Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Accident of Birth

By accident of birth, I eat a delicious breakfast this morning, the same as I do every morning: 2 pieces of whole wheat toast, made from organic ingredients by Great Harvest Bakery, and 2 scrambled eggs, delivered from a neighbor who raises chickens in the city.

She looks at the barren cupboard and tries to ignore the gnawing in her stomach, focusing instead on what she can scrape together for her children's meal-- the only one they'll eat today.

By accident of birth, I dress myself in moss-colored capri pants and a brown, v-neck, short-sleeved shirt (taking into account the blue sky today and the prospect of a warm Seattle day). I decorate my neck with a new necklace that I made last weekend.

She regretfully considers the balmy weather outside, then dutifully dons her heavy burka in order to protect her body and face from view.

By accident of birth, I wake my children this morning, rousing each of them from peaceful slumber with gentle kisses on their noses.

She doesn't wake her children, because they are already awake. Last night, their fitful sleep was disrupted by the rumbling noise of the bombs and the rat-a-tat-tat of the guns that seemed to move closer and closer as the family huddled together on the mats of their one-room home, clinging tightly to eachother.

By accident of birth, I will enjoy staying home with my children today. We will play at the park, and then celebrate our friend's 4-year-old birthday with our neighborhood playgroup.

She won't see her children today, since they will have eaten, showered, collected their books, and gone to school by the time she is home from her graveyard shift, one of the two jobs she's had to take to make ends meet.

By accident of birth, I will move freely wherever I want to go today. My only impediment will be the limitation of keeping three children in tow. I will play, shop for groceries, and socialize.

She cannot leave the confines of the compound at Guantanamo Bay, where she was sent as an enemy combatant. She has been detained in error, but will have little chance to prove it, because she lives without hope of ever having a trial.

By accident of birth, I will drive my mini-van where and when I want to today. I may take the bus, but if it feels too far, or the schedule isn't convenient, or doesn't align with Eli's nap schedule, I will opt for the ease and comfort of my own vehicle.

She doesn't have the money for the 1-hour taxi ride into the village where the doctor receives patients once a week, and so she rises before dawn, and begins the long, long walk to the village, her sick baby strapped to her back.

By accident of birth, I type this from my brand-new Dell laptop computer, which is linked to the wireless internet network in my home.

She, on the other hand, cannot even read, let alone type, because her family didn't have the money to pay for "public" school, where education is free in name only, and teachers and administrators exact bribes from families in order to pay their own wages.

By accident of birth, I will pray to God at the end of this day: "God, please heal this world, where there is so much pain and suffering. Be with all children everywhere, and protect them from harm. Help me to do my part to bring justice and peace to those around me, and to all people everywhere. "

And so will she.
This essay was written as part of Julie's weekly round-table, which solicited essays on the subject of "Accident of Birth." Click here for details.

Monday, June 18, 2007

To Chai, Mother of Hansa

The birth of a baby is usually a cause for celebration. The birth of Hansa, an Asian elephant at the Woodland Park Zoo, was no exception. In November of 2000, when Hansa was born, I didn't have any children of my own. Even so, I avidly read the news of Chai's 22-month-long pregnancy, eagerly awaiting the baby elephant's arrival. When she was born, she was christened Hansa, which means "supreme happiness."

As soon as Hansa was strong enough to receive visitors, I went the zoo to meet her. I was shocked at how much love I saw communicated between mother and daughter elephant as Hansa slowly weaved in between Chai's legs, gazing up at her periodically for reassurance. "You're okay, little one," Chai's return gaze seemed to say, "Mama is right here." I snapped a picture and hung it proudly at work, as if she were part of my family.

It wasn't until a year later that I truly understood the love between a mother and her child. In November 2001, Eleanor was born three weeks early. She resembled a baby bird that had fallen from its nest: scrawny, skinny, and unable to nurse. Still, I was amazed, and a little terrified, at the intensity of my love for this little creature. Like all mothers, I vowed to protect her always, and to love her like life itself.

Last week, Tobin came home from work and asked me, "Did you hear the sad, sad news?" I hadn't. "Hansa died," he said, and the breath was taken out of my lungs. I held back tears. Asking "why," I thought immediately of Chai, and how she was feeling. Does she understand her baby is gone forever? Or did Hansa die in the veterinarian's area, away from the comforting gaze of her mother? Will Chai know Hansa's absence is permanent, or will she think Hansa was taken from her, and live her life in hope of someday reuniting? (In the days that followed, I read that Chai was with Hansa when she died, and that Hansa's body was removed only after Chai left it).

I know that Hansa was only an elephant. But still. There is something universal in the language of grief and loss, in the empathy from one mother to another.

For several days, I found it hard to believe that Hansa was gone. Elephants seem too strong, too large, too substantial to die. I thought, surely Hansa was too heavy, and the angel of death lost its grip trying to take her away.

I remembered Eleanor's growing understanding of death a few years ago, her confusion about the mechanics of life-after-death. "It's not all the way dead yet," she would say if she saw some dead thing (a mouse, a spider, a snail). "It looks all the way dead to me," I'd say, until one day I realized that she thought the entire creature would levitate up to heaven. "I still see its body, so it isn't yet dead," she reasoned to herself.

I get that. On this Earth, I will never understand how one minute a loved one is here, sipping tea with us, laughing at shared jokes, heart beating in rhythm with the universe. And then, blink, they are gone, leaving behind only memories and fading fragrances on clothing.

Reading the heart-breaking accounts of mothers who's babies have died, like Kate's baby Liam, and Lori's babies, Molly & Joseph, I sometimes wish we could invent a grief-sharing program, where mothers could sign up for 1/2 hour slots in which we'd shoulder the mother's grief, giving her a chance to breathe, to shower, to enjoy a chocolate chip, if only for the few minutes before the grief returned with its crushing weight. But I know that's not possible.

We visited the zoo two days after Hansa's death, but avoided the elephant exhibit even though it was open by that time. It felt wrong somehow--disrespectful of Chai. How does one express their sympathy to a mother elephant? Or to any mother who has suffered the loss of a child? "I'm sorry" just doesn't cut it. There is no healing incantation, no magic salve.

Still, I say to Chai, and to Kate, and to Lori, from one mother to another: I see you. I know you had a child, and your child is now gone. I will not forget.

I wish you peace.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Little Things

It's not usually the big stuff that puts me over the edge. Sure, I have problems. But in general, when a crisis crashes into my home like a tidal wave, I find a floatation device. I call family, friends, ask my church for prayer, and depend upon the care of kind neighbors. There's an established system for these things, you see, and I'm grateful for that.

It's the little stuff that sucks me down into a whirlpool of whimpering. It's those tiny leaks in the dam, barely visible to the human eye, yet popping up faster than I can plug with my fingers and toes: the stench of the diaper pail; the wire colander falling apart at the metal seam that I can't seem to remember to replace; the backyard fence, built 2 years ago, but still missing the finishing trellis. You can't exactly call a neighbor in tears, citing your broken colander as the reason. Email Alert: Neighbor in Need! Send shiny, sturdy colanders on the double!

I didn't mind today when my girls dug a giant dirt hole in the backyard, filled it with hose water, took off their clothes, and splashed around in the mud. I even remained cheerful as Sylvia stood over the muddy hole and peed like a common neighborhood mutt. I calmly suggested that Sylvia pee in a far corner of the yard, away from their play area. I mean, let's not insists on the formality of using a proper toilet, since you're already covered in mud.

But when Eleanor retrieved and then dumped the entire pile of discarded clothing into the muddy-and-now-peed-in-hole, my thin branch of parental sanity snapped like a brittle twig underfoot. What to do? Call my sister to rant, and risk the Mom-is-on-the-phone-and-thus-we-must-mob-her-like-night-of-the-living-dead-zombies phenomenon?

Sigh. Deep breaths. This will not drown you. It's only clothes. "Hey Eleanor, there's a tub on the grass over there...I'll put some soap in it if you'd like to be in charge of cleaning those muddy clothes," I said. She took the bait.

And when the clothes were relatively clean (read: clothes were covered in specks of mud instead of chunks of mud), she set to work, repairing my broken sanity with the soft bandage of her cuteness:

"Did you know the AB-DO-MAN is part of a bug?," she asked excitedly. "It's the middle of its body!" She continued, "Bugs have antenna up here," pulling them out of her forehead like telescoping rods. "And guess what else? They have COMPOUND eyes," she said, squishing her fists into balls, placing them over her eyes in a perfect simulation of bug eyes, then dropping her hands and moving her eyebrows up and down at me to underscore their thrilling nature.

Next, Eleanor sat down naked on the deck (watch for splinters, child!) and colored her latest artistic masterpiece: a rainbow-hued rendition of the human brain that I printed from google images in an attempt to satiate Eleanor's brain-curiosity.

"Some artists might color each part of the brain a different color, right, Mama? And some might not. But I'm definitely choosing to," she narrated. When she finished, she pointed to different areas: "Where do you want to live, Mama? Would you like to live in California?" she asked, pointing to the temporal lobe. "Or," her finger now on the cerebral cortex, "how about in Oregon with Gramma and Grandpa?"

After a while, Eleanor washed up and came inside to help me prepare dinner. At first she ran back and forth, from the kitchen to the backyard (a mere 5 feet away), issuing reports on the behavior of Sylvia and Eli. "Uh-oh, Mama, BAD REPORT! Sylvia is putting mud on Eli's shirt..."

But then Eleanor spied my decrepit colander on the counter, and she hunkered down for her best work. A while later, with fanfare, she presented the colander to me, with countless twisty ties now holding the wire mesh to the metal frame.

I was happy. Like I said, it's the little things.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Tree Climber

My Eleanor loves climbing trees. "No tree shall be left undisturbed," seems to be her unspoken motto. She sees a tree-- at the park, in your yard, at our church, at her school-- and she is drawn to it like a politician to power. It must be climbed.

She doesn't climb trees to conquer them, although she is certainly proud of her extraordinary climbing prowess. She climbs for other, more social reasons: to discover and examine snails and slugs, smell the blossoms, befriend or scare the squirrels (depending on her mood), and heckle the passersby on the sidewalk from behind the safety of our fence. At bathtime, I discover sticks, twigs, blossoms and berries, hiding in Eleanor's hair like a secretly located nest built exclusively for birds in the witness protection program (you know, those cute little finches, who rat out the dastardly crows).

Eleanor is completely fearless in her climbing ambitions. "I know how to climb onto the top of the garage," she announced to Tobin last week, and then she demonstrated her method, step by step, using our magnolia tree as her ladder--"I put this foot here, and hold on with this arm here"-- until she proved that indeed, she can lift her leg onto the garage's roof. She didn't hoist herself up, of course, at least not while Tobin was watching, since he treated her to a free lecture series entitled, "The Certain Danger And/Or Death Awaiting Those Foolish Enough to Climb Onto the Garage." Tobin warned me later, "If Eleanor goes missing, she's likely on the roof of the garage." Okay, thanks for the tip.

Last summer, all three of my children were baptized. After the ceremony, our extended family and several friends came to our house to celebrate with-- what else?-- Indian food take-out. The girls had selected a cake from the local bakery, complete with a Mickey Mouse Fire Truck topper. ("Well, it's at least in keeping with the water theme," Tobin said). Take-out devoured, cake eaten, and the beauty of the ceremony reminisced, Eleanor shed her white baptism dress like a snake molting its skin in fast motion. (See photo at right of dress hastily deposited into our backyard bush). And then she went-- you guessed it-- up, up, up to the top of our maple tree, where she perched herself on a high branch and settled in with her newfound holiness.

During all of this tree-climbing, I've only encouraged Eleanor. When I want to say, "be careful," I say instead, "are you feeling safe up there?" When Eleanor answers "yes," I avert my eyes to a safer place and keep my mouth shut. I've smothered my fear-of-falling worries with the certain knowledge that there is value in healthy risk-taking. And really, I've come to love her love of tree-climbing. I love what it says about her: she is agile, confident, curious, strong. What more could I wish for my oldest girl?

We should not have been surprised when, today, while climbing our apple tree, Eleanor experienced the curse of gravity as she crashed to the ground. Really, I wasn't surprised that she fell. It was bound to happen at some point. Rather, I was surprised at how I felt: not overly worried (but appropriately motherly) about Eleanor's injuries (a ripped skirt and we *think* a sprained wrist; we'll see the doc if she's still complaining about it tomorrow), but instead, very concerned that Eleanor will stop climbing trees. Because it seems to signify more than simple tree-climbing. Eleanor might learn that, in fact, she can't do all things she sets her mind to do. That her success in this world doesn't only depend on her ambition, but a multitude of external limitations: physical, structural, and political.

I'd like to postpone this lesson, thank you very much.

I like Eleanor's world-view, just the way it is: where every tree is hers to climb.