Our Lucy turned seven last week.
For months, she has been planning and scheming, talking about menu items and activities she wanted to share. She decided she wanted to throw a dinner party.
Her menu? Macaroni and cheese. Pasta with red sauce. Pizza. Mashed potatoes. Corn on the cob. Hot dogs. Popcorn.
What, is she 7?
She certainly knew her target audience. The food that Danny and I spent most of the afternoon cooking disappeared fast. (Of course, Danny still makes restaurant portions, so there were plenty of leftovers.) Danny also made barbecued pork, baba ganoush and roasted vegetables, and a peach-tomato salad with basil lemon-tahini dressing for the parents. And that was before I brought out the chocolate cupcakes. There was no shortage of food at this party.
Originally, Lucy wanted to have 7 friends for her 7th birthday, the people closest to her, those she has known the longest. However, Lu knows many sets of siblings and never wants anyone to feel left out. We settled on 14 friends, 2 friends for every year of her life.
Thankfully, we have the 23-foot table from our former cooking studio in our yard now. No problem seating 14 squirmy happy children and their parents at our house.
I say former cooking studio because it has been a summer of change around here. After two years of making a work space on someone else’s farm, we decided to let it go. We created our next cookbook in that space. We brought Desmond there every weekday for the first 9 months of his life. For awhile, it was the right place for us. And then it wasn’t. Holding onto something you know isn’t right for you because it once was? That’s a certain kind of suffering. Someday, we’ll build the place we want. For this summer, we let go of the old space. And it feels like relief now.
It has been a tough summer, in some ways. I haven’t written about it here yet. Six weeks ago, I was feeling mighty strange at a meeting with the two friends who help run our business. The left side of my face was tingling. My entire left side felt weak. I had to practice every sentence three times before I could allow myself to say it, because I knew that it would come out slurred and sideways otherwise. Finally, I asked my friend Ken, who is a volunteer firefighter on the side, if I should be concerned. He calmly said yes, did some tests, and then urged Danny to drive me to the fire station. That’s how I ended up in an ambulance, waiting at the dock for the ferry they diverted, while the medics did EKGs and noted my blood pressure rising higher and higher. On the ride to the hospital, I felt 25 feet underwater, looking at the surface, knowing I should probably go up there, but not having the strength to swim. It felt calm. Strangely present. There was no pain.
Turns out I had a stroke, a minor stroke called a TIA. The very expensive medical tests show that I’m healthy as a horse. (Hey, I know my cardiogram is great now. And the MRI shows my brain is strong.) TIAs follow the same mechanism as a stroke, but for whatever reason, the clot dissolves on its own. By the end of the day in the hospital, I could talk normally again. By the next morning, I could lift my left leg again. I was released.
I’d like to say I’m completely fine but I’m not yet. When people ask, I say, “I’m on the mend.” I’m exhausted, mostly. It wallops me hard in unexpected places. Any stress seems to strike me down. As my doctor said, if the brain loses oxygen for nine hours, the work to recover will take months, not weeks. Mostly, it’s invisible. It’s not the time for me to need naps, with a new cookbook coming out and a business to run. But I listen to my body now.
That may be one of the gifts of this. I’m looking hard to find the rest.
And then there’s Lu, our sweet girl with the indomitable spirit. Twelve hours after she was born, she stopped breathing. We spent a week in the ICU, fearing the worst, listening to every beep of the machines in that infernal, blessed place. People all over the world sent out good wishes and prayers for her. We felt held. When she was 9 months old, the good surgeons at Seattle Children’s did a 9-hour surgery and rebuilt her skull. They put in artifical bones to strengthen her eye sockets. They made her new and saved her life.
Last week, we met with them again and confirmed what we already suspected: one part of her skull has not entirely fused. There’s a small hole in her head. We can’t have that, not with this active dancing tumbling life-attacking girl. Sometime soon, they will have to shave her head and do another skull surgery.
This year, we also found out that Lu has a pretty significant hearing loss. Again, we suspected for years. The standard school tests in kindergarten put numbers to it. We went to Children’s in April, where the audiologist confirmed that Lu really can’t hear anything below 40 decibels. Lu is social and joyous but she has always hated big crowds and noise. Now I know that’s because it all becomes a giant burble burble bustle bumble to her. She’s been compensating for years, translating what people say to her in her head before she responds. She can’t hear me if I am walking down the stairs behind her, talking. Oh Lu. It broke our hearts to find out what we had not known. She has been alone in this. The other day, the ENT told us there is no surgical intervention. She will have to wear hearing aids all her life.
Danny and I have been walking around with our chests feeling heavy for days. We’re holding hands while we walk.
We’ll get through. We always do. Lu’s fine with it because we talk through everything with her (and now her brother). She’s excited about ice cream and movies in the hospitals. We’ve told her we’ll get her fabulous scarves for her head while her hair grows in. This is the girl who pulled her own breathing tube out when she was 2 days old. The kid will be fine.
Given time, so will we.
Still, the blackberries taste a little sour this summer.
Still, it’s summer. We spend most of our time together outdoors, eating on the porch or at the giant table. There are blackberries, kiddie pools, a trampoline, and things that go.
This is the summer that Desmond has become entirely focused on things that go. He would push this bulldozer around all afternoon, if you let him. “CAR!” he shouts first thing in the morning, after smiling at us from his crib and reaching for a hug. Two or three times a day, the fever overtakes him. He stands on the back porch and makes the sign for PLEASE! over and over again, until Danny takes him for a sweep around the yard on the riding lawnmower.
He is such a sweet boy: inquisitive, joyful, determined to move. And he now loves books, after months of seeming indifference. Every night that I rock him before bed, he makes the sign for more and looks up at me, pleading. So I read him Goodnight Moon three more times, while he points out the kittens, the comb and the bowl full of mush. These moments with him, the snuggles with Lu before she climbs the stairs to bed? They make all the stresses and loud voices of the day go quiet.
I struggle sometimes — and right now, every day — with summer. I used to love summer, the way I watch my children open their arms and laugh through the warm air. I’m pulled by the opposing forces of wanting to spend days hiking with my kids, going to the beach, roasting marshmallows over the fire, and lavishing all my attention on them. But I also love my work. I love this work and I want to do the work I love. I have to earn enough money for us. And we have no childcare during the summer. So every day is the push and pull of wanting to live the moments slowly — as we did sitting by our neighbor’s fire pit during Lucy’s birthday party — and sit in front of this computer, writing. Every parent I know, especially the mamas, feels this way. When you are self-employed with children, summer stinks.
But then again, maybe not.
I think often lately of a scene from a movie I love, Truly Madly Deeply. (If you haven’t seen it yet, please do.) The character Juliet Stevenson plays attends the birth of a baby of a woman she has been helping to get citizenship. She holds the newborn baby in her arms, and crying, says, “Que linda que linda que linda.” When she arrives home to Alan Rickman, who is the ghost of her dead partner, the most wonderful man not alive, she tells him, as she lets go, “It’s life I want.”
This might be the summer I have let go of thinking the toddler-roaming house needs to be less cluttered. Or the dishes in our food photographs could be more composed and calm. Or wishing my life to be any different than it is, in spite of the mammoth medical bills, the unexpected exhaustion, the soon-to-be-scheduled skull surgery. Messy and imperfect is life.
One of my sane points each day comes early in the morning. I wake up at 6, turn on the coffee pot, and sit by the big windows in our living room and read in silence. Mary Oliver poems first. A little of one of my Buddhist books, and then whatever novel I’m working on. A full chapter, all to myself. After coffee and an hour of reading, I put on my sweat pants, grab the headphones and head out the door. Every morning that I walk, I listen to another episode of On Being. Krista Tippet is one of my favorite people I’ve never met. These are thoughtful conversations about the nature of being alive.
Yesterday, I listened to Elizabeth Alexander, a poet. At one point, Krista asked Elizabeth how becoming a mother has changed her writing. She laughed. “Becoming a mother grew me right up.” We imagine serious writers with clean oak desks, a beautiful bouquet of flowers placed in just the right space, handwritten papers strewn out carefully, and hours to write. The real version is different. According to Elizabeth Alexander, Lucille Clifton, one of my favorite poets, said that her best time to write poems is at the kitchen table. One of the kids has measles. Two others are smacking each other. You have two minutes to yourself before you have to go deal with it again. Go. That’s the real writing. Because that’s real life.
These days, I’m making sure the kitchen table is clean, pen and paper nearby.
There are too many things to do. Not enough energy to do them all. Not enough money. Too many emails. And I love it all, in my better moments of the day. This is being alive. If I choose yes, I choose this too.
After all, it’s life I want. And the life I have — messy, sometimes scary, never pithy no matter how I try — is the life I have. In spite of all the doubts and complications, there are kids piled in a row boat on dry land, plotting their own adventures. There’s a boy in his father’s lap, smiling in the sunshine. There is — for a moment — stillness in the taste of peach-tomato salad at the end of July.
This is the life I want.
Que linda que linda que linda.
peach-tomato salad with basil-lemon-tahini dressing
I hesitate this to call this a recipe, almost, since it’s “throw together some good fruit and drizzle it with dressing and feta.” Still, if you have never combined peaches, tomatoes, jicama, and watermelon together? This will be a revelation.
We’ve been eating plenty of salads around here this summer and this one might be my favorite.
3 ripe peaches, cored and thinly sliced
3 large ripe tomatoes, cut into equal chunks
2 cups watermelon, cubed
1 half medium jicama, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 ounces feta (or more if you love feta), cut into small cubes
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
lemon tahini dressing
1/2 cup fresh basil
Make the salad. Combine the peaches, tomatoes, watermelon, and jicama. Season with salt.
Finish the dressing. Combine the lemon-tahini dressing with the fresh basil in a blender. Blend until the dressing is bright green.
Drizzle the dressing over the salad. Toss. Add the feta. Serve.