouragement all through my apprenticeship.  I don’t know who I would be right now.  I don’t know where I would be living or what I would be doing.  I’m sure I would have picked a different path that would appeal to me and I would be happy and fine, but the mere idea of a world where my kids never existed is unsettling.  They are supposed to be here somehow, I just know it.  Which brings me back to Ian in his ROTC uniform.

He told me later he specifically wore it just to be counter-counter-cultural.  He wanted to see if anyone in the all black wearing dancer/musician crowd would talk to him.  We had one of the best conversations of my life.  I had just finished reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and really wanted to discuss it with someone, but no one else had even heard of it–except Ian.  We laughed together over the safe cracking chapter, and talked on and on as if we’d known each other a long time.  As if he weren’t in a uniform.  As if I didn’t come from a family that would be baffled about what to do with an engineering major when I brought him home.

Eventually, I had to go.  I had a paper to write and it was getting late.  I said goodbye and walked home alone, rerunning parts of the enjoyable conversation over and over in my head.  I’d sworn off dating for a bit because I was having a rough time at that point in college, but after a few days I realized I wanted to talk to the guy in the Army suit again.  I told the person who had invited him to the Halloween party to give him my number.  I thought that was very clever because he could call me, but he knew ahead of time I wanted him to.  A fabulous plan, except that at the time Ian was not good at calling people.  I ended up calling him myself, and left messages twice.  I should have figured it was a sign he wasn’t interested, but that conversation on Halloween had been so nice….  It just couldn’t have been my imagination.  The person I talked to would want me to try again, I just knew it, despite whatever signals I seemed to be getting.

When I tried the third (and in my mind, final) time, I actually caught Ian on the phone.  I asked him to a movie that night, and he said, “No, I can’t.  But don’t hang up!”  I hadn’t imagined it.  We had another great conversation.  We met the next night for a movie.  We’ve now had twenty years of great conversations, and mundane conversations, laughter and comfortable silence, and the occasional movie.  I still have the box of unopened phlegm pudding in the cupboard.  One day it will be a fun anniversary treat to make.  (Or at least an interesting experiment about the shelf life of instant pudding.)

I never imagined I’d fall in love with an Army guy.  It’s not always easy, but the proof that it’s right is in the form of three remarkable people who I get to tuck into bed each night.  I miss my husband.  There is no one else I’d rather talk to right now.

(Happy Anniversary, Ian, if you can read this.  I hope next Halloween we’re together.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

School of One (Babble)

Ah, the best laid childcare plans….   A couple of weeks before Ian left, our childcare person for Quinn backed out.  As much as I should probably feel inconvenienced, part of me was a little relieved.

I don’t have any problem with people who use daycare.  Every child and family and circumstance is different, and there are cases where it is certainly the best thing for all involved.  But for myself, I’ve never been comfortable with it.  I don’t want to miss anything, and if I can’t be with my kids I want them to be with someone else who is equally invested and interested.  I never feel guilty when I’m at work if they’re with their dad, or on rare occasions with an uncle or aunt or grandparent.  As long as they’re loved, it’s all good.

Ian and I have managed to arrange our lives so that one or both of us has always been home with the kids.  It wasn’t much of a sacrifice because we were doing what we liked.  Luckily neither of us likes yachts or eating out regularly or gambling.  Our lifestyle of hanging out at home, playing in the park and splurging once in awhile on treats from the ice cream truck is cheap to maintain, so we’ve never struggled with issues of work and family balance.  When Ian went back to school, I stayed home with Aden.  When he graduated and couldn’t find work, I took on more jobs and he stayed home. 

After the birth of each baby I would stay home until I felt comfortable venturing out for short quartet gigs, but for the most part I had any work the first year come to me.  The conservatory where I work let me teach from home with a baby in my lap, and I have a workshop just off the kitchen so my boss at the repair shop could just bring violins to me.  Each of my kids as babies spent time napping in a swing in my shop while I worked on instruments.  Ian’s weekend work with the Army Reserves left him plenty of time for being home most of every month.  We never contemplated daycare because it wasn’t necessary.

Then when Ian got deployed in 2006 we were left in a lurch.  Aden was in Head Start, but Mona was really little, and I was working in the mornings.  I had no choice but to put her in daycare for about three weeks.  For a variety of reasons it did not go well.  I wrapped up all of my work obligations as soon as I was able and went back home.  When Aden started kindergarten that Fall, it was just me and Mona for awhile, and eventually Quinn.

People suggested, understandably, that daycare for Mona would get me some much needed rest.  It makes sense, but there is something about the deployment situation that made it not a viable option.  Mona would panic when we took Aden to school.  We took daddy away and he didn’t come back.  I don’t think she trusted that Aden would come home.  I couldn’t ask her to say goodbye to me, too.  Also, with Ian gone, I needed my kids with me.  I feel that way now, too.  I’m not roping them down with apron strings–they can play and go to school and all that good stuff–I just feel more at ease when they are with me.

So, rather than look for someone else to watch Quinn while the girls are in school we decided to create for him a School of One at the violin store.  He’s potty trained and knows his letters and numbers and is even working on reading a little bit.  He’s trying very hard to tell time.  He’s polite and speaks clearly and is excited about learning.  He’s more ready for school than probably a lot of the children who are already enrolled as K3 students at the Montessori school, but he doesn’t turn three until the end of November, so he doesn’t make the cutoff.

We got him a cute little desk with a chalkboard top.  We made a broken rental cello into a toybox, and got a nice table for his sisters as well, so they can do homework in the store after school.  Quinn has his own big kid backpack and a Scooby-Doo lunchbox and lots of paper and crayons.  We pack everything up in the morning, and even though he’s disappointed every time we drop off his sisters and he doesn’t get to go into the big school, he likes his tiny school.  It has cereal bars and grapes.  He draws me pictures, he watches Signing Time DVDs, and he builds towers and structures and refers to them as ‘block parties.’  I’m not getting nearly as much work done as I’d like, but that’s okay.  I changed the violin store to by appointment only, so I can spread customers out and only take in maybe one project a day.  I’m hoping to take him with me to volunteer in the art room a couple of times a month, so that way once in awhile Quinn gets to go spend time in the big school, too.

In the meantime, things seem to be working.  One of the reasons I thought it would be nice to run our own business, is that when I was growning up it was fun feeling like a part of my parents’ art gallery.  Their business was like an extension of our home.  I’ve made an effort to create an environment in my own store that makes my kids comfortable there, and so far it has.  I have dreams of Aden getting good enough at violin to help me out, by tuning instruments and working with customers….  I’m not counting on it, but it would be wonderful if it happens.

I don’t know how long the School of One will keep Quinn suitably occupied, and I may have to rethink it and hire help to watch him down the line, but I hope not.  I like having him with me.  Although I’m running out of room for his drawings behind my bench already.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Costume Time! (Babble)

I’ve been informed by a good friend that I’m one of THOSE moms.  She meant it nicely but with an eye roll.

I make my kids’ Halloween costumes.  They can be anything they want and I will buy fabric and make it.  Last year they all wanted to be kangaroos (the allure being you could trick-or-treat with the pouch), which was great because I just needed one bolt of brown fleece and I was set.

(Mona, Aden and Quinn, Halloween 2008)

The truth is, if I could just sit and make stuff–out of paper, out of fabric, out of wood–that’s all I would do.  I love being able to take some image in my head and see if I can create it in front of me.  But there is no room in this world (let alone my house with no closets) for the gazillion things I would like to make, so I have to keep my creative impulses in check much of the time.  Often I channel my ideas into things that will be consumed (like fun looking birthday cakes) or that will be sold or given to someone else to store (like my instruments).

Halloween is like a license to make stuff while also making my kids happy, so it’s a win all around.

Now, I need to point out that I don’t really sew.  Not really.  My mom can sew.  She used to make us real clothes when I was a kid and some of my earliest memories are of her with patterns laid out on the basement floor and her carefully cutting along dotted lines pinned to fabric while the cat got in the way.  I can’t follow a pattern.  I’m bad with other people’s instructions because if it isn’t how I would do it, and if I can’t wrap my mind around it, then I can’t make myself trust it.  So I just make stuff up.  If anyone who sewed got up close to any of my kids’ costumes they’d probably shudder the same way I do when I’m confronted with an amateur’s free-for-all version of violin repair, but I figure the costumes are not being saved for posterity–they just have to survive one good day.  But it’s fun and I love the challenge.

During the last deployment I was too pregnant to do much sewing.  Luckily, Mona had no interest in having a costume and just handed out candy, and Aden wanted to be a bat and I was able to buy her wings and just make her hood.  This year we went fabric shopping while Ian was still in town to help, and I got started sewing early to make sure they would be done in time.

My challenges for this year:  Quinn wanted to be a purple cat, Mona a swan, and Aden a grey horse from Webkinz world.

I tackled the cat first because it was the simplest, except for the fabric Quinn picked out.  It wasn’t just fuzzy and purple, it was that loose fuzzy stuff that gets onto everything.  I ran the fabric through the wash several times to de-fuzz it enough to use.  The first time I went to get it out of the dryer it looked like a muppet had exploded in there.  The entire door and inside of the dryer was covered with purple fluff.  I had to scrape the inside of the dryer twice before it stopped turning purple after running that fabric in it.  I kept telling my son that if the fabric stayed messy we’d have to go find something different, but he just kept telling me how much he wanted this purple fuzzy stuff, so I kept playing with it.  When the purple menace stopped shedding I went ahead and started cutting.  For some reason Quinn objects to having ears, but I told him he could wear the hood down and he was okay with that.  Here’s the purple cat:

Next I worked on the horse.  Aden is very particular, so I tried to leave certain details to her.  She made her tail out of yarn, and I used velcro to attach it so we can take it off if we need to wash the costume.  She did the spots herself with fabric paint because I knew I wouldn’t do it ‘right.’  I think it came out okay, but if I ever make a horse again I’ll go at it a little differently.  Here’s Aden doing her spots and the finished horse:

The big challenge, of course, was the swan.  I had to make the wings detachable because I know Mona will be wearing her wings at every possible opportunity for the foreseeable future, and she won’t want to put on the entire swan getup just to flap around.  Mona was very frustrated that I saved her costume for last, but I had to think about it. 

I didn’t want people to mistake her for a duck, so we made her a trumpeter swan because its legs and bill are black (so less duck-like), and we got her a toy trumpet to wear around her neck to help provide another clue.  It’s tied on with a feather boa simply because she really really really wanted a feather boa.  Her costume is all in parts.  She’s wearing black leggings, a turtleneck shirt that I altered, a detachable hood with the head, wings that strap over her arms, and the trumpet.  It’s a lot to keep track of so I hope we can find all of it when Halloween finally gets here.  I figured making her a head on top of her head would add a teeny bit more height and make her more swan-like.  I’m not completely happy with it, but Mona is too fidgety for me to keep fussing with it.  Every time I had her put the hood on and tried to adjust something she’d say, “It’s fine!  It’s fine!”  If she’s happy with it that ultimately makes it good enough.  My daughter the swan:

So there we are.   Now I just need to find a volunteer to help man our candy bowl for a bit while I walk my kids around for trick-or-treat!  On an average year we go through well over a dozen large bags of candy so it’s not a small job.  I think one of our neighbors counted one year and determined we get between 400 and 500 kids.  I have no idea why, but it’s fun!  Can’t wait.

Monday, October 12, 2009

RIP to a Potter (Babble)

I’m in a bit of shock today.  I just found out a local potter Aden and I took ceramics lessons from last summer, died a few weeks ago.  I called today to follow up with him on future lessons and got a message saying that Dark Star Galleria was closed due to the artist’s untimely death.  Nick was younger than I am, and a talented potter.   We discovered him one day when we had free time before a tooth cleaning appointment, and Aden and I wandered around his gallery above our dentist’s office.

When Ian returned from his last deployment, we opened our own business, and as a result I spent more time than usual away from the children.  I decided that to help make up for it I would do something one evening a week with each child alone.  Mona and I mostly ran errands together but she loved having me to herself, so it was nice.  But Aden and I signed up for pottery.  When we’d talked to Nick that one afternoon before our dentist appointment, we asked if he had classes for kids.  He said no, but for Aden he’d make an exception.  She was so sweet and composed for only six, and just by her enthusiasm and intelligent observations about his work he could tell she was an artist.

We signed up for Wednesday evenings and our neighbor, Julie, joined us too.  We really looked forward to Wednesday nights.  Watching Nick on the wheel was like seeing someone do a magic trick.  He effortlessly made the clay do whatever he wanted and it was amazing.  Aden did her best but had trouble controlling clay on the wheel, so after a few classes, Nick just put a board across her wheel and showed her how to make fish out of the clay instead, and coil pots.  He taught her about making sure there were no bubbles in the clay, and not making things too thick.  I made a ton of tiny pots and our neighbor made a nice bowl for her dog.  More often than not we stopped at a restaurant called LuLu’s afterward and grabbed some pie.

Nick liked to tease Aden, and in a lot of ways she was the more mature of the two.  She loved being in a grown up environment, and Nick liked to play.  They met somewhere in the middle.  I remember being irritated with Aden one evening when we were running late and she was busy gathering up bandaids to take to pottery class.  She’d needed one for a tiny cut the week before and we discovered Nick didn’t have any first aid supplies, so she was going to be prepared.  We arrived at class to discover Nick had cut himself badly on a large bowl that had a sharp piece attached underneath.  Aden went about patching him up with great seriousness.  Nick looked down at his bandaid covered hand with wonder and amusement.  Aden beamed.  I ended up buying the bowl (after Nick ground down the sharp bit).  It broke recently and I glued it back together.  I almost didn’t because it looks goofy and I figured I should just go back to the gallery and buy a new one.  But now I know there won’t be any new ones.  Not that the one of a kind bowl could really be replaced.  Neither can Nick.

I haven’t decided how to break it to Aden.  She’s been bugging me to call Nick a lot lately.  She misses him and the grown up pottery class.  I made him some tools that he was going to trade for more pottery lessons, and so every week Aden asks me if I’ve called Nick yet to set up a day and time.  We used to stop by his gallery on the way home from choir to chat and then pick up a couple of spring rolls from the Chinese restaurant in the same building.  Nick was looking forward to having Aden in a class again, and he said he’d even make room for Mona, too, since she’s older now.

Aden’s never lost anything bigger than a pet bunny, and that was half her little life ago.  I’m worried that having to contemplate death this directly will make her dad’s situation more frightening for her.  She knows that war is about fighting and that sometimes people die, but to know someone you liked could be gone so suddenly is even hard for me to accept.  Aden’s only seven.  I don’t want to tell her but I have to.  I think I’ll wait until we have some time alone tonight, after violin lessons and homework.

I will have to tell her, and she’ll cry, and I’ll cry.  And then I will do my best to convince her the thing to focus on is how lucky we were to have known him at all.  That he created beautiful things that will help us remember him.  That life is about appreciating what we have and not choosing to drown in sorrow over the things that are lost to us.  If I give the speech well enough maybe I’ll believe it too.

Aden and Nick Rostagno (1972-2009)

The Bright Side (Babble)

During Ian’s last deployment I dealt with the Army calling me.  Well-meaning people would check in from inaccessible places like Ohio and Texas and who knows where, and ask me questions that made me cry.  I remember once when I was about eight months pregnant a gentle sounding soldier in Columbus asked how he could help, and I told him unless he could carry the laundry up the stairs for me, he couldn’t.  I was hormonal and stressed and tired, and I hated these calls.  I finally wrote to the Army and told them not to contact me unless it was about something I needed to know. 

The worst was someone doing a survey for the military.  He asked a long string of somewhat personal multiple choice questions about how we were coping with Ian’s deployment.  About halfway through I burst into tears.  I missed Ian so badly and I was so tired, and each new question forced me to examine in detail just how hard things were without him.  It was awful.  I kept choking out answers and the guy never paused or asked if I needed a break or if I should even continue.

The only time he deviated from his script was after he asked me, “In what ways has your spouse’s deployment been beneficial to you and your family?” and I answered, “None.”


“No, none.”

“You can’t think of anything that’s been good about it?”  He sounded somewhere between astonished and annoyed.

What did he want me to say?  I was pregnant and caring for two small children alone.  I was scared all the time.  I was tired and overwhelmed.  Mona and Aden were growing and changing and Ian was missing it.  There was nothing good about any of it.  The guy eventually sighed and plowed ahead with his questions.  I don't know why I didn't hang up, except that the Army had given me the runaround on so many things from healthcare to ID cards that if complaining helped fix something I felt I should do it.

But this time I feel more grounded.  And this time my kids are old enough to be swayed by my perspective on what's happening.  So even though I would still answer, "None" on that insensitive survey, here is everything I can find on the bright side of this deployment:

The only possible upside I could have mentioned last time was the steady income.  That was nice, but not nice enough to matter, so I dismissed it.  We don't live extravagantly.  We have gotten by for years on Ian's weekend Reserve income and my teaching and repair work.  When we enrolled Aden in Head Start the person processing our paperwork pointed out we were eligible for food stamps.  We never made much but we never spent much.  We found our kids highly entertaining and watching them was free.  (Before them we had bunnies--also cheap entertainment.)  We used the money he made last time to open the violin store.  A portion of the money this time is slated for some necessary work on the house before Ian returns.  I'd still rather have Ian home, but I won't pretend that steady income isn't welcome.  I'm grateful, especially in these troubled economic times, that money isn't among my worries.

I am not pregnant.  It cannot be emphasized enough how much easier it is to deal with a deployment while not pregnant.

My kids are far more self-sufficient than last time.  Having to do everything for everyone all the time was exhausting.  I remember once on our way out the door trying to figure out why it took us an hour to get out of the house in the winter, and then it hit me that if I even just dressed and re-dressed myself four times in a row, it would take a long time, especially with boots and coats on top of everything,   i also never got through dressing everyone without one of the kids needing to have a diaper changed.  Quinn needs some help putting on his pants, but other than that they all dress themselves now.  It's great.

They can all use the bathroom.  I didn't mind diapers, but now that they are over, there is nothing I miss about them.  Mona was nearly four by the time she was potty trained.  I looked at Ian when he got back from Iraq in 2007 and said, "You thought the war was rough?  You have two weeks to potty train Mona before school starts."  Quinn, on the other hand, potty trained himself months ago.  Not long after he turned two he got tired of diapers and that was that.  He's even dry at night.  I'm not boasting because I can take no credit for it, but it's a relief not to be up and down on the floor all the time with diapers and wipes and ointment.  I don't miss the diaper bag.

I know who I can turn to.  The last deployment taught me who I could count on and who would rather be left alone.  That's useful.  I don't want to be a burden to anyone, and I know which people really meant it when they said, "If there is anything you need..."

I am completely in charge of the Netflix queue.  Not that this is a point of contention in our house, but Ian can never think of anything he wants to put on it, yet he wants to watch what I get with me.  Rightly or wrongly this influences what I choose, and now it doesn't matter.  I can go through all five seasons of Angel and not feel any guilt whatsoever.

I'm getting to know more of the other parents and friends in our kids' lives.  Since Ian was always the one picking the girls up and dropping them off at school, he was the one who saw everybody.  People have been introducing themselves to me on the playground so I'm finally able to put faces to names.

The house is neat.  The house gets away from Ian when he's here, but when it's just me in charge the house stays tidy.  I think part of that is when there is another responsible adult in the house, each of us thinks/hopes/wishes the other will pick things up.  Now when I pass an item on the stairs I go ahead and put it away because I'm the only one who will.

I can sleep with the covers in a big messy wad.

I feel more informed about our finances.  When Ian's home he pays all the bills, but now I'm writing the checks and sending out the envelopes and it's good to have a more exact sense of what we pay for water and electricity and the phones.  Makes me feel more like a grownup.

Visitors.  I love my brothers, but it's unusual to see them more than once or twice a year.  Arno is coming to see me after a conference in Chicago in late October, and Barrett promised to come out and help at some point, too.  Mom and dad were working on dates to visit as well.  I've got things pretty well under control so far, so I don't know how much "help" I need, but don't tell them that.  I love having them here, and if Ian's deployment draws them in this direction, I'll take it.

The shoveling service.  My friend, Gabby, wants to help me from afar, so she hired a lawn and shoveling service last time and asked me if she could please please please do anything this time.  Who am I to refuse?  She's hoping for enough blizzards this winter for her to get her money's worth.

Our kitchen table really only seats four well.  When we all try to eat together, either Ian or I get squished or one of us just stands by to eat.

Health insurance.  Ian and I went without coverage for a long time because none of our employers offered it, and the available options were way more expensive than we could afford.  We even paid for Aden's birth out of pocket, when it came time to have Mona Ian didn't know how we could handle it.  We signed up for Badgercare, which is state run health coverage program here in Wisconsin, and it was great, but it didn't cover Ian.  Since Ian's first deployment we were all covered by Tricare, the military health insurance.  It's convoluted and sometimes very frustrating, but it's there, and I'm very glad we have it.

Extra drawer space.  Ian gave me permission to purge old shirts and socks, etc. from his dresser.  Whatever's left I will soon box up and store in the basement until he gets back.  For a while my own shirts will have elbow room.

Email.  I think often about my grandma during World War II, living here in Milwaukee, caring for my mom and giving birth to my uncle without grandpa around.  She didn't hear from her husband very often when he was at war.  I get quick little notes on my computer frequently.   I can keep Ian up to date on funny things the kids say and do and ask him questions if I need to.  Deployment without email would be far lonelier than I care to contemplate.

No terse dicussions about the Scooba.  We have a Roomba (vacuuming robot) that we got for Christmas a couple of years back that is very handy.  So Ian decided we should invest in the mopping version as well.  It drives me crazy.  It takes longer, is more work, and does and inferior job compared to what I do myself.  He's a happy guy with a gadget, though, so he defends it and buys it new batteries.  For the time being, at least, I have unplugged it and banished the Schooba to a lonely corner of the laundry room.

If Quinn wants to snuggle at night there is room in the bed.  Usually if there is a night he needs cuddling to sleep better, either Ian or I have to flee the bed and sleep somewhere else.

The kids are all mine all the time.  Not that I ever resent sharing, and not that there aren't moments they drive me up the wall, but I love seeing them so much.  They are lovely, fascinating people, and my life is filled with hugs an nuzzles and smiles.  I'm a very lucky person and I know it.

Looking it over, it's a good list.  Now ask me how much of it I would trade to have Ian home.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cleaning Up (Babble)

The kids and I are settling into a new routine without their dad.  We’re doing okay so far, but this isn’t the hard part.  Ian is only in Louisiana for training before heading to Iraq.  From our end, this is inconvenient, but not scary.  I’m juggling everything alone, but I’m not fearful for my husband’s safety.  I know from experience that comes later, when the war sneaks up in the form of news reports or bumper stickers or heartbreaking questions from children.  That part’s coming.

But for now, the big project is cleaning up.  There is a lot to reorganize when running the house alone.  Ian and I run the house differently, and he’s been the primary person at home for awhile.  He did all the grocery shopping and most of the cooking.  When he left I didn’t know what kind of food we had in the refrigerator.  We buy different things.  For instance, I like to keep chicken stock on hand for making soup; Ian doesn’t make soup.  Ian makes a lot of things on the grill; I can’t get the fire going.  Ian uses frozen vegetables; I prefer fresh ones.  Ian bakes bread and makes his own pizza dough; I think of those as things to pick up on the way home. 

They are small differences, but they add up to a whole new way of doing things, and it ends up being a big adjustment for the kids.  As much as I’d like to keep things the same for them, it’s just not reality.  I have to do things my way.

Ian is brilliant at many things: geography, science, writing, staying calm in a crisis, setting up play dates, anything to do with a computer….  Keeping the house neat is not on the list.  He apologized to me before he left about the state of the house.  It’s nothing health inspectors would shut us down for, it’s just cluttered and I hate not being able to find anything.  I need clear surfaces to feel calm.  I like to have space to do a project well. 

In Ian’s defense, a lot of the problem is that tons of paper pile up and he doesn’t know what to do with it all.  He’s not the final judge of the fate of the mounds of artwork the kids produce, or letters from my dad, or photos from our last trip.  When I’m at work I can’t sort those things and they end up like drifting piles of trash all over the house.  The other problem is that we lack storage space.  We have essentially no closets.  There is one big one in the upstairs hallway, and a tiny one in a small guest room downstairs, but that’s it.  No front hall closet, no linen closet, no closets in the bedrooms, no attic to speak of, and the basement is gross.  I used to be a pack rat because I can think of so many possibilities for using old things, but now I’m keen on giving things away and throwing things out.  When you are forced to look at everything you own all the time, items that are not functional or beautiful are irritating.

I’ve been doing what I call a barium sweep.  I’m a Star Trek fan, and there was an episode of The Next Generation where they ‘clean’ the ship by sweeping a barium wall of light relentlessly from one end to the other.  I start at the front of the house in the living room and remove everything from it that doesn’t belong there.  When it’s done I push ahead to dining room, etc and so on until I end up in my bedroom and I go to sleep.  Normally I do a light barium sweep to get things looking presentable, but this time it’s a serious event.  I don’t want things to just look nice, I want to organize the drawers and label boxes and know where everything is.  I’m making progress and it feels good. 

I know part of it is just being able to have control over something at a time when I’m feeling vulnerable, but it’s empowering to be able to find a pencil when I want it, or know if we have fresh batteries, especially since living with small children usually means nothing is where I left it.  I have friends across the street without kids, and they always have beautiful decorative objects on display and things set up just so.  It’s like walking in a mythical land for me, because if I did that in my home the minute I turned my back everything would be rearranged into some inexplicable game.

I’m sort of excited about all the cleaning at the moment because I’m getting back in touch with the house and how we use it.  It feels good, but that feeling won’t last.  Cleaning usually makes me grumpy.  The only thing I really like to clean is my violin shop.  I love organizing my tools and sweeping up wood chips and something about that always feels productive.  I hate the sense that I’m wasting my time by picking up the same items over and over and over and it eventually gets on my nerves. 

I get particularly resentful of dishes.  We don’t have a dishwasher (well, we did–his name was Ian) and there are many evenings when I wash dishes where I think about how much I’d rather be carving a scroll or reading a book.  I have a friend who edited a marvelous book about the spiritual side of cleaning called ‘Next to Godliness,’ and I should reread to get my attitude aligned ahead of time.  The first essay in the book is about how when you wash dishes you shouldn’t wish to be somewhere else.  If you’re not living in the moment (even a dirty dish filled one) you’re not living a true experience.

As long as I stay on top of things it will help.  A lot of staying sane during deployment is about avoiding the last straw.  If I can prevent small things from exploding into large problems we will all be happier.  Stepping on a lego in bare feet on the wrong day could be the difference between me being able to enjoy an evening with my kids or me simply falling apart.   Better to pick up the LEGO early.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Goodbye, Round Two (Babble)

The goodbye at the airport was hard.  I cried.  I hadn’t expected to cry, which is ridiculous because I cry at everything.  (Whenever I try to appear tough Ian reminds me of movies where I was weeping before the opening credits were done rolling.)

The whole trip to Madison felt unreal.  I picked the girls up from school, stopped at home just long enough for a potty break and for the kids to grab any blankets or toys they wanted to sleep with, and we headed west.  All three kids wanted to cram together in the back of the minivan to watch a DVD, which worked out well since Ian had asked me to bring a ginormous army box from the basement that filled up the middle row of seats.  I couldn’t really see my kids.  I drove for ninety minutes with only the GPS to talk to and incredibly depressing news about the war on the radio.

We arrived in time for dinner.  That was fun.  Ella’s Deli is this crazy place to eat in Madison with a carousel outside and hundreds of moving toys on the ceiling.  Our table was one of those games with iron filings under glass that you can drag a magnet over and put beards or hair on the people drawn underneath.  The kids were thrilled with dragging the magnet all over the table and there’s no better place for an ‘eye spy’ game than Ella’s.  We took the kids out to ride the carousel while our food was being made, even though it was incredibly windy and cold outsdie.  It was nice to all be together.

Things didn’t go so well once we were back in the hotel.  The big plan was for the kids to play with Ian in the pool while I caught a little break by taking a hot bath.  Unfortunately, the bathing suits I’d set out for the girls never made it into my suitcase, so we had to improvise.  I told them I didn’t see any reason they couldn’t try to swim in their clothes, since they just had on simple shirts and leggings, and frankly they don’t really swim so it’s not like clothes would slow them down.  The pool was teeny, and they were just going to bounce around.  Aden balked, but Mona was up for creative solutions.  She ended up in my suit–which was hilarious.  I cinched it up as tightly as I could manage but she still looked as if she were wearing a flowery sack.  Mona topped off the look with her froggy scuba mask and was ready to go.

For Aden, however, this was the last straw.  She’d been on a hair trigger for days about her dad leaving, so with a good excuse to cry she let loose.  Ian took Quinn and Mona to the pool and I tried to talk to Aden.  She was a mess.  I apologized again and again about forgetting her suit, and I tried to convince her that it was better to find ways to have fun than to choose to be sad.  But she was done.  I set her up with the nebulizer (we weren’t making the mistake of leaving that behind again) and I took my bath.

When I came out, she was calmer and playing with some of her toys.  I told her again I was sorry about the suit and this time she said, “It’s okay.  Everyone makes mistakes.”  Then she started to cry again.  I asked her if there was anything that would help, and she decided she wanted to talk with one of her friends.  It was only about 8:30, so I went ahead and dialed the number.  The friend’s mom was sympathetic and tried to wake her daughter up to talk to Aden, but she was too far into dreamland to be coaxed into a phone conversation.  Aden talked to her friend’s mom instead, and it helped.  Aden doesn’t have any friends who really understand what she’s going through, but I’m grateful that so many of them try.

Mona and Quinn came back from the pool happy, and Aden finally decided she wanted to go, too, even if it meant wearing my suit like Mona had.  Ian really didn’t want to go back to the pool.  I know he wanted time with me, but there’s just no way to relax together with all the kids in the same room, so it made more sense for him to concentrate on them.  He agreed to go with Aden to the pool and she lit up.  It was nice to see after such a difficult evening.  I know Ian enjoyed that last bit of playtime with all of his kids.

Then we suffered a very long night.  Quinn was fussy and would only rest next to me.  Once he fell asleep and we moved him to the other bed, he started to cough and thrash and bump into Aden.   Aden kept having to shift around.  Mona fell off her side of the bed at three in the morning and howled.  She ended up in the middle of our bed next to me until I decided I had to move next to Quinn to keep him still, and Aden ended up at my feet somehow.  By the time we got up at five I was wiped out.  We nebulized all the kids, packed up, grabbed a little breakfast in the lobby (which had a do-it-yourself waffle station–pretty cool) and headed to the airport.

It was nice to see the other people in Ian’s group.  When he was working with the unit in Texas last time, I never met anyone or got to be there for any of the sendoffs or welcomes home.  (I think that must have been very lonely to arrive back from Iraq and see everyone else get to hug their families when they got off the plane.  I hate that no one was there to greet Ian.  I’m already looking forward to welcoming him back next year.)  There are eight people in his group.  Three of them were women, and one I talked to was leaving behind three kids of her own, the youngest of whom was one year old.  I’m glad I’m not the one who has to say goodbye to my kids for a year.  I can’t imagine.

We had passes to be able to go with Ian all the way to his gate.  We went through security–lots of little shoes off and back on–and then waited for the plane.  It wasn’t what you might expect.  Waiting for a plane is boring, even when it’s part of a significant moment.  The kids all got squirrely, and I sat with my husband but there wasn’t much to say.  ‘I love you’ is nice, but how many times can you say it in fifteen minutes before it loses any sense of feeling?  A couple of the other families asked if they could get a picture of us all together, and I just couldn’t do it.  I was so disheveled and my eyes were so puffy and Quinn was uncooperative….  I just couldn’t.  The other families seemed better at this.  They were smiling and seemed to be making the most of their time there.  I didn’t see anyone else cry besides myself and Aden, but maybe I missed it.  It’s hard to be observant of others when you’re sad because it’s such a myopic emotion.

We hugged Ian hard.  We watched him get on his plane.  We got about halfway out of the airport when I had to sit down in a row of vacant chairs and sob.  I had to get it out of my system before trying to drive all the way back to Milwaukee.  Mona waited patiently, and Quinn kept saying, “Why are you crying, mama?”  Aden tried to explain to him it was because daddy was gone, but when Quinn doesn’t understand something he just keeps repeating himself.  He can’t think of a new way to ask about what he wants to know, so he would listen to Aden, then say, “Oh,” and after a moment repeat, “But why is mama crying?”  Strangers in airports pretend not to notice tears.

After about a minute I pulled myself together and we headed out.  I told the kids they should try to nap on the ride, but none of them did.  When we arrived at their school at about ten in the morning, the girls were so discombobulated that they didn’t know what to make of the deserted playground.  At first they thought school was over and everyone was gone.  When I told them, no, it was not even lunchtime, they asked if they’d beaten everyone there and school hadn’t started yet.  Beginning of the day, end of the day–I could have told them it was bedtime and it would have seemed plausible to them.  I walked the girls into the building and helped them get late passes.  Quinn and I went upstairs to talk to the art teacher about good days for volunteering, then went to the violin store for a few hours.  We ate lunch.  We picked up the girls in the afternoon.  We made dinner and practiced violin and did baths and went about our lives as if we hadn’t woken up in Madison.  As if Ian would walk in the back door any minute.  As if nothing had changed even though life is now different.

The photographs Chris Kraco took of our family last week are lovely.  I’ll post some of the other ones soon, but here is the last picture of our family all together for awhile.
There are lots of little things I like about this photo.  I like that we’re sitting in front of our very own busniness that we’ve worked so hard for.  I like that Ian is wearing his yellow shirt that he specifically thought looked like a good ‘dad shirt’ when he bought it.  I like that I’m wearing the simple jade necklace I bought in Alaska.  I like that Mona is irrepressibly cute and that she’s wearing the new shirt she got for picture day coming up at school.  I like that Quinn is firmly planted in my lap as if it’s the only logical place in the universe to be.  I like that Aden wore her fancy purple dress.  And as much as I hate to see Aden sad in this picture, I’m touched by how tenderhearted she is.  She loves her dad, and how his loss affects her is clear in every part of that image of her.

My goal now is to keep things running smoothly and look on the bright side wherever I can find it.  It’s easy to point Mona and Quinn toward the positive.  They want to laugh and run and they are distracted by small pleasures.  Aden clutches sadness to her in a way that concerns me sometimes.  I don’t plan on seeking out the counseling services the Army provides for children in her situation, but I’m not ruling it out, either.  We’ll see.  If I can keep her occupied and focused on things she can do (such as writing letters and helping bake cookies to send and trying hard in school) and not let her feel helpless, we should be okay.

And I have to work at keeping my own spirits up.  Because I know some of the sadness I see in Aden is merely a reflection of my own.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sick (Babble)

I’m writing this post from under a pile of blankets in my bed.  I’ve been ‘banking’ blog posts this past week so that new ones will keep running even while I’m unavailable–as we gear up for Ian to go.  By the time this post runs I will be well again and Ian will be gone.  But from here in my bed right this moment I can hear everything and appreciate how wonderful Ian is, and dread the possibilities of getting sick like this while he’s away.

When we came back from our trip to the cottage both Aden and I got sick.  Aden has a long history of complicated sinus infections that crop up now and then and are hard to shake.  We have a nebulizer at home and when she starts getting a cough we put her on the nebulizer before bed and it buys us time for her to heal herself rather than run off to the doctor.  Since we didn’t have the nebulizer at the cottage her condition got away from us this time and she got pretty sick.  She didn’t seem deathly ill, because she was still literally dancing around and asking for play dates and being her bright-eyed sweet self, so we sent her to school with what we thought was just a cough.  The school nurse took one listen and had me come pick her up, and the doctor declared her close to pneumonia.  She told us if Aden were three and not seven she would have been hospitalized.  Definitely one of those moments as a mom where I felt like I’d failed, but it’s so hard to tell when they need a doctor and when it’s nothing, and this time we guessed wrong.  Now Aden’s on medicine that she complains about and has a strict routine with the nebulizer.  The whining about the taste of the medicine is a good sign that she’s feeling like herself.

Mona, Quinn, and Ian all coughed briefly and bounced back.  I was not bouncy.  I saw a couple of people with appointments at the violin shop my first day back, and then Ian told me to go home and crawl in bed.  I’ve spent most of my time here ever since, but today I’m feeling like myself again.  I sweated under blankets and used up a whole box of kleenex and now I’m ready to go.  All I really needed was rest and thanks to Ian I got it.  I remember how impossible it was to be sick during his last deployment.  At one point I had a bout of mastitis that I thought was the flu when Quinn was small and I felt like I was going to die.  But it makes no difference to babies and small children if you feel that way, so I still dragged myself around the house, making breakfast and filling sippy cups and nursing Quinn and putting shoes on little feet.  Now it’s an ugly blur but it’s amazing looking back to realize what you can do when you have no choice.

My heart goes out to single parents.  Ian was raised alone by his mother and I’m in awe of the job she did.  It’s beyond difficult.  There are days even two parents aren’t enough.  I remember when Aden was a baby and my brother Barrett came to visit, having that third adult in the house was magic.  Ian and I could go out together to run an errand and Aden could still play or sleep at home.  It’s hard enough when things are fine, but throw sickness into the mix and it’s ridiculous.  I’ve really appreciated this chance to curl up in bed and get better.  I know with Ian gone I’d be sick for weeks because rest would not be an option.

But when I do get sick again I know better than to whine.   I will try to have enough sense to ask for help even though I’m not good at it.  It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself when you’re not feeling well, but a friend of mine has a younger brother with a brain tumor.  She emailed me today about his operation.  Few things snap you to attention and make you put things into a better perspective than the words ‘brain tumor.’  A silly cough seems almost like a gift now.

But back to what I can hear downstairs:  Ian told me to stay in bed and he shut our door so none of the kids would bother me, but I can still hear everything.  Ian’s made the kids french toast.  Quinn woke up last, as usual (he’s a night owl like me, and not designed to rise early like the girls), so he probably won’t get any breakfast until later.  Mona is asking to have hers cut up.  She says “mines” instead of “mine,” because she hears it as “Yours and mines.”  She’s starting to learn to cut things herself, but its faster in the morning when time is short to help her, so there is a lot of “Cut mines up!” at 7:00am.  Aden hasn’t coughed once, but I heard the nebulizer running before breakfast.  There’s a lot of dawdling when they get dressed.

I just heard Aden and Mona having an animated discussion about what socks to wear to make their outfits look like some kind of pattern.  On other mornings if they dress alike they call themselves twins.  Ian’s calling up the stairs, “Potty and shoes!” which is the last warning before leaving the house.  Everyone has to use the bathroom, everyone has to find shoes.  Mona is the most efficient with ‘potty and shoes,’ Aden is the least.

The backdoor just closed.  I’m alone.

I’m just going to lie here a moment and enjoy the silence.  I guarantee by the time this post hits my blog any chance that I’m sleeping in is over.