Sorority Sister

Tuesday night just as the youth choir sang the first few bars of the Star Spangled Banner, after I’d drunk down an inch of my Miller Lite, and before the Milwaukee Brewers took the field to lose what would be a 14-inning game to the Minnesota Twins, I read a text from my son-in-law telling me my twin grandsons had been born.

We knew it would be that night. Before we’d left the house for the game, a text had told us that my daughter’s preeclampsia had morphed into a more dangerous version. The babies were to be delivered right away. I was ecstatic. Not to have the babies born. To have my daughter out of her terrible, long ordeal of being pregnant with twins and suffering every symptom in the encyclopedia of multiple pregnancies. If a pregnancy-related problem, especially the more painful and disabling conditions, had ever been invented, dreamt, or dreaded, my daughter had had it. She was flypaper for every rotten problem floating by. I hated it. Watching her suffer was awful.

I’d watched in person for a while when she was hospitalized with early contractions. I flew to California, walked in to her dark hospital room and spent the next twelve days trying to convince her to play Scrabble. I helped her make it to the bathroom and looked at Facebook on my phone. In the mornings, I walked her daughter to school and after school took her shopping for deli meat loaf and wine. We slept in the same room, my granddaughter and me. She’d roll over on her cot and look at me in the middle of the night while I tried to hide the light of my Kindle.

After I saw that the lamp had left scorch marks on the spare pillowcase I’d used to douse the light a bit, I’d gone all dark, relying only on my phone for light. Messages would come at night from my son-in-law at the hospital. Sometimes happy. Sometimes very scary. The message that she had preeclampsia came at 12:30 one night. In the dark, I Googled preeclampsia and my mouth went dry. My God, I thought, she has what killed Lady Sybil on Downton Abbey.

Why is this happening? Why is this happening to her? I couldn’t stand it. She was grown, my girl, a big accomplished adult. When she was sick, she looked like my 9-year old. Pale and tired and fragile.

I kept doing what I knew how to do – going to the hospital for my day shift, sitting by her bedside cracking lame jokes, and going on special missions to Target. My triumph was finding three Vera Wang nightgown at Kohl’s Department Store so she could get out of the hospital gown and into something cute. I bought a robe and slippers and felt like mother of the year.

And then I came home. Her father was coming for a week and having both of us there would have certainly confused the sleeping arrangements (since we’ve been divorced for thirty years) and produced layers of parenting that no adult could tolerate. Better to take my leave.

So I did. Then after her father left, her mother-in-law came. Now my daughter had been discharged from the hospital and put on strict bed rest at home.

“How do you like having her there?” thinking maybe it was a little irritating having one’s mother-in-law around. I’m not suggesting anything, just thinking about my own mothers-in-law and wondering how long I’d be ok with them being in my house. So I was thinking, let’s give the poor girl a chance to vent about her mother-in-law.

“It’s great. She’s been cooking. Her plan is to make double of everything and fill our freezer.” My son-in-law’s mother, which makes her what to me? I don’t know, is Italian and her husband is Greek and they used to have a restaurant and she brought her recipe book, or so my daughter told me.

I’m wondering if they got rid of the rest of the deli meatloaf.

After another few days in the hospital instigated by a spike in her blood pressure, doctors released my daughter back to bed rest at home, knowing that her mother-in-law, an LPN, would take her blood pressure three times a day.

I’ve had my blood pressure taken a million times. I know it involves pumping the arm thing up, fiddling with a dial, watching a gauge and tracking time on a watch. I could only do one of those things at once. I could never have taken her blood pressure. I could, however, put my hand on her forehead and know if she has a fever. I’ve done this for four kids ever since we lost our family thermometer.

When my daughter sent me the picture of the stuffed artichokes, I cracked. This woman is really beating my time. How do you even stuff an artichoke? My husband and I Googled it and found out where the stuffing actually goes. We resolved to stuff artichokes the next weekend. I suffered with the artichoke picture. “I’m going to try to develop more things that I can do,” I said to my husband. “I want to be more accomplished, more competent.” He said that stuffing the artichokes could be our start.

And then it occurred to me. It’s not a competition.

I was glad my daughter’s mother-in-law was there. I was grateful. I was grateful that this person whom I have never met in person was mothering my sick child. Grateful that she was cooking and taking her blood pressure and fussing over her. Like we were secret sorority sisters, I knew she was doing what needed to be done. I knew there was some serious mothering going on and I was glad for it.

I sent her a message the night our twin grandsons were born. “Congratulations, Grandma,” I said.

“Congratulations, Grandma Jan,” she messaged back and told me about how one grandson, moments after he was born, had pulled the oxygen tube out of his nose. She saw them first. She did.

And that was fine with me. Very fine.

The First Time She Knocked, I Couldn’t Answer

In much of the world, motherhood is an accident, something that happens to women, not something they choose. The accident that is motherhood then takes over a woman’s physical being, lives off her body, changes her external life, her relationships with others, and her view of herself. This is an involuntary consequence of a sexual act in which two people participate but only one carries the consequence.

An adopted child hardly ever wonders about his birth father. Why is that?

Even when the decision to become a mother is conscious, the process is overwhelming beyond any woman’s comprehension. Pregnancy is a full body, full identity commitment unlike anything else a person could ever do. Beyond the nine months is a lifetime of being the person who will always be fundamentally responsible for the wellbeing of someone else.

A child is Jewish if his mother is Jewish. Why is that?

The all encompassing responsibility starts with pregnancy and never ends. Every shirttail un-tucked, every vegetable uneaten, every schoolyard fight, lost job, and unhappy relationship are connected by a thin thread unraveled from Mom’s sweater. The duty to make things right, orderly and peaceful; to feed, house, and protect; to nurture, develop and encourage begins at a baby’s birth and it continues as a complex stew of joy and obligation for decades. There is glory there and agony. It is hard to be responsible, harder still to stop being responsible.

A child welfare complaint is always registered in the name of the mother. Why is that?

When I was nineteen, I became pregnant. Without understanding any of the things I understand now at the age of 65, I knew I could not become a mother. I could see the extraordinary wall in front of me and knew I couldn’t scale it. And so I had an abortion. For many years, the guilt of this decision ruled my life. And then I came to understand that I owned my own self. I owned my body and soul and it was my decision to decide when to offer both up to a child.

It’s 45 years later and I am saying this. Why is that?

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See also The Wire.