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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Belabored Chapter 24: Chuck and Tanya

“The absence of an eternal perspective makes you vulnerable to losing heart.” – C. J. Mahaney
            I do a double take when I look down at the phone and see Tanya’s text. It’s weird timing because not long ago I dreamed about her.
            Her mom must still be refusing to buy her a smart phone because she’s still texting in that abbreviated, punctuation-less prose I used to jokingly call “Tanya-ese.” I recall with no small degree of satisfaction how ticked off it used to make her when I would talk text a perfect message while she painstakingly typed a choppy one on her prehistoric slide phone.
Her message says, Can u call asap its impt
Hearing from her after all these months makes me angry. Foggy fragments of my dream find their way into my head. I shudder.
I keep her waiting.
After an hour, she texts me again: I really need to talk to you
Forty-five minutes later, I reply, What’s up?
 I imagine the sound of her phone’s spoon-on-crystal chime that signals she has a text. Almost instantly, my phone issues three staccato taps, announcing her response on my screen.
Can u meet me somewhere we hv to talk
I let 10 minutes go by, then answer, What’s this about?
I gotta talk to u in person cn u call or meet me
Five minutes later I type, Fine. I can be at Starbucks in half an hour.
I envision her fingers zigzagging furiously over the keypad.
The one near you she questions.
No, the one on the pike I respond.
Ok ill b there she types, then adds thx
Traffic is light, and I get there first. I’m sitting here, twiddling my thumbs, and my mind is going in freaky directions. It’s the first time I’ve ever wished for a beer at Starbucks.
Remnants of my dream resurface, in which a frightened Tanya is pleading with me to help her haul something away. The item is in a big, red trash bag like the kind they put hazardous waste in. Tanya has mascara running down her face, which is odd because she rarely wears makeup.
Whatever’s in the bag must be heavy because it’s too much for her to handle alone. She needs my help and is begging me to drag it away.
Now there’s a change of pace, I ruminate. I never begged her for anything, but in a way, I was always begging her. She never had to beg me to do anything. I was always ready to drop everything to give her a driving lesson or take her to the mall or even take her annoying sister to the park.
In my fading dream, the girl I used to love is making promises we both know she won’t keep. If only I’ll help her, things will be good, and we can live happily ever after.
Yeah, right. But like a fool, I believe her and help her.
 Believing promises, I’m starting to realize, is like accepting a check drawn on an empty bank account. Fat lot of good it did my mom to believe Dad’s promises all those years.
“You grew a goatee!” I exclaim when I catch sight of Chuck. Well, a partial goatee, at least. He bypassed the mustache but has a beard of sorts sprouting under his mouth. Chuck trying to look more mature isn’t working for him; his whiskers have shaped themselves into a pitchfork arrangement, and they’re reddish, contrasting sharply with his yellow hair.
“So what’s so important?” he begins, ignoring my outburst.
“I’m fine, thanks, how’re you?” comes out of my mouth before I can stop it. I counseled myself beforehand to be calm and controlled. His reluctance to answer my texts made his position clear. Still, I need his help.
“Look, you text me after all these months and expect me to come running. I don’t know what you want from me.”
He’s guarding himself, I realize. Or maybe he’s moved on, even seeing someone else. It doesn’t matter. This conversation has to happen.
Suddenly, though, I feel awkward, not knowing how to introduce what has to be discussed.
“Do you want some coffee or something? On me.”
“No, Tanya, I wanna know what you need from me. I really don’t feel like sitting here drinking coffee with you after two months. I’ve got work to do.”
Breathe, Tanya, I coach myself. He’s obviously not over this. Just get it over with.
“I may be pregnant,” I blurt out.
He stares at me, the tight expression he’s been wearing replaced with shock and disbelief. Then his eyes shoot down to my gut. I don’t look pregnant, just fatter than usual. He won’t get any confirmation there.
“No way,” he says finally. “How can that be? It was only the one time.”
“I’m not a hundred per cent sure,” I back pedal, trying to ease the tension my statement and this whole meeting have created.
“Whaddaya mean you’re not sure!” Chuck barks. His voice is a biting whisper.
Now I’m getting flustered. He’s right. I should’ve gotten the blood work before dragging him into this. But I need someone to help me think through what to do, and Chuck’s good at that. He’s always been level headed, even when he was helping me learn to drive stick shift in his beloved Monte Carlo. When I made beginners’ mistakes, stalling out the manual transmission, he kept his cool. Boy, the tables sure have turned. I used to be the controlling force in the relationship, but he’s showing a lot of backbone now.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I whisper back. “I’m not sure what to do. That’s why I called. Whaddaya think we should do?”
He puts a hand to his brow, covering his nondescript brown eyes.
“Chuck?” I venture.
“I’m thinking. No, I’m praying, if you wanna know the truth. What are we gonna do?”
Something in me rallies. Bringing him into the secret is somehow making me feel less terrified. For the first time since my visit with Dr. Edelstein, I feel like I can breathe.
“The doctor wants me to get a blood test.”
He explodes in another acid-filled whisper.
“You mean you could’ve had blood work and didn’t even bother?! Why are you texting me, scaring the crap out of me, if you haven’t even bothered to find out for sure?! What are you, just tryin’ to play games with me?!”
That’s when I understand why he’s being so nasty. Just when the wound was starting to heal, here I am opening it back up again, a hundred times bigger and with a brand new twist. I feel like Jack the Ripper.
“No, I was too scared. Or in denial. Something.”
He pulls out his phone and his fingers start zigzagging over the screen. I’m about to ask him what he’s doing when he starts firing questions at me.
“OK, are you tired all the time?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I mean, it’s been a horrible winter. I thought I was just beat from all the shoveling.”
“How ’bout irritable?”
“I dunno. No more than usual, I guess. You know how it is living with Jess.”
For the first time, he smiles and half laughs.
“Yeah, I guess that’s a no brainer,” he quips.
I relax a little.
“I dunno. No, I guess.”
“No, unless I eat Italian or spicy. But that’s the same as always.”
“It says ‘frequent heartburn.’ Should I put no?”
“Then yeah. I mean, put no.”
“Sore legs?”
“Stomach big after eating?”
“What? That’s a weird question. I mean, I feel full, yeah, but I don’t know if my stomach’s any bigger.”
Chuck snaps at me.
“Look, I didn’t write this stupid test, and I’m not the one who thinks they’re pregnant! Just answer the questions!”
The calmness I’ve been allowing myself to feel for the last couple minutes evaporates. He isn’t happy about this, I realize, and doesn’t want to be part of it. He’s just trying to man up.
“Darking of the upper lip?”
Now that’s a strange one.
“What? Lemme see that!”
“That’s exactly what it says!” he retorts, and begins quoting. “‘Do you have darking of the upper lip or anywhere in your face?’”
“I guess they mean darkening. I dunno. I don’t think so. Do you see any?”
Chuck looks up briefly.
“No, you look the same as always.”
He seems embarrassed to ask the next question, as if he already knows the answer.
“Have you lost weight?”
I fold my arms across my bulging belly, and shoot him a disgusted look.
“What do you think?”
He clicks a response, then looks stricken.
“It says you’re pregnant,” he says slowly.
Author's note: the questions Chuck asks Tanya were taken from the following website:

"The Am I Pregnant TEST." How to Know if You are Pregnant. wikiHow, Accessed 15 Nov. 2014. <>. 

Belabored Chapter 23: Tanya

“Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always.” – Hippocrates
I follow the nurse into a sterile-looking room with a digital scale and a fax machine.
            “Up on the scale,” she commands, yanking the back of her cranberry colored scrub shirt
down over an enormous behind.
            Holding my breath, I watch the numbers jumble around before settling at 171. Great!
Nine pounds higher than last summer. At this rate, I should try out to be a blimp in the next Thanksgiving Parade. 
            Seeing the look of shame on my face, the nurse responds, “Could be worse,” in what I
take to be a weak attempt at comfort. For the first time, I realize she’s a human being too,
despite her business-like manner. It dawns on me that I probably look scrawny to this rotund
woman, whose massive breasts droop almost to her naval, while her lower half could
pass for a corseted Sherman Tank.
            “Thanks. I guess you’re right,” I mutter, following her into the examining room.
I sit down on a examination table in obedience to her hand gesture, and immediately
make a hole in the wrapping paper stuff that’s supposed to shield me from any germs left
behind by the last patient. She motions that I should extend my arm for the blood pressure cuff.
I decide her conversation skills could definitely use a refresher course from Dale Carnegie.
          When she sits down to type my numbers into a computer, the pant legs of her too-tight scrubs
ride up, revealing a jaw-dropping sight. Spider veins crisscross her bare ankles and buckle-
topped instep, reminding me of the purple-lined roadmaps on my GPS. She catches me staring, and any sympathy she may have felt for me seems to evaporate into embarrassment.
“Doctor will be right in,” she calls over her shoulder while high-tailing it out of the room.
            I’m irritated to be here. I don’t know why my primary doctor can’t just write me a
referral to a dermatologist. No, he has to play Super Doc and insist on seeing me first. For
crying out loud, he just saw me last summer for a physical. Everything was fine then. Why
shouldn’t things be fine now? I bet he just wants another chance to bill the insurance company.
What a racket.
            “Well, hello, Tanya, long time no see!” Dr. Edelstein jokes when he pops into the room 20 minutes later. That’s another thing I love about going to doctors. They make you wait twice – first in the waiting room, then again when you’re half undressed and feeling the North Wind wafting through your backless gown. At least this visit I’ve been spared the humiliation of disrobing.
            “Doc, I was just here in August!” I respond, having a hard time keeping the annoyance out of my voice.
“So you were. Well, what brings you here today?” he continues in a less jovial tone.
“My mom wants me to see a dermatologist. I’ve got zits all over my back as well as my face. We’ve tried all the standard stuff and nothing seems to work. She thinks I need the big guns.”
“I see. Well, let’s find out what kind of shape you’re in, shall we?”
He takes out his stethoscope and places it on my back.
“Breathe in. Good. Now hold that breath. Nice. OK, let it out nice and easy. Good, the lungs sound fine. Your vitals are all normal.”
He turns to my chart on the computer screen. When he looks up, an awkward expression crosses his face.
“OK, Tanya, I do have to caution you about your weight. I think we talked about this last time you were in, too. A lot of people your age are developing conditions when they’re overweight that used to be reserved for old guys like me! I wouldn’t want to see that happen to you. Have you tried –”
He stops in mid-sentence because I burst into tears. I don’t know why, except I guess I figured he was gonna ask if I’d seen a nutritionist or tried this diet or that food plan, and I’m just sick and tired of trying to lose weight. Mom’s always all over my case about it, half the girls at school look like super models, and I’m just sick to death of the whole subject of thinness. I don’t think I’ll ever be thin. At least not thin enough.
I get control of myself, apologize for being emotional, and tell him I’m working on it. He seems relieved not to have to comfort me, and moves on to another subject before I can have a relapse.
“OK, how’s your cycle?” he sputters. It takes me a minute to realize what he’s talking about, but then the light dawns.
Duh, Tanya, you think you’re so smart, but you can’t even figure out when a health professional is asking you about “the curse”.
“Oh, uh, it’s, um, a bit screwed up, actually. I haven’t had it for a while. Probably ’cause I’ve been dieting. This happened once before when I wasn’t eating very much. It came back eventually.”
“Hmmm,” he responds, then strokes his chin. He hesitates, then says, “OK, Tanya, I’ve been seeing you for years, and this is the first time your mother hasn’t come in with you. Are you sure there isn’t some other reason you’re here today?”
His voice is a mixture of fatherly concern and something akin to accusation. I stare at him dumbly. Then it comes to me.
“Doc, you must be kidding! No way! You can’t seriously think –”
My voice trails off, as does any sense of what to say next.
“OK, Tanya, let’s connect the dots. You’ve gained almost 10 pounds since August, yet you say you’re dieting. You’re not menstruating. You wouldn’t be the first girl this ever happened to. I have to ask, could you be, uh, are you –”
“Screwing around?” I snap. “No! I most certainly am not!”
A little voice is whispering in my head that that isn’t completely honest. There was that one time with Chuck. But nobody gets pregnant the first time, right?
“OK, take it easy. Well, look, it won’t hurt to order blood work to make sure your lipids and sugars are where we want them, that kind of thing. I could order a pregnancy test, too, if you want. Dermatologists have to rule out pregnancy to put you on certain acne drugs anyway. They have to, by law. We’d just be getting it out of the way. It’s entirely up to you.”
I know he’s pretending to believe me, trying to let me save my pride, and I’m grateful for that. I try to sound casual as I answer, “Sure, why not? Might as well get it over with.”
I leave the office in a daze. My head is throbbing, my palms are sweaty, and I feel sick. I want to go home and sleep through the rest of the winter. Hibernation is sounding better and better. I also want to hug my mom and have her stroke my hair the way she used to when I was little and afraid. Instead, I grunt “fine” when she asks how the visit went, and flee to my room.
I’m getting pretty good at this lying thing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Belabored Chapter 22: Bonny

“Parenting is an impossible job at any age.” – Harrison Ford
              “OK, Tanya, here are the insurance cards. This one’s mine, and here’s Dad’s, er, David’s. Now, listen, there’s something called the birthday rule, which means they bill the one whose birthday comes first in the calendar year first. Mine comes first, so they have to bill my coverage first. Tanya, are you listening?”
              The impatient look on her face tells me the question was unnecessary.
              “Yes, Mom, now just give ’em to me so I can get going, or I’ll be late. I’ll figure it out!”
              You’ll figure it out, eh? I want to say. Wait till you see all the forms they have new patients fill out. Then you’ll want my help, and maybe – just maybe – I won’t be available.
              Instead, I toss them onto the table by the door and walk out of the room.
              Tanya’s appointment with the primary doctor is this afternoon. He won’t send her to a dermatologist until he sees her first. I really hate bureaucracy! I’m glad she’s doing something about her skin because it’s worse than it’s ever been, poor child. I want to help her so badly, but she doesn’t want anything to do with me. She won’t even let me take her to the doctor. Miss Independence.       
              I need to relax and take David’s advice. He’s always telling me to give her space, let her grow. When I protest that she’ll grow away from me, he goes into that cliché about if you love something you have to let it go. I know he doesn’t mean permanently, but just to loosen my grip. But it’s so hard.
              I thought it would be so easy to change my focus to Jessica, and in some ways it is. Watching her change from a toddler into a little girl is refreshing, even though she’s exhausting. That probably seems like an oxymoron, but it really isn’t. Any parent knows that joy and fatigue go hand in hand when you’re raising a child. She’s sweet, innocent, interested in everything I do, and dying for me to join in with everything she does. Those first two aspects of her personality touch my heart and make me want to pour everything I’ve learned into her little mind, perhaps doing a better job than I did with my older daughter. The constant togetherness, though, which I should cherish because my job keeps me away from her so much, leaves me little time to myself and to keep up with the day-to-day details of life. Too often, I find myself sticking her in front of a screen to keep her occupied.
              Tanya, in contrast to her sister, is difficult, world weary, couldn’t care less what I’m doing, and definitely doesn’t want me sticking my nose into what she’s doing. Interestingly, though, in some ways it was easier raising Tanya, probably because she was all I had to focus on. I had no husband or other children to think about. I sometimes feel like I’m shortchanging Jessica, what with my career, marriage, and Tanya’s problems. I’m so glad Jess has David, who really delights in her. After he got over the initial shock of becoming a father, he jumped in with both feet and he’s been aiming for Father of the Year ever since.
              “Oh, Tanya, wait a minute!” I call, realizing I haven’t given her money for the copay.
              "What!” she groans. Something in that one word infuriates me, so I answer, “Oh, nothing. Be careful driving.”
              Let her pay her own copay if she’s going to be such a brat.
              Lord, may my better instincts prevail!

Belabored Chapter 21: Tanya

 “I think togetherness is a very important ingredient to family life.” – Barbara Bush
              “C’mon, Tanya, why don’t you join us?” Mom begs as she zips Dolly into her jacket. It’s the fleece one with the Teddy bear hood that Dolly would wear year-round if Mom let her. Mom tries to hide it, but I see her wince when she’s struggling with the zipper. She takes both hands away from Dolly's coat for a minute, and cups her left fingers over the right knuckles. I consider asking if she needs help, but then she goes back to what she was doing, so I guess whatever it was must have passed.
              “No, I have homework to do,” I answer, heading for the stairs.
              “But Sweetheart, you’re missing all the lights this year. You used to love that.”
              She frowns when she says that, and for some reason that makes me boil over. I don’t even know why.
              “Look, Mother,” I say, with emphasis on that last word, “I have a ton of homework, for one thing. Don’t you remember how teachers try to cram all the tests and projects in right before Christmas break? And for another thing, I feel lousy. I’d appreciate it if you’d get off my back!”
              I expect her to start issuing a lecture, but she just takes on a hurt look and turns her attention back to my sister.
              “Now, you listen, Jessica Rose. When we get to the Christmas house, you must hold Mommy or Daddy’s hand at all times. There are a lot of people there, and we don’t want you to get lost. If you won’t hold a hand, we’ll get right back in the car and come home. Understand?”
              Jess nods mischievously. I figure they’ll be back soon.
              It’s almost Christmas, and I’m so not in the spirit. Mom’s reference to what locals call “the Christmas house” doesn’t help any. It’s in Marley Bank, one of the posher neighborhoods near Rock Face, the not-so-posh area where we live. The owners of this house must have more money than brains because they attach lights to every last inch of their house, garage, windows, you name it. Oh, and they have all these blow ups – snowmen, the Grinch, and of course the big guy in red. David hates blow ups. He’s always threatening to pop them with a BB gun after dark. I think he’d better get over it, though, because Mom’s talking about grabbing some on clearance after New Year’s.  
              Last Christmas, Chuck took me to the Christmas house. They had this giant snow globe with penguins inside, and a shed-sized Santa’s workshop, and free-standing glass cases with mechanical elves painting toys and stupid stuff like that. For some reason, I was a lot more into that sort of thing last year. Chuck thought it was very romantic to sort of get lost in the crowd – there’s always a crowd around the place – and just chill with his arm around me, watching all the characters do their thing. I kind of got into it and felt that starry-eyed sort of wonder and wanted to be close to him, too. Well, not really him, because I just never felt that way about him –  not once during the whole year and a half we dated. But someone. And since he was the only one asking, I went with it. It actually was pretty romantic, now that I look back, and when we went back to his house later, his mom had done some baking, and the whole house smelled like chocolate and peppermint and holiday magic.
              I wish everyone would stop being so happy. They all want me to get in on the traditions they’re trying to start with Dolly. All of a sudden, Mom can’t get enough of baking cookies. You’d think she’s trying to put the Pillsbury Dough Boy out of business. When I was a kid, she did slice and bake or break and bake. Now that’s not good enough. She learned how to wield a rolling pin and now she’s not happy unless she, Jess and the kitchen are covered in flour and fighting over who gets to lick the beaters.
              I consider apologizing to Mom for the snotty comment I made, but for some reason, I don’t want to. I start to go upstairs, but she calls after me, “Tanya Elizabeth, could I have a word with you?”
              I hate when she uses that imperious tone of voice, so I snarl back, “Yes, Bonny Ann, I’m right here.”
              “Dave, will you take the baby – I mean, Jessica – out to the car? I’ll be right there,” Mom says in a frighteningly controlled tone.
              David shoots me a nasty glance, but does what Mom asked. When he and Jess are gone, she turns to me. Her eyes are slits of fury.
              “Tanya Eliz –” she begins, then backtracks. “Tanya, why are you trying to ruin the holiday for everyone?”
              “Oh, Mom, get over yourself!” I bark. “This family can have a perfectly fine Christmas without me participating in every stupid tradition you dream up!”
              When I was younger, she would’ve let me have it if I’d have said something like that. But she hasn’t spanked me since fifth grade, when I caught up to her in height and strength. The last time she tried it, I held her off with one hand while suppressing a giggle.
              “Tanya,” she says in a quivering voice, “that remark really hurt me. In fact, your whole attitude lately hurts me. Deeply. At one time, that would have mattered to you. I wonder if it does now, or ever will again."
              With that, she takes herself out the door and into the holiday nonsense.
 I feel bad that I’m making her miserable, but I can’t seem to help it. It sort of takes some of the sting out of the way I’ve been feeling since I broke up with Chuck. I don’t miss him, exactly, but it stinks not having anyone.
              I better shake off some of this gloom and start doing something about my appearance if I ever want romance in my life again. I’ve gained weight, and none of my clothes fit right. I refuse to buy new ones until I shed some pounds. Ironically, my stomach’s not as jiggly as it usually is. I have gym every day this quarter, and I guess the stretches they make us do are firming me up, despite the weight gain. Even though I’m not eating much junk food, my face is a mess. Maybe I should stop fighting Mom when she suggests going to a dermatologist. It’s just such a pain, though, and makes me feel like a little kid when I have to go with my mommy to the doctor.
              Wait a minute. Now that I’m 18, maybe I can go alone. If she’ll let me have the car, why not? That would make the whole thing a lot more bearable if she wasn’t tagging along into the exam room, basically holding my hand.
            When she calms down, I’ll ask her.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Belabored Chapter 20: David

 “A family is a place where principles are hammered and honed on the anvil of everyday living.”
 – Charles R. Swindoll
             “Daddy, you’re funner than Mommy!” Jess announces after we leave the grocery store. 
              “Oh, now, don’t say that, little lady,” I scold, trying not to show my pleasure at being the “most favored parent” of the day. “You have the world’s greatest mom, and don’t you forget it!”
              “But Daddy, Mommy won’t buy me things in the store. And her don’t always buy me a
horsey ride,” she whines.       
              She has a point there. Bon’s a lot more frugal than I am, and doesn’t seem to realize the
cost-benefit ratio of a 99-cent candy bar when it comes to keeping a kid happy in the aisles.
              My other secret weapon is the mechanical horse in the front lobby. Jess knows if she
behaves, she gets a ride at the end of the trip. So, of course, she begs for something in every
aisle, but I keep reminding her of the gold at the end of the rainbow, and she settles down. She
keeps chattering like a cricket, but at least she knocks off the hounding.
               I can’t help feeling like the good guy, even though I know Bon’s better at handling money than I am.
              I wish she would take it easy about finances. We’re not rolling in dough but we’re doing OK. I know she worries I’ll be laid off, but I would think she’d have a little more faith about the whole thing. She’s much more tuned in to church and the Bible than I am, although I do agree on the basics. It just surprises me that she sweats small stuff like a candy bar for Jess in the grocery store. It’s such a small investment, and makes things so much easier.
              So Jess gets her “horsey ride” and everything’s right with the world as far as she’s
concerned. I shoot some video of her loving life on the back of a plastic stallion who
gallops about as fast as the Galápagos Tortoise we saw at the zoo.
              When we get home, I give her a couple light things to carry inside, which thrills her beyond words. You should see her traipsing through the door with her hands full of toilet paper.   After we get the groceries put away, I say, “OK, Jessica, it’s time for your nap.”
              She isn’t fooled by my attempt to sound authoritative by using her full name. Instead, she gripes, “But Daddy, I not tired! I wanna build a fort with you!”
              “No way, José. You have a date with the Sandman, and that date is now!”
              But she knows I’m a pushover about things like that, and sure enough, she gets away without taking one. Not that she naps much anyway. The babysitter says she’s lucky if she can get the kid down for 20 minutes. Still, I know Bonny wants to keep it going as long as possible, but since she isn’t home, I make the executive decision that a possible 20-minute nap isn’t worth the inevitable 30-minute battle.
              So we build a fort in the dining room instead. She grabs some sheets off her bed and drags a bunch of her stuffed animals in, and we have quite a time of it. Then she insists on putting on her princess dress. Bon found the pink and white getup at a yard sale, and Jess would live in it if we let her. After a while, she says, “Daddy, gimme  an upside down horsey ride!”  
              Remembering what a stickler Bon is about manners, I say, “Excuse me, little lady, what was that again?”
              “Horsey ride, Daddy!” she demands.
              “Sorry, I can’t seem to hear you. What was that again?”
              She wrinkles up her brow, then shouts, “Horsey, Dad, Horsey!”
              OK, she’s not getting it the subtle way.
              “Jess, what’s the magic word? I’m pretty sure my hearing will clear up as soon as you say it.”
              “Oh!” she says knowingly. “Puh-leez!”
              “Well, isn’t that amazing, now I can hear you loud and clear!” I laugh, assuming the position. I lie on my back, motioning her to come balance her belly on my feet. I suspect from a distance we look like a set of scales that can’t decide which side is gonna topple first. It’s such a hoot to see her flailing around, pretending she’s scared, when we both know she’s in throes of ecstasy. She gets a real kick (OK – pun intended) out of it when I bend my knees and threaten to send her rocketing towards the ceiling.
              That’s about as close to being a soccer star as I’ll ever come. Even if I lose the 30 pounds the doctor’s always on my case about, my coordination has always lacked – well, coordination. The great thing about Jess, though, is she couldn’t care less. She doesn’t want a sports star or an athlete or even someone who can walk a straight line. She just wants her daddy, and, for some unfathomable reason, she seems to be glad I got the job!
              I have to admit, she came much earlier in our relationship than Bon and I had expected, and what a shock that was. Really threw me till I was able to wrap my mind around it.
              Best surprise I ever got.
              What a contrast between Jess and Tanya. If Jess is Beauty, her sister’s getting more like the Beast every day. Tanya’s surly and Bon can’t stand it. I can’t, either, to be honest, but I try to play it off like it doesn’t matter. Bon doesn’t know how to do that. When Tanya gives me one word answers and hoofs it up to her room, I let her be. Bon can’t do that. She’s gotta keep asking the kid if everything’s alright and how can she help.
              If Tanya wanted help, she’d ask for it. What she wants is to be left alone. She didn’t even want a fuss made over her birthday last week. It was all Bon could do to get her to say yes to a cake. Poor kid must really be miserable.
              I love my wife and I love my daughter – no, daughters – but why didn’t anybody ever tell me how complicated it would be living in a house full of women?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Belabored Chapter 19: Bonny

“The needs and heartaches of women, men, and whole families surprised by an unplanned pregnancy are as many and varied as they are. The staff and volunteers of pregnancy resources centers, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, offer a wide and equally varied menu of services and resources – many of them free. Besides pregnancy tests and counseling with a peer counselor… many pregnancy centers are now staffed by medical professionals and offer services such as testing for sexually transmitted diseases right in their facilities. Other pregnancy centers reach out into their communities with presentations and classes aimed as much at prevention of unplanned pregnancy as helping women and men in them.”
— Dianne E. Butts, Deliver Me: Hope, Help, and Healing through True Stories of Unplanned Pregnancy

            Tanya’s not been herself lately. That is, she’s been less like her new self lately.
            My daughter hasn’t been her old self for some time – the Tanya that used to sing with me when we walked down a dark street so we wouldn’t think about what might be lurking in the shadows; the girl who helped me nurse my parents gently into their graves with nary a complaint or even a hint that she was in over her head; even the big sister who was so excited when Jessica was born that she made a “Welcome Home, Mom and Dolly!” sign. That girl seems to be lost to us, at least for the foreseeable future. But just when I thought I knew what to expect – a sullen, often snarly young woman who, nevertheless, carried traces of the loving Tanya who apologized when wrong and forgave when right – somehow, that new Tanya has been replaced with a stranger who says little and is almost a ghost in our house. When she comes in from school or work, she immediately goes up to her room without so much as a hello, unless Dave or I initiate it.
            Something’s bothering her for sure. She doesn’t seem to be seeing Chuck, anymore, and isn’t going out with friends, either. She hasn’t gone to church since the day Seth and Vicki took her out, and unfortunately, I don’t think they’ve followed up with her. So much for pastoral concern. On top of everything else, she looks terrible. She drags herself around in baggy sweats, and her hair needs shaping, but I don’t dare mention either one of those things. And her face, her beautiful face, is all broken out most of the time.
            I’m so worried about her.
            I also can’t stop thinking about Emma and Tom Coughlin, that couple we’re working with at the pregnancy center. They’re heartbroken since finding out their baby will be born with
spina bifida. That means he’ll be born with a hole in his back and another condition, hydrocephalus, where the baby’s head swells and has to be shunted because the spinal fluid isn’t circulating properly. They got a lot of information from their doctor and tried to explain the possibilities to me, but I can’t take everything in. What I am grasping is, they’re terrified and looking to us for support.
            One thing I did manage to digest is that their little boy will likely have issues with incontinence and ability to handle school work – part and parcel, I suppose, of doctors probing around in his central nervous system to try to correct what they can after he’s born. Emma’s husband puts up a brave front and tries to reassure his wife that all will be well if they work as a team, but Emma continues to look shell-shocked.
            More tests await the frightened couple as their growing team of doctors – living near Philadelphia means access to all kinds of specialists and teaching hospitals – strives to determine the best way to proceed with Emma’s high-risk pregnancy.
            If she’ll let me, I can continue to be a sounding board and offer support to Emma. I just wish I

could do the same for my own daughter.

Belabored Chapter 18: Tanya

"Blessed is the servant who loves his brother as much when he is sick and useless as when he is well and can be of service to him." 
- Francis of Assisi

          As if I’m not upset enough after my own debate debacle, I have a feeling this next one’s gonna give me nightmares. Carl Zeppo and Zara Patel are presenting on physician assisted suicide, and oh man, is it bringing stuff up for me. Literally.
            As Zara speaks, I find myself back with my grandparents in their room – the one at the top of the stairs that’s been mine ever since they died. When they were alive, I used to squeeze into their double bed between them, and Granddad would tell me bedtime stories. When I got too big for that, they invited me to set up my sleeping bag and camp out on their rug whenever I wanted. Mom was fine with it as long as I got to sleep on time, and Grandma and Granddad always turned off the TV the minute I crept into their room. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t want to turn off a show in the middle, but if it bothered them, they never showed it.
            While Zara’s making the case for physician assisted suicide, my mind switches gears and I can hear the hum of the oxygen machine and smell the disinfectant that permeated Grandma and Granddad’s room in their final years. They both got pretty sick, ending up on hospice with visiting nurses, that kind of thing. Both were unconscious at the end, which was really sad, except Mom said they could probably still hear us, so we whispered in their ears about seeing them in heaven, and prayed they had accepted Jesus into their hearts so that would actually be the case. At the time, I bought everything Mom said about such things, but now I’m not so sure.
            I guess Zara’s argument reminds me of all this because her main selling point hinges on physician assisted suicide being a “humane” alternative for the sick and elderly. “Death with dignity,” they call it, as opposed to the messiness and inconvenience (not to mention expense) of having to be taken care of. According to Zara, quite a few states have legalized patients’ rights to choose the time of their own death, and doctors are supposed to help by supplying some sort of lethal injection. So much for the Hippocratic Oath.
            The way Carl tells it, though, from the con side, sometimes there’s a big push from family members and society in general for such people to hurry up and die so the rest of us can get on with our lives.
            When he says that, I feel the breakfast burrito I consumed two hours ago rise up in my throat. I will myself to keep it down by recalling the last time I saw Grandma alive.
            “Read to me, Tiny Tanya,” she urged. That was her affectionate name for me as long as I could remember, and she’d no doubt disregard my protruding gut and still call me that today. Her cancer-ridden body had made it impossible for her to get out of bed. Macular degeneration and cataracts had done their worst, and she could barely see.
            “OK, Grandma,” my younger self replied while settling into the chair by her bed. I opened my backpack and pulled out the novel my fourth grade class was reading. “This is great! I can get my homework done and still hang out with you!”     
            Looking back, I remember the plot bored even me and probably sent Grandma more quickly into her pre-death coma. But if she found the book lackluster, she never let on.
            “Oh, Sweetheart, you are just what the doctor ordered!” she beamed, squeezing my hand. “How did you get to be such a good reader?”
            Evidently, she hadn’t picked up on the mispronunciations and skipped sentences my teacher was always calling me on. To her, I was Meryl Streep doing Shakespeare.
            I shift in my seat, trying to focus on the here and now. Zara and Carl have caught a break. Sickles the Interrogator is absent today. With any luck, he’s caught something non-contagious but terminal. I’ll be the first to send flowers to his funeral.
            Despite my best efforts, my mind wanders again. This time it’s two years after Grandma left us, and pretty much a bad rerun: Granddad in his final days, and Mom again muddling through with the help of hospice nurses and home health aides. But everyone on the medical team was home sleeping when Mom could’ve used help that November night at 2 AM.
            I woke to hear Granddad sounding agitated, insisting on going to the bathroom by himself. He wasn’t strong enough to get out of bed on his own, but he what he lacked in physical strength he made up for in sheer will.
            “Shhh, Dad, you’ll wake Tanya,” I heard Mom cajoling as I made my way to the doorway of his room. By that point, she was fumbling to get his 200-pound frame onto the bedside commode. Even at age 12, I realized this wouldn’t end well. I instinctively stepped in to take some of the load. Mom flashed me a smile that warmed the dark room like sunshine, and said she’d never been prouder of me.
            After that, I kind of became her right arm. I mean, I still went to school and everything, but when I came home, I would ask Mom what I could do to help. She showed me how to change his adult diapers when he got too weak for the commode, and together we would roll him from side to side so we could fasten the strips of tape on the sides. I won’t say it was pleasant, and I know it made Granddad feel weird, but in a strange way, I think he felt good that we cared enough to do something like that for him.
            One day when I got home, Mom was in a state trying to get somebody to chill with Granddad, so she could do some errands. She looked older that day than I had ever seen her, and I could tell she’d been crying.
            “Don’t worry, Mom,” I reassured her. “I’ll stay with Granddad. Everything’ll be fine.”
            Two lines formed between her eyebrows while she considered this.
            “I don’t know, Tanya. It’s a huge responsibility.”
            I kind of pushed the issue, reminding her how much I had already done for Granddad, and that I’d been staying alone for short periods for quite a while. I could tell she was still undecided, so I rested my case with, “Besides, Granddad’s not going anywhere, is he?”
            That did it. She smiled indulgently, grabbed her purse, barked a few orders, and flew out the door.
            Granddad was still pretty alert at this point, unlike how he was at the end when the drugs controlled both his pain and his mind.
            “Hey, TT Pot,” he began, using his pet name for me. I didn’t like it, but never had the heart to tell him.
            “How’d you like to hear a story? Just like when you were a little girl. It’s been too long, don’t you think?”
            “Sure, why not?” I answered, not knowing that would be the last time he’d ever tell me one. I knew I couldn’t relax like I used to as a kid, when his bedtime stories would put both him and me to sleep. Still, I lowered the side bar of his hospital bed and cozied up to him as best I could without disturbing the cord from the oxygen tank, which snaked across the floor and ended in two prongs that had an annoying habit of slipping outside his nose.
            “Oh, Tanya, don’t ever make the mistake Washer did!” he cautioned me, referring to the title character in the story, a wayward raccoon who wandered out too far in the river near his home and ended up going over the falls. “Mother Raccoon couldn’t reach her little Washer because he went just a little too far.”
            A coughing spell interrupted him. I gave him a few sips of water and waited for him to continue.
            “Well, you know what happened next. Sneaky the Wolf captured him and took him by the scruff of the neck back to his den! He planned to serve little Washer to Mother Wolf and the cubs. But Mother Wolf ruled the roost,” he chuckled, “so you know that never happened.
            “In fact, she took a liking to little Washer, and so did the cubs. They became playmates, and Mother Wolf decided to adopt Washer and raise him with her other children.
            “There was just one problem, and you know what his name was!” Granddad laughed and waited for me to answer, as I had done every one of the thousand times he’d told me this story.
            “His name was Sneaky!” I cried with the gusto Granddad expected.
            “That’s right, Tanya, his name was Sneaky. Sneaky threatened to eat Washer one day, until Mother Wolf pounced on him and caught his flesh with her massive jaws.”
            Here, Granddad assumed an ominous, yet feminine, voice. His speech was weak and somewhat breathless, but he carried off the inflection the way he always had.
            “‘What are you doing with my cub, Sneaky?’ Mother Wolf growled through her sharp teeth.”
            Granddad then took on a sniveling tone for Sneaky. 
            “‘What do you mean, your cub?’ Sneaky replied. ‘That’s not one of our cubs! That’s going to be our dinner one of these nights!’
            “‘Oh, no, he’s not, Sneaky!’ said Mother Wolf. ‘I’ve decided to raise him and teach him
to hunt with the others. He can teach our little wolves things they could never learn otherwise.
It’s been decided!’
            “Well, you know what happened, TT Pot. They argued for a while, but Mother Wolf won
out, as usual.”
            Granddad was beginning to sound hoarse, so I gave him more water.
            “Thanks, T,” he said gratefully. “Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, Mother Wolf brought Washer to the big pack meeting to meet Black Wolf. He was the pack leader, and a fearsome sight to behold. Mother Wolf pleaded with him to let Washer into the pack, but, uh, but, lemme see –”
            “It’s OK, Granddad, you need to rest,” I offered, seeing he was fading.
            “No, no, it’s OK, T,” he protested. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak, and he started rambling like he used to when he got too tired. I guess the dark room and warmth of the covers made him sleepy, and he always ended up nodding off and mixing bits of his dreams into the story.
            “Well, you see, Mother Wolf went to the White House and the Obamas were all there, too, of course –”
            I couldn’t help it, I started to laugh. It was just like old times, but with painkillers added in.
            I let him drift off, silently filling in the details he had left out. Sneaky’s visit to Black Wolf before the pack meeting, where he got the senior wolf to promise that Washer would be dead meat if he showed up. Black Wolf’s surprise defense of Mother Wolf when the rest of the pack descended on her, trying to get to Washer. And how Mother Wolf finally realized if she truly loved her adopted cub, she had to let him return to his own people, where he would be safe.
           Granddad slept for about half an hour, but then I began to detect an odor I knew only too well. I considered my options. There was a good chance Mom would get home soon, so maybe it could wait. But then Granddad started squirming, trying to get comfortable, and I knew only one thing would accomplish that. I wrestled an adult diaper out of the full package and went to work. At first, he resisted, saying he could wait till Mom got home, but from the smell of things, I knew sooner would be better than later.
            I patted his arm and tried to sound confident.
            “It’s OK, Granddad. We’ll get this on in no time.”
            With a weak smile, he relented, and 20 messy minutes later, the deed was done. It wasn’t on straight, and shortly after I finished, a yellow trickle made its way down his left leg via the gap where his hip met his thigh. But my pride was undaunted. When Mom walked in the door, she burst into tears, saying I was the best daughter anyone could ever have, and she wished she could do something to reward me.
            She didn’t realize she just had.
            So, listening to Zara’s case for assisted suicide, all I can think of is these are the moments I’d have missed out on if that had been law of the land when my grandparents were dying. Sure, my life might’ve been easier if I hadn’t gone through all that stuff, but no one can tell me those two old people didn’t have something rich to contribute even from their death beds. I count those last days with them among the sweetest in my life, and if I could have them back, I’d gladly tuck in next to them in those God-awful hospital beds and be just as content as I was camping out on their rug when I was a kid.
            Suddenly, my throat feels like it’s got a huge glob of peanut butter stuck in it, and I catch a tear escaping from my eye. I wipe the back of my hand across my cheek, and swallow hard. It’s no use. The lump is there to stay.
            I force myself to listen to the Q and A. Let me tell you, Dr. Chase doesn’t grill Carl and Zara the way he did Sophia and me. He just makes them clarify a couple of points, then everybody asks their stupid questions, and we move on to the next pair of debaters.
            I slam the door on other memories that threaten to unleash themselves at this inopportune time. There’s one thought I can’t chase away, though – I wish Dolly could’ve gotten to meet those two wonderful people before they died.
Author's note: the story Tanya's grandfather tells her is adapted from the following:

George Ethelbert Walsh, Twilight Animal Series: Washer the Raccoon (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1922).