I had always scoffed at people who got engaged at baseball games, or on national television, with their shrieking, weepy faces plastered on a giant screen while everyone applauded. What kind of person wants to share one of the most defining moments of her life with thousands of complete strangers?
For me, a little candlelight, some expensive wine, and, of course, a declaration of undying love seemed more appropriate.
Which is why I was completely floored by what happened to me in New York City a few years ago.
Although we came from completely different religious backgrounds, Martin and I were drawn together through music, especially live music. Music was the soundtrack to our life together in Montreal, whether it was vintage blues playing in the background as we cooked a romantic dinner at home, or guessing what song was being played live in front of us from the first few notes. (I usually won our “Name That Tune” contests.)
Our friends made fun of the fact that we’d often take spontaneous road trips to see an artist we both liked. We went anywhere that we could get to within a day’s drive—Toronto, Philadelphia, Albany. I’d chart out the fastest way to get there via MapQuest, find a funky, reasonably priced hotel with free breakfast and parking, and off we’d go.
We especially loved Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Throughout The Rising tour of 2002-2003, we caught six Springsteen shows in six cities, including the last night of the tour in October 2003, outdoors at New York’s Shea Stadium. (Hey, some women buy expensive shoes, I invest in rock n’ roll experiences!)
It was pouring rain throughout the whole seven-hour drive from Montreal to New York, and was freezing cold when we finally arrived. Our shoes and socks were soaked, my hair was frizzy and out of control, but we were thrilled to be in the Big Apple for the final night of The Boss’s tour. Despite the horrible weather, the parking lot was jammed with tailgate parties featuring die-hard fans huddled in front of their cars or vans, trunks open, music blaring, barbecues fired up, makeshift tarps sheltering them from the rain.
Once inside the stadium, we begged (okay, bribed) a beer concession employee to part with two jumbo garbage bags, which we wore throughout the show, holding hands through the armholes Martin had hacked with his Swiss army knife.
The rain finally stopped to reveal a clear, starlit sky just as Springsteen began strumming the intro to his next song on his acoustic guitar. Famous for his intimate conversations with his audience, Springsteen spoke of commitment, of how fragile relationships can be, of how easy it is to lose one another if you’re not completely invested in your love. As he started to sing, we were amazed to realize that neither of us die-hard fans had ever heard this song before. In fact, we later found out it was the first time he had played “Back in Your Arms” in concert.
The crowd sat in silent appreciation, and as the first verse ended, Martin leaned into me and whispered, “I’m sorry I didn’t plan anything.” Thinking he was referring to finding a hotel in New York on five minutes’ notice, I shushed him. “I think we should get married,” he announced, in front of the 60,000 people who sat, drenched, under the stars with us.
My hands started shaking, and I’m not sure if I was shivering from the damp, cold air or the growing warmth in my heart. I threw my arms around Martin’s neck, and as the crowd cheered (for Bruce, not for us), I felt grateful for this perfect marriage proposal that was unlike anything I’d dreamed of. Instead of candlelight, we were bathed in bright, concert spotlights. Expensive wine? Nope, just warm American beer mixed with rainwater. A declaration of undying love? You bet.
Four months later, with “Back in Your Arms” as our first dance, we got married in a small civil ceremony with close family and friends. As he slipped the wedding band onto my finger, Martin said, “I promise to keep taking you to Springsteen shows as long as we can both still dance.” And I knew he meant it.
Everything has positive and negative consequences.
I wore many hats as the mother of four young children. At times I was the nutritionist making sure the kids ate a balanced diet, or the fashion expert as they wore color-coordinated, ironed outfits, or the mental health expert helping them have happy and fulfilling lives, or a dance partner for the Mickey Mouse song. But of these, my most prized job was that of an educator. I read to the children daily, took them to the library, and instilled a love of books. I wanted to encourage them to become familiar with words, so I printed “Toys” on a piece of tag board and taped it to the toy box. I followed with other concepts such as “Door,” “Wall,” “Bed,” and “Window.” I beamed when my preschool children recognized these words while I read a story or when they pointed out words on signs and billboards.
After the kids became proficient with numerous nouns, I tried other words. A sign with “Up” and an arrow pointing in that direction went near the ceiling, “Down” and its arrow was placed near the floor, “Push” went on one side of the door, and “Pull” decorated the other side. “Around” with a circular arrow went on a toy top. My chest puffed with pride as my children’s reading vocabularies grew.
One day they all came down with fevers, coughs, and stuffy noses. I should have had a sign on my forehead that said “Exhausted.” Miraculously, all four fell asleep at the same time, so I joined them. I woke from my deep slumber when a little finger poked my arm and my toddler announced, “That’s yummy.” My eyes flew open, and I stared at the orange stain around his mouth.
I rushed into the kitchen. Just as I feared, the orange-flavored children’s aspirin bottle lay on the counter — empty. I dialed the Poison Control Center and gave thanks I’d posted their number by the phone — even though I thought I’d never need it due to my extreme vigilance.
“Yes,” I answered when asked if I had syrup of ipecac. “Of course,” I replied when queried if I had placed the aspirin bottle out of the reach of children. “Certainly,” I said when asked if the bottle had a childproof cap. But even with all the correct answers, I felt like I should pin an “A” for Awful Mother on my clothing.
After the dose of ipecac caused my three-year-old to “fro-up,” the waiting voice on the phone asked to speak to the culprit. I eavesdropped on the conversation.
“How did you get the orange pills?”
“I climbed up.”
“Did you open the bottle?”
“Yes. It was hard.”
“How did you do it?”
“I read the directions.”
“Well, Super Mom,” I whispered, “looks like your great idea doubled back and kicked you.” I gave a sigh of relief that my little son was okay, then readjusted my Mom Hat and trudged on.
We can do no great things, only small things with great love.
A few years after Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s she started to believe what her mind was telling her. A few Alzheimer’s caregiver seminars had taught me not to question her imagination, so that made it easier for me to just listen and accept it when one summer day Mom said she was a fighter pilot in the Air Force.
We were at Mom’s favorite diner. She was well liked there because she always kissed the manager and all the waiters, but I noticed Mom was not her happy self that day. She just wanted to go straight to our usual table and stare out the window, gazing up at the sky. It was a perfect blue-sky day, with cotton ball clouds.
“What are you thinking about, Mom?” I asked. That’s when she told me she was once a fighter pilot in the Air Force and that one of her missions was to rescue all the children from the war. As Mom was saying this, tears rolled down her face and she told me she had jumped from the plane to rescue the children, but she was not able to rescue them all, because she could only take as many as she could carry. She cried when she said she had to leave some children behind.
I looked at her and said, “Mom, you did the best you could, it was better to save some than not saving any at all.” I’m not sure she was listening; I could only hope it helped.
Then one day Mom told me she got a call from the military telling her she was going to receive the highest Medal of Honor for rescuing those children. For weeks Mom would tell me she got another call, and another.
I decided to buy her a medal, and tell her the military had contacted me and was sending me her Medal of Honor, to be presented to her on her upcoming birthday. My daughter said she wanted to make up a Certificate of Honor, so she could give it to her grandmother with the Medal of Honor.
Mom was getting worse by the month now, and I had a feeling this might be the last birthday where she would be able to communicate very well. I knew I needed to make this birthday extra special, and the one thing Mom loved to do was dance. I decided to take Mom, Dad, my daughter, her husband, and my partner to a Latin American restaurant that had a band.
When I told Mom where I was taking her for her birthday, she was so excited she told me she wanted to wear something red. My older sister, who is in the military and was away, sent her a beautiful red silk blouse, and I took Mom to the salon.
When we all got to the restaurant, Mom was so excited she was smiling from ear to ear. I ordered Mom her favorite drink, sangria, and as soon as the band began to play, my daughter took her to the dance floor for her first birthday dance. After that Mom danced with me, with my partner, and with anyone who wanted to dance with her. She was on a roll, having the time of her life.
Then it was time for the cake. We all stood up when it came, and my daughter read Mom the Certificate of Honor, and I presented her with the Medal of Honor. Everyone in the restaurant stood up and applauded, congratulating Mom. Mom was so surprised and so happy that she got up and kissed every single person in that restaurant.
It’s been a year now and Mom is unable to talk or walk on her own, but I am so thankful we took her dancing for her birthday and presented her with her Medal of Honor.
Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
Twenty years ago — in the very first Chicken Soup for the Soul book ever published — I read a story by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen that changed me forever. The story was entitled “One At A Time.” Its message? Just because you can’t save the whole world doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make a little piece of it better.
Through the years, I was reminded of that message every time I helped a kid learn to dribble a basketball. Every time I delivered homemade oatmeal raisin cookies to a nursing home. Every time I picked up litter or took in a homeless kitten or let somebody who seemed more hurried and harried than I go ahead of me in the grocery checkout line.
But the message hit the hardest the summer Caroline came into my life.
She was standing in ninety-degree heat in the parking lot of the tiny branch library I’d just been hired to manage. “Hey,” she said, as I fumbled to unlock the door. “Are you the new library lady?”
“I am,” I told her. “Who are you?”
“Caroline,” she said. “And I just turned ten.”
Hmmmmm, I thought. Caroline was certainly the smallest ten-year-old I’d ever seen. But it was clear that she could read, for she had obviously noted the sign on the door that said: CHILDREN LESS THAN TEN YEARS MUST BE ACCOMPANIED BY A PARENT.
“Come on in here where it’s cool, Caroline,” I said. “Let’s see if we can find you some good books.”
We did. And because not one other patron entered the library for the first two hours it was open, we had plenty of time to enjoy those books. I read to Caroline for a while and then she read to me. I helped her find kid-friendly games to play on the computer. I showed her where the restroom and the water fountain were. But as morning became afternoon, my stomach began to growl. I’d brought a sack lunch — when you’re running a one-person operation, there’s no going out for a meal — but I hated to eat in front of Caroline.
“Don’t you think you ought to head home and get some lunch?” I finally asked.
Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “Nobody’s home at my house.”
“Did your parents leave you something to eat?”
“My mom locks the door every morning when she goes to work. She won’t be home till dark.”
I turned away so that Caroline wouldn’t see the tears welling up in my eyes. And, of course, I shared my bologna sandwich and tangerine and Little Debbie oatmeal creme pie with her. She stayed at the library all day. And as I watched her curled up in the yellow bean bag chair in the cool quiet, reading about Clifford the Big Red Dog and Horton the Elephant and Amelia Bedelia, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other children there were in this little town and in this big world, locked out and lonely and left to fend for themselves.
There were millions, no doubt. Just thinking about them made me want to weep. To gnash my teeth. To wring my hands in despair. How could I possibly make a dent in such a problem? Then I remembered the story of the man walking along the beach, picking up starfish and throwing them — one at a time — back into the ocean so they wouldn’t die.
Every day, that whole summer long, Caroline was waiting for me when I pulled into the library parking lot and climbed out of my car holding two sack lunches. She’d help me unlock the door and turn on the lights and fire up the computers. And then she’d plop down in the yellow beanbag chair and grin at me.
“Let’s start with Horton Hatches the Egg,” she’d say.
It’s true. One library lady in one little town couldn’t make a difference to every child on the mean streets of this planet. But I could make a difference to one.
One of the most enduring friendships in history — dogs and their people, people and their dogs.
“Doug, I don’t think I can drive anymore,” I said to my husband. He was driving the moving van in front of us. The cell phone crackled. I wasn’t sure if he could hear me. I waited a few seconds.
“The baby’s crying, and the others are so tired they can’t see straight, and I can’t either,” I said.
“If you can hear me, please stop at the next exit. Okay?”
The phone hissed and spat like an angry cat.
“I’m going to hang up now. Love you.”
I tossed the phone on the passenger seat. Its screen light faded and with it my hope that Doug had heard anything I’d said.
I scanned the highway. In the dead of night, it was impossible to know where we were. No lights or signs to distinguish one stretch of road from another. I would have been utterly disoriented, except that I was following Doug and trusted he knew the way from Fort Campbell, Kentucky to Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia. However, I also knew that even if I couldn’t contact him, I had to take the next exit. Soon, my fatigue would make driving dangerous, and I’d rather be hopelessly lost than dead.
Baby Elena was well past her normal feeding time, and her cries kept me alert for the next mile and a half. Unexpectedly, Doug’s blinker flashed in the darkness like a friendly wave. He’d seen an exit and was stopping!
Our caravan of three — the U-Haul, my van, and my mother’s truck — pulled into the gas station. All of us were relieved to stretch and eat after hours of driving.
Doug took me aside while my mom watched our six kids and Lab-Chow mix. “Honey, it’s after midnight. It’s not practical for you, your mom and the kids to keep driving. We still have five hours until we get to the new house.”
“Five hours! I thought we just had a couple more.”
“The construction in Knoxville and that heavy rain really set us back.”
“But five hours . . . ” My disbelief morphed into discouragement. Moving was my least favorite part of military life. “I don’t think I can manage five more hours.”
“That’s why I want you and your mom and the kids to stay here tonight. There’s a decent hotel and you guys can start fresh in the morning.”
“Mom and the kids and I? But what about you?”
“I’ve got to go on. The unloading crew we booked will be at the new house at 7 a.m. I have to be there with the U-Haul.”
“But aren’t you tired?”
“Sleep — it’s a crutch, like air and water.” He gave me a wry smile. “I’ll be okay. Really. This is nothing compared to two combat tours. Besides, I have Sadi with me. She’s great company. Never complains about my radio stations and sings good harmony, too.” He kissed my forehead. The matter was decided.
I kissed my husband goodbye and scratched Sadi’s ears. Watching the taillights shrink in the darkness made me suddenly lonely. I remembered the comfort of friends we left behind, the familiarity of our favorite kids-eat-free buffet. I thought about the littlest things I’d miss, like the flagpole on our porch. I remembered Doug teaching our kindergartner how to post and retire the Colors before he left for Iraq. I remembered Sadi sleeping right against the front door every nightwhile Doug was away on back-to-back tours to the Middle East. I slept more easily knowing intruders would have to make it past her to get to us. Thankfully, no one tried.
The taillights were gone and I let the memories fade. I hoped Doug wasn’t as tired as I was.
The next morning, Mom and I followed Doug’s map to our new home. I couldn’t help checking ditches and ravines for signs of a crash. As a combat pilot, Doug was trained in risk mitigation. I knew he’d stop to nap when he needed to, but the “what ifs” plagued me anyway.
Five hours and fifteen minutes after we checked out of the hotel, Mom and I pulled into my new driveway. The first one to greet us was Sadi. She bounded down the porch to lick each of the children, and then Doug showed them to the back yard, which was a dream come true for child and dog — two acres of fenced paradise with trees and swing sets and forts.
Then, he brought me a cup of coffee, and we sat on the front porch. “That dog really earned her kibble last night.”
“Oh?” I sipped my coffee.
“It was like she could sense when I’d get tired. Most of the time she kept her head on my lap and enjoyed the ride. But about the time I started to feel even the slightest bit drowsy, that little lady would sit up and lick my face.”
I smiled. The whole time Doug was deployed, Sadi protected us while we slept. Last night she protected our soldier by making sure he didn’t. We might have just moved halfway across the country, but I for one was thankful that some things hadn’t changed.
It is in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming.
Fisk means “fish” in Danish, or so a friend told us after we had already named the black-and-white, half-grown cat we found on our doorstep one morning. The first day, we gave our friendly visitor milk. He was still there the next day, and the next. By that time we were giving Fisk bowls of minced meat.
“It seems to want to live here with us,” I said.
“We should put notices around the neighbourhood in case anyone has lost it,” Barney, my husband, suggested.
We did that, but no one called, and Fisk stayed. Outside we played tag with him in the yard around the vegetables, and inside we played chase the feather. He was now part of our family, but we put our name and phone number on a little blue collar around his neck as he still wandered off sometimes.
I would get phone calls from old ladies and other neighbours wanting to come get him after he had invited himself into their houses and sat purring on their knees. Once the local train station staff called, saying he was wandering around the station.
A few months later, our first baby was born. I was very busy with my new son, and probably giving Fisk less attention than usual.
One evening in December it was snowing lightly. The phone rang.
“Hi, do you have a cat called Fisk?” a man’s voice asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Well, a black-and-white cat with your phone number on a tag around his neck has just jumped into my car. I’m in the station car park at Hatfield.”
Hatfield was the next town down the railroad.
“That’s incredible,” I said. “We live in Welwyn Garden City. I know he tends to wander, as he used to be a stray, but how on earth has he got to Hatfield?”
“Well, as I looked down the platform, I saw a cat jump out of the train I just got out of,” the man said. “He must have followed me to my car. When I opened the door, this little cat leaped in as if he owned it.”
We both were laughing so much we could hardly speak.
“I shut him in the car to make this phone call to keep him safe,” the man said when he had controlled his laughter enough to talk. “Look, I’ll bring him back to your place. Where do you live?”
“But, surely,” I said, “you must have just got off the train at Hatfield because you are on your way home. You’re in the next town down the line. You won’t want to drive all the way back here. Why don’t we wait until my husband comes home, and he can drive over and get Fisk.” This was getting surreal.
“Well, don’t worry, it’s no problem. I’ll just bring him over now. What’s your address?”
I told him, and some time later the doorbell rang, and there was Fisk in the arms of this kind man, struggling to get free.
By this time, Barney was home. We both thanked the driver standing out there in the snow.
“Would you like to come in, have something to drink, or some supper?” I asked, amazed at the trouble he went to for Fisk and us.
“No, it’s okay, I’ve got to get home now before this snow gets bad,” he replied.
He waved goodbye as he disappeared into the snowy darkness.
At work, you think of the children you have left at home. At home, you think of the work you’ve left unfinished. Such a struggle is unleashed within yourself. Your heart is rent.
You know she’s a monkey. I mean, at least part monkey. She’s two years old and becoming obsessed with the space between her big toe and second toe. She tears off her shoes and socks to examine it closely. She’ll pull out a piece of lint and ask herself, “What’s that?” But then she transforms.
Something about the way she walks makes her seem like a little elf. She thinks no one is looking and she stealthily makes her way into the innocuous oven that comes with her kiddie kitchen. She’s just the right size to sneak inside. She likes to hang out in there and wait for someone to find her. This is tremendous progress from her hiding by shielding her eyes while she sits in plain view.
Suddenly she’s out of the oven and again she is transformed. She’s a fairy sprinkling magic dust around the family room as she visits with her toys and dolls. Or are they cookie crumbs?
It’s easy to be spellbound by this creature. Dalia Maria. She changes all the time. Excited and jumping one moment. Small and snuggly the next. Her index finger strokes her nose as she enjoys her delicious thumb. I want to just take her and hug her and drown her in kisses. But while she is full of magic, I am cursed with a headset and laptop that keep my fingers typing. I have this wonderful consulting job that allows me to work from home so that I can be with her, but I’m seldom really with her. I have to have my eyes on the monitor at all times, my ears perked to hear the special bell that indicates someone is sending me a message on IM that I need to respond to. My phone is either on or recharging as I jump from conference call to conference call.
Dalia lives in a netherworld of playing games, dressing dolls, discovering ants, reading books and watching Sesame Street. I live in an alternate universe of connections and being connected, responding to a never ending stream of e-mails and listening to what seem like interminable “virtual” meetings discussing the same issues, challenges, risks and mitigations day after day after day. The daily grind is shaken often by critical messages that need to be sent out, urgent meetings that need to be arranged to discuss essential topics that cannot wait until Monday. You would think we were saving lives and not creating software.
I have slacked off and left my computer to go play with Dalia. It is so blissful to get down on the floor with her and make the Little People dance and sing, or color in her Diego coloring book. But when my time is up and I return to my computer, she cries and screams and the chastising eye of the babysitter makes me understand that sometimes it is better if I just stay in my office and not “torture her” with Mommy’s presence. So sometimes I sit behind a closed door and listen to her laugh and sing, hear her ask for water or beg for a cookie and I have to stand my ground and not let her in.
Our babysitter is Colombian and speaks almost no English. She has taught Dalia to say that “Mamá está trabajando (Mommy is working).” My daughter now understands this to mean, “Mommy can’t be with you because she is doing something else, something more important that has to take precedence.” And it kills me that this is the case.
I am blessed to be able to have the flexibility to be at home — if my daughter is sick, if we are leaving that night for a trip and I need to pack during my lunch hour, if I have to throw in a load of laundry — I can do those things. I can dial into a virtual meeting and have my laptop ready and connected to a wireless Internet. Not everyone has this option.
But sadly, the picture that other working moms have of me sitting with my child on my lap typing, happily running around in our yard or visiting the park, is just not a real one. I am the mom waving goodbye as a babysitter takes her away to do those wonderful things. I tried visiting her at the pool to see her splashing and having fun but once she laid eyes on me, there was no turning back. Either we all had to go home together or I had to stay. There was no way she would let me leave. And a conference call was planned so we all had to head home. Mommy seems to take all the fun out of everything.
Until 5:00 P.M. Until the laptop closes, and dinner calls, and Dalia and I put on our aprons and make dinner or play a game or go for a walk and then we are free. At 5:00 P.M., I’m like every other working mom who is so happy to be done with my day and so happy to spend time with my baby. Working from home isn’t the same as being at home. It’s a subtle difference I’ve learned to accept.