Thursday, December 29, 2011

Opening the Gates

December 29, 2011

We spent Christmas this year at my parents’ house, something we haven’t done in years.  One afternoon, in a brief interlude of quiet sandwiched between the more general, convivial chaos, I rummaged through the living room cabinets crammed with family photo albums, pulling out the one I’ve often turned to when I’m home: my early toddler years.  I’m not entirely sure what it is that draws me to this particular set of photos, except this time around, perhaps it was because it contains pictures of my second Christmas which seemed somehow sadly sweet in retrospect. 
I sat cross-legged on the living room floor, the album opened in my lap, and flipped back and forth through the pages, wondering at the distance between then and now; as usual, searching for any signs in my expressions, any gestures that might be significant, that might be indicative of the turmoil of what was to come.  Bipolar Disorder, and now Eating Disorders, have been proven to have a genetic basis, in situ from the moment cells start dividing in the womb, so even in that little moppet of a two-year old, the future instability was already germinating.

But what, really, did I expect to see in that black-haired, pig-tailed, white-rabbit (faux) furred kid wailing on the jolly Macy’s Santa’s lap?  Was I crying because my Mom and I probably waited in line for three hours for my thirty-second photo op with the official NYC uber-Santa?  Or was I already, with some premonition of what was to come in later years, protesting the forced smile, the looking like all’s well for the picture; fighting the man Ho-ho-hoing, hands on my arms, hands on my waist, just knowing I didn’t want to be there but knowing, too, there was nowhere else to run; or was I, like all the other two year olds, merely scared by the stranger with the white beard, the red suit, the booming voice, the swarming minions of elves, and the bright lights?  Was I, as usual, reading too much into nothing at all?
Next photo: My Mom and I beneath the artificial tree.  This tree, for many years, was the source of exasperation, extreme aggravation, and “Fucking shits” between my parents.  Old school artificial tree.  The trunk came in four separate pieces, the thirty or so limbs had to be inserted in precise ascending size order, and the order was known by little, barely visible smudges of different colored paint on the metal tips of each branch.  And then each limb had to have its branches unbent, fanned out, so the artificial tree might look vaguely realistic.  The set-up could take hours.  It involved a step ladder and drinks of the alcoholic variety.  And then strands of lights, with the one bulb that didn’t work, or refused to blink on and off for some unknown (but dire, fire-hazardous reason)—so back and forth to the hardware store.  Silver and gold garland draped just so, and boxes and boxes of ornaments (with the usual splintered balls at the bottom of the box, so off to the store to buy more of those). 

But I digress, because none of these efforts are visible in the photo except the artificial tree towering over my Mom and me who are seated beneath it—glamorously, I might add.  My Mom is seated in a kind of side-saddle pose and I am on her lap.  She looks beautiful, dressed in a long, deep V-neck, sparkly, silver dress—my parents must have been hosting a Christmas Eve party for that movie star number; her dark hair in a perfect 1970’s style, straight to the shoulders and then set with curlers at the bottom in an upturn; her lips bright red; her eyes flashing green, happy, expectant; her smile wide, her expression direct, full-on as she gazes at the camera, at my father behind the camera.
I am another story altogether.  Cute in my Christmas outfit: a red, wool plaid jumper, white turtleneck, bare legs, my diaper (or diaper cover) peeking out between my legs, white socks edged in lace, those sensible, sturdy white walking shoes they used to make toddlers wear, my black hair framing my face in waves.  But unlike my Mom, I am not smiling.  Not crying this time, but my expression seems anxious, conflicted, even though I am surrounded by a pile of wrapped presents.  It’s not like with Santa where I very clearly wanted to escape; here it seems I seem unhappy in all the happiness, in all the sparkle and glitter, in the gold garland dipping over my head, in my role as angelic cherub.  Maybe it’s my skewed adult perspective looking at the gap between my Mom lit up for the camera, and my apparent unease.  

And then there’s the Day After photo: In a frilly pink dress, an organza bow tied extravagantly around my waist, my hair in two little palm frond pony tails, white tights, teeny-tiny, shiny black Mary Janes, and I am beaming!  Once again, under the tree, but sprawled on my belly, intently playing with my brand new Fisher Price Farm set.  The red barn, the plastic, white, picket fence surrounding me, the cow and horse grazing on the sequined tree skirt, the little pigs huddled in fluffy fake snow mounds, my hand clenching the horse.  Mine!  Mine!  The farm, the acres, the animals!  All mine!  But maybe not just about ownership, maybe about enclosure, feeling a part of a world of my own making, a world of my imagination.  But then the comparison, again my adult self butting in, the difference between the posed world meant for public display in a frame on the mantel and the unposed world; the difference between myself that always feels a bit lost and alone even when I am with people who love me and people I love, and when I am on my own, peaceably absorbed in my internal, creative world.  Of course, that has its costs—I am cut off; I am alone; I am inside that fence.
Of course, this is just my retrospective self trying to seek clues, any clues, from my past, however tentative, however specious.  A two-year old crying on Santa’s lap is a perfectly normal reaction.  A two-year old looking crabby on Christmas Eve because she’s up past her bedtime and is tired of having to sit still for pictures because she’s amped up on Christmas cookie sugar and anticipating Santa’s sleigh-load of toys.  A two-year old happily playing beneath the Christmas tree with her brand new, super cool Fisher Price Farm, alone because her baby sister won’t be around for another two years and then she’ll be one of two inside that fence, sharing Cabbage Patch dolls and playing Little House on the Prairie school, and mock church (I was the proto-Feminist priest distributing flattened Wonder Bread communion wafers, she the willing First Communioner).

And now?  Our Family Christmas photo is a smorgasbord (thanks to one of Shutterfly’s many options at  No souped up tree in sight, no creepy Santa.  Just the four of us, Christopher, Sophia, Alexander, and me, being, well, us.  A few snapshots in Greece where we seem to be our happiest (who can resist guaranteed sunshine after eight months of gray rain and snow?).  The kids munching on oversized gyros.  The kids, heads together beneath a palm tree on the beach, Alexander’s elbow in a loving chokehold around Sophia’s neck, pulling her close, all wide, giggly smiles.  Alexander wrapped around me, in a monkey hug.  Sophia and Christopher dressed up to the nines, on a father-daughter date. 
Maybe one day,  my kids will search this very same collection of photos seeking some sign, some clue to explain some future twist and turn, to offer some glimmer of understanding.  What will Sophia or Alexander see in retrospect?  I don’t know.  I can’t know.  Just like my Mom couldn’t know then what might have been already at work in my genetic code.  But she sat beneath the tree with me, trying to make a beautiful, memorable Christmas.  And my father, behind that camera.  What did he see?  If I imagine (and it’s my job as a writer to try to empathize with my characters, to wiggle my way inside their thoughts) what he saw through his camera?  His wife and daughter, perhaps the two people he loved best in the world, in a moment of NOW he wanted to capture forever.

All I know is what I know NOW.  I am here, still struggling, but loved and needed  by the very same people I love and need.  My fence gates are wide open and I am no longer alone.         

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jingle Bells, Hope Not Hell

December 15, 2011

Are many of you like me, seized-- in the overwhelming, often blaring joyful tidings of the Christmas season—by sadness?  Sadness seems too mild a word.  Melancholia—that nineteenth century condition seems more apt, struck by black bile, paralyzed by a pensive, brooding, interior heavy-heartedness.  Oh sure, on the outside, I am zipping around the house, setting up Christmas decorations—the mini-tree, with the oh-so cutesy, diminutive ornaments and blinky lights in the window, the garish lit-up Snowman from Big Lots eyes me from the corner of the den, the fancy pine branch, holly berry garland swagged (I read my trendy Home Décor magazines) across the mantle--wrapping presents (which I have selected with care, precision, and utmost surety that they WILL be perfect for the recipient) at warp speed, am baking cookies, cookies, cookies for teachers, cheerfully reading my kids Christmas books each evening about lost reindeer, puppies who fill-in for reindeer, and stray puppies who are wrapped up in red bows and heroically save Christmas.
But I am pulled under it all into melancholia.  On Monday, home from a very contemplative yoga class--but for some reason, I felt close to tears during the entire ninety minutes, despairing might not be far off.  I don't really know why.  My sister's family Christmas photo certainly might have had something to do with it—a picture of their happily soon-to-be expanding family.  She is expecting her third child in January, so looks beautifully, wondrously pregnant.  My weak, sad spot.  My longing for a third child a deep, unresolved, never-to-be hope.  I know that it is impossible to have another child.  I can barely hang onto stability and health with two children and I am so blessed to have my two, a miracle that I am still able to be their mother after all I have been through, after all I have put them through.  But still.  A third child was part of our dream—mine and Christopher’s.  Granted, a dream we have given up—but the memory of that dream still lingers.

And then the sadness over how much of my life has been taken from me by IT—whether through experiences and trauma and choice or through my own luck of the genetic draw.  My siblings seem to have escaped the genetic/bio-chemical encoding fuck-ups (Maybe there are some gifts with being Bipolar and genetically programed to be more likely to have an Eating disorder?  Tis’ the season right?)  I know that they have their own struggles and entanglements to contend with, but the luck of the genetic draw often leads me to despair in this season of stockings hung from the fireplace.  I think back to our stockings lined up as kids: Mine, my sister’s, my brother’s.  Not that I’m complaining, or railing with the “Why Me's?”  Okay, maybe just a little.  It seems my stocking got stuffed with more than its fair share of the biologically-based DSM diagnoses.  Couldn’t I have gotten more strawberry lip gloss, My Little Ponies, and Big League Chew? 

And the onslaught of forced cheer which I actively resist?  I tolerate the awful Christmas music in stores with my lips pressed (barely tolerate in the case of music sung by current pop stars under the age of 18, or attempted angelic arias by Mariah Carey showing off her Christmas bum).  I do not wear pom-pommed holiday sweaters (even ironically or in attempts to look wittily retro).  I do not indulge in sentimental Christmas movies with their easily achieved epiphanies of redemption and family healing and often proffered sparkly engagement rings. 

Really, I’m not the Grinch.  I enjoy finding gifts that will be meaningful.  I watch people shop in Target or TJ Maxx, blindly throwing sweaters and scarves and body butters and golf ball cleaners into their carts, just to check people off the lists, just to get the shopping done.  Where’s the joy in that?  Maybe it speaks to my perfectionism and my obsessive-compulsiveness, but I do derive authentic  pleasure in finding what I hope is the right gift for each person. 

For instance, and keep this just between us, one of Sophia’s gifts this year: You know she’s an animal lover.  To put it a wee bit mildly.  Pittsburgh is home to the National Aviary and at the end of December they host Penguin Camp.  A day she’ll spend hanging out with live penguins, feeding and caring for them.  Of course, penguins stink, literally, but she won’t mind that given the fact that she’s a girl who has no problem whacking an octopus twenty times against a rock to tenderize it, or hanging out in the cat room at the Humane Society which houses the litter boxes of twenty cats (try that for stink!).  She’ll pee her pants when she opens the card.  Really.  She pees her pants when she plays with the dogs at the shelter because she gets so excited—so a day of penguin play? This wasn’t a gift on her list.  In fact, this isn’t even a gift she knows exists, which is the best part.  A gift straight from the North Pole.  Or South Pole, or wherever penguins live.

So while I’m on the subject of gifts, I have my own to give away.  One Dr. B. has asked me to give to my loved ones this Christmas.  We’ve been talking about it this week at my sessions.  He’d like me, if I’m ready, to give up what he calls my hand grenade.  For too long, I have been holding on to the option of suicide, an open-ended option that I have clung to ever since I made my first attempt at nine with that bottle of multi-colored, candy-flavored Flintstone vitamins.

Dr. B. asked me to think about and weigh the costs and benefits of holding onto and giving up my hand grenade.

It is difficult to rationally and emotionally come up with a good reason for keeping this option right now, even as an emergency-only option, as I’m sitting in front of the fire, warm under a blanket, my giant, crazy, manic Labrador Retriever, Athena, passed out beside me, head resting on my leg,  listening to the kids running around upstairs—they should be in bed (my bed), but aren’t, and are now running downstairs to find me—which they wouldn’t be able to do if I happened to choose suicide. 

So pause—back again.  Sophia wanted to show me the birds she is drawing, expertly, from Petersen’s Field Guide: a cardinal perched on a branch.  She complained the wing wasn’t to size but I thought it was ornithologically perfect.  Alexander made me a Christmas card, a tree decorated in Star Wars themed ornaments and wrapped up a key chain he made for me this past summer at camp—a smiley face, his.  How is it possible for me to even imagine holding onto this option in light of this? Their love and need for me?  Their creativity and gifts?
Obviously, in moments like these, there is no need.  But there are other moments when I am a mother who wreaks damage, a wife who uses up her third and fourth and, my fear of what is to come, her last chance.  If I am presented with permanent hospitalization.  If finally I am told that I have used up all my chances.  If Christopher finally tells me he has reached his end and I have damaged him and the kids in such a way that I have to leave. Then really, there is no reason to continue because the only reason I am fighting IT, the only reason I keep trying, can will myself to stay afloat these days, is because of Christopher and the kids, not for myself.  If I am left alone, which is what I fear—where I imagine this conflagration of disorders might possibly take me—then there is no logical, possible, arguable reason for me to continue this fight.  I alone am not worth it: at least, that is what IT continues to argue.  I alone don’t matter enough to me.  And because there have been many times in the past few years where Christopher and the kids should have mattered enough to keep me on even keel—and that hasn’t been enough?  I don’t trust that this forward progression in recovery is iron-clad.  So if I collapse again—not saying I will, but if—and I know it will be the end-of-the-line for Christopher, then I need to know that I won’t be left to me, myself, I and IT.  I can put an end to my being that hand-grenade in other people’s lives.

The benefits of giving up this option:

I suppose the primary one is the fundamental aim which I am trying to wrestle with: that I am inherently worthy, valuable, lovable—and that to continue to keep suicide as an emergency option undermines this work and I will never come to believe that my life is worth saving or redeeming.  If I say, “No, Not Ever, I will Never Ever consider or attempt suicide again (even inside the walls of a state hospital, even if Christopher and the kids leave me), it means that what I still have left is hope.  Hope.  That four-letter word which has been such an anathema to me for so long.  I had to look up the definitions of Hope again.  It’s a word that gets tossed around, its subtleties missed. 

Definition of HOPE

Intransitive verb
1: to cherish a desire with anticipation 

Transitive verb
2: to desire with expectation of obtainment
3: to expect with confidence: trust
4: to hope without any basis for expecting fulfillment

Def. 1: I think I’ve lost my connection to the idea of “cherishing a desire with anticipation.”  I lack so few desires these days, wait with so little anticipation for anything. This version of Hope seems tied to AA’s “Promises” where they lay down what you can expect from your life if you follow AA’s plan—all the good things that will be given to you if you adhere to the AA WAY.  It will all just be given unto you.  Like a piñata’s free-fall of candy. 
Okay—another pause. I’m now writing this in bed.  Kids are scared, so I’m lying between them, typing.  Sophia curled up against one side of me, Alexander against the other side.   A pretty good anti-grenade defense weapon.

Def. 2: I have difficulty with this definition as well.  I don’t trust that I can achieve permanent stability, that the medication cocktail for the Bipolar Disorder that is working right now will work ad infinitum, that I can achieve permanent recovery from this eating disorder, that I will ever function like a normal, healthy, sexual adult woman (i.e., all past trauma will be healed), so I have lost the ability to desire, with any expectation, the obtainment of anything.

Def. 3: Again, ditto.  Holding onto this option of suicide prevents me from expecting anything with confidence.  Expectation = A Future Possibility.  Suicide as an option nullifies the expectation of allowing me to anticipate future possibility

Def. 4: This definition, though, is one that seems a perfect fit.  Hope without any basis of fulfillment.  Hope that seems to go against my distorted reason.  Hope that rails against IT (which sounds, to my screwed up logic, more truthful than actual reality).  Hope that says, “Even if all seems lost, even if it might seem like suicide is the right answer to end your pain now, even if you believe you have caused irreparable damage to others, you can still cling to this kind of hope—the kind that doesn’t promise anything but a single, potential, barely possible, improbable turnaround.  Like the planet 22-b that the Kepler telescope just discovered 600 light years away, in the “habitable zone”—that may be like earth, that seems like it might support conditions like those on earth, life—maybe, maybe, maybe—but really, we’ll probably never know in our lifetime.

Other benefits? That I owe it to my children to stay here no matter what.  And to Christopher.   That “in sickness and in health” pledge was not just about staying by his side, but my staying here, too, in my own sickness and health.

That I won’t have any accidental attempts—i.e., not that they would be unintentional, but that they wouldn’t be impulsive.  I know how easily I can react when my moods start slipping and sliding.

That I might be able to trust more in my own long term recovery, seeing and planning beyond weeks and months, to years.

By extension, those who I love and those who love me back might have less anxiety and worry for me.

What has suicide-as-an-option cost me over the years?

From my first attempt at age 9 with the bottle of Flintstone vitamins until present, holding onto the option, keeping the plans tucked away in my head for “when the time comes”—a great deal of shame, loneliness, and isolation.  If I counted all the hours up, likely years, spent ruminating inside my head—fantasizing, planning out different scenarios, arguing back and forth.  The ease at which self-harm leads to suicidal thinking and then attempts—the slippery slope. The humiliation at waking up in ICU’s several times—the anger, too—at having been saved.  Having to deal with the anger and incomprehension and mistrust of those who love me in the wake of an attempt.  Concealing attempts, lying about them, never talking about them—burying them—holding them inside of me for years and years, feeling alone with IT, all which only increases the likelihood that I will try again.  All the evidence of practice sessions—the scars on my arms—which beckon me to follow through the next time, to make it real, to go all the way. The humiliation of being “saved” by security officers, police officers, hospital workers—of being locked up in safe rooms, under 24 hour, round-the-clock watch.  Of knowing how much I have damaged Christopher—what must it feel like to know the person you love has chosen death over you?  The merry-go-round effect of the obsessional thoughts—up and down and all around—IT’s voice urging me to hurt myself, to kill myself because I am hateful, vile, damaging, terrible, a monster—all the black curtains drawn around me, all the beauty and possibility of the world, or my life closed off. 

If suicide is an option, then what does it matter if I am hurt by others, abused by others?  Just another version of the same thing—maybe I can push them far enough to do me in in the meantime.  Just like the eating disorder—passive (or active) suicide.  No need for pills or razors or knives or the car in the garage or the car aimed at the tree.  It is costing me my life already.  The grenade has already gone off and shrapnel has wounded me and those who love me.
So Dr. B. asked me to give away this option of suicide as a Christmas gift to my loved ones.  To tell them that I will no longer keep this in my arsenal of weapons.  That as bad as it might get—and I know how bad it can get—I will promise to see myself through to the other side which is life.  To keep living and keep on living.  To hold on to Hope (see Def. 4).

So you won’t see this gift on the rack at TJ Maxx, or wrapped in a tidy package under the tree.  And certainly, no Christmas jingle will be accompanying it.  But my gift to my loved ones and to myself this Christmas is this promise: I will renounce my ties to suicide, surrender my right to this option and yield to a life of Hope.  My stocking hanging from the mantle, beside Christopher's, Sophia's, and Alexander's, stuffed from toe to top, overflowing with Hope.   

Saturday, December 10, 2011

In the Inimitable Words of George Michael (and His Hot Leather Pants)...

December 8, 2011 I apologize in advance. I'm having technical difficulties and the paragraph breaks won't work. Makes the reading a pain, I know. My husband left for Greece yesterday to hang out with snaggle-toothed farmers to learn how to make tsipouro, a rot-gut moonshine version of ouzo, the focus of his last chapter of his book on food-adventure travels in Greece. A book dedicated to the elements of the traditional Greek table: bread, beans, honey, pasta, octopus, tsipouro. Ironic considering my struggles with anorexia, purging, and alcohol. Ironic, too, that I am married to a man who savors food; who can dip his fingers in honey and taste it on his tongue; who coddles his own sourdough starter and then bakes his own loaves, one after another, as if he is some wizened crone feeding a nation; who, out of love and concern for my own continued recovery while he is abroad, in his frenzy of pre-departure packing, takes time to cook from scratch ready-to-eat meals that I can defrost: vegetable soup, spanakopita, pomodoro sauce, and ravioli. Now the challenge is to actually defrost these meals and eat them and not cave into the ascetically skimpy bowls of yogurt, blueberries, and decorative toppings of GoLean Crunch. The bigger challenge, though, of being solo-Momma is, well, being solo-Momma. This is the first time in several years that I have been left on my own with the kids sans babysitter. A babysitter left in charge of me, not the kids. Nobody has felt that I was stable enough to be left on my own. Nobody felt that I could be trusted to be left on my own. Certainly I would use the opportunity to drink or not eat or if I ate, purge all of what went into my mouth, or cut up my arms, or disintegrate into a manic-depressive mess. And that being the case, I couldn’t be left alone with my children. Or myself, for that matter. But here I am, sitting at my computer, the kids at school, an entire empty bowl of GoLean Crunch with craisins finished, have already seen my psychiatrist who said that I am looking “healthier” and seem“good,” (no small feat) and am soon going to head out to see my therapist to continue work on body image issues related to anorexia and past sexual trauma (“No kid gloves,” I told him. “I’m a big girl. I need to work through this. I want my body back even if it means diving back down into that dark, shameful, terrifying muck. And no, that doesn’t give me an excuse to not eat or cut myself, however painful. I’m stronger now. I have an obligation to live.”) Being responsible, following my plan, trying to remember that I am not listening to IT because I want my life back. No, that’s not right. I don’t think I have ever really had a life without IT. So “back” isn’t what I’m asking for. I want my freedom from IT. In the words of the ancient, esteemed, philosophical songwriter George Michael, “All we have to see, Is that I don’t belong to you. And you don’t belong to me. Freedom!” (Try to imagine me in hot leather pants belting this out. Okay, maybe not.) But I do have an obligation to stay strong while diving into the muck. Take last week for instance. My daughter and I were at the Humane Society doing our volunteer work, which involves cuddling kittens and romping with dogs. There's a boy, I'll call Ben, who volunteers in the same hour as us, one year older than Sophia. He is terrified of dogs, so only works in the cat room. He's funny, quirky, and adorable--a mop of blonde hair, big blue eyes, and has strong opinions about the way we should be handling cats. He often takes offense at the way Sophia mishandles--manhandles--the kittens; to be fair, she's often a bit rough and tumble with them out of her exuberance; her joyful volume tends to scare them and her running pellmell around the room makes them take cover. Ben usually plays with the older cats, the ones that have been abandoned because they're "unwanted." He gets pissed off when potential adopters come into the room and only want to look at the kittens, cooing at the fluffballs. "Don't they know that the older cats need homes? Don't they know how long they've been waiting in these cages, that they need love, too?" He glares at these people, shakes his head at me. I shake my head back in solidarity. It's funny. Ben has taken a liking to me: he sits beside me on the bench with one of the adult cats in his lap, stroking it, chattering away about his week in school, about his little brother's pain-in-the-assness, about the book he's reading. But last week, nonchalantly, he said, "Kids at school think I'm weird because I only like cats and not dogs. They call me gay." he whispered the word "gay," looking off at the cats in the cages as he said it. "That's stupid," I said. "Some people are dog people and some people are cat people." He shrugged. "I just like cats. But they think that's gay. And they call me gay because I don't like hunting. We live out near the woods. I like that. I get to watch the deer. But I would never want to kill them. I like to look at them, you know? But my friends, they go out hunting with their dads and shoot them. So they call me gay. And video games. I like video games, there's this one I want for Christmas, but I don't like the violent kinds. So they call me gay for that, too. But I don't care. Really, I don't." His face remained placid throughout all of this, but I could tell he did care. It must be a running theme for him and perhaps a question he struggled with. On the cusp of adolescence. Hormones. Sex. Does loving animals, cats in particular, make me gay? Does not wanting to kill animals, in this macho, back woods corner of Western Pennsylvania, where you actually get a day off from school, a holiday called Deer Day, to go hunting, make me gay? Does not wanting to kill people on video games with sub-machine guns make me gay? Maybe I am gay? I read books--am I gay? I volunteer at the animal shelter and pet cats--am I gay? You're a nice mom and I can talk to you and you seem like you don't want to kill animals or people--could you tell me if I'm gay or not? "You know, Ben, these friends who call you names? Don't listen to them. I know that's easier said than done. But they really don't matter. There's a bigger world out there waiting for you--filled with people who love cats and don't kill animals. Maybe you'll grow up to be a wildlife biologist--study animals in their natural habitat, like deer out in the woods. You are who you are and that doesn't make you gay. It just means you like cats and not dogs. That you like deer alive and not dead. So what? You just happen to live, for now, in a town where a lot of guys like their dogs and like to shoot deer, and like to bring their dogs along when they shoot deer. If cats make you happy, that's all that matters. Besides, I think you're pretty cool." I felt like the Inept Caring Adult on an after-school special. But I wanted him to know that his small town and the small town idiots in it weren't the sum total of the entire world. And I wanted him to know, too, by my "so whatness" to his gay possibility that being gay was okay, too, and that in some parts of the world, being gay was okay, too. I'm not sure I did a very good job at any of it. Ben sighed. "I hate turkey leftovers. My mom's making turkey tetrazzini tonight. I HATE turkey tetrazzini. I begged her to let me use my own money to buy a sub but she said 'No.'" And then he got up, put the cat back in its cage and reached for another. But this is why I have to stay strong. To be around for conversations like this. Maybe Ben can't talk to his mom about being teased for being gay or liking "gay" things. I'm pretty sure he can't talk to his dad about it. Maybe Ben felt safe talking to me because he recognized for some reason that I have--okay, sorry for the saccharine phrasing here--an open mind and heart. Or maybe in listening to Sophia speak her mind on any number of subjects--people who mistreat animals, girls who talk behind her back, the absolute, nonnegotiable coolness of her Chinese water dragon, the fact that she can belch freely like a sailor (though excuses herself like a lady)--maybe he understood that she lives in a home that promotes tolerance, values self-assertion, and believes in freely expressing who you are meant to be--maybe he felt that I would be able to listen to him. I don't know. I just know that it was necessary for me TO BE THERE AT THAT MOMENT, to be able to listen to him, to hear him, to offer him my ear. That is part of my purpose in staying alive. And if that is what I can offer a boy who is not even my own? By extension, I know what I can and must offer to my own children as they navigate the difficulties in becoming who they are meant to be in the years to come. they need me to be on that bench listening to them. So while Christopher is away, Momma will stay on the right and true path. Minus the hot leather pants. Those I'll save for when Christopher returns.