I’m glad you came

The last time I saw my mother, disease had taken her ability to be aware of her surroundings so that my father needed to call her attention to my presence in her hospital room. She turned to me then and said to me, “Oh! You came.” And she was delighted. She spoke to me in the same tone of voice she had used with me most of my life. I was her long-wished-for child, the one successful pregnancy amid multiple miscarriages. She reached for my hand as she spoke to me, and, for a moment, I was again her little girl, the center of her world. The next day my father and I were told we would have a meeting about my mother. We would make plans for her healthcare. We would set goals. We planned her funeral instead.

I had a dream. In the dream my mother was having dinner with us. I knew in the dream that she was not really there. I knew in the dream that I had conjured her from my own longing. She didn’t understand, the mother of my dream, when I kept saying to her, “I’m glad you came.” She didn’t understand because in the dream she didn’t know that she had gone.

I awoke with the sound of my own voice reverberating in my mind: “I’m glad you came. I’m glad you came. I’m glad you came.”

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People in my life question the choices I’ve made since I last wrote a post for this blog. I will not squeeze myself into the constructs they’ve built for me. Perhaps some of them will read here and gain understanding. Perhaps not.

The short story below is one I wrote at the same time I was writing posts for this blog. It does not reflect my reality at the time or now. This story is a manifestation of my struggle with a problem I had yet to identify.

I remember when digital surround sound first came out in theatres. Before the start of the film, the audience would be informed of the use of this new technology. A tone would be played throughout the theatre, so that the audience could experience the enhanced auditory experience of surround sound. The sound would seem to start small and to gradually grow. The effect was impressive. I would think that the sound had reached it’s zenith, but it would continue to swell until it became almost oppresive to my ears.

This is how I best describe what preceeded the life choices I have made during the last two years since I wrote the short story below. For me, the sound started small in 2008. It continued to swell until I could no longer ignore it.

One thing about the short story below that is accurate is that my life was out there somethere, waiting for me to find it.


During the first week of March she walked out of her life. It seemed very sudden to everyone except her. She did not know when the process of disengagement began. Perhaps it was on Christmas day when the power went out in half of the house, and she finally voiced her dislike of the home they had rented for the last 12 years. In January she noticed her growing apathy towards her daily routine. Laundry on Monday, preschool Tuesday, groceries  Wednesday, garbage pickup Thursday, cleaning Friday, laundry again Saturday. Sunday was a vacuum of time she was forced to wade through each week. By February she had developed a tolerance for her children that she had never before felt. Her talent for patience with children had never extended to her own. Her toddler son’s verbal gaffes no longer amused her. Her daughter’s sleeping form no longer moved her. She wasn’t alarmed by her indifference towards her two children. It was a relief, actually, to no longer become emotionally involved in their screaming matches.

She began to feel like an interloper, and by the first week in March she knew she was living someone else’s life. She woke up one morning to find that somewhere between the wedding cake 12 years ago (alternating lays of chocolate and banana, white icing, fresh flowers on top) and that crockpot dish she liked to make (always forgetting that her husband couldn’t eat it on account of the cream of chicken soup she used), she had strayed from her intended path. Maybe she should have acted on her idea, when she was 13, of running away to live with that relative who lived far away. If only she had been brave enough then, how different her life might have been that first week of March.


She found it interesting no one else seemed to notice that she was falling out of step with her environment. The last week in February she accompanied her parents and children to the all-you-can-eat buffet in town. Her husband was working. He was always working. Her children ate quickly and began happily chasing each other around the mostly empty dining room. She sighed, and it occurred to her how tired she had been feeling recently.

Her parents’ conversation centered around the tenderness of the chicken breast and the way the  green beans were seasoned. “Mmm-hmm,” She would murmur occasionally. She had lost interest in food, and she struggled to remember when she herself had made comments about ribs and peanut butter pie. Certainly she had at some point, but on this day she was distracted by her own overwhelming boredom.


She had always felt drawn to water, and she thrived during the summer months. She began to research southern cities—Atlanta or Memphis. And weren’t there islands off of the Carolinas? She became convinced that her life was somewhere else, waiting for her to find it. She spent time looking at photographs and maps on websites. She checked rental listings.

Of course there was the matter of money. She couldn’t very well walk out of her life without any way to support herself once she got to her destination. She and her husband did not have savings. There was money her husband had put into the stock market a couple of years ago, but that wasn’t much, and she didn’t know how to get to it without her husband knowing. She had a life insurance policy that she could cash in for a couple of thousand dollars. That would work for traveling money. She also had a retirement account that she could cash in. That would get her started until she found a job.


It was Monday, the first week of March. Tomorrow was the day. She sat in her dining room and envisioned the following day. She would take her daughter to school at 7:30, her son to preschool at 9:00. It would 1:00 before anyone noticed that she was gone. The first alert would occur when she did not show up to retrieve her son. The preschool teachers would call her phone. She would not answer. They would call her husband at work. He would have to leave, which would irritate him—a necessary inconvenience. It would do him good, she thought, to have to take over when it came to caring for the children. She wondered if her son would be upset. Not likely, she decided. He loved preschool, and she didn’t think he was old enough to realize that she was gone permanently. At least, not that day. Her daughter would be in school until 2:30. Her daughter would be upset—no—terrified—but that thought did not linger in her mind.


She smiled as she saw the sign for I95 south. She felt the tension drain from her body—left behind on the highway.

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The inscrutable chinese

This morning I read a blog post (found here) about Chinese communcation, specifically about the way the Chinese communicate bad or uncomfortable news. That reminded me…

My husband’s mother died of breast cancer when my husband was 18. She lived with the disease for eight years, which I think pretty remarkable given the limited access to high-quality health care that she would have had where she lived in rural China.

My husband’s mother was number 19 of 19 children. I never met her, of course. I think I would have really liked her, and I miss her, or rather I feel the emptiness of her absence. It’s difficult getting details of my husband’s childhood from his father. Did my husband eat enormous amounts of food as my son does? How old was my husband when he learned to talk? To walk? This becomes elusive information. My husband’s mother was very close to one of her sisters–number 18. This aunt took over the mothering of my husband upon my mother-in-law’s death. I met number 18. She is one of those individuals who emits a charisma that is noticeable from the moment you first see her. This is why I think I would have really liked my mother-in-law.

My husband’s ID card picture, taken at the time of his mother’s death, shows a face that is not familiar to me. The face looks dark, as if something is casting a shadow over it. Except there is no shadow. “I was very mad at that time,” he says by way of explanation.

My husband’s uncles and aunts elected not to tell his grandmother that her daughter had died.  It’s bad luck to have a child die before their parents. My husband tells me, “But my grandmother figured it out.” He says this without irony in a way that makes you want to answer, “Oh. Well she would, wouldn’t she?” also without irony. My mother-in-law lived close to her mother, so I guess the family had trouble explaining the continued physical absence of my mother-in-law.

Before my mother-in-law’s death, one of her brothers died. The family also kept this death from my husband’s grandmother. That one was easier to conceal as the son had lived in Mongolia. Someone took up the task of writing fake letters from the deceased son to his mother. The family was able to keep up the ruse for quite some time. “But my grandmother figured it out,” my husband tells me. Well, I guess she would, wouldn’t she?

Before her death, my mother-in-law lead an eventful life. She met my father-in-law when they were held by the communists in the same prison. But, that’s a story for another post.

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Everyone has their own cross to bear

I have to keep reminding myself that we’ve arrived. Our ship is now visible on the horizon. It doesn’t feel the way I thought it would. It doesn’t feel real.

It took ten years to get here. It took so long that I had given up already. The first  year I was married, we lived off of my teaching salary. I remember counting my change one day and being happy that it would buy me lunch at Taco Bell. Seriously. I was driving over an hour one way to get to my job, filling up my gas tank twice a week and always worried I was going to blow a tire on the interstate. If that had happened, I have no idea who I would have called for help. We didn’t know anyone there.

My husband applied for his work permit and green card that year. The work permit went through relatively quickly, but we never heard anything about the green card. The immigration system was a nonsensical maze, and my husband, who was immigrating as the spouse of a citizen, was supposed to be able to get the green card with no problems. My husband took and failed his first United States Medical Licensing Exam that year–the first step of four exams, lasting an entire day each. My husband also needed his medical credentials from his home country verified by the Educational Comission for Foreign Medical Graduates. His very first correspondance from the ECFMG told him that they could’t verify anything because his name was spelled differently on his passport than it was on his medical school diploma. I was scared all of the time–a kind of low-grade fear that I walked around carrying just under the surface. What if we had screwed up something with my husband’s immigration paperwork and he had to leave the country? What if he couldn’t meet the requirements to get his medical license in the United States? What if…what if…what if everything that we dreamed of doing and being was beyond our reach? I didn’t allow myself to think about that. Those thoughts were too painful.

We moved closer to my job the next year. I started working on my master’s degree. My husband retook and passed the first USMLE. I made friends. We figured out what had happened with my husband’s green card. We didn’t correctly report our address change to the immigration folks. Luckily, some of my friends knew lawyers who were able to help us out–without charging us. I became hopeful.

My husband took and passed the remaining steps of the USMLE. After five years, his medical diploma from his home country was verified by the ECFMG as being equivalent to a U.S. medical degree. Five years. This was because the first time the ECFMG contacted someone in his home country to verify the degree, they were ignored. My husband gave the ECFMG another person to contact, and the ECFMG re-submitted everything. The wait was nerve-wracking. Just one small cog in a frightening huge wheel.

Each year my husband applied to hundreds of residency programs, the last step he would have to complete before being eligible for his medical license. Each year–nothing. He discovered his clinical experience overseas was not relevant in the U.S.–even though that clinical experience was gained during the five years he was working as a physician in his home country. He changed jobs so that he could gain clinical experience in the United States. The job he got paid about $10 an hour. To be eligible to do that job, he only had to be a high school graduate and pass an exam. It turns out, a medical degree really isn’t useful unless you can get a job as a doctor.

My husband finally got his U.S. citizenship in a ceremony during which he shook the hands of the president and the governor. The following winter he got one interview for a residency program. Still–nothing. The year after that he got four interviews. Nothing. By this time we had invested thousands of dollars in fees for the U.S. medical licensing exams and in application fees, which were required each time my husband applied to a residency program. We created a plan B. I gave up. We agreed that my husband would apply to just a few programs the next year. He got only one interview. Except… Except the interview he got was with a program that had interviewed him the year before. After the interview, my husband got a nice letter from the program director talking up the program and thanking him for interviewing. And I knew.

There’s more to this story. My husband’s acceptance into a residency program set off another round of difficulties that we’re still dealing with, but that will be for another post.

In my imagination, I always thought it would feel real at this point. I guess the reality is never quite as good as the anticipation.

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In July a couple of years ago, my mother had a stress test. It was a relief to hear from the doctor that the test was negative. She was more tired that year than she had been before. She had told me the previous winter that she could no longer take care of my daughter, which was difficult for me to hear. My mom was feeling extra stressed that summer, in addition to the fatigue. She said she thought it was because her and my father’s retirement account was losing a lot of money. That summer the financial crisis was brewing.

The following fall I enrolled my daughter in a wonderful daycare/preschool. My mother’s stress over the retirement account was giving her shortness of breath. That’s what she said. After all, she just had a negative stress test the previous July. My husband, a physician, kept telling her to go to the hospital. It’s her heart, he said.

One morning in early December my mother’s shortness of breath was so bad that she called the ambulance herself. She couldn’t go home until she had a heart catherization, they said. The next day I got a call from my aunt, who was at the hospital with my mom. She was choked up. My aunt is NEVER choked up.

Hey! Time for a fun fact! Did you know that stress tests measure discrepancy in blood flow? So, if someone has uniform blockage, of, say, 90% or more in THREE of their arteries, for example, that handy dandy stress test will come out negative as if the individual didn’t have any blockage at all.

My mom had triple bypass surgery the next day. The surgery was successful. They had to harvest vein from her leg twice. The first vein wasn’t suitable–40 years of being on her feet as a nurse had caused too much damage. A year later her cardiologist declared her recovered and told her he did not need to see her again.

The day after the surgery Mom was awake and alert. She really wanted to get up, but her nurse kept reminding her that she had lots of tubes in her still and that walking was not a good idea. She snapped at him, “Now who’s paranoid?!” Evidently this was in reference to an earlier exchange they had had. I could see that 40 years as a nurse had not made my mother a good patient.

I remember something else from that day. My mother’s room was near the nurse’s station, and Mom kept getting distracted by what was going on with the other patients. She couldn’t turn off her inner nurse. At one point she said, “Did they just say that patient was…oh, I’m not supposed to worry about that.” I remember these small bits of conversation because the next day when I came to see my mother it took her 20 minutes to utter one sentence.

Later on we figured out she had had a stroke. I lost a bit of my mother that day. The women who could make quick, sharp retorts like the one to the nurse was gone, never to return. I still have my mother, and for that I am grateful. But I don’t have all of her anymore, and for that I am very, very sad.

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How did I get here?

Today I screamed at my daughter. I don’t mean “yelled;” I mean call-social-services-I-could-not-have-generated-more-volume-had-my-life-depended-on-it screamed.

Things evened out a little between my daughter and I as she became two, then three. The fall of her third year I enrolled her in a full-time preschool. It was an in-home program. Every morning she got a hot breakfast and a homemade lunch. It was wonderful. Until everything fell apart.

I got an email one weekend saying that the preschool was closing. Choosing someone to hand your very small child over to every day is a stressful endeavor. I wanted to call my mom and hear her say that everything would be fine and that she would take my daugher until I could find another place. Except that my mother was recovering from the heart surgery she had had the day before. The DAY before. And that very weekend was when she had a stroke which changed my relationship with her forever. I felt totally alone. I was pregnant with my son, nauseous 24 hours out of every day and so, so tired.

I found another excellent preschool, but my daughter was having a rough time. After she was born, I don’t know how much of her fussiness was a reaction to my depression, or vice versa. Now I didn’t know how much of her inability to adjust to the normal transitions inherent in the day was a result of my emotional state at the time. She would start to yell/fuss/complain as soon as we got in the car after preschool. During the 20-minute drive home I could not do or say ANYTHING right. If I said, “okay” to her, she would become irate. If I said, “yes” instead, she would become irate. If she dropped something on the floor of the car, and I told her she would have to wait until she got home to retrieve it, she became irate.

By 8 or 9 at night, I was sick, tired, and tired of feeling sick. I needed time to myself. Except that my daughter was having trouble falling asleep at night. She would wake up at three or four and want to sleep in my bed with me. When I told her she had to wait until morning, it did not go over well. This time I was the one who was irate. I knew I was teaching her horrible methods of dealing with her emotions.

After my depression was treated, I was able to hold my feelings in check a little better. My daugher would often complain for an hour or more. Her emotions would get away from her, and the result was complaint after complaint until some unseen force placated her. I was never that force. On the meds I was able to take the tantrums for an hour before I exploded. I used to try to explain to her that she couldn’t just push and push and push and think that others could just take it. She was four at the time. She didn’t get it, and I did not then and still do not now have the ability to absorb it with calm composure. I think she needs more from me than I am capable of giving.

So, at some point a long, long time ago, I reached my threshold when it comes to my daughter’s moods. Now I have little or no tolerance when she throws a tantrum. That well is dry, and I desperately wish I knew how to fill it again.

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Night, part 3

I am beginning to see why there appears to be a connection between dysfunction and creativity. I was thinking this morning about Edgar Allen Poe and Amy Winehouse. Two very different people who each shared their brilliance in their own time, but were overcome by addiction.

I had thought I would write about my nights staying up with my son when he was an infant, but no one would want to read it. A perceptive midwife tuned in to my depression while I was still pregnant with my son, and by the time he was born, my emotions were held in check with the help of what I affectionately called my “little blue happy pills.” I experienced the “baby blues” with my son–for real this time, as opposed to what I mistakenly called the baby blues after my daughter was born. I cried in the shower maybe four times the first week after my son was born, and it was over.

I decided I would never again share my bedroom with one of my children, so my son was assigned his own room his very first night home. He was sleeping through the night (medical definition-six hours) within the first week and was sleeping over eight hours (my definition of sleeping through the night) within a month or two. I actually enjoyed the one or two feedings I had with him each night. Did I mention how much I LOVED those little blue pills? I looked forward to the quiet. I watched season one of Dexter on my computer. I wore headphones. I had a snack. Did I mention how those little blue happy pills caused me to gain weight?  That’s it. No raw emotion. No insanity. Contentment is very boring. Unless you’re the one who is content.

Perhaps sometime I should write about the juxtaposition posed by a mother feeding an infant in the peaceful quiet of the night, while enjoying a show whose protagonist is a prolific serial killer.

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