My valentines and I went to Waffle House for our special dinner this weekend. I’d seen something on social media about how Waffle Houses everywhere were taking reservations and dimming the lights on Valentine’s Day.
Well, it turns out it wasn’t Waffle Houses everywhere, and it wasn’t necessarily the romantic experience I’d dreamed up. This particular one refused to do the whole reservations thing.
There was no romantic music. No flowers. No candlelight…
But candlelight would’ve been wasted anyways. Because it was broad daylight for our dining experience at 4:30 in the afternoon. The sun was so high in the sky the waitress even raised the sunshades — which gave us a fine view of the carwash across the highway.
And there we sat in the stark reality of our twelve-year relationship — eating short order food at octogenarian hours with kindergarten boys flanking us as they fought over booth or counter service.
They were whiney. I was worn out (from a frenzied half-day full of student excuses about how their essays didn’t print and their late grades shouldn’t count…)
The students lost. And the counter won. Only because I was tired of listening to them. (All of them) Plus the counter was closest. And the waitress was eyeballing us warily, with weary shoulders begging us to make a flipping decision.
So I did.
We sat, Boy… Mom… Boy… Dad… and random-teenaged-towhead-with-his-red-MAGA-hat. Nothing says romance more than MAGA. He was by himself. I rest my case.
The MAGA minor left pretty quickly (not long after Mike sat next to him) and soon it was just Mike and me and the boys. They were in solid kindergarten form, chatting about number patterns and bald eagles and whether or not electronics come from nature and how God is probably a boy because it sounds like a Boy Name.
With our food order delivered, and the restaurant clearly between shifts and empty, save us, all three employees took a break. They sat at the counter adjacent to ours, to play on their phones and eat their eggs and ketchup.
As we sat at the counter, dipping toast in sunny eggs and stirring butter into creamy grits, the boys chattered away and the Waffle House crew cut up in a short-order family sort of way. All was cozy and smelled like hash browns.
And then our waitress opened a video on her phone that shouted, “Hey, you old BITCH!” super loud, and she turned about as splotchy as her short-order cook’s ketchup-clad eggs and begged our forgiveness and we all laughed and laughed about it.
Our boys joined in… without having a clue what they were laughing about. They’d been too busy telling us how penguins camouflage themselves.
“We’re school teachers,” Mike told our horrified waitress. “We hear it all the time.”
“Just now, today,” I reassured — because I’m certain somebody with printer issues and a late grade called me that today.
And then our waitress asked my husband about the football team and her — and our — favorite Clemson Tiger, and told us all about how she waits on his family often and how humble and kind they all are. Then she asked me about the boys and if they were indeed twins and if so, were they identical.
And then I looked out the window and saw a woman — with a bouquet of roses riding shotgun in her sedan and strapped in with a seat belt — talking illegally on her phone while blowing smoke out her cracked window. And as the smoke evaporated into the fly-away spit from the carwash across the way, tiny fluorescent rainbows glinted in the motes of the late afternoon sun.
And I realized how perfect this little Valentine dinner was… a perfect little metaphor of our marriage. Rainbows and roses in the distance, full plates in front of us. And love and laughter all around.
Our marriage is cozy and smells more like coffee and kindergarten carnage, than hash browns, but I am one blessed woman. Married to a man who knows I love syrupy sweet on my waffles, not on overly-expensive grand romantic gestures. (That’s why he proposed to my dog the same time he proposed to me…)
Yes, I am one blessed woman.
Now if all the MAGA hats would just leave, all would be right with the world.
It is autumn! At least, that’s what the calendar tells us. My car thermometer, on the other hand, says it is 93 degrees at 6:30 pm. We’ve had more than eighty days of 90+ temperatures in North Georgia this year. Enough is enough already! But supposedly it’s autumn, and that means it’s officially my favorite season.
I love fall for so many reasons. For pumpkin patches and apple orchards, for candy corn and nutmeg and cloves, for gemstone leaves and front porch scarecrows. Albert Camus proclaimed autumn “a second spring, when every leaf’s a flower.” And I tend to agree. I mostly love fall because it symbolizes new beginnings in all sorts of ways for my family: a new school year, a new football season. Fall is my absolute favorite!
Fall is the season of new school years: new faces, new potential, new energy, new passion. And even though we’ve already been in school for over seven weeks (this is the South, after all – we go back before the sunburns have even had a chance to peel), we still call this fall semester, and we’re still feeling fresh (sort of) when the autumnal equinox officially strikes. I have one-hundred- eighty sophomore students sitting in my seats and eager to learn (sort of). And while the challenges are great and the resources are slim, I still have a tremendous reservoir of love for my students and passion for my subject. So fall is my favorite!
And fall is the season of football, the game that seasons our family with a long, strong, complicated marinade. It is flavored with dynamic combinations, unexpected ingredients, raw emotions and daring outcomes — all served up on a spiral slice to robust and critical crowds. It is the sport that leaves me absolutely spellbound and absolutely spent… a complete and utter glutton for the punishment and pain, the pleasure and pride that makes up the season. As a football family, we wouldn’t want it any other way. So fall is my favorite!
And fall is the season for late afternoon drives in the countryside. Living in the country gives the boys and me ample opportunity to witness the glory that is fall: golden soybean fields, corn crops with buzz cuts, and barnyard nurseries – the farm animals are having their fall babies!
We pass a menagerie of livestock on our way home from school every weekday, and I swear, almost any given pasture on almost any given day has a new baby to ogle. Parker and Tate providing me with a running commentary of each fascinating new discovery. We pass a horse farm, a multitude of cow pastures, and even a field full of mama sheep and their newborn lambs. I bet there’s a dozen in that pen — little, bleary clouds scattered sleepily across the grass and under the pines. My breath catches at the sight of them every single time.
And fall is the season for hay bales. I’m here to say that I never knew how compelling hay bales could be until I had twin boys with a hearty devotion to tractors. There’s been a steady harvest in recent weeks. From one field to the next, the same scene has run its course and the boys never tire of talking about them. I dread the day when all of the hay bales are gone. It will be a dark day, indeed.
Fall is the season of long and languid afternoon sun, a sun that leans low to blind drivers and irritate my twins on rides home, a sun that creeps deep inside living room floors to butter bare toes, a sun that catches dust and pollen dancing in its rays for an undeniable reminder of allergy season – as if we needed reminding. The boys’ noses have had snail trails from nostril to lip for weeks now.
Fall is the season of baking treats and making memories. I used to spend hours in the kitchen when the girls were little, crafting fall festival Cake Walk prizes and bake sale bounty. Baking makes me dizzily, freakishly happy. It’s my mother’s fault. She baked a lot when I was a kid, her hair, frosted with highlights (and probably splatters of buttercream frosting, as well), pulled back from her beaming, beautiful face. The world felt warm and wonderful and safe and sound in the sanctity of her kitchen — and I guess somewhere along the way, happiness, beauty, warmth and womanhood all got tangled up with baking for me. So now when I bake, I feel like I’m Wonder Woman on a mission to cure what ails the world, one bundt cake at a time.
I made some banana bread last week, which went with Mike to the football war room, where the guys spend hours working on this week’s game plan. I hope it gave them a little lift in the midst of the Sunday grind. The process of making it and the comforting scent of it gave me one, for sure.
Fall is the season of my grandson Bentley’s birth. The little acorn is a fall fledgling with gangly limbs and translucent skin, who shimmers like wheat fields in the sun when he smiles, and his eyes are brighter than crisp autumn skies. So thanks to Bentley Boo, fall is my favorite!
Finally, fall is the season of change. Colors change, temperatures change, grades and teachers and wardrobes and weather… they all change. And in this hate-filled political climate, I pray that Camus is right. That autumn is a second spring – a season of new beginnings – an opportunity for rebirth. May it baptize us all under the shower of leaves, washing us clean of this long, hot, angry summer of hate and intolerance.
Let clarity and love, humanity and grace shine on us all. May we all feel welcomed and valued, respected and protected in this rapidly unfurling season of change.
I defy logic. I defy all explanation. I am one of the wonders. I shouldn’t have been able to have these boys. I’m a challenge to the balance. I know that. I knew it all along. But when our maternal fetal specialist agreed to take our case pro bono because our lovely Georgia governor played dirty with our insurance, I learned just how unique I was. Modern medicine was eager to use me as a case study. I was a Wonder with a capital W. Without my fertility specialist extraordinaire and my maternal fetal specialist with angel wings and a big check book, without my ever-steady and supportive ob/gyn, I wouldn’t have these boys. I completely get it.
But it’s not just medicine that brought my winsome sprouts to my womb and formed them into into flesh and blood and spirited magic. There is so much more to it than that. Prayer played a tremendous part. And Grace. And finally Fortune, that most fickle of Ladies. She decided to be kind. For whatever reason, the Universe decided to bestow two breathtaking blessings upon Mike and me. And I cannot be thankful enough. Ever. And so I’m giving my testimony for others. Sharing our recipe for success. Hoping that someone, somewhere along with way, will benefit from our story.
I know that my age was against me. VERY against me. Especially when I would read all of the unhappy IVF stories of women my age. I quit reading them, actually. I eliminated all negative energy from my life. That was ingredient Number 1. Only positivity and sunshine.
I began listening to Natalie Merchant’s song, “Wonder,” some lines of which I alluded to earlier. Now if you don’t know it, Google it. Get on YouTube and listen to it. It is powerful stuff. Words are powerful potion. My father taught me about self-fulfilling prophecy and about spoken blessings. He’s quite the preacher type. He’s also a physicist. He’s kinda weird. He’s an oxymoron. He’s Sheldon Cooper on scripturoids. But he always, always, ALWAYS has believed in the power of prayer and the spoken word. So I accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative.
Speaking of the power of the word, if you haven’t read The Secret by Rhonda Byrne or The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Ingredients 2 and 3), read them. Out loud. And believe. They both discuss the power of the Universe and Her generous nature, Her willingness to grant your heart’s desire. You just have to say it. See it. Believe it. Write it. And wait for it to be delivered.
Now of course it’s not that simple. There is hard work involved. You have to dig. And keep digging. And the digging is physical, which is hard, full of medicines and injections and time and doctors visits and uncomfortable procedures, and it is also mental. The ups and downs of infertility is an ordeal no one who hasn’t experienced it can ever possibly imagine.
But you know what else? It is one that SO MANY of us share. It is a taboo subject that most are afraid of, or ashamed of, or too private to talk about. I was amazed at how many couples I knew presented themselves as IVF patients once I came out about our journey. Infertility sufferers are everywhere, yet it is still such a lonely, isolating experience.
So Coelho nails it. The mental digging is the hardest. But he explains that just when you are ready to quit, when the digging has gotten darn-near impossible. When the clay and rock are so incredibly rigid and unyielding and your body is bone-weary and your soul is sucker-punched, just KEEP digging. Because the Universe is about to deliver. It’s like the transitioning stage in labor. It feels like you’ve accomplished nothing at all, but your bundles of blessings are about to present themselves, to crown in all of their wondrous beauty.
So just like the good books commanded, we said it, we believed it, we wrote it down, complete with baby names (names, incidentally, which are now the middle names of both boys ). We visualized. We saw our sticky beans steeping in the placental gravy of the Universe’s Grace. We believed we would stay pregnant, even through dehydration and preeclampsia and advanced maternal age and hospital runs at midnight and the fortnight I slept with ice packs on my chest because it felt like the boys were splitting my sternum like a Butterball turkey’s wishbone.
Beyond saying and believing, Mike and I also played an active part in our process. We researched a ton, which included watching IVF home videos of couples who had been through this process before. (You would be amazed at how many of those there are online.) We watched those who had succeeded and we watched those who had failed and then succeeded. We searched for any and every kernal of wisdom and homeopathic hocus pocus, which leads me to Ingredient #4: pineapple core (yes, CORE) and raw walnuts.
I ate them every single day without fail for two weeks after embryo transfer to assist with implantation. The core was a bit gritty and fibrous and pulpy, but not as bad as you would think. And besides, I would’ve eaten an entire pineapple, in all of its sharp and spiney glory, if I thought it would help in our quest for the elusive sticky beans.
Coming home from the clinic on our transfer day, Mike and I implemented Ingredient 5, a tradition that carried me and our embryos through that most terrifying of times for all fertility patients: the first trimester. We listened to two very, very (have I said VERY?) uplifting and prophetic songs: Natalie Merchant’s “Wonder,” which referenced earlier, and Elton John’s, “You’ll be Blessed.” Google that one too. Right now.
These two songs became the soundtrack of our conception and gestation. I listened and sang along to them religiously every day. Every. Single. Solitary. Morning. Without fail. My power songs. Through them, Fate smiled at Destiny. Through them, the Universe laughed as she came to my cradle and laughed as my body she lifted and laughed as she filled me with her bountiful blessings. With a little help from these songs, and With love, with patience, and with faith. I made my way, and continue to make my way through this miraculous journey.
The final ingredient is absolutely NOTHING like the aforementioned ingredients. It was nothing I planned or researched or manufactured. It was completely unpredicted and unrehearsed and (thankfully) unrepeated and something I would’ve preferred had happened in a bit more private of a manner, but the Universe works in mysterious ways…
Ingredient # 6: the Collywobbles. Such a fun, playful, Roald Dahl kind of word for one of the most UNfun, UNplayful conditions known to man: intestinal distress. The night before our two little baby buds would be siphoned from a petri dish and shot through my cervix with a straw, I had an up close and personal experience with the Collywobbles. To say it was horrible would be an understatement. But I have no doubt in my mind that not only was it God trying to acclimate me to the shit storms to come (twins are nothing, if not collywobbles times two), but I also maintain that it was an integral (and embarrassing) part of our recipe for in vitro success. Doctors prescribe enemas for all manner of procedures. It just so happens that this particular order was placed by the Heavens. Now, my girls will tell you I just don’t ever discuss poop. Ever. But in keeping with the nature of my blog to give honest, heartfelt information about our journey and our family, I guess I have contracted myself into spilling all… kind of like that midsummer night’s eve three years ago.
So before getting down and dirty, allow me to set the stage as prettily as possible: Daytime was dripping into dusk and it was hothouse humid — typical August fare for Georgia. Mike was away at football and wouldn’t be home until late — again, typical August fare for a Georgia football wife.
I was at the park across from our neighborhood, the chattering rise and fall of cicada song pacing my run. Butterfly bushes lined part of my path and I was pushing myself hard. I knew that the following morning Mike and I would drive to the perimeter for transfer and I would be taking it easy for at least the next nine months. I was taking no chances. I didn’t care that my doctor had told me I couldn’t sneeze, poop, fart, laugh, hiccup or jiggle those embryos out, I was going to be as safe and sedentary as possible.
So on this hot, humid, hellhound of an August night, I decided to get my last run in and work out all of my remaining anxieties. When, much to my surprise and chagrin, on the far side of the baseball fields, in a No Man’s Land of summer perennials and the boys of summer charging their grounders and snagging fly balls– I was struck with a vicious and violent blitzkrieg. My stomach flipped and dropped. I broke out in cold sweats. My core cramped. My vision blurred. I was a half a mile from home. And I was in trouble. To call it intestinal distress would be an understatement. And to call it collywobbles seems way too pretty. And it was NOT pretty. And there was nothing I could do. Nothing but think about that horribly humiliating scene in Bridesmaids and be jealous because Maya Rudolph at least had a huge tent of a wedding dress to hide her shame. All I could do was break out in spontaneous prayer. Sincere prayer. Bona fide, true blue, unpretentious prayer. There’s no prayer more down to earth than a “please don’t let me crap myself in public“ prayer. And as I prayed, I shuffled. A hearty knees together, buttocks clenched shuffle. A get-your-Flintstone-feet-in-gear shuffle. And I am here to tell you that bona fide prayer and heartfelt hustle will get you far. It’ll get you darn near half a mile. Close, but no latrine. I made it to our driveway, and I am forever thankful for that small blessing.
And then then floodgates of Heaven opened and the rest is a poorly digested visual. I don’t know if it was nerves, a beastly bug, or the reheated half of a Reuben sandwich from Larry’s Giant Subs I had for dinner, but I was dealt a savage– and I believe an extremely fortuitous, hand. I thoroughly believe the Universe decreed that I have a completely pristine vessel in which to implant my little lads. I’m convinced that in our parenting game of chance and childbirth, my royal flush didn’t beat a full house, it helped make one. (Sorry, terrible pun.)
Anyways… that is our sticky beans recipe. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Note I didn’t say THE recipe for success. Everyone’s recipe will different. And the climate and the conditions and the Universe all have a mighty say in how and when and where the blessings will be rewarded. Some beans will be organic and simply made, with no assistance whatsoever. Others will need chemical intervention, like ours did. And still others will be harvested elsewhere and then supplied. But know that if you want it deeply enough, badly enough, heartily enough, your own little peas will be delivered unto you. Thus sayeth the Universe. So dig deep.
Cackling farts — from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. And I certainly love me some vulgarity. Anyone who knows me knows my propensity for my favorite four-letter acronym – one I’m trying to curb since I’ve got these two impressionable young lads soaking in vocabulary like spaghetti sauce (or pureed prunes, or masticated teddy grahams, or you name it) on your favorite silk blouse (but I’ll save the stain stories for another blog). Still, “cackling farts” is simply the grossest, funniest, most colorful, obscene, and obscure term for EGGS I ever did hear. And this post is dedicated to them.
Eggs. Such simple things, it would seem. But simple, or not, as humans, we are fascinated by them. We eat them for breakfast in numerous ways, from the simply scrambled or over-easy, to the fancy-schmancy eggs benedict or quiche. And the recipes go on and on…
We’ve also built idioms around them. Some to reflect personality: “you’re a tough egg to crack” or he’s a “good egg” or a “bad egg.” Others reflect embarrassment: you can have “egg on your face” or we’ll tell someone to “go suck an egg.” We can use them in terms of monetary metaphors: we build “nest eggs” or search for “the goose that laid the golden egg” or we’re cautioned not to “put all our eggs in one basket.”
Naturally, if there are idioms about eggs, there are bound to be books about eggs. Some of the greatest literature features them. From Gulliver’s Travels to The Handmaid’s Tale to “Green Eggs and Ham,” we celebrate and admonish, using the Egg.
So eggs are far more complicated than the chalky-white ovals of serene, life-giving perfection they might seem. They house SO MUCH POTENTIAL. In the afore-mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator proclaims, “I think that this is what God must look like: an egg.” And then later, “If I have an egg, what more can I want?”
Interestingly enough, this novel is about infertility. An entire nation that has fallen on post-nuclear sterility. The narrator may or may not be infertile. She has one daughter. She, nor the reader, knows for certain if she can get pregnant again.
And just like Offred, six years ago, I myself didn’t know if I would be able to carry children again.
We had an appointment with our fertility specialist, Dr. Mark Perloe, at Shady Gove Fertility in Atlant. (I can’t sing his praises highly enough!!! If you are contemplating IVF or if you are struggling with infertility of any sort, go see HIM.) Anyway, at that very first meeting, Dr. Perloe informed us that a woman over 40 had nearly zero chance of getting pregnant with her own eggs, and that we would need to use a donor.
My eggs were past their expiration date.
Now, you know what? I knew that already. Of course I did. I’m an educated woman. I do my research. I knew it going in. Still, his words stung just a bit. Just for a second. Not, though, for the reason you are probably thinking (the use of donor eggs).
NOPE, it was the Advanced Maternal Age phrase he used. AMA, a three-letter acronym that isn’t nearly as fun as my favorite four-letter one, and a label that would go into my charts and follow me to delivery. I still feel twenty-two, after all. As Jimmy Buffet says, “I’m growing older, but not up…”
“Donor eggs,” though — I was already familiar with and prepared for that phrase. We were given a password and the privacy of our home to view the donor profiles and search for our potential anonymous Wonder Woman — a super hero of the highest magnitude. I am forever and ever in her debt.
It felt strange, perusing those profiles. A giddy, dizzy, feverish, frightening cyber-ride. We wanted someone as close to me as we could get. Not because we intended to hide the fact that we used donor eggs from the boys or anyone else, for that matter, it was just something we wanted.
We wanted someone who loves literature as much as me. Someone who excels in science like their big sister. Who swings a mean bat or tennis racket, like their other big sister. Who appreciates a mean game of football, like their dad. Oh, and we wanted height. A nice, tall drink of water. I’m 5’10 and so to combine that height with their daddy’s good genes, we’re hoping for a couple of defensive powerhouses one day.
“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen,” said the mighty Ralph Waldo Emerson.
And our decision, our selection, set the Universe in motion, her cogs and wheels, parts and plugs assembling the various and sundry pieces, the stardust and cackling farts, the wood glue and lacquer and metal most attractive that would spark our little fellas into being.
Her eggs. My basket. And a gaggle of Y chromosomes from Mike. Now of course, it wasn’t nearly that simple… but more on that next time.
To introduce the concept of allegory to high school students, I use Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” It is the first book I ever remember receiving as a gift. I still have that original copy. It’s inscribed with a birthday wish and a life blessing. Its edges are tattered and curl softly from use, and its insides are tatted up from Crayola abuse.
I loved “The Giving Tree” from the beginning, although I didn’t understand its complexity back then. Instead, I loved it for its simplicity and purity — the modest black and white sketches, and the story of the tree who loved a boy – loved a boy from every depth and breadth and height her soul could reach.
A boy and his tree. I loved it. But I didn’t get it. I didn’t.
And then I became a mom.
And KA-POW! – deeper understanding hit me like a felled oak straight to the noggin. This wasn’t merely the story of a boy and his tree. I mean it was, but darn, it was so much more, too! It was a little allegory of a parent’s soul. And for the first time ever reading that story, I cried. And ever since, every single time I read that story… I cry. I can’t even read the last line, I get so choked up.
The truth and power of its message gets to me: the unhesitating willingness of a mama to hew off whole parts of herself to raise up her young with the necessities and tools to survive in this world.
Like I said, I introduce the concept of allegory to my high school juniors – and they can see it, the multiple meanings hidden in its seemingly simplistic lines. They see the sacrifices the tree makes to keep her boy happy. They see her wide-open love through the gifts of her leaves and her apples; they see the unflinching sacrifice of her limbs and her trunk; and they think they understand the final grand gesture in the giving of her shriveled, old stump. Yes, they can definitely see it. And they think they get it. They interpret the allegory in one of two ways…
Some of my students connect it to parental love – those blessed enough to have parents who have shown them true, unconditional love.
But sadly, some don’t get it at all because some of my students haven’t felt that sort of love from their moms and dads. The stories I hear — the stories I see – students whose parents have left them surfing couches in friends’ houses, students whose parents are locked away in jail or whose love is locked away in addiction, students who are parenting siblings — students mere saplings themselves — playing the role of the Giving Tree.
It’s an impossible task for them. They lack the depth and breadth and height of maturity: their leaves are too tender, their fruit is too green, their roots are too shallow to support and sustain another soul, much less themselves. Their stories are enough to crack open a planet-full of hearts and send them weeping.
And speaking of planets… some of my students see another allegorical interpretation: humanity’s blatant misuse of Mother Earth and her resources. In this version, the boy takes and takes and takes with no regard for the Giving Tree’s sacrifice – the more he needs, the more he takes until there’s nothing left but a shriveled-up stump – and even that gets used.
And yes, the depletion of our planet’s resources is a valid and compelling argument — easily seen and scientifically supported, regardless of those who might say otherwise. And in this political climate – when the Environmental Protection Agency is being run by a fossil fuel magnate and the current POTUS is playing a nuclear-annihilation game of chicken with his Asian doppelganger, it is an interpretation with grave importance.
But I prefer the little allegory of a parent’s soul. And I really do believe it was Silverstein’s intent. Because after each sacrifice, after each leaf and apple and branch and trunk that is taken, his prose simply reads: And the Tree was happy.
And the earth cannot be happy being plundered and pillaged. That just cannot prove true.
But as a parent, that happiness statement rings true every single time. When my girls need me. When my boys need me. When my small and humble breasts sustained them all as infants. When my wide and ample hips carried them all as toddlers. When my long and lanky arms surround them as both youngsters and adults. When my eager, willing heart beats for all four of them always and forever with joyful abandon… I am happy.
For them, I would give all. Willingly. And happily.
That’s how I know “The Giving Tree” is a little allegory of a parent’s soul.
This past week, I introduced my boys to Silverstein’s masterpiece – my original, 45-year-old birthday book, its edges all tattered and curled from use, its insides all tatted with Crayola abuse. My boys were mesmerized. They loved it: the simplicity and purity of its prose, the modest black and white of its sketches.
This story of a tree who loved a boy is timeless. This story of a tree that readily hands out huge chunks of herself never gets old. The tree herself may get old. She may lose apples and branches, and her tattoos — if she had any — may wrinkle like that ME + T heart scratched into the core of her being, but no matter what, if her kid finds happiness, that tree finds happiness. No matter the hardship, the struggle, the pain…
I’ve tried on at least three different occasions to write about the Ronald McDonald House and what it means to our family– specifically the one in Chattanooga across from Erlanger Hospital – and each time, words have failed me. I’m trying one more time…
The birth of our twins was a chaotic, emotionally-fueled time in our lives. Our boys were in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and we found our heads full to overflowing with medical details and our hearts bruised to bursting with love and fear for our boys. We spent the vast majority of our waking hours swimming in an exhausted state through the dim and beeping expanse of the NICU. There were scrubbing stations and hand sanitizers and security procedures and crib after crib of sick babies to navigate just to reach our own babes. And then once there, there were machines and syringes and tubes and wires to navigate before we could ever hold them. And holding them was our life raft. Holding them calmed the seas of frustration and fear and soothed us all.
But if holding the boys was our life raft, the Ronald McDonald House was our rescue ship. Because on the fourth day, I was discharged from the hospital – and the boys were not. And we were going to be separated – and I really didn’t think I could weather that emotional storm.
But then the house named after the clown that sponsors the largest fast food chain in the entirety of the universe opened its doors to us. Seems crazy when you think about it that way. But I’m telling you right now, it is far from a joke. It is the real deal. It is the best of what humanity can do for its own.
The Ronald McDonald House is the place where parents of children hospitalized and far from home are given shelter and support and a place to eat and sleep and cry and pray and struggle through the days and weeks and sometimes months of helpless and hopeless feelings without having to feel homeless too.
It is a sanctuary. There are warm beds and warm dinners and warm showers. And there is privacy. Privacy to pray or cry or both – in a small chapel or a serenity garden or on a soft, comfortable mattress in the quiet, comfortable guest rooms.
And there are supplies — toiletries and snacks and various and sundry necessities that help families get through the toughest of times when they don’t have the time to think about such things, much less shop for them. It is all available and there for the parents.
And all for the whopping cost of $10 a day — if your family can afford it. But absolutely no family is ever turned away. Ever. The RMH philosophy is that sick children need their parents and no parent should worry about daily needs if a child’s health is at stake. They also know and understand that young patients have far better medical outcomes if their parents are near. I, for one, agree for a couple of reasons.
Beyond the obvious — that we wanted desperately to be close to our babies — we also needed to be close. Because a mega-majorly important part of our boys’ treatment plan was breast milk — that thick, nutrient-and-calorie-and-immunity-rich mama medicine was just what the doctor ordered. And being just down the hill from the hospital (we’ll talk about that hill in a minute), made it so much easier to keep my milk supply in fresh and steady supply — as opposed to being shuttled over an hour away in an ice-packed cooler from back home in Georgia. So in the cozy comfort of our private guest room — complete with an extra queen bed for my mom and Mike’s parents (who provided endless hours of assistance and support), I pumped and Mike delivered (up that aforementioned hill) – like clockwork every three-and-a-half hours every night for almost a full week. Until Parker was discharged at nine days old.
But back to that infamous hill; that doozy of a mother of a hill; that steeply slanted, sidewalk-striped gauntlet-of- medieval-proportions hill. It was torturous to say the least. But Mike navigated it like a knight in shining Under Armor — or a milk man — a gallant, modern-day milk man. He toted bag after bag of freshly-pumped breast milk up that hill. He even pushed the milk maker up the hill in a wheelchair on more than one occasion (since I’d had a c-section and wasn’t supposed to climb anything). Good thing he pushed linemen around in college because I was definitely a heavy load – a heavy, post-partum-post-twins kind of load.
And speaking of heavy loads, everything about that time in our lives was heavy. Our hearts, our hurdles, our hospital bills… but the Ronald McDonald House lightened our burdens on so many levels, and we can never repay the kindnesses heaped upon us while there.
But we try. It has become our charity of choice. We’ve written checks, we’ve sprinkled change in drive thru boxes, and we’ve ordered the annual Ronald McDonald House Christmas ornament with our boys’ names inscribed. Every single year. I want to give more. To do more. I wish there were one closer to us.
Mostly, I would love to help cook warm meals for families — because that was perhaps the most comforting of all the blessings RMH bestowed upon us: those hearty, healthy meals. I recall tuna noodle casseroles and giant pots of southern green beans, big, baked lasagnas and fresh garden salads. Meals were prepared nightly by sorority houses and church groups, fraternity brothers and book clubs. Those meals were nourishment not only to our bodies, but our boys’ bodies, as well. Generous, kindhearted strangers cooked up the very best suppers that helped me cook up the very best sustenance for my newborn twins. I can never thank any of them enough.
The Ronald McDonald charities really do provide boundless blessings for families of sick children all over the world. They certainly kept us afloat during that most precious and precarious time in our lives. I cannot say enough positive things about them. Please consider throwing a little change their way in the drive thru of your local McDonald’s. Or volunteering at one of their local chapters. Or ordering one of their lovely ornaments. Or writing a big check. Please.
We got pregnant four years ago via IVF. We used donor eggs, fresh and locally sourced. I guess our pregnancy mirrored the current foodie trend, although it wasn’t quite farm to table. More like follicle to petri dish to uterus, with a five-day incubation in between.
You see, I was too old to supply eggs of my own. I was two months shy of forty-seven when we began the process, and I was forty-eight when I had the boys. Everything in between went smoothly enough (relatively speaking), from embryo transfer to the thirty-fourth week. But that’s when things took a rapid tumble downhill. That’s when my “Advanced Maternal” body declared mutiny on the whole pregnancy thing by throwing some protein in my urine and slinging my blood pressure into the stratosphere.
I don’t remember a whole lot between then and the two days it took to bring the boys into the world because magnesium was introduced to my blood stream (Which is the Devil. Magnesium is the Devil). I recall a little ambulance ride up over the state line where our maternal/fetal specialist practiced. I recall fainting while lying flat on my back. I recall oxygen masks and my 300-pound husband tightly poured into the wrong size scrubs. I recall (fuzzily) my twenty-four-year-old baby girl sleeping on an orange couch in the corner of my hospital room with the cushions piled over her head. I vaguely recall talking to my eldest baby girl via FaceTime and her double and triple checking what actions the doctors and nurses were taking. And I remember kissing the boys on their wet little heads before they were wheeled away into the NICU. That’s pretty much all I remember about those couple of days.
Now we were extremely lucky with our boys. Thirty-four weeks is a solid gestation time for preemies. Hearts and lungs are developed and strong. Immune systems are decent. The only real issues we had to face were body temperature maintenance and feeding challenges. Boys are notoriously lazy eaters (you would never know it now), and because of that, Tate and Parker spent six days and nine days in the NICU, respectively.
For those of you unaware, September is NICU awareness month. That’s why I am revisiting one of the most difficult times in our lives. NICUs are hard places, one of the hardest places on this earth. Babies should never have to suffer. Innocence should know no pain. Innocence should know no struggle.
I think that’s why NICU families will always have a tender place in my heart. I don’t know if there is any situation quite like a NICU stay. Think about it – here you are, in what is supposed to be one of the most magical and perfect times of your life – the birth of your child. It’s the moment you and your spouse have prepared for since you first peed on the stick and got the news. And then something goes wrong. Sometimes horribly wrong. There is nothing quite like that kind of an emotional hijack.
And Mike and I had it relatively easy, all things considered. (Although at the time, it felt anything but.) Nine days in the NICU would be a Godsend for some preemie parents. We were surrounded by cribs housing babies who had been there for months and months, parents loyally by their side. Babies who had undergone surgery after surgery. Babies whose cribs were peppered with personal items from home. Or worse. Babies who had been there for months and months with no personal items and no family members to be found. Crack babies. Unwanted babies. The world can be a cruel place for some of the most amazingly beautiful miracles ever made.
I can’t even imagine seeing the suffering day after day. I have no idea how the staff holds it together amongst that kind of injustice. My faith would waiver, I tell you. It would waiver big time. As it was, our babies were loved and they were relatively healthy and they were incredibly strong. All of those little warrior babies in the NICU are strong. Much stronger than the parents. Me, I was an absolute disaster.
Those nine NICU days, I felt like a giant, injured cuticle, stripped and torn, tender and exposed. I cried at the slightest provocation. When the elevator was too slow, I cried. When the hallway was too crowded, I cried. When I held the boys for the first time… I didn’t cry. I vomited — the anesthesia from the C-section. But that second time –oh, I cried.
I cried when I pumped for what felt like hours the very first time – my nipples stretched thin and angry and complaining like hell. I cried. And when all I got for my hard-fought labor was the tiniest, most miniscule amount of colostrum you ever did see, I cried. And when the nurse divided up that tiny little miniscule amount of colostrum and put it on two separate Q-tips and swished it around in the boys’ mouths, I cried.
When we bathed the boys for the first time, their wrinkly little alien bodies so slippery and small I feared they would slide right through my fingers, I cried. And when my milk came in and my chest rippled and ridged and cordoned itself off like a honeycomb, chamber after chamber flooded with liquid gold, I cried.
The worst, though, was if somebody was nice to me. If somebody smiled kindly at me, it was over. Or if I saw something beautiful. Like my boys. They did me in every time. But so did the long, sunny mural on the way to the NICU — a green and golden ant village, with ants sailing on leaf rafts, or ants raking their gardens, or ants swinging on tire swings or flying on butterflies. It was beautiful and whimsical and comforting. And it sent me into a bleary, teary, snot-filled mess every time Mike wheeled me down the hall.
And it wasn’t just me. This NICU time was also the first time I ever saw Mike cry. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s a meathead. And he’s a fixer. But this was something beyond his fixing abilities. This was all up to his boys — his tiny, fragile, five-pound boys. They had to decide when they would eat what they needed to eat – and on a consistent basis – to be allowed to go home.
I saw him break down for the very first time one morning at the breakfast table. His shoulders shuddered, his face folded under and crumpled, and there, above his cereal bowl at the Ronald McDonald House (I can’t EVEN tell you how much we owe to the Ronald McDonald House, but that’s another blog), he wept. And I cried. (Apparently there was another instance where he sneaked into the chapel across from our room and cried and cried and cried. I wasn’t there for that one. But I’m telling you, the NICU is hard on the strongest among us.)
Yes, the NICU is a hard, hard place, but the people there are far from hard. They are big-hearted and oh-so-capable. The nurses and doctors who work in a NICU are special people. They have to be, to work somewhere where innocent souls suffer so unjustly. To dedicate themselves to a life surrounded by the harsh realities of a cold universe…every single day… I don’t understand their endless capacity for TLC without frustration, but I am forever grateful for them.
Those nurses, especially, were our salvation. They instructed us, they comforted us, they listened to us. They rattled us sometimes. And sometimes they just made us mad.
I’ll never forget one NICU nurse in particular. I thought I hated her. I thought she was the worst one of the bunch. She was grouchy and my nerves were brittle, and I humbly admit I despised her. I thought she was so self-righteous. Turns out, she was just plain right.
That cranky, caustic nurse was actually an efficient, matter-of-fact caretaker who knew her stuff and took a no-nonsense approach to her little patients. She was the one who showed us the technique that finally got Parker to eat so we could take him home. She may have been cranky, but she was an absolute Christ figure. She sacrificed personality for patient progress, and she saved us from who knows how many more days in the NICU and how many more nights in the Ronald McDonald House. I will never forget her grumpy ass.
Yes, NICUs are hard places and special places. They are grueling. They grind parents down. But they lift babies up. They are a place of miracles, where miracles go after they are born, to heal up and head home – to their earthly home or their heavenly home.
NICUs may feel like they are Godforsaken places, where the innocent suffer without cause, but NICUs are far from Godforsaken. He puts His best angels there: the gentlest, the ablest – and sometimes the crankiest angels there to do His work. They shelter those little miracles until they are ready for the world.
But sometimes the world is just not ready for some of them and they go back to Him. At least that’s what I have to tell myself. Otherwise I can’t. I just can’t.
We’ve been trapped inside the house with cranky twin toddlers all day long, the rain pattering on our rooftop and the boys trampling on our nerves. Now honestly, it didn’t get truly unbearable until around six pm, when the name calling and sucker punching – and a whole lot of tattling – kicked into high gear.
I’m just thankful it’s so close to Christmas… relatively speaking. At least that’s what we’ve told the boys. Using the holly, jolly sleigh man as a serious threat is our only hope. Having access to the Big Man’s Nice and Naughty hotline is invaluable. I’m not ashamed. I’m desperate.
I wish I had a nanny. Instead of calling Santa, I would call her. Tag! You’re it!
And that got me thinking about the differences between Mike’s and my life as twin parents and let’s say… George and Amal Clooney’s, or Beyonce and Jay Z’s, or even Kelly and Mathew Stafford’s. And after a bit of research, I’ve learned that not all twin parents are created equal. Here are just a few of the ways our lifestyle doesn’t seem to measure up:
#1 On Instagram, I found a selfie video of Kelly Stafford and her QB husband Matthew driving down the freeway in their fully-loaded SUV after the press conference to announce his newly-signed $135 million contract. I’m sure those adorably precious identical twin girls, dressed in sparkly sequined tutus and Detroit blue bows were somewhere in the giant, leathered rear interior watching “Sofia the First” on a big screen TV.
Meanwhile my hubby and I are rattling around in our tomato red minivan with the scratched side panels and DVD player that snags and stalls on pop-tart encrusted videos so often that we have to listen to the Frozen soundtrack on our phones instead, while the boys argue endlessly over which Elsa song they want to hear next. No press conference. No $135 million contract.
#2 I also found quite a bit of evidence that celebrities have drivers — drivers who deal with the traffic and road rage so they don’t have to. So they don’t have to go nutso over the John Deere tractor bumping twenty-two miles an hour down Main Street, or the “Make America Great Again” bumper stickers slapped proudly on every Toyota and Honda and Mercedes they pass on the way to the grocery. (Wait. Do they even go to the grocery store?) Meanwhile, celebs chilling in the back behind darkly-tinted windows sipping champagne — their twin tots tottering around the playroom back home with the nanny. (Ahem, see #4)
Me, I sort of have a driver – if you can count my husband, who drives the two percent of time he’s actually with our family and not at football practice (high school coach, not NFL player — hence, no driver), and only then if we’re feeling brave enough to drive to the grocery store with category 5 twin tornadoes riding dirty in the back. (Again, no nanny.) We’re about as effective at dodging “Clean up in Aisle 3” as Jay Z and Queen Bey are at dodging photogs.
#3 And speaking of paparazzi, I found photographic evidence of celebrity twin moms and dads on dates. Like real ones – not just over lunch during pre- and post-planning weeks (teacher life), which are probably two of the seven dates Mike and I have had the entire time the boys have been in existence. Beyonce and Jay Z went out on their first date just weeks after their twins were born.
We’ve been to the movies once in three-and-a-half years. Meanwhile, celebs are out making them. Like George and Amal Clooney spotted last week sailing the canals of Venice in a water taxi, wind blowing through her long, dark locks and ruffling his steely gray bangs. Amal, that seriously tall, thin glass of water with like zero ripples ANYWHERE, and George, cocksure and suave, hand resting on her waist (tiny waist, y’all, tiny) on the way to some film festival. Where were their precious new boy and girl twins? With the nanny, I’m sure.
Meanwhile, us — we’ve been to the movies once in three-and-a-half years. Did I mention that already?
#4 And since it keeps coming up, let’s talk about nannies. Celeb twin parents have nannies, y’all. Nannies who diaper the kids, and feed the kids, and clean up after the kids. Now nannies are not necessarily always a good thing. I did unearth quite a few Hollywood scandals involving nannies doing things with people other than the kids. So, no, I guess nannies are not always a good thing — a sure thing, apparently, but not a good thing. So I guess I’m okay with no nanny.
#5 Celebrity Twin Moms and Dads also dress up. And then they go to galas — to black tie events. (See George and Amal Clooney’s example.)
Us? We go to Prom. (Again, teacher life.) One time we went with the boys, so that one just doesn’t count. And then once I went solo thanks to explosive diarrhea twenty minutes before the sitter was scheduled to arrive. (I guess I should clarify — the boys, the boys developed explosive diarrhea twenty minutes before the sitter was scheduled to arrive.) But Mike and I did make it to Prom once… Just the two of us and five hundred sweating, hormone-juiced teenagers in tuxes and taffeta grinding all up one another and consuming large quantities of ranch dressing from the chicken finger buffet.
So not the same.
#6. I also learned during my research that celebrity twin parents have play money. Like, money they get to play with. Lots and lots of play money. They do things with their play money like sail the canals of Venice, or break the internet with their baby reveals in front of giant walls of roses, or throw it away on things like… brunch. Brunch. That made-up mealtime that combines breakfast and lunch and costs about as much as all three daily meals combined.
Yeah, their money’s not like the money we have. We have real money. Real money in mega-tiny doses that we throw away on things like day care and Big Boy Overnights (our term for Pull Ups, otherwise, the boys think they’re diapers and won’t put them on) and food. Lots and lots of food. Our boys may be three-and-a-half, but they can put away a large pizza and a side of bread sticks almost entirely by themselves. I can’t even imagine what our food budget will be like when they’re teenagers playing football. I think I’d best be finding another job. Teaching won’t pay the bills then. Won’t even come close.
Maybe I’ll become a driver of celebrities. I bet where they live, the odds of me getting road rage would be considerably diminished. I bet tractors and Trump bumper stickers are fewer and farther between. Then again, I bet traffic is worse. Cities tend to be like that. And most of those celebrities live in the big city. And I kind of like my quiet, southern town.
And I also kind of like my high school football coaching husband and my twin tornado toddlers. No, scratch that. I love them. Like big time. So I’m good with what we have. Our lifestyle may not measure up to those celebrities.We may not drive sleek SUVs, or have a buxom, blond nanny (thank God), or go to Venetian film festivals, and soon we may not be able to feed our growing boys on teacher salaries, but Mike and I are filthy rich in the things that count most: love and laughter and a close, personal friendship with Santa Claus.
We just sent both boys off to daycare in big boy undies. Both of them! One sporting Captain America because we haven’t found Iron Man briefs yet, (so to him they’re the next best thing), and the other guy in day-old, slightly used Superman ones because he has OCD tendencies (and that makes them the only thing. Please don’t judge me.)
Now in case you haven’t figured it out, it’s been ALL ABOARD the potty express this weekend in the Candela household. It’s proved a cruel and rickety ride– and I’m still not positive we’ve reached our destination, but we’re getting close.
This morning, we tossed the engineer’s cap to the boys’ long-suffering and sweet-natured day care instructors, along with additional supplies: some stickers, a couple of magic bracelets, and plenty of extra underwear, which I pray they won’t need because no matter how many channel locks and sleeper holds they employ, they will NOT be getting additional briefs on our youngest boy. Truth. I apologize in advance. We clearly owe their teachers some Martin’s chicken biscuits (for those of you not from around here, they are our breakfast equivalent of an In N Out burger. Although these women actually deserve a bottle of private-select, high-quality bourbon — but I believe that’s frowned upon by the State Department.)
Now I feel I need to clarify just a bit before proceeding further. Parker has been out of diapers for the entire summer. He’s been chugging along like a champ, except for one thing (um.. actually two — number two — to be exact). So that was our goal for him: to go number two in the toilet. Tate, on the other hand, has refused to get on board all summer long — like adamantly — so we knew it was going to be a wild ride.
The train rolled out at oh-eight-hundred Saturday morning, with a meticulously-plotted plan in place. We knew we needed strategies, tactical diversions, and lots and lots of patience. It commenced with the disposal of the one remaining unsoiled diaper. We made a great show of it, each boy grabbing a separate Velcro tag and marching it to the kitchen, where we threw away the last remaining vestige of their infancy. They laughed and laughed. And I may have shed a tiny – microscopic, really – tear. Diapers are a hassle and an expense. But they’re also the end of an era… But I digress.
The boys laughed and laughed. Until it wasn’t funny anymore. Until I pulled the wool from their eyes… ahem, diapers from their ass.
“Stand up, Bug. Let’s put on your new Spiderman underwear.”
“I want a diaper.”
“We don’t have anymore, remember? You’re a big boy.”
“I’m not a big boy. I’m a baby. I want my diaper.”
“No, let’s put these on. You love spiders.”
Tate may love spiders, but he does not love Spiderman underwear. What commenced was a tremendous thrashing about and flailing of limbs that left my extremities bruised and him bare assed in the floor howling at the inhumanity of it all.
The potty train had left the station. And then stalled immediately due to a tiny human lying prostrate on the track. For fifty-three minutes. Truth.
Parker, on the other hand, was all about it… until he had to poop.
“Mommy, get the diaper out of the garbage.”
“Not happening. It’s too messy. See?” I take him to the trashcan, where I had intentionally poured Mrs. Butterworth all over it, knowing full well that I would need the evidence to back me up later.
He tried a new tactic. “Let’s go to Target and get some more.”
“We can’t. Target is closed. It’s Saturday.” (Small white lie.) “Besides, we have this magic bracelet. (Big white lie) Let’s put it on instead and then go poo poo in the potty.”
Parker is the more easily manipulated of our two fellas, so his eyes instantly lit up. He proffered his arm and away he and daddy went.
At last! We were off and rolling! Until we weren’t. Another delay. Parker sat there, chugging away, but that sweet little engine just didn’t quite believe he could. Not even with his magic bracelet. So he didn’t.
Tate, meanwhile, finally got off the floor but refused to get into his tighty whities — which, truth be told, are a little loose for his small frame and actually multi-colored. For the remainder of the day, he rode the train naked and full steam ahead, pulling ferociously at his safety valve all the while. But he found success – and stickers on a chart each time.
But rather than using the cute, little, froggy urinal we purchased – complete with spinning tongue to inspire good aim – he used the bushes outside our front door.
As Saturday drew to a close the ride left all four of us completely pooped (although only two of us had actually done so), and with the soil in our front bed growing more acidic by the moment. The gardenias should love it.
Cue our Sunday morning departure. It was a good deal easier on all the passengers. Tate finally fed the frog and even managed to spin its tongue, although it might actually be a uvula… it looks kind of like a uvula. Regardless, he did it. (Although he still prefers the shrubbery.)
And Parker finally conquered number two atop the toilet – the magic bracelet managing to wield its powers — and got tatted up as a reward. And Mike and I actually began to relax a bit and enjoy the ride.
The frog and his ?uvula?
a tatted up Parkerbear
Yes, the potty express is finally proceeding full steam ahead. And I’m praying that having handed over the controls to our sons’ ever-faithful teachers, the forward motion will continue. I pray that the air brake isn’t somehow inadvertently tripped in the chaos of centers and snack time. I’m not worried about Parker. He’s pretty much got this. But Tate, he worries me a bit.
Earlier, when I mentioned his OCD, it wasn’t for dramatic effect. He has definite tendencies. Tate won’t do anything until he’s confident he can succeed. And once he’s mastered something, he does it, ad nauseam. We’ve recorded hours of him singing Elsa’s theme song. He’s completed his favorite ABC puzzle approximately two hundred thousand times. (I exaggerate. Let’s say one hundred. Thousand.) Last week I told you about the elevator that we rode over and over and over and over again on vacation. And when we weren’t riding it, he was talking about riding it. And begging to ride it. And screaming to ride it.
So I feel like it’s kind of the same with the potty express. He feels fairly confident right now. At least about the first part (we’re working toward no. 2). For a while over the weekend, he wanted to pee every three minutes – and his body wouldn’t necessarily comply — which caused him to stress a wee bit (yes, pun intended). But now, he’s relaxed into an every-thirty-minutes-or-so pattern. (We have a plethora of stickers to prove it.)
Our family boarded this train with the intent of promoting confidence and independence (and a new school level – age 3-4 class) for our little lads. And thus far, it is working. But if our youngest has a set back, his OCD tendencies may take over. He already worries nonstop about “pee peeing on the floor at school.” He gave me a running catalog of classmates who have done so in the past. And if he does, he’s sure to internalize it as failure and our entire train could derail.
So I would appreciate any and all prayers for a successful third day aboard the Potty Express. We could use all the assistance we can get. And please, please… send prayers, not judgment. I know they’re almost three-and-a-half. I know they should’ve been potty trained a long time ago. But twins are a lot of work, David. Have mercy!