Monday, August 12, 2019

Mother Ode

The 17th generation of hummingbirds that nested in the redwood trees outside our sunroom window moved away.  More accurately, they were forcibly relocated, by the felling of redwood trees blocking the neighbor's sun. The ache I feel when standing at the window with my coffee in hand is not unlike the ache I feel with every other loss. Though reliable in its lack of mercy, impermanence still baffles me. Each breath we draw from birth on forward teaches us that nothing lasts but not how to cope with that hard piece of fact. The bewildered hummer moms hung around for a day or two, then most likely rebuilt their nest elsewhere. The sugar water altar they prayed at for seventeen years now stands abandoned, like a chapel in a war-ravaged town. When I cleaned up the tree debris, a salamander scuttled away. I planted a rhododendron and went on with my life.

23 years ago this week my mother died. I have been telling her some things in my mind that I should have thought to say before she was ashes scattered, earless and presumably in a Better Place. Gratitude for being there for me, and for letting me spread my wings. Apologies for my lack of interest in her as a fully formed human in her own right. I am now in that position of being less than visible, as all Moms are throughout time and will be. When my nest empties, I wonder if I will disappear altogether.

"If I could do it over" is a recurring phrase that makes that ache, like how I feel when I look out where the hummingbirds always were. I can no more do parenting over than I can reverse the redwood stumps back into towering giants. It is true there is more sun now that those trees are gone. Loss brings a certain clarity, a light trained on imperfections and sins. Loss is like an interrogator who has you tied to a chair, terrified and trying to decide what you can admit to and what you must keep locked inside no matter what blows fall.

When I sit next to people with dementia, they often talk about their mothers as if they were still around, and coming by in a bit to "take them home". This limbic link to the woman who was once dispensable and considered an irritant is neuro-ironic. Even the damaged brain has saved some space for her, in the back closet, behind the dust pan and broom. Its possible I too will receive limbic visits to my Broom Closet Better Place someday from some grown child who just wants to tell me this or that. Or who has forgotten everything else but me and is waiting for me to come pick them up and take them home.

A story about a mother frustrated:
One day our hen seemed sick. She sat so motionless I thought she had died. Then she stirred and moaned and did that world-weary cry that only hens can do. We thought perhaps her egg was bound. We brought her in, fascinating the dogs. We placed her on an oven rack over gently steamed water, a towel wrapped around her. She clucked and looked at us like we were idiot farmers. Smart hen. Then I tried a lubricated finger in the cloaca to turn or dislodge the egg, my dusty obstetric skills  asserting themselves. Her cluck became more of a what the f:#%? No egg. Back to the coop. We finally called a wiser hen-keeper who said, why she is just brooding! She wants her egg to become a chick. She does this regularly now, the only one in the brood to be such a broody brooder. Maybe someday I will slide a chick under her, all warm and real and fuzzy feathered.

When my nest empties, perhaps instead of disappearing altogether, I will become solid once again. My brooding might turn to staring at the back of my hand which now looks exactly like my mother's hands which used to freak me out with their veins and age spots. They will try to tell me the story of me, little hands that once climbed trees and were enamored with the piano at the age of three. Bigger hands that  practiced piano for hours then decided to hold a scalpel in gross anatomy instead. Hands that felt the swell of my pregnancy. That held the hand of my husband. That rested on the top of the heads of my three children in turn. That extracted splinters expertly. That played catch and held every Harry Potter book, each heavier than the last, for night time reading-out-loud sessions. That flew to my mouth when I heard terrible news. That gripped the dashboard while teaching the mysteries of driving a stick in the parking lot of St Mary's School. That touches the back of my teenager just to have some contact before they roll their eyes and walk away. That write things down and paint a house and palpate joints and abdomens to diagnose. That make me feel I have everything in hand.
A mother in the hand is worth two in the bush.

I do miss my mother's hands.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Summer Communion

I was thinking of being six years old and a member of a two person club, the California Condors. The name was everything we needed, based on a semi-mythical and nearly extinct bird with a wingspan longer by three feet than that of the best NBA players. And California conjured exotic landscapes, far from the rolling hills of Western Wisconsin and Eastern Minnesota, rising up and watching over each side of the Mississippi River.

I swam in the Mississippi  and would dare myself to open eyes under water, though mostly finding a silty darkness looking back at me. Once, briefly, I shared my inner tube on a tributary, the Black River, with a long water snake. I caught it on my shin, legs bent over the tube, butt hanging in the holy center, and kicked it in the air, watching it arc and splash down river while I screamed and it did whatever the equivalent snake sound of horror might be.

Hot summer evenings, at dusk, in those, the days of laCrosse Encephalitis,  brought the mosquito spraying truck through our neighborhood, first spraying one side of the street, then the other. It made a particular deep, sonorous hum that attracted groups of children, not unlike an ice cream truck with its creepy tunes. We would chase it and feel the poison mist falling gently on our faces and scrawny, bare arms and legs. Probably our parents were never aware of this pastime. My mother, who was up every day at 5 o'clock AM to braid my hair, make breakfast, make lunches, then work all day and come home to make dinner and clean the house was likely at this point in the evening curled into a corner of the couch watching Hawaii Five-0, as well she should have been.

My tree house had a ladder and a trap door. Inside was a musty carpet and homemade curtains on each of the four square windows. Daddy Long-Legs considered it their vacation home of choice. One of the neighbor boys used to catch Daddy Long-Legs and chase me and my friends then pull their legs out. I suspect large, angry Daddy Long-Legs will be a prominent part of the Karmic payback for many a neighborhood boy, come judgement day.

My father would stand outside on summer days after work, shaking his fist and swearing in German at the deer eating his tomato plants and flowers. They would stare back at him like a pack of teenagers, unconcernedly chewing. My job was to lug the watering can up and down our steep hill to water the plants. I also mowed the lawn and at least once during every four hour mowing session, the mower would take off on some hillside and threaten to slice off a body part and I would run in the other direction until I was sure I could turn back and catch the thing on my own terms and keeping all of my toes. I hated accidentally running over toads, and was constantly stopping to move those guys out of the way.

On hot summer days growing up, I ran all the time. Walking was inefficient and a waste of my little muscled, mosquito-bitten stick legs. I ran to kick the can. I ran for Allie-Allie-in-come-free. I ran through the sprinkler. I ran and dove upon the three Slip-n-Slides laid in an epic, yellow Slip-n-Slide row, inevitably drawing blood on the jagged sharp edges where the water sprayed out.

My Mom played catch with me, her arm informed by her days as the only girl playing for New York City's Little League. She played shortstop. I played softball, and was the pitcher. My mother once convinced me to eat a plate of disgusting canned spinach because it would do for my arms what it did for Popeye's.

Not to brag but we rode our bikes all day long and without helmets. We skated and skate-boarded without pads. We had exactly two choices on a hot summer day:
1) Go outside and play
2) Or I will find something* for you to do

*involving miserable house cleaning chores
* we did NOT have play-dates**

**I wonder... were play-dates the beginning of the end of Homo sapiens ability to survive in the wild?

I was thinking about my friend and I being California Condors. Soon after, she moved to Idaho and the day she left I watched her climb up into her family's truck and I cried.

I do not recall the California Condors having any specific mission. We just flew free, in Zips sneakers, for hours, by ourselves outside. Likely we were watched more than we realized by our parents and neighbors, but it felt like we were soaring independently, with endless wing spans, coming in for a landing only when we felt the animal urge for Red Kool-Aid and fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. My Mom even had one of those glass pitchers, as in the advertisements, with large ice cubes clinking as she poured the summer's wine, like communion, into our dixie-cup chalices.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

This One is About Running

Crush despair
Impulse by impulse
Launched, landed, launched
Redwoods fronds like the high dive
Some kid behind you yelling hurry up
Brooks slapping path, bouncing, committing
Six times up the hill they call the beast or is it
The bitch. Pit bulls on leashes strain to nose sweaty
Practically fifty year old runner and the phone rings, the work phone,
Pulling up to a burnt out 300 year old stump, tending suffering, catching breath
With calm words in the redwood cathedral, itself a healer of brokenness.
Confessed sins scamper under ferns and swaths of three leaf clovers
Attaching like ticks to the next ankle or dog passing through.
No matter created or destroyed just redeployed
Under canopies, salamander playgrounds,
Neon slugs consume shit,
Dopamine rush, I care.
Crush despair

Saturday, June 29, 2019


I would like to consider power, which I can do only from my own perspective, which is both steeped in power and roasted in powerlessness, giving off the aroma of fragility with an after-burn of ferocity.
I would like to consider the potential power of unpopular opinions, the power trapped inside the magazine gorgeous body of my eighteen year old daughter who is unafraid to speak her mind. The power she showed looking her school administrator straight in the eyes and declaring she did not need him to tell her she is intelligent. Nor does his opinion much matter.

I would like to consider the power of being in power. I have watched hospital administrators crush the souls of physicians and nurses. I have watched my childrens' school allow racism and bullying to run freely while pretending to be representative of our self-proclaimed liberal town. I am watching and not doing a thing about children being imprisoned by my government, kidnapped from their parents, and placed in facilities not fit for any living thing. The power of those in power is they make the rest of us feel paralyzed with uncertainty. How can it be true that homeless people are disparaged by a Catholic hospital? How can it be true that a school protects itself on the back of a child who just happens not to be white and who happens not be able to remain silent? How can it be true that the country that once elected Obama is letting babies die in captivity? It is all so unfathomable, I feel like I spend half my life just trying to pick my jaw up from off the ground.

It can be hard to consider power when you come from feeling less than. Not pretty enough, not talented enough, not a good enough mother, not a competitive enough medical student, not a well-dressed enough physician, not fast enough, not thin enough, too thin. Staring in the mirror at boobs too small, unless wearing a cross country uniform, in which case I should have no boobs at all.

Power without wealth is rare. A favorite quote of administrators, and one I have even spouted once or twice myself is "no mission without money". Healthcare without resources is only cool if you are in the wilderness, on purpose, and remember the tricks you learned at your wilderness medicine conferences.  In my rural area, where poverty reigns, we are lucky to have specialists and some technology. But don't ask for a hysterectomy at our hospital, nor a tubal ligation, nor anything that might have to do with transgender healthcare. Jesus was very clear about these things, in his sermon on the Mount of Majesty, where declared blessed were those who did not act weird, smell funny, request birth control, or kiss people of the same anatomical sex.

I was thinking the other day that one of the most dangerous types of people is a wealthy, white liberal. I am white and liberal and compared to most people on this planet my wealth is grand. I know what is right, but spend my free time going on trail runs and reading fiction and playing piano. Meanwhile, a young black college student was murdered in my town and no one ever figured out who did it or why, my daughter was treated like shit at her high school and no one ever apologized, and little children are sitting in their own excrement in cement cages on our border to make a political point. I am mad as hell, and not doing anything about it. Dangerous in my complacency. Dangerous in my desire to just keep my children safe in this scary and unjust world, even if other people's children are having a hard time.

Having a son in prison reframes things, with the perfect family portrait tinged with a backdrop of the noir, the family theme song slightly ominous, and the proverbial neighbors looking knowingly at our particular failure to thrive. I used to dread lunches in the doctor's lounge, with everyone's children winning the state science fair. I often quipped about being glad my son was not in jail. Definitely a conversation stopper. Let me eat my gorram peanut butter and jelly sandwich in peace. Course he did end up in jail, then prison, and let's consider the power dynamics he faces every day. Young, baby-faced, not terribly tall, a goof ball, and irritatingly smart. A target for those who find power in physical prowess. The guards steal things from the letters I send him (like stamps and envelopes so he can write back). If he does well at work (which he has been), the guys there longer and much older give him grief. If he has one impulsive reaction to someone making him feel small and insignificant, it could lead to more time in prison, and the endless cycle of taking young men with addiction and short fuses and making them even more angry and scared and so powerless that they finally just give up. Blessed be the Prison Industrial Complex.

I would like to consider the power of women. At a recent writing and running retreat, led by and attended by women, there was so much power in the room that it felt like I could breathe for the first time in a long while. Because the power was not toxic. It was steady and fierce. Like one of those redwoods that it would take ten people to wrap their arms around. Like the way the ocean rolls in and in and in with a roar of serenity. The food was also good and I don't think we talk enough about the power of good food, good water, and a decent bed to sleep in at night.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has that kind of power. Nourishing and honest. Can you see how she makes the very house of representatives quake in its boots and powdered wigs? Can you bear her truth telling? Can you believe she started her campaign with $2 and a job as a waitress? The scariest thing to those in inherited and bought power is a pissed off, highly educated, brown-skinned waitress from the Bronx.

AOC reminds me of my daughter, the one who has been standing up for her rights despite the perturbed discomfort of angry administrators and challenged teachers. I worry and worry that they will try to hurt her further. Let's consider the misuse of power and its penchant for destruction. Abuse of power will, in the not too distant future, be the end of homo sapiens. Unless...

...power is considered less important than courage. And compassion. And speaking up for those that may not be able to on that given day, and when they are able to, stepping aside so they can speak for themselves.

A bunch of small, insignificant people could theoretically decide as a group that they have had enough and it could change everything. And can we please elect a woman to the presidency of the United States of America?

It is time someone magically awakens the inner vampire slayer so many seemingly timid beings possess. Blessed are the slayers, for they will inherit the earth.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Questions Pertaining to Freedom Molecules

Are we still calling French Fries "Freedom Fries?"
Is everyone comfortable with a President that lies?
Is a black man composed of molecules of freedom?

Does a homonuclear molecule, like ozone, fear?
Does God hate that part of the stratosphere?
Are only heteronuclear molecules allowed the status of freedom?

If a child is told she is a monster is it true?
Should we cage her in the name of red, white and blue?
Does an immigrant fleeing deserve their freedom?

In my liberal town should I expect more?
Should my Chinese child quietly absorb every racial slur?
Does the spit spraying from a bully's mouth count as molecules of freedom?

Can a uterus be an optional childcare zone?
Are clothes hangers of wire sold on Amazon?
Do spermatazoa have all the power and freedom?

When I write and fight do I scare you away?
Does anyone face off chest to chest these days?
Or are automatically rifled bullets and social media how we celebrate freedom?

When I care for the vulnerable does it make me a pussy?
Does hate for the other make Jesus weepy?
Philosophically, can you define freedom?

In fifty years will earth be dead and what will happen to all those hats of red?
Is greatness white?
Is freedom free?

Molecules unite!
Go not softly.
Can you taste the freedom of delight?
Is it bittersweet with hints of a floral citrus bouquet, like compassion?

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Mother's Day, Shmother's Day

When I was pregnant, I was in the weekly class for pregnant people the hospital put on. I was large, my legs were swollen and I was exhausted. Also scared. As we were all nearing our due date, the teacher asked how we were feeling. One woman said, through tears, "I just love being pregnant SO much. I am really going to miss this." And I thought to myself, what the hell is wrong with me?

Myth: Being pregnant is the most wonderful thing that could happen to any woman in her life.

When my Mom was in her early 40's, I was in grade school. We lived in a neighborhood that let me walk to school. After school, she would often still be at work as a nurse and teacher. Oh my father was also at work but always till dinnertime and no one actually would've even asked where he was because of course he is at work, as he is the man. So I would come home and let myself in, and go out and play, and when I came back an hour later the house would smell of the dinner my Mom made immediately upon coming home from work. One day I came back from my afternoon of play and the house was empty. I sat and waited for another 30 minutes? 5 minutes? 2 hours? Who knows. Mom and Dad came home, and I yelled at her (not him). I was so mad. Turns out she had been at the doctor being told she had breast cancer. I was still mad, because Moms are supposed to be there exactly when you need them, every single time, no matter what.

Myth: A little cancer shouldn't stop a Mom from being home on time to make dinner.

When I was in residency, my husband dropped me off one morning on the top of Parnassus, where the fog was swirling around the Hospital on the Hill. My son, all of two, was in the back seat. He gazed up at the Mecca of Medicine, pointed and said, "Look! there's Mommy's house." He is in prison now.

Myth: Working mothers hurt their children.

When I was at a show at our kids' elementary school, I was chatting with another Mom. She did not recognize me, though knew my husband, the usual dropper-offer to the classroom. She looked me in the face, and with a very sad tone says "I don't know how you can work the way you do. I could NEVER leave my children like that." In my mind I was thinking "well, I think helicopter mothers who never leave their child's side for one minute are pretty creepy."

Myth: Women should stay at home with their children.
Myth: Women should work and model being strong for their children.
Myth: Women can have it all.

When I was offered a job at a major university medical center, my children cried but we thought it would actually be a good move for the family. When the principal of the school where my troubled son heard, she came up to me and said "I can't believe you would think about moving. Doesn't he have enough troubles already? He is JUST starting to make more friends." We did not move. Later, an occasional remark was made to me about things would've been better if we had. I actually did not make the move because I wanted to stay here and work, but WOW,  people really do say the meanest and most thoughtless things.

Myth: Women want you to give them advice on how to be better mothers.

I have never been a big fan of Mother's Day. It is nice, I suppose, that people take the time to acknowledge the mother figures in their life, but let's think about what Mother's Day really tells us:

1. You should be getting cards and gifts from your kids on mother's day. If you are not, what is wrong with you?
2. You should have a relationship with your mother that is as precious as the treacle of a Hallmark greeting card.
3. You haven't had kids yet? What is wrong with you?
4. Your Mom is dead? Oh how sad, now move over while I order another mimosa at brunch.
5. Moms are super heroes. They can raise kids, go to work, clean the house, do the laundry, go to every PTA meeting, bake cookies, and get their kids into elite colleges.
6. It is a sacred thing to be a Mom, and a sacred thing to have one.

All that said, there is nuance in motherhood. Is it beautiful? Oh my gosh, yes, yes yes! Except when it is not. Is it rewarding? If you are looking for a reward, perhaps motherhood is not for you. But the process is rewarding in the same way anything else challenging and real in life is rewarding. For instance, I just spent several months training for a marathon, only to get injured at mile 15 in the race. So though I failed in one way, I still can look at the months of work I put in and the moments of joy I had along the way, and feel like I can go on to the next marathon or maybe a half marathon because marathons are just plain crazy.

I love my children. I wouldn't trade being a Mom. But that's just me and we seriously need to stop making women (and children) feel like Motherhood with a capital M is some kind of magical fantasy of bliss. A mom just has to keep showing up every day, no matter what the universe throws her.

My proposal for Mother's Day:
Screw Hallmark, and see a Mom doing her thing; her hard, every day, non-glamorous thing, and ask her what you can do to help.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


-for Vera

When the banana slug on the porch step
just above where I sat
had the audacity to reach down
for my donut, a chocolate-glazed old fashioned
starting to melt a little in the sun,
my life as the mother of Vera flashed before my surprised eyes.
The weight of my baby's head in the palm of my hand.
Her fat fingers grasping sand
in a San Francisco park.
Hair flying, running, smiling
at an inside joke like a Zen Master.
Crafting words,
describing the absurd world,
running faster with egg-beater gait 
like Seabiscuit.
Quick wit with pointy
knees and elbows
shoving Dad out of bed on stormy nights.
Big sister
with brown eyes that
remind me to notice
every moment.
The quickening, like insistent kicking,
not gas,
while I sat in my wooden front row medical school seat
looking at histology slides,
the cells of the liver,
where pregnancy met hepatology.
Not knowing then how I'd grieve when she
no longer could be lifted 
to rest on my hips while we walked,
skinny, tan arms wrapped around my neck.
Redwoods, runs, books,
slugs in sun attempting donut thievery.
Mundane, underrated, interrelated 
miracles of confection and conception.