Saturday, October 13, 2012

If I Were America's Mother, I'd Call a Family Meeting

If I were America’s mother, I’d call a family meeting.

There would be a chair at the kitchen table for everyone, pulled from all corners of our home. No one would be left out.

We’d gather round ­­– our table would be round, with no head, no left or right, no middle. It would be made of something sturdy like oak to represent our strength, yet soft enough to show the scars we’ve left behind.

We would join hands in prayer for the believers, in a moment of reflection for those who don’t, each summoning the faith to believe in one another. Then we would begin.

Like any family, the simple act of being together would stir memories of better times. Of the days starting out when uncertainty and fears of what might be pushed us onward, upward, toward resolve and self-determination. Back then, our forefathers expected the best of themselves and each other, and received it in return. It wasn’t easy. Their voices might have risen in frustration, but they never stopped talking, they never once stopped listening and looking toward that common goal of union.
No doubt we’ve had our differences, some far more harrowing than others. We’ve warred with each other, as if a state’s boundary were stronger than our blood. We’ve brought great shame upon ourselves, too, betraying members of our own family, as if they weren’t family at all, as if they weren’t human or only three-quarters such. Together, we persevered through the pains of depression and wars, some just, others not, a great virus that swept our home and killed too many. These are the scars that mar our table’s soft pulp. Yet it endures. We endure. Scars don’t break a spirit. Not ours.

But, I’d say, I’m more worried for us now. I’m afraid we’re facing the dissolution of what was once our great family. Today, we are battling another kind of civil war.
We don’t speak. Not really. We talk at each other, over each other, we scream and accuse and dismiss one another. No one listens. Compromise has somehow become the failure of one instead of victory for all. Our family’s debt has been carried one generation into the next and now we face losing much, if not everything. We face losing our home and with it our souls.

How it breaks your mother’s heart.

As a family, it’s our duty to take care of one another and we have not been doing much of that. When family is sick, we should want to heal them. When one has fallen low on hard times, another should rush to give a hand up to better days. When one of our own, through hard work and perseverance, succeeds, we should all stand to applaud the accomplishment with sincere pride, even if our own accomplishments fall short. That’s what families do. They support one another, they respect one another, they believe in sacrificing the self in support of the whole to the benefit of all. That is the foundation upon which a family builds its home.

Yet our house is in shambles, its base cracked, the walls splintered. It’s hardly worth calling a home anymore. We have mortgaged its future through greed and disregard. It’s falling down all around us because we have fallen down. No more.
We must resolve to talk less, listen more, and when we do have something to say, say it with dignity and respect for others and ourselves. Expect the same in return. When we disagree, vow to do so courteously. Know everyone at the table wants to find the way to a better life, and though we have different paths for getting there, we will do best by finding the middle ground. Most important, we must revere compromise.

There are dark days ahead, but we’ve endured far darker through the strength of our family bond. Only we have the ability to undo it. And when those dark days come, and they will, remember we’re a family. The only way out is together.
If I were America’s mother, I’d say all of this. Then I’d close the meeting the way I opened it. I’d ask that we join hands one last time before we decide our fate, bow our heads, and pray for our family. -- Amy MacKinnon

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Walking Past the Crying Baby

By Amy MacKinnon

I first noticed them along the narrow strip of beach about a mile into World's End reservation. The parents stood aloof, dressed in all black while their two little girls romped in brightly flowered hats and matching jackets. Both children were tiny, the big sister no more than four, the younger's toddler cheeks holding fast to baby fat.

This was the place my husband and I had been bringing our own children since their births. Before even. Now they were teens, no longer in need of being carried in baby slings or jogging strollers, no longer carried by chubby toddler thighs and bursts of awe. Being there again with my once-babies, seeing those little girls who reminded me so much of my own, I was exuberant.

"They're beautiful," I said to the mother. She eyed me, expressionless, before turning away.

My family walked on, on to the circular path that meandered for miles until we came upon the family again. They were a couple of miles into the trail by then. My two older children walked ahead of me, my youngest by my side.

The couple stood together a few yards on, their backs to us. Well beyond them -- 40 yards? 50? -- were the two little girls. The older sister crouched over the toddler who lay in a heap along the gravel path. She patted her baby sister's back as she called to her parents, her voice swallowed by the space that separated them. I looked from the parents to their children and back again as we passed the adults, but the mother and father ignored us all.

The two little girls were still some distance ahead, but now the older sister's voice carried.

"Come on," she begged, tugging on her baby sister. She eyed us as we neared. "Mommy, she won't come." She stood. She looked from the toddler -- a baby really -- to us, to her parents and then ran. She ran past us as her baby sister's cries turned to wails.

But the parents remained where they were. My youngest reached for my hand and held it as we drew closer to the baby. I wondered what my older children would do when they came to the baby. Would they stop? Keep going? And I realized that in the coming moments I'd have to make the same choice. Would I walk past a crying baby? Could I?

My older children hesitated. They stood on the path near the toddler, shuffling their feet, staring at me as if I knew what to do. I shouldn't interfere with another's parenting, I knew this. I repeated it over and over to myself with each step. It was what my head tried to convince me as my heart ached.

I let go my daughter's hand. Crouching low over the baby, I rubbed her back. She lay facedown in the brush along the path. Twigs entwined her curls and dust smudged her forehead. "Oh, honey, are you okay?" Her cries grew softer.

The parents watched all of this. I stood their little girl, brushed off that pretty flowered coat of hers, and took her hand. Still the parents stayed. The toddler stared at me, quiet now, her eyes swollen, lips trembling. Those cheeks.

Don't interfere. It's what we're told these days, what we tell ourselves.

I heard it, but all I knew in that moment was the baby girl. I started to walk her to her family. One step, two. She stumbled.

"Do you want me to carry you?" She nodded.

Before I lifted her to me, I knew I was a crossing an even more profound line. Here I was, a stranger, carrying their baby. I expected the mother to rush forward, the father close behind. They didn't move.

The baby girl lay her head against my shoulder, tucked herself under my chin as if my body were a familiar place to her. With my jacket cuff, I wiped at the mucous draining from her nose before laying my palm to her cheek. So soft. We walked toward her parents some distance away. Unmoving. Unmoved.

Her older sister bolted from them toward us, hesitated. She bit on a finger and then ran back to her parents. The last few yards of our approach, the baby's father stepped forward and held out his arms.

"She's very stubborn," he said.

Passing her to him, the spot along my side where she had knit herself a place, grew cold. "She's exhausted. She's a baby." What I wanted to say was, how could you walk past a crying baby. Your own. Where's her carriage, a drink? Where's your compassion.

The rest of the day I was betwixt and between. The spot where I'd held the baby girl against me felt strangely empty and cold. It was a nothing event -- nothing. Smaller than nothing and yet...I kept hearing that voice say I shouldn't interfere and it wasn't wrong, not exactly. But in a world desperately in need of compassion, what hope was there if a baby's own parents failed to provide her tired legs with a stroller, her runny nose with a tissue, her cries with comfort. It is the most primal act to soothe a baby and they didn't. My faith in humanity was badly shaken.

Later, I asked my son, only fourteen and already towering over me, what he thought.

"The closer I got to that baby, the sicker I felt," he said. "How could they leave her there? It reminded me of last year in lunch when I saw two boys eating alone. I felt real sick then too, so I asked them to eat with me and my friends. I'm glad you didn't walk past her. I couldn't."

He bent low, tucked himself under my chin , and wrapped me in a hug, that cold spot along my side now warmed.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Baby, baby, baby

by Amy MacKinnon

Blood. There isn't supposed to be blood, but there it is.

My stomach flips, failing to right itself. My hands, knees, and voice tremble while talking to the obstetrician on call. His soothing words can't reassure me, but I'll repeat them to reassure those around me.

Only nine weeks into my third pregnancy and I'm on my fourth day of bed rest. I steel myself for each trip to the bathroom. But there's more blood this time. Too much.

This time the I speak to the nurse. She's become a friend, and this time the reassuring words do soothe me. She tells me her story. Her first pregnancy and three months later the spotting began. She lost that baby but somehow had conceived a second while still pregnant with the first. After being pregnant for eleven months, she gave birth to a son. Her miracle. I don't believe in miracles and we end by making an appointment for the following week.

My husband holds me saying it's probably for the best. We weren't prepared this unexpected pregnancy. He returns a few moments later, eyes full, voice thick. He's sorry. Sorry for the words he didn't mean, the baby whose life we won't share, his inability to comfort me. Yet it's the pain he shares that's the greatest comfort. We hold each other.

Our three-year-old daughter lays beside me in my bed, quiet, her head tucked under my chin as my husband and I explain the sister she longs for won't be. Our son, only eighteen months, doesn't understand all of it -- only enough to know his mother's crying. He wraps his chubby arms around my neck, kisses me a thousand times. When I smile, it's his cue to jump on the bed. The children have already begun to bounce back while I haven't begun to grieve.

Some days later, I sit in my doctor's office as if awaiting a death sentence. The morning sickness that's wracked me now resolved, my once-round stomach, already flat again. They don't keep me waiting long. The nurse embraces me. I thank her for her kind words and a short time later I leave, knowing I won't be back again until it's time for my annual physical. I won't be back every month, then every two weeks, and, finally, weekly for my maternity visits. The doctor won't measure my growing belly, chastise my increasing weight, share his own stories. I won't call him in the middle of some March night to tell him it's time.

In the parking lot, tears choke me as I try to find the ignition. Soon I can't breathe. I miss my baby. I desperately wanted that baby. I suddenly realize I'm a mother to a child whose face I'll never see, whose body I'll never hold. Though not a person of faith, I beg for my child.

Two days later the phone rings. It's the nurse calling with the results of my tests. I'm prepared for the call, she said it would be coming, I'm not prepared for the words. I'm still pregnant. My baby is still with me. My baby is alive. Words I didn't expect to hear because hope hadn't been a part of my life these past weeks.

I hang up the phone and fall to me knees. Lifting my shirt, I wrap my arms around my baby.

(My daughter is now 12 and the light of my life.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Writing the Second Book

By Amy MacKinnon

So a friend just emailed, asking for advice on writing the second book. Me. Laughable and wholly misguided considering how many times my dear friend Lynne Griffin had to talk me off the ledge. It takes a great deal of faith to write a book, a whole lot more to write the second. This is how I responded and I hope you'll share your experiences with your own writing process:

As for writing the second book, you will be filled with dread, self-competition (a word you make up because you no longer have any grasp over language), anxiety, self-loathing, thoughts of self-mutilation, your finger will constantly hover over the delete key, your first chapter will suck and suck and suck, your trusted readers (whom you now doubt and maybe despise a little) will tell you it sucks, and then, finally, it will be good enough for you to move on to the second chapter, but not yet *good*, just good enough, but not really that good at all; you'll cry -- a lot -- doubt every cell of your being, knowing you suck, your goal will be to write two pages every goddamn day, but you can hardly write two godforsaken paragraphs and they are, simply put, pitiful -- you write, revise, revise, write, write, revise move on to chapter three and it will be the slowest chapter of your life -- ever -- but you push through to chapter four and it won't be so bad because you reward yourself with food, it's the only joy left, you eat chocolate! chips! wasabi peas! -- a lot -- constantly, really, until your sides overflow your pajama bottoms, but it's worth it because you're writing and someday, when you sell the book, you'll be able to afford those Spanx, then on and on you write, and at this point, when your finger hovers over that delete key it won't linger there quite so long as before, resignation will be your constant companion, until one morning an epiphany strikes you between the eyes and you dare to believe you're a freaking genius, and you write and it's hard but no longer excruciating, just hard as hell, but you're writing and you see an impending shape and that keeps you moving forward because if you don't move forward it's not as if you're going to fall backward, worse, you'll just stand still and that's when you'll fall off the grid completely, so you move forward and you fully see -- there! -- the path you're on, strewn as it is with enormous boulders you must surmount every few miles, you become familiar with the people accompanying you on this journey, your darling characters, and you start to love these people -- who exist only in your head and on your page, crazy you! -- more than most people in your real life (which doesn't feel quite so real anymore) and you care for them and your soul starts to inhabit their (paper) bodies but they're real (aren't they?), and you write them with your heart and head, you bleed for them, and then the end is only a chapter or two away and you begin to slow down, not wanting it to end, not wanting to lose the omnipotence of breathing life and loss and love into these people -- and what if you get the ending wrong and all of this is for naught?! -- but you won't because you always intended to go there, right there and a spot to the left, and finally you do write the end and you make yourself cry and are convinced, most days, it is probably, mostly, hopefully good enough, at least it's the best you can do at this point in your life, and you hit save draft, stand, stretch, walk away, rush back, and start again -- at the beginning.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Birth and Rebirth

By Amy MacKinnon

Nine days after giving birth to my first child, I died.

That morning my husband woke to the sound of my teeth chattering and whole shuddering. Don’t worry, I said, it’s just my body finding its way back. Moments later, while I lay in bed nursing our daughter, a rag between my teeth to ease those first excruciating moments as she latched on, my husband called the Boston hospital we’d left only a week before. Never mind the ER, a nurse said, bring her back to the maternity ward.

But we were deep in a February frost with layers of snow and ice covering everything. There was the wind chill factor to consider and our baby’s tender skin. I refused to take her out into New England’s unforgiving winter. My husband wouldn’t listen. He dressed her while I protested, buckled her into the infant seat while I cursed him, he took her to the car, knowing I’d follow. I’d follow her anywhere.

At the hospital, a nurse banded my wrist and my baby’s; brought in a bassinet for her and settled me in a bed; she took my temperature and blood pressure, and averted her gaze when I complained about my husband’s ridiculous anxiety. Everything appears fine, she said, heading for the door, a doctor will be in soon to examine you. I glared at him to emphasize her point.

We waited mostly in silence as the hours passed one into the next, until my daughter needed to be fed again and my husband welcomed the chance to escape for lunch. He kissed us both goodbye. I don’t recall returning the kiss; I’d like to say I did. Once he was gone, I slipped my nipple into my baby’s mouth, overcome by the flush that ran along her plump cheek, the smell of her neck, the potency of my milk flowing from me into her. I loved her.

She fell asleep in my arms. Though I rarely used the cradle at home, this time, this one time, I placed her in the bassinet the nurse brought earlier. Moments after I settled myself back in the hospital bed, a terrific heat overcame me. It started at my core and rushed to my head. A doctor, a woman, walked in reading my chart. She was all business standing beside me like that. What brings you here today?

I became aware of the river then, inky blackness that swelled from beneath and rushed to swallow me. It roared in my ears and blocked my peripheral vision. I arched my neck to keep my face above the surface, reaching my hand out of the murk to grab hold of the doctor’s wrist. Save me.

For I moment, I floated underwater, lingering there. In the distance, above the surface, came the sound of muffled voices, the doctor’s among them: I need help in here! The last I felt of my body, it was convulsing wildly, a fever raging within it, rolling one seizure into the next. And then I was whisked downstream and away.

While doctors told my husband that it didn’t look good, that if I survived, I may be left brain damaged, I floated in the river, bathed in luxurious waters. Nothing had ever felt so good.

As my husband phoned my parents, choking when he told them I lay in a drug induced coma, that a machine now breathed for me, I tried to make sense of the familiar voices that swirled about– was that my Nana? I was perfectly content.

Everything was calm, everything was right. Almost. I thought of my daughter, a person I’d met just days before. How had this little person, someone I barely knew, but knew better than any other, how had she become everything? I couldn’t leave her. I wouldn’t. She needed me, but I needed her more.

I raised my arms and pushed back against the current. The woman who’d been with me, the one I’ve come to think was my grandmother, became euphoric. I felt her cup my head and then take it away again. She left me as I struggled to swim back. Alone, I kicked my legs and swept my arms in ever widening arcs. The effort was enormous.

Nearing the surface, I became aware of pain again and the need to breathe. I gulped and gulped for air, but none came. Finally, I opened my eyes and a nurse was instantly by my side. Eleven days after my daughter’s birth, I was reborn. My arms and legs were tethered to the bed and a tube snaked down my throat. Soon all were removed and my family was called.

When my husband came, carrying our daughter, I kissed him this time. Passionately, gratefully. He then placed my baby in my arms and I pressed her to me. There are no words.

I knew then and forevermore I would follow her to the ends of the earth and back again. I also knew that even in death, love prevails.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Here's to Hope

By Amy MacKinnon

I remember last New Years Eve well. I remember holding fast to those moments before midnight, not wanting to let go of 2008. It wasn't that it had been a stupendous year, though it had its moments, but I knew in my bones 2009 would be a year of pain. And it was.

It seems everyone has suffered through this miserable year. People I know well and hardly at all have lost their investments, their jobs and homes, their health, and, worst of all, loved ones. No one has been untouched. I've had my share of the same and have felt myself grow numb to it all.

What's strange, however, what amazes me, is that few have lost their faith.

I'm not an optimistic person. Not by half. But like so many, I believe 2010 will be a year of magnificence. As the minutes of 2009 tick away, I feel myself grow stronger, far more hopeful. Life will change for the better in 2010, for everyone. Like last year on this day, I feel it in my bones.

Strange thing hope. I suppose believing in it is an act of faith.

For a new day, a new year, a new life, it's a start.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Forty-Nine Years of Faith

By Amy MacKinnon

Tomorrow is my parents 49th wedding anniversary.

Their cake is in my oven. A mylar balloon, Happy Anniversary scrolled across its breadth, bobs in the foyer. A bundle of homemade cards from their grandchildren -- decorated with boats and flowers, rainbows even -- are pasted together to help my parents celebrate their day.

I'll go early to comb her hair and wash her face. If she can muster a little strength to her mouth, I'll brush on lipstick. Tango in Pink.

The rest of my family will gather at 11 sharp to sing to my parents. Mornings are best. We'll smile, try at least, as my father reads aloud the cards to my mother. Later, I'll make a collage of them for her room, something bright and cheerful. I'll cut the cake she can't eat, and if it's a good day, feed her sherbet. Orange is her favorite.

I can't forget to bring her wedding band. It slipped off two weeks ago and will never fit again. But she can wear it tomorrow. At least for a little while.

Years ago, one of my brothers, still just a boy, bought my parents an anniversary gift. It was a set of coffee mugs emblazoned with World's Greatest Lover across the tops and beneath that, cartoons of a voluptuous woman and a strapping man. I thought they looked exactly like my parents, and said so. My brother beamed while my mother and father blushed. Even so they used those mugs every morning, the images of that couple fading little by little, year by year until they were unrecognizable. I remember them well.

Tomorrow, like today and yesterday and the day before that, my father will sit with my mother and hold her hand. He'll give her sips of ginger ale and do his best to understand what she says, though no one really can, but he believes he knows. Maybe he does. The hospice nurse will check her vitals and check on him. He likes that. So do I.

He'll stroke her hair as he reminds her of that frigid New Years Eve long ago when they believed their youth and love and faith could conquer all of life's obstacles. They were mostly right.

Watching them, I'll try not to be bitter toward a disease that's robbed my mother of her vigor, of her memories of her grandchildren and children, of the life she built with the man she pledged herself to nearly fifty years ago. I'll try not to rail against any kind of God who created such a thing.

Instead, I'll place my faith in love. The kind that remains in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Until death do us part. For now, it's the best I can do.