Monday, September 15, 2014

Glad to Have a Girl

This post was inspired by The Underground Girls of Kabul by journalist Jenny Nordberg, who discovers a secret Afghani practice where girls are dressed and raised as boys. Join From Left to Write on September 16th as we discuss The Underground Girls of Kabul. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

There was a time when I could only imagine having a male child.  I’m kind of a teenage boy myself, disguised in a 44-year-old woman’s body.  I figured I would know how to interact with a boy.  I like to be gross.  I like getting dirty.  I like to play rough.  I pictured us investigating dinosaur bones together.  While pregnant, I squeezed my eyes together and tried to picture my future child.  I didn’t get a face, just a pair of legs swinging from a chair in the cafeteria of the local science museum. 

Yup, it’s a boy I thought. 

We only had one name picked out for him:  Holden.   And at 11 pm each night, he kicked the stuffing out of me, such that we took to calling him “Boom Boom Moore.” 

He had to be a boy. 

I wanted his sex to be a surprise, much to my husband's disappointment.  When we went in for our week 20, high-level ultrasound, I told the technician in no uncertain terms that though my husband wanted to know the sex of the child, I was to be left in the dark.  I didn’t want any pointing and giggling.  The technician aimed her wand and peered at the screen, pointing out body parts, like a transdermal tour guide.  I followed along, but when she got to the pelvic region I averted my eyes because I didn’t want to accidentally see the penis.  She gave nothing away.  When it was over, I left the room to pee (they make you do this on a maxed-out bladder), and my husband remained behind to find out what we were going to have.

“I don’t know,” the technician said.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” my husband asked.  After all, wasn’t it their job to look for nuchal folds and other things indiscernible to the untrained eye?

“The way the baby was turned, I couldn’t tell, not with certainty.” 

We walked out of there knowing one thing for sure, our baby did not have an obvious penis.  Well, so be it. 

Fast forward to 20 weeks later, when the director of the Maternal Fetal Medicine department stood over me and announced that I had just given birth to a baby girl.  Much to my surprise, I was thrilled.    

How nice that I could be thrilled.  That I don’t live in a society where a daughter means shame and disappointment, where a daughter is something to be mourned or hidden.  Rather, that I live in a place where being female means freedom—freedom to wear pants or a dress, freedom to cry or be stoic, freedom to get pregnant or decide not to. 

Life might have been different had Sophie been born a boy.  Different, but not better. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pure Imagination

The greatest shock of reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as an adult (aside from the dark humor, e.g. Chapter 10:  The Family Begins to Starve--that must have drifted right past me as a child) is how quick a read it is.  I remember rich, delicious descriptions that I realize now, must have been colored in by my eager imagination.  Part of Roald Dahl’s genius is knowing just how much to feed little minds—to bait them into dreaming more deeply about fantastic possibilities.  The story, the dialogue, the bones of imagery is all there, but young readers must meet the book half way—contributing their own ideas to construct the magical place that is Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. 

This week, I am bringing you a special mother-daughter edition of Life with Sophia.  Together, Sophia and I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory through my participation in the online book club, From Left to Write.  Afterwards, we both blogged in response to the following prompt, encouraging us to insert ourselves inside the pages:   What I Would Do If I Won a Golden Ticket

By Sophia, Age 6

First thing:  Tell my parents. 

Second thing:  Put on my best clothes. 

Third thing:  Get in the car. 

Fourth thing:  Bring my parents to the factory. 

Fifth thing:  Be very interested. 

Sixth thing:  Greetings: “It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Wonka.”

Seventh thing:  Inside the factory:  We play “Whip the Cream” and watch as Mr. Wonka makes candy disappear into our mouths.  We play a piano that is made out of candy.  In one room, it looks like we were outside.  And there are trees made out of candy, bushes made out of candy.  Everything has sugar.  Even the grass and the dirt.  The waterfall is made out of chocolate.  The bark is mint gum.  The wood is dark chocolate, my mother’s favorite.  The leaves are made out of mint, cause Daddy likes the color green.  The birds are made out of coconut and dried mangos.

Eighth thing:  We see a little cottage.  The curtains are made out of taffy.  The door is made out of a giant cookie.  The chairs and tables are made out of crushed mint.  There is even a piano made out of licorice.  The fireplace is made out of taffy.  The windows are made out of blue flattened gumballs.  And the chimney is made out of gumdrops.  I leave it alone because Mr. Wonka says, “We have to move onto the next thing” (and because it’s his house). 

Ninth thing:  I get a prize at the end, because I am the most behaved person.  My prize is for my whole family to live there! 

Tenth thing:  I say thank you at the end.  So does the rest of my family. 

By Melissa, Age 43

First thing:  I freak out.  It must be a hoax.  How did I get so lucky?  I get the ticket authenticated.  I do not alert the media.  I hide it in my underwear drawer.

Second thing:  I ask my daughter to come with me.   I tell her to tell no one.  She announces it to all her friends at school the next day.  That evening, the media descends on my house like a swarm of flies on a dead body.  They take really awful pictures of me with my mouth open and print them in International newspapers. 

Third thing:  I cannot sleep at all the night before because I am so excited.  This means I will have dark rings under my eyes and will be cranky on what should be the best day of my life. 

Fourth thing:  I put on my best clothes.  I take off my best clothes.  I put my best clothes on again. 

Fifth thing:  I kiss my husband goodbye who doesn’t actually mind that he’s not going to the factory because he doesn’t like chocolate.  Instead he will sleep in and watch an entire season of Game of Thrones. 

Sixth Thing:  Willy Wonka is much shorter than I expected.  I am relieved that I do not feel attracted to him. 

Seventh Thing:  Willy Wonka has invented dark chocolate that will not give me pimples.  He leads me by the hand to a Chocolate Bar where all the parents can hang out and sip Shiraz out of cups made of the non-pimple causing chocolate, while our kids go to town mowing mint grass with their mouths.  Willy Wonka assures me everything is organic. 

Eighth Thing:  We all brush our teeth.  

Ninth Thing: Willy Wonka tells me that Sophia remembered to say “thank you” and “please” while I was too busy chatting it up with the other parents at the Chocolate Bar to effectively parent.  He commends me on such a well-mannered child.  He then tells me that he offered her a lifetime supply of chocolate, but she asked that he please foot the bill for her college tuition instead.  He agreed. 

Tenth Thing:  I smile with gratitude and give Willy Wonka a kiss on the cheek.  Wait a minute.  Is he blushing? 

This post was inspired by the classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. To celebrate, Penguin Young Readers Group, in partnership with Dylan’s Candy Bar, the world-famous candy emporium, and First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides books for children from low-income families, is launching a year-long international celebration.

Head over to From Left to Write to learn how you and your child can have a chance to win the Golden Ticket Sweepstakes where the grand prize is a magical trip to New York City plus much more! For every entry submitted, Penguin Young Readers Group will make a donation to First Book. Then, join From Left to Write on July 24 as we discuss Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As a book club member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Monday, July 7, 2014

An Untidy Life

If writing had been relegated to the edges of my life before my father came to live with us, it has now been pushed over the precipice and plummeted to its death.  Words shattered at the base of the canyon.  Letters splayed everywhere.  Sometimes, I stand at the edge and look over at the wreckage and feel overwhelmed at the prospect of putting it all back together.

I miss it.  The outlet.  The opportunity to make sense of the senseless.  To construct a narrative out of chaos.  Line up the sentences of my life and make them march in order.  That’s really what writers do.  They tidy.  They take the messiness of life and try to make it neat.

Living with my father living with cancer is anything but neat.  Every day I find new corners of impatience within myself.

I look at my sink, that once held the detritus of just two people, and now it’s littered with the remains of three.  Signs of illness gather in the corners of the bathroom, pepper the sink, lie matted in the drain.

I know he tries to clean it up, which I appreciate.  But there’s always more.

Most days, I feel like I am slicing off parts of myself and handing them to others until the end of the day, when there are a only few crumbs left to dab at.  At dinner, my father, anxious to share the day, tells us every detail of every moment.

“I had the most wonderful day,” my father begins, his voice still traceable to the Lower East Side.  “I went to Shop Rite and spent hours picking everything out, reading all the labels.  I brought back the coupon they gave me the last time I bought coffee and they gave me the two dollars, even though I didn’t buy new coffee.  Isn’t that wonderful?”  He regales us with stories about everything he has eaten, every person he has encountered, everything he has read.

Sophie pleads at my elbow to tell me something.  “Dad, could you hold on a sec.  Sophie needs a turn.”

“Do I have to eat this?” Sophie says, prodding her eggplant in peanut sauce.

“Just eat the broccoli.”  I tell her.  “You don’t have to have the eggplant.”

“My stomach hurts.”

“Soph, if you don’t eat, there won’t be any dessert.”

“How much do I have to eat to get dessert?”  I sigh.

“So let me tell you about this band that I heard in the park….” My father starts in again.

“Do I have to have the noodles too?”

“Soph, I’m not cutting deals.  Eat.  If you’re stomach hurts, don’t eat, but you’re not having dessert if it hurts.”

“They were terrific…” my father continues.

I look over at Kevin who is almost finished eating.  I have no idea how his day has gone.  Nor does he know anything about mine.

Underneath the table, my toenails are menacingly long.  Later, in an effort to cover the chips in the polish, I give them a coat of quick-drying red.  As I go to replace the cap, I spill the contents of the bottle all over.  Bright red splashed onto the floor, the cabinets, the off-white towels, and my leg.

I pour nail polish remover on the floor and get most of it up, but it stubbornly clings to the grout and the fibers of my towel,

“Mommy?  What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to clean up nail polish I just spilled all over the place,” I tell Sophie, trying to keep my voice even.

“Can you do my nails when you’re done?”

The hours I never knew were empty are now filled with hospitals and side effects and phone calls.  My relationships with my friends have been relegated to texting and facebook and voice mail.

          Thinking of u always.

          Miss u.  Much love.

My working hours stretch deeper into the night, because it all still needs to get done.

I hate being busy.  I remember when I once wore it as a badge of honor.  How I used to get into these competitive little conversations with my husband about who was busier.  I spent years unwinding that knot, trying to create more spaciousness in my life.  Not that I was wildly successful, but I had been making progress.

That progress has stalled in the middle of an intersection.  Everyone’s honking, and all I want to do is get out of the car.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Sophie has developed her first friend independent of me—someone who she has chosen and who has chosen her.  Their mutuality is dictated by something other than sheer geography or parental design.   They share the same delicious mixture of creativity, mischievousness, and silliness.  Today, they were playing “spa” in the cracking plastic sandbox in the back yard.   I happened to glance out the kitchen window just in time to see Sophie “washing” Lola’s* hair with sand. 

“No!  Stop!”  I called out waving my hands.  They looked up, surprised.  Disappointed. 

“What?” asked Sophie.  “I was doing her hair.”

“Soph, you could get sand in her eyes.”

“I didn’t.  I’m not gonna.” 

“Famous last words,” I replied.  “Please don’t wash your friend’s hair with sand.  Help her get it out.”  And she did. 

Last week we were at a craft show with my mother.  Such things bored me to tears when I was her age, but Sophie looks at every item—whether it’s adult jewelry or sponges cut into fake cheese for a display—with great enthusiasm.  “Mom!  You’ve got to see this!” She called me over to where she was standing in one booth, “It says Best Friends Forever.” 

“It’s a charm for a bracelet or a necklace,” I told her. 

“Can I get it for Lola?  Please?”  She widened those great gray eyes of her in earnest. 

I have a hard time saying “no” to displays of thoughtfulness and generosity.  I bought two, one for Lola, one for Sophie.  Matching bracelets to seal their friendship beyond the last days of kindergarten.  Next year, they would be attending first grade at different schools across town from each other. 

Sophie happily swung the little Chinese take out box that held the bracelets.  Once we were home I set the bracelets aside, for Sophie to give to Lola after kindergarten was over. 

I didn’t want the two of them flaunting their bracelets in front of the five other girls they were friends with in their class. 

The Monday after our craft fair outing, I picked Sophie up from school and we went food shopping at Wegmans.  She asked to sit in the cart, like she had when she was much younger.  Somehow, she folded her long limbs and forced her legs through the holes in the seat.  I was concerned about how I would get her out without the Jaws of Life. 

“Mom, something happened at school today.”

“What?” I asked, scouring the shelves for Marsala.  They are constantly moving everything around at Wegmans. I’m sure it’s an evil ploy to encourage you to find and purchase products that you wouldn’t ordinarily even think of.  It just makes me hostile. 

“I told Lola about the bracelet.”

“Oh Sophie it was a surprise.  Why did you do that?  What if the other girls overheard you?  You wouldn’t want them to feel bad.”

“Well, they didn’t.  But then Lola told them about it.”  This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen. 

“And?”  She had my full attention now. 

“And Isabella* got really upset.  She was crying.” 

“Well, put yourself in her shoes…”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong!” 

“I know you didn’t mean to do anything wrong.  But imagine this.  What if Isabella had bought Lola a Best Friends Forever bracelet and told Lola to keep it a secret.  But then Lola told you about it.  How would you feel?”

Sophie was quiet.  I waited.  “I’m thinking about it,” she told me.

“I see that.”

“Bad.  Jealous.  Maybe left out.”


Sophie looked like she was ready to cry.  “Honey, I don’t mean to make you feel bad.  And it’s okay for you to give a gift to Lola, but you want to do it in a way that’s not going to hurt other people’s feelings.  I was going to have you wait until after school was over to give the bracelet to Lola.”

“You didn’t tell me that!” It’s true.  I hadn’t.  I thought out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  I had underestimated her excitement.  And her ability to be discrete. 

“You’re right. I probably should have.  But you learned something from this, didn’t you.”

“I won’t ever talk about a gift in school again.  Ever.” 

“Well, more like you have to consider how doing something like that might make other people feel.  Don’t worry.  This too will pass.”

I gave her a hug. 

But it didn’t pass for Sophie. 

Saturday morning there was a knock at my door.  Sophie came bounding into my room, throwing a handful of bracelets onto my bed.

I pulled myself into a sitting position and looked at the clock.  7:15.  Sigh.  I had set the clock for 7:45 because we had an End-of-the-Year breakfast for her class to get to.  I could have slept for thirty more minutes. 

“What’s all this?”  I rubbed the blear out of my eyes. 

“I made everyone charm bracelets!”  She had taken six of her very own bracelets, wrote her friends names on little paper tabs she decorated with drawings of flowers and stick-on jewels and stuck the tabs to the bracelets with tape. 

“Now everyone will have one.  No one will be left out.  I want to give them to all the girls at breakfast.”    

She’s becoming more and more of her own person.  Not just developing her own, meaningful relationships, but understanding how to navigate the complex social world, and generating creative, caring solutions to some pretty thorny problems. 

“They’re beautiful,” I told her, smiling, and basking in the warm aura of my charming daughter.   

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Intruder

I haven’t written for awhile, because I’ve been conflicted.  Each time I set pen to paper (or fingers to iMac), I realize that I can’t talk about Life With Sophia without talking about the turn that our life has taken. 

I’ve been waffling, as I always do, about how much to share.  How much of the story I would be telling is my story, and how much of it is someone else’s story.  To what extent do I want to make the private public.  But the effects of not writing about it are inhibitory.  The reticence spreading like the very disease that has entered our lives.  That’s how it is when you make something taboo.  If you don’t talk about something, you find that you have to talk around it, and everything you say feels like a half-truth.   

Part of me hopes that if I do talk about it, I will draw the support to me that I need and, maybe I’ll say something of value along the way that will be helpful to someone else. 

I don’t mean to be so mysterious.  My father has been diagnosed with metastatic throat cancer.  He is coming here to live with us through the duration of his treatment and recovery…whatever that may look like. 

I have fears about what that may look like.  Fears that visit me in the night. 

Last night I had a dream.  I was trying to get Sophia ready to go to school and there was a strange man in my house.  He opened up my freezer and took out a frozen sheet of naan, as if he had every right to do so, leaned against our Formica countertop and chewed it, eyeing me.

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” I told the man.  “I’m taking Sophie to school, and I have to lock up the house.”

He ignored me, went on chewing, and said, “Don’t you love Barq’s root beer?” 

“Uh, I do like root beer, but like I said, I really have to get going.  Could you please go?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” the man replied menacingly.  I began to feel anxious—the pressure of needing to get Sophie to school on time, to get to work on time, and not knowing what to do about this uninvited guest. 

“I have to lock the door behind you,” I insisted, standing next to the door, trying to reason with him.  He pressed a code into a pad on the door—something I had not noticed before—and replied, “I’ll lock up behind you.  I know the code. “

“I don’t want to have to call someone,” I threatened vaguely and hoisted my bag higher onto my shoulder. 

He moved in close to me.  I could smell his breath, which was boozy.  He kissed me lightly on the lips, and, still close, whispered, “You’re not going to call anyone.” 

Then I woke up, still frightened.  It had all felt so…intrusive.  I felt helpless.  It wasn’t until I was sharing the dream with Kevin as I prepared breakfast that it occurred to me:  the intruder was Cancer. 

And that’s how it feels.  Insidious.  By the time you discover it in your house, it has already established residency.  Made itself at home.  Spread out.  Taking.  Locking itself in.  Refusing to depart.  Cancer doesn’t care if you have other things to do, places to be.  It demands your attention.

My father’s cancer is incurable.  In a week, they will begin to try to attack it with chemotherapy.  Cisplatin.  A heavy metal and a cellular poison—as deadly to healthy kidney cells as it is to cancerous cells.  But even this “big hammer,” one of the original cancer drugs that still works better than anything else they’ve got for throat cancer, will not eradicate every mutant cell from his body.  It will shrink the tumors, hold them at bay for sometime, minimize symptoms—difficulty swallowing, breathing, speaking—extend his life.  But all it takes is one microscopic cell, dividing over and over again, because that’s what cancer cells are—a mutation of the DNA in a healthy cell that creates the uncontrollable division of cells in the body—to form new tumors. 

I wonder if it feels like a betrayal of his body.  I watch my father struggle to understand what is happening to him—not just the medical realities, but the metaphysical whys. 

It is hard not to look at the hourglass and spend one’s days exclaiming, “My sand is running out!  My sand is running out!”  What a thing to suddenly realize that your life is finite.  My father, who is seventy, had assumed more time.  I had assumed more time.  There always seems to be more time.  So we fritter, and we worry, and we fight. 

I am scared.  I don’t know how to do this.  I don’t know what to tell Sophia as my father grows more deeply ill.  I worry that our attachments will deepen, and then I will lose him.