OK, if you’ve been on Facebook with any regularity, you have probably recently read my post telling the month of February to go fuck itself. I was surprised by the range of responses to this post. A lot of people laughed, some were offended, some were concerned for my well-being, and possibly my sanity. At first, my little Rebel perked up and said, “What? I can’t tell February to fuck itself? Watch me. I am 41 years old. I can do whatever I want to.” Sounds mature, no? But it had more to say: “I am actually a real human being and possess the full range of human emotion and am not, as some may think, dying of terminal cheerfulness.” This is the rebel who’s been a nice girl for far too long. She needs to be heard. I am allowed to bitch. I am allowed to kvetch. I am allowed to complain about a month that for twelve years now has held me captive.
Since my mother’s death in 2001, on February 7, I have dreaded this month, which is also the month of my birth. In addition, because it’s a birthday month, there are always expectations that are sometimes met and sometimes not. Then there’s Valentine’s Day, which is a mind-fuck for a lot of us. And then on the 22nd, there’s Washington’s Birthday, which my parents both called “Birthington’s Wash Day.” This date is the anniversary of my parents’ engagement, in 1969. It is also the anniversary of my dear Uncle Jack’s death, in 2001, fifteen days after his kid sister’s (my mom’s). OK, so going in, it’s already a loaded gun. Then add Jack’s fever, my fever and sinus infection (on the aforementioned birthday), meetings with the school system to determine autism services for Jack after his third birthday (on Valentine’s Day), Brian’s dear grandmother’s death and funeral, all followed by a double ear infection and a mighty attack of the antibiotic shits in our little man. Brian said it reminds him of surfing on a really bad day, when you just come up for air and get hit on the head by another wave, or the board. Amen.
I am tempted here to escape from my tirade and count my blessings. It is true. I have many, and they are big. Big. I’m married to the biggest. I gave birth to the second biggest, who’s really more of a tie. But I feel that the old saw to “count your blessings” denies any difficulties at all, and that’s not the way life works. At least not my life. Life isn’t a subtractive game, where a good thing or easy thing or joyful thing cancels out the difficult stuff, the ugly stuff. It’s additive. Both exist. And — deep breath — both are needed. We look at these big life events like they should be made out of cardboard, two-dimensional. You’re just happy or just sad. But my experience has been a lot more complex than that. Yes, I was sad that my mother was dying. I was devastated. I wanted anything in the world but that to be happening. I wanted to be anyone else but who I was, the girl losing her mother. I felt helpless and rageful and exhausted and terrified. And in the midst of that, we laughed. There was tenderness and beauty, even when it wasn’t pretty.
When I had Jack, of course I was thrilled to meet him, smell him, touch him, hear his tiny newborn voice. And — nothing would ever be the same again. Like with my mother’s death, I went through a very real period of grief. I felt helpless and rageful and exhausted and terrified in totally new ways. In the shadow of Jack’s birth, Brian had a severe episode of mental illness, and my father was dying of lung cancer, which is what killed my mother. Jack was only six months old when we lost my dad. There was so much going on at once. It was overwhelming, yes. But it was also a very rich time, very thick with real emotion and caring.
When I was single, I used to think of finding a life partner as a treat, like an ice cream sundae–a reward for getting all fixed. You can ask my husband of nine years how that worked out. There really is no finish line, no end point where you’re finally “there.” You’re only, ever, eternally, here. If you let yourself be. And here is messy and complicated and many-layered. Relationships are hard work, and joyful children are difficult to raise. I am anything but “all fixed.” Most days, I feel like I’m falling apart. And maybe — deep breath — that’s a good thing.
Two nights ago, Jack woke up several times in the night crying. The antibiotics had really done a number on his tummy, and he was in obvious pain. I could hear the gas twisting and moaning in his little body. I sat with him–helpless and rageful and exhausted and terrified. I didn’t know what to do or how to help him. We called the on-call doctor, and luckily it was our favorite man who called us back. He told us that we couldn’t use an anti-diarrheal medicine, that the gas and pain would have to work itself out. All we could do was sit with him, rub his back, say “shhh-shhh” over and over. It made me think of Atticus Finch, at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, where Scout says that he sat up with Jem, “and he would still be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” Watching the movie, I never considered how exhausted and terrified he must have been. He’d almost lost his boy! Maybe it was just Gregory Peck looking debonaire and stoic, but I sure felt a lot less noble and considerably more whiny as Jack writhed and cried in his little bed, clutching at his pillows. There are all kinds of helpless, and there are all kinds of hard.
Today was better. We got clearance to stop the wicked antibiotics. His ear infections have cleared up. He even ate some dinner. It’s amazing what a happy boy can do to change your outlook on life. And I’m reminded of the old wisdom: “This too shall pass.” Even gas. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) So February is ending, and I look into March with some trepidation. There’s no guarantee it will be any easier. But I have found sustenance in the things that helped me during my mom’s illness, during labor: deep breaths, small sparks of color, the sound of cardinals singing in the backyard, raindrops on the new plants from good friends. And the realization that I’ve made it this far. February will end. I won’t.