Monday, December 23, 2013


Recently Jasper had a nightmare that I was shot a bunch of times. I didn’t die, but when they took me to the hospital, the doctors there killed me and turned me into a robot. He was sitting on my lap in the living room chair telling me this, and he started to cry.

“It reminded me of Balthazar, and it made me sad,” he sobbed.

“Why does it remind you of Balthazar?” I asked, a little perplexed. I had thought the dream was about his fear of losing me, but obviously there was more going on.

“Because we can’t bring him back.”

Jasper and I have been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer together. There’s a lot of death on the show, but because it’s fantasy death is often of the “yes, but” variety. Vampires are dead, and yet they walk and talk and sometimes fall in love and have souls. Buffy dies and yet conveniently there is magic to bring her back. Jasper has always maintained a sturdy sense of the difference between fact and fiction, but maybe watching the show has caused him to think more about death, and ways to evade it.

Although, to be fair, this loved-one-dying-and-becoming-a-robot theme long predates our Buffy watching.  On April 8, 2012, five days after Balthazar was born, which also happened to be Easter Sunday, he told me that his stuffed dinosaur Phinly was dead and a robot. Occasionally we still talk about the fact that Phinly is a robot facsimile. The latest is that he is a regular dinosaur, but has robotic implants in his neck.

In some ways Jasper is miles ahead of where he was then, and so grown up. But in trying to make sense of death his unconscious still goes right to robots. A robot looks like your loved one. A robot might sound like your loved one, or do things she would do, but a robot is a machine. There is no blood, no heart. Jasper knows that his unconscious is grasping at straws. A robot mom wouldn't be his mom, even if a robot mom were possible. We decided that I would not die and be turned into a robot.

We can never have Balthazar back, robot or otherwise.

A couple of nights later, while cuddling on the couch watching Buffy, he referred to Balthazar again. “I will always have a hole in my heart,” he said.

Now it’s me looking for a workaround. I desperately parse the sentence. Does it really have to be always? Can it be just for a few years? Something he will outgrow, like his asthma? Or could the hole be really really tiny, like a microscopic hole? Something so small he forgets it’s there? What can I do to take this pain from him? There has to be something. Anything.


When Jasper was little he and I would often walk up our street to the coffee shop on the corner. Along the way, Jasper liked to collect the tiny plastic bbs that collected in the crevices of the sidewalk. He thought that they rained down from the sun during the night, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that neighborhood kids shot the neon orange and green balls from their bb guns. His invented poetry of them falling from the sun at night was so lovely and magical.

Most of the children on the street were older than he was, as evidenced by the bbs and the preponderance of basketball hoops. But there was one boy, a year or so older, who lived in a big Craftsman foursquare about three-quarters of the way up the street. He was a sturdy kid with straight fair hair like Jasper's.

"Asper!" he would call from the yard when we walked by, holding up a dump truck or an action figure. There was no chance that we could pass by without a visit.

One afternoon when Jasper was three and Eric was four, they started playing superheroes. Playing superheroes, at their age, consisted entirely of setting the parameters for the game. Accordingly, they began to organize things: who was who, what powers they had. Because Eric was older he took the lead, which Jasper, being a bossy only child, was a little bit annoyed by. I had mounted the steps to the porch to say hello to Eric's mother, so I missed some of the negotiations. On my way back down the stairs Eric said something, presumably to the effect that Jasper's superhero character was make-believe.

Jasper misunderstood.
"No, I'm real," he said, emphatically, confidently. "My mommy says I'm real."

When Jasper announced to Eric that he was real, I understood, in a way that had been up until that point intuitive, not conscious, what a mother is for. A mother does more than create a child physically, does more than keep his body alive with her milk and her jars of baby food, car seats and fleece hats. It was the thing I had seen when Jasper was first born and we looked into each other’s eyes. A mother, in her look and her touch and her words, makes a child real.

There was no hesitation in Jasper's voice. There was no doubt. His incontrovertible proof was me. I had said so, and it was true.  Like the boy in The Velveteen Rabbit, who had animated his stuffed rabbit with his love, my love had done this.

The dark side of this tremendous power is that a mother also can, by neglect or abuse, teach a child that he isn’t real. I’ve worked so hard to spare Jasper that emotional damage. I’ve been obsessed with empathy and with stability, the crucial things I lacked. Consistent engagement, physical affection. Not much criticism, no shame. Eight years in the same house. Four years at the neighborhood school where I volunteer and hang out and know everyone. He’s had the same best friend since he was four, and he needs both hands and both feet to count the rest of his pals. When I was eight did I even have any friends?

I’m sure every generation makes the same promise to their children. I’m sure my father vowed that my brother and I would never feel the pain of his childhood. He tried to spare us the financial deprivation, and he made sure we never felt the strap. But there were other things he couldn’t have anticipated or prepared for. I think that’s just how it works.

Because I’ve failed. Despite my best efforts I haven’t spared Jasper, I’ve just given him a different variety of suffering. I’ve made an empathetic, sensitive, loving boy. And he’s been hurt. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did anyway. Are the things I’ve done well enough to see him through the rest? If I prayed I would pray for that.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

In Defense of Vanity

When Balthazar died I let my hair grow long. It was the obverse of the bad-breakup haircut of your twenties, when a brush with heartbreak drives you to get a short, sassy ‘do that your coworkers call ‘fetching’ and which charms the next guy who becomes your husband. Growing my hair was equal parts laziness and lamentation; the iconography of wild grief demands that your hair tumble out of your headscarf or your diadem and swirl madly in the wind. I mean, imagine Medea covered in the blood of her children, her bobbed hair tucked neatly behind her ears. But also, I think, unconsciously, it represented a desire to turn back the clock to a time when the choices that would place me here had yet to be made.

I hadn’t had long hair since 1994, and I wasn’t sure if I was too old for it.  The phrase “mutton dressed up as lamb” entered my mind, unbidden, from the pages of some moralistic Edwardian novel deep in my past. Would I look like an ‘80’s supermodel or would I look like one of Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters? Malevolent old witch or desirable hottie? I decided I didn’t really care which way it went.

Ironically, it looks great. Not 80’ supermodel great, mind you, but I look better than I have in years, maybe ever. A mom friend of mine at school stopped me on the playground one afternoon to tell me so. 

“You look really fit," she said. "Even your hair, your skin…”

I said thanks. Then she asked me how I was doing. She looked completely startled when I began to cry.

“It’s just right there, isn’t it?” she observed, sympathetic but also perplexed. Should it really be right there, after so long a time?

I was crying because looking pretty seemed like such a pathetic consolation prize. I wanted to be a chubby, frumpy middle-aged woman. Or, if not wanted, then that’s what I chose. I chose to be the mom of two who was chronically dissatisfied that she couldn’t lose those last fifteen pounds. Sometimes, when complimented by some kind, generous woman, I want to say, with venom, “Yeah, some moms have babies who live, and some have Crossfit.” Sometimes when an out-of-shape mom looks wistfully at my hips I want to ask her if she wants to trade.

None of the complimentary moms would trade with me in a million fucking years, no matter how “good” I look.


But even as I write this I realize how completely disingenuous I’m being; it’s not as if the way I look is an accident. I may have grown out my hair in a spirit of inattention or sorrow, but I have Moroccan oil and Oribe beach spray and a really excellent colorist named Stephanie to forestall the Weird Sister effect. No one’s making me go to Crossfit, or eschew wheat. In The Noonday Demon, his excellent book about depression, Andrew Solomon says: “Depression lowers self-esteem, but in many personalities it does not eliminate pride, which is as good an engine for the fight as any I know. When you’re so far down that love seems almost meaningless, vanity…can save your life.”

I say unequivocally that hell yes, it can. And I appreciate Solomon’s honesty, and the opening it gives me, because it’s embarrassing to admit. In the same way that I have felt that grief should transcend anger, shouldn’t it transcend vanity as well? Shouldn’t I spend my time jotting extremely philosophical musings into a handmade paper journal? Shouldn’t I be reading Yeats or quoting Sartre instead of buying a new tinted moisturizer and debating whether or not I can pull off 2.5 inch Nike boyshorts?

I could pretend that it’s not vanity at all, that the fitness part, at least, is motivated by a more socially acceptable concern for my health. It’s true that at first I wanted to get in shape for a specific, practical reason, which was to have another baby. Mostly, though, I wanted it because losing my looks just seemed to be adding insult to injury. Must I be bereaved and fat as well? Some days the way I look might seem like a pathetic consolation prize, but it’s a pathetic consolation prize I wanted, and have worked to get.


One Saturday this month I had my annual mammogram at the same hospital where Balthazar was born. It was my first time back there, which only added to the ominous quality of the visit. Thank God mammography and labor and delivery are in completely different wings of the hospital.

The technician asked me if I had a family history of breast cancer, so I had to repeat the story about my mom and my grandmother and my aunt that I have told so many times to so many different people. You’d think that Kaiser would write it in my chart, but no.

“Oh dear,” the technician said when I told her. As I left I thought, wouldn’t that be just great. I was hoping that the universe would leave me alone for a little while, but I’m fully aware that it doesn’t work that way.

The following Thursday I got a message that I needed to come back in for a follow-up. I went from zero to panic in 5.2 seconds, and in the past I have prided myself on not doing that. I’m different now, though. Now I recognize “It’s probably fine” as the utter bullshit that it is.

I wish I could tell you that my first thought as I listened to the message was of Jasper, but instead it was this:

“Damn, and my boobs are looking so good right now!”

My second thought:

“And my hair, too!”

Like all writers, I imagine, I have lived many, many other lives in my head. I have conducted entire relationships, from courtship all the way to death, complete with scintillating dialogue. I have been in terrible accidents and failed, or succeeded, at any number of careers. It only took a moment to form the requisite scenes: here I was, bald and sallow from liver failure. One of my breasts had been hacked away and I had a little bag by my side to drain the fluid from my armpit. I was wasted and constantly nauseated from chemo; my sole form of exercise had become a slow, labored walk to the end of my street and back.

Forget Crossfit. Forget picking up Jasper and hauling him across the room. Forget my guilty pleasure in being the object of the male gaze. The strength, the health, the hair—all would be gone. What, of all that would be lost, would I miss the most?

Goddamnit, I thought, I’ve barely begun to pull myself together. I’ve really only got as far as my hair, and my biceps and my quads. Everything else is still a mess: work, money, relationships, abs. I’ve got to have more time!  

The follow-up mammogram turned up nothing more than a summation effect. A summation effect is apparently when parts of an image overlap and it looks like there might be something there, but there isn’t. I don’t have cancer and I’m not dying, except to the extent that we all are. And the choices that brought me here have been made and no amount of product is going to undo them. The only question is what I am going to do now.

One thing I am going to do is wear those really small boy shorts to the gym, and just own my vanity, because it may be a silly, easily ridiculed aspect of the psyche, but it’s also been a source of unexpected strength. And, let’s be honest, of pleasure, which is nothing to scorn.