The weirdness of motherless birthdays, with sneak attacks of grief

I don’t know whether I started having a stronger association between birthdays and mothers because I finally had a kid myself, and thus understand precisely what’s involved with bringing a human being into the world; or because I lost my mother shortly before my first post-Lily birthday. Either way, the end result is the same.

Not that I walk around in a melancholy stupor in February, or sit down for a good cry now and then – that’s just not me. No, I’m much more likely to be taken aback by a strange confluence of things that suddenly put my mother in my mind at this time of year.

Last Tuesday, for instance, two days before my 39th birthday, I’d agreed to review the touring production of “August: Osage County.” Though it had a longer run in Detroit, it opened in Southeast Michigan in East Lansing, so I had to haul myself there from Ann Arbor after work.

Now, family pretty much has to be on your mind after watching the wildly dysfunctional crew in “August” go at it for three and a half hours. But it wasn’t until I decided I couldn’t risk making the hour-plus drive home with the gas gauge on “E” at midnight, and I was listening to music on my iPod (having failed to find anything good on the radio), that everything suddenly clicked together for one of those rare moments. Continue reading

When getting a toddler dressed becomes a triumph of the will

Working as a theater critic, I find myself having to leave home at 6:30 or 7 p.m. a couple of times a week to see a show. On these days, I’ll take Lily to daycare in the morning; get some extra sleep (so I can make it through the nightshift) and take care of some errands and chores around the house; then spend as much time with Lily as I can before heading off to work.

Truthfully, I loved having this “free pass” when Lily was a baby. You never knew what Lily you’d be dealing with on any given day then, which drove me crazy, so going off to work was a kind of escape. Now, though, Lily is a walking, talking, aware little person, so leaving her a couple of evenings a week has become exceedingly difficult, for her and for me.

Part of it is she’s more fun, so leaving her makes me a little sad. Plus, Lily generally responds with anything from a tragically sad, quivering-lip expression to outright wailing when I pull on my coat to go. (The most soul-crushing variant involves Lily happily rushing to her own coat and hat, thinking she’s coming with me on a trip, only to be disappointed. Poor little peanut.) Yes, she generally gets over being sad, according to Joe, within minutes, and I know this, but the guilt nonetheless gnaws at me for a while.

Last night, for instance, I’d taken Lily to the library, and when Joe arrived and Lily saw me putting on my coat, she assumed this toddler posture of grief, doubled over a small chair while staring inconsolably into the distance. I knew Joe was taking her to one of her favorite places – nearby restaurant Cowley’s, where she LOVES the mac and cheese – but the melodramatic image stayed with me throughout the evening.

So after seeing the play and writing the review, I found myself, at 3 a.m., irresistibly tempted to peek into Lily’s room and see her. As dumb luck would have it, at that moment, she stirred and saw me through the bars of the crib, then thrust her little hand toward me. Crap.  Continue reading

Hello Kitty, Goodbye Kitty

When Lily was just a few months old, our 15 year old, lovable fat cat Watson got very ill, and we had to put him to sleep, which broke my heart. I needed time to get over the loss, I thought, and with a new infant in the house, I wanted less stress rather than more. So we put off getting another cat for a while.

Lately, though, I’ve felt ready to take the plunge, despite one big, big problem: Lily’s utterly, profoundly terrified of both dogs and cats. She’s interested – she likes to watch them from afar, or even carefully pet them if their back is turned and they’re utterly uninterested in her – but the minute they look at her and move toward her, she completely wigs out.

Even so, I thought we’d try and go to the Humane Society and see if we could find a gentle little feline. Because I was in Ann Arbor for a meeting one Sunday, I arrived first, checked out the candidates, and narrowed our options down to the cats that seemed the best fit for our household. After Joe arrived with Lily, I asked for a private visit (sounds like a strip club thing, doesn’t it?) with a calico named Joyce, and the volunteers took us to a separate room to spend some time with the cat. Lily was intrigued, checking out the cat, but then Joyce sneezed five times in the row, and Lily’s whole body trembled in fear.

“The cat’s just sneezing,” I tried to explain, since she now knows what sneezing is. But she was still shaking, and unfortunately, just at that moment, the cat turned and starting walking toward Lily – and Lily exploded with a piercing shriek of terror.

Volunteers came rushing in, though we quickly assured them that nothing had happened, and that Lily had just gotten spooked. To Joyce’s credit, the cat rolled with it, never flinching, despite being screamed at. Joe even said, “Maybe that’s a sign. If she can take that while Lily gets used to her, maybe this is the cat for us.”

But then a volunteer poked her head in and said, “I hate to tell you this, but the former owner of this cat just called, literally two minutes ago, and said she wants to take the cat back.”

Strike two. Continue reading

How Lily became the Norm Peterson of daycare


Lily's sit-com doppelganger, if Cheers were Sunny Day Care

I don’t know why, but in the past three or four weeks, Lily’s developed this thing where, when I get to the daycare center somewhere between 4:30 and 5 p.m., she urges me to take off my coat and just play with her there. OK. Not a big deal. Because Joe generally doesn’t get home until 6:15 or so anyway, whether I’m entertaining Lily at daycare, at home, or at the nearby library is all the same to me; in fact, it’s easier somewhere like daycare, where there are multiple people around. So we’ve grown accustomed to closing the place at 6, or at least staying until the last kid in the toddler room leaves. Lily’s become that barfly kid, to whom the daycare owners have to essentially say, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

I haven’t yet figured out why this has evolved. I’m certainly glad she likes her daycare teachers and the other kids, but even though that was true before, she used to run for her coat when she saw me arrive. As I said, it’s all the same to me – morning is when I’m in a bit more of a hurry; by the time I’m picking her up, I’m just rolling with whatever, since Joe makes dinner – and in a way, it’s nice. I’ve gotten a much better sense of the caregivers Lily interacts with daily, and the personalities of the kids in her room.

This latter part is particularly inevitable. Since I’ve become a fixture lately for the kids who stay ’til the very end of the day, they’ve become comfortable with me to the point that they ask me to read books to them, they sit on my lap, and they chat with me. In this way, I have become this lady I never, ever imagined becoming. The one with two little girls on her lap as she reads a book, with other toddlers peer over her shoulder. In these still-bizarre-to-me moments, I think, ‘What freakin’ Disney movie did I just step into, and how on earth did I get here?’

Lily occasionally gets a bit territorial about me being there – “MY mommy” she tells the others, though she’s currently in a “MINE!!” stage with everything – but she’s generally happy. It’s when I finally have to persuade her to leave that she sometimes falls apart. I think transitions in general are just tough for little toddlers – that’s what I tell myself, anyway, when she’s aimlessly wandering in the nearby bank parking lot in the freezing cold instead of staying on the sidewalk and heading toward home. “What’s so bad about our house that it’s to be avoided?” I always wonder. But when I’m rational – it happens occasionally – I think she’s just a highly social little explorer who wants to go everywhere, and see everyone, she can.

The good part about her being the Norm Peterson of her daycare center, though, is that she is a beloved fixture. One morning a few weeks ago, she slept in a bit, which is really unusual. Naturally, she nonetheless wanted to spend the hour to 90 minutes with me that we normally spend together in the morning, during which time we may cuddle, color, have some Cheerios, read, etc. So we did that, and rather than getting to daycare at 8:30 a.m., it was 9:30 a.m.

The kids were long done with breakfast and were circling around the room, making motions with a song that was playing called “Moving Day.” Once they spotted me and Lily coming in the door, they all, like a toddler herd, came rushing over to us. They all said, “Hi, Lily!” and reached out to touch her, and one of the oldest girls in the room removed Lily’s coat and hat and grabbed her hand, pulling her to join in with the song with everyone else.

The whole thing nearly made me cry, and I smiled about it on the walk back home. These kids love her, I realized, and they miss her when she’s not there, among them. What more can any of us want, for ourselves or our children?

In sickness and in … more sickness, part 2

Since Lily felt fine the day after our late-night ER visit, and Joe and I did too – trading off time watching her while the other did some work – we decided to go ahead and go to the family dinner Joe’s parents were having while Joe’s brother Josh and his family were in town from Bloomington, Indiana.

Though we were symptom-free, in retrospect, of course, this was a horrible decision. Our only defense is that Joe’s quite close to Josh, and they almost never get to see each other – it’d been well over a year already – so we went, hoping for the best.

And the dinner went fine. I left early to see a show I was reviewing in Northville, and then we went to bed. But a few hours later, I wake to rustling and see Joe, fully dressed, skulking around at four in the morning. 

“What’s the matter?”

“I feel terrible.” He’s suffering from stomach pain, diarrhea, and he’s been working in the basement, going through junk we can get rid of just in order to stay vertical.

“Oh, no,” I said, realizing that we weren’t in the clear, like we’d hoped.

So while he feels like he’s going to die, I seize upon the fact that we’re scheduled to go with Joe’s sister, her husband, and Lily’s cousin Abby to see Elmo live on stage at the Fox Theatre. I tell Joe I’ll take Lily myself, and this will buy him a few hours alone to rest and get over the bug.

It’s just dawning on me in this moment that we no longer have the luxury of taking care of each other when we’re sick. The most we can do is take care of Lily while the other person is left to lick his/her own wounds as best they can. And this makes me a bit sad. We used to, of course, spoil each other when sick, being extra attentive, making trips to get medicine or favorite comfort foods, etc. Sadly, that’s no longer possible, and I mourn that a little while Joe’s voicing his regret at not getting to see Lily respond to Elmo on stage.

“There will be other times,” I tell him, but I understand why he’s sad, too. Continue reading

Brief intermission: crazy gender nonsense

Lily needed a new pair of mittens, so this past weekend, Joe took her to the TJ Maxx near our house.

Joe told a Maxx employee what he was looking for and was led to a clearance bin (as usual, the clothing stores are liquidating the winter stuff in the midst of the season) in the girls’ section. 

According to Joe, the employee looked through the bin and said, “I don’t see any mittens in here. Guess you’re out of luck.”

Soon thereafter, Joe came across a clearance bin in the boys’ clothing area, and sure enough, there were mittens and hats in Lily’s size there. Joe and Lily picked out a set, bought it, and came home to share the story with me.

Seriously? Unless the hats and gloves in the boys’ bin have some penis-hook-up attachment that is integral to the whole enterprise, this baffles me. Lily doesn’t need every article of clothing to be pink and have some kind of fairy on it.

In fact, I’d really rather prefer it if they didn’t. So could we all just get over this?

In sickness and in … more sickness, part 1

The McKee/Grekin household had a tough weekend, beginning last Thursday evening.

Joe and I had arranged for Lily to stay with her grandparents while we went to the Michigan Theater to see its Sundance USA program, featuring the John C. Reilly/Marissa Tomei movie “Cyrus”; the film’s two directors and co-star  Jonah Hill were scheduled to answer questions after the screening. (I would have been covering this for, but as my Hanukkah gift, Joe had arranged for us to go together as a date night – thank God, as it turns out.)

By coincidence, Joe’s brother’s wife – a doctoral candidate at IU in Bloomington – had a visit scheduled at U-M at around this time, so she, Joe’s brother, and their two daughters (8 years old and 20 months) had arrived at Joe’s parents’ place earlier that evening, too. We thought this was great – even more people to play with Lily and make her forget her parents had gone out.

But when we returned, the eight year old, Maya, said, “Finally, you’re back!” Why the “finally”? because since about 45 minutes after we left, Lily had started throwing up, and she had done so about six times.

The guilt and dread was instant as I crouched down to take a look at my awake, quiet child as she lay on her grandmother’s lap. Poor little thing. Suddenly, things that should have been warning signs came back to me. When I’d met Joe and Lily at her grandparents’ house, Joe had shown me that she’d thrown up some of the fruit snacks she’d eaten on the car ride over, but at the time, we just thought a piece had gotten caught in her throat, or that she’d gotten a little motion sick; and when we left, she didn’t cry, which has almost never happens (we just optimistically thought that she’s become so comfortable with her grandparents that she wasn’t distressed.) Plus, Joe’s mother had tried to call our cell phones, but we’d turned them off, of course. Guilt, guilt, guilty guilt guilt.

My dread came from something far more personal, which is: nothing, and I mean nothing, does me in like the sound and sight of someone puking. I lose all sense and reason when confronted by this, in part, I’m sure, because to me, pretty much nothing I’ve experienced on earth is worse than that experience. Just – ugh.

Joe’s father is a doctor, thankfully, so we talked about whether or not to take Lily to the ER, even though she was exhausted and it was hours past her bedtime. She wasn’t showing signs of dehydration, but Joe and I decided to take her in just to make sure, and to see if they might offer her any relief.

After calling U-M’s Emergency Room and learning there was little to no waiting, we packed her into the car – I sat with her in the back, hoping against hope she wouldn’t puke again – and drove there. As I held Lily at reception, she started gagging again, and of course, she turned away from the towel I held up to her face. I started crying, so panicked and worried was I, and Joe instructed me where I was supposed to take her to wait. “WHERE?!” I said, too loudly, and he repeated his instructions and pointed. One unfortunate thing I’ve learned from parenting: I am absolutely terrible in a crisis. I so don’t want to be that person’s who’s like, “OH MY GOD! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!” but apparently, I am. Continue reading