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Gratitude

26 Nov

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Possibly one of my top ten favorite words and something I try to keep in mind when confronted with things I’d prefer not to think about because things could always be worse:

G R A T I T U D E

Perspective is so important and today, like every day, I am so grateful for

  1. My children
  2. My husband
  3. My parents
  4. My brother
  5. My extended family
  6. My friends
  7. Good health
  8. James Taylor
  9. Licorice
  10. Music
  11. Warm chocolate chip cookies
  12. When Harry Met Sally
  13. Medicine and science
  14. Taxi
  15. The NYT crossword puzzle
  16. Laughter
  17. Words
  18. Not turkey — I could skip that
  19. Meatballs
  20. My pizza oven
  21. My grandparents. They were the best.
  22. A well told story
  23. Games of all kinds
  24. Good coffee
  25. The University of Michigan
  26. Shehecheyanu
  27. The gym (not while I’m there, only when I’m leaving)
  28. Frizz Ease
  29. Blow outs
  30. Public School
  31. Kindness
  32. Sunshine
  33. Pickles
  34. Bloody Marys
  35. The ocean
  36. My Kindle
  37. WordPress
  38. My GPS even though she sometimes sucks
  39. The freedoms granted to me in the Bill of Rights
  40. Love

Thank you so very much for reading and for your encouragement. I am grateful for you all.

Shehecheyanu.

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Thankful for Human Kindness

26 Nov

— and Stephanie Robinson of Oxford

 

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Reservoirs of Hope

6 Oct

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I posted optimism in haste. I understand, I am optimistic by nature. I am also superstitious, however, and that should have given me pause. Regardless, I was hasty and we have seen immeasurable sadness.

My son returned to a fetal position on the floor, unable to contort himself enough to not feel pain. He winced, he punched pillows, he cried. I did too. “It’s not fair!” He screamed. I told him he was right. It was not fair. Life often is not. He is only 12. I wish I could know the pain he is feeling. I wish I could experience it so I could commiserate with him. I fear the pain I feel as a mother might be worse. I hope it is because I am abler to weather it than he.

He rearranges himself constantly, twisting around within and atop the quilt, like a giant stress ball but regrettably ineffective. Another very sad week to enter into the calendar.

“Tomorrow will be a better day” I tell him, just like my mother used to tell me when my day ran afoul. Each night I go to sleep an empty pot left beneath a leaky ceiling, allowing hope to collect in time for morning. Each morning I wake with expectation, yet it is always the same, if not worse. The pain still there, the agony unbearable for a young boy, and too much for this mother to witness. At what point do my empty promises reveal me to be an optimistic liar to my child. I cannot keep telling him that “tomorrow will be a better day” when it just does not come to fruition. Perhaps he should be more like his father: an over-prepared realist. Ready for and expecting the worst and anything less will be tolerable and even welcome. Then again, I’m not sure I could live like that either.

“Just sit here and look out the window” my mother used to tell me when I had a nightmare. It was also what her mother used to tell her to remedy the same situation. Inevitably, I would stare out the window and become distracted enough with whatever I may have noticed to have lost track of my nightmare. I wish I could stare out the window long enough right now.

“Just sit here and look out the window” my mother tells my son. But he cannot sit upright long enough without pain to complete this task. He again curls himself into a ball and weeps.

I wonder if this little boy knows how much he is loved. How much the lives of those who love him are thrown off by this spell. That his mother goes to sleep waiting to refill a reservoir of hope by dawn. That his brothers might be a little bit nicer to him. That his grandmother does not sound like herself when she answers the phone. That his grandfather makes frequent unannounced visits just to see how he is doing, just to look at his face, just to kiss the top of his head and rub his back. He is so loved.

Yesterday was the type of day you just do not expect when you wake up, even with a full supply of hope. When you confront a disease, especially one that afflicts your child, and you must contemplate therapies, sometimes none of the choices are good. All medications are accompanied by unfathomable risks and you find yourself asking doctors “is it at least a treatable Lymphoma?” as if that is an acceptable outcome. Simultaneously, compromising your child’s current health is not an option. Pile on the relentless pain and decisions are suddenly made amidst a pressure cooker of love and concern and the need for a young child to simply find some rest.

I refused to allow the nurse to provide a detailed consent, particularly in front of my son. I do not want to know the risks they are required to tell me by law. I do not want to know about minuscule possibilities of terrible things that may await us. I do not want to know about something that might have happened to a lab rat that received 1,000,000 times the allowable dose. I want to see my son well. I want to see his smile again. I want to see him be a 12 year old boy.

Several hours later, following his first IV infusion therapy, I did just that. Now he is at school. He is sleepy, he is concerned, but he is smiling. Today is a better day.

My pot is full.

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Sailing

21 Sep

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We are drifting aimlessly on the sea. The water is so placid even our boat does not create a ripple. We stretch back and let the salty air wash over our sun-kissed faces. We are good.

And in an instant, the sky turns dark and stormy and our boat is upended. We are swallowing the sea water that protected us just seconds earlier. We are desperate to right our boat, to climb back into its safety, to escape this disastrous storm. But it takes time.

This is what it is like to live with a chronic illness. One minute you are navigating innocent waters and the next minute you are laying with your son on the cold tile of the bathroom floor, struggling to find stillness.

Last week, out of nowhere, our boat was toppled. My son experienced what can only be described as “labor pains” for nearly a week. He winced, he cried, he dug his nails into the flesh of his wrists to feel something other than agony. And with each tear that traveled down his cheek, the vise around my heart tightened its grip. I tried to act casual, I cried and told him I wish it was happening to me instead, I tried everything. There is literally nothing I could do to soothe my son, to make it better, to be his mommy.

“Can’t you just hug me and make it go away?” He cried.

Oh, how I wish.

On Friday morning, after a long and very sad week, my son woke up feeling no pain. He later called me from the nurse’s office at school:

“I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that my stomach feels fine. The bad news is that my wrist bent back in recess and then I fell on it and it hurts a lot.”

“So you have good news. I love you.”

Later that day, my son managed to take his iPhone for a night swim. He called me from his friend’s house in such distress that it was difficult to hear actual words.

“I’m an idiot. I did the dumbest thing. You’re going to kill me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Are you ok? How do you feel?”

“I feel fine.”

“So you’re ok.”

I told him I don’t care. I told him it’s just money. I told him I’m just happy he feels good. I told him to hang up with me and go be a kid.

When I picked him up that night, he again cried, saying he made a mistake.

“I’m glad you did. That’s how you learn. You will never go swimming with your phone again. I make mistakes, Dad makes mistakes, we all make mistakes. It is part of life and no one gets out of here without making some along the way. And by the way, you mean way more to me than a phone.”

The following day was spent going to Urgent Care and getting X-rays for his wrist. As we drove to the clinic, my son reflected on the broken phone and the possibly broken wrist.

“Yesterday was the worst day, Mom.”

“Yesterday was the best day.”

“No, I mean because of my phone and my wrist. So it was a really bad day.”

“Yes, but you woke up feeling fine and your stomach no longer bothers you. Your phone can be replaced. Your wrist, even if broken, will heal.  These are things that happen to everyone. But you feel good. So it was a great day.”

When the dark clouds gather and the storm rolls in, I worry that my son’s whole life will be like those moments on the bathroom floor: a tiny ship tossed around helplessly in a maelstrom. I remind myself of the things I must believe in: medicine, Hope, and my son. I remind myself that this disease should be the worst thing that ever happens to him. I remind myself of the serene seas in which we have been fortunate enough to sail. And then I look out for those starry nights, the traditional harbingers of the promise of beautiful weather ahead.

The phone was irretrievably broken.

The wrist was not.

And neither was my heart.

And our ship is again floating under a beautiful, cloudless sky, hoping for endless starry nights.

Swinging the Bat

13 May

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I do not know how you measure success.

Is it wealth, fame, good health, love, all of them, none of them. I don’t know.

Maybe it’s just making an effort you thought you could never make.

My son is on his school’s baseball team. I am not betraying him when I tell you he is not the best athlete on the team. But he loves being on a team and part of a team. Recently, my mother told me she had a conversation with my son about his method of playing. In essence, his approach was to never swing with the hope of getting walked to first base. This was heartbreaking to me. I was also unaware of it because he instructed me not to attend any games because he was mainly in charge of keeping the bench very warm. Although I am not exactly athletic, I confronted him:

“You need to swing the bat. Even if you miss. You still have to try because you will miss 100% of the balls you don’t swing at.”

I am not sure if he was frightened of the speed of the ball, the shame of an earned strike, or just simply taking a chance. He promised he would try. And with that, he was able to allow someone else to keep that bench warm, at least some of the time.

Academically, my son is, for the most part, thriving. He has recently struggled, however, with a couple of subjects and was less than thrilled about grades he received. I’m not exactly sure, though, that he was swinging the bat at those plates either. We had multiple, similar conversations about the importance of making an effort, trying your best, aiming for a hit instead of a walk. I’m not sure how many of these talks sink in or how many translate to the Charlie Brown teacher language of “WOH WOH WOH WAH.” My expertise and life experience are not impressive to him. It seems not to matter that I have already lived all the days he is living. He probably just wants me to stop talking. Oh well, too bad. It’s my job.

This combination of some poor grades and baseball ineptitude was starting to wear on his confidence. I cannot blame him though, again, he wasn’t actively participating in his own life enough to change his situation. It is hard to watch your child struggle with self-doubt and think you can give them all the tools and praise needed to remedy it, but it is, ultimately, up to them to cure their problems themselves.

Yesterday, on one of spring’s most beautiful days, and with my son’s blessing, I finally attended a baseball game: my son’s team’s last home game of the season. My son was at bat. He swung a few times, accruing two strikes. His team and coach continued to call his name, encouraging him. On the final pitch, as the wind blew its warm, gentle breeze over the field, I sat in a lawn chair and watched my boy make his very first hit. It was solid. It went to third base, and he made it to first base safely with his team cheering him on. And later, during the last inning, and only minutes after my husband arrived, we both had the privilege of watching our son make his second hit, into the field, right over second base. Again, his team cheered. And so did we.

While I have been largely focusing on the importance of his school work, perhaps excelling here, on a baseball diamond with friends and teammates, is just as important. He needs to feel good about himself in all arenas, and those two hits, likely inconsequential to most kids on the team, were home runs for all of us.

Had my son not swung, he never would have hit those balls. He never would have known what the impact of the ball against the ash in his hands would feel like. He never would have known that he too could create that familiar “crack” symbolic of a hit. He never would have known the joy of hearing his friends and teammates root for him and the thrill of reaching first base because he proactively earned it as opposed to watching for the pitcher to err. He never would have known what it was like to cross home plate on that beautiful spring day, the completion of the story that began with his first hit. This type of knowledge he gained is every bit as useful and meaningful as the type learned from a textbook. If not more so.

Maybe success is just swinging the bat.

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With Thanks, To My Mother, On Her 70th Birthday

11 Apr

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Most children don’t want to see their parents get older. But I know firsthand what a privilege this is.

I know how to live my life, how to love my children, how to acknowledge an ordinary day as a good one, thanks to my mother.

I know how to be selfless, how to value health, how to enjoy the sunshine, thanks to my mother.

I know how to laugh, how to write, how to create, thanks to my mother.

I know how to be kind, how to do crosswords, how to be patient, thanks to my mother.

I know how to be a friend, how to be a wife, how to be a human being, thanks to my mother.

I learned how to light the shabbat candles, how to be a good daughter, how to be a good sister, thanks to my mother.

I learned how to be strong, how to be generous, how to forgive, thanks to my mother.

I learned, thanks to my mother.

Happy 70th birthday, Mom! Thank you for all the lessons. Thank you for making our lives better day in and day out. Thank you for sharing yourself so selflessly all these years. Thank you for the layers of love, richness, beauty, and depth you have added to our canvas with such deft brush strokes.

Our world is infinitely better with you in it.

With all my love,

Lisa

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An Open Letter To My Son

19 Mar

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My Sweet Son,

I know there are things you are anxious to try: things that your friends might be doing; things that are wrong. Please wait.

You may not realize it but you are still a child. You have your whole life ahead of you to do grown-up things. I know you may think you’re ready for these things. You are not. You only get one childhood. You should live it as a child.

I wonder if you also know how dangerous some seemingly innocuous things might be. Perhaps even lethal. There are multiple reasons why some activities have minimum legal age limits. One good reason is because your mind and body are not mature enough to handle them. You should respect that. And while we’re on the subject, you should respect girls too. Listen to what they say and remember to be kind always.

It is ok to say “no.” Don’t let anyone ever make you feel like you are lesser than they because you won’t try something stupid. If you say no and that person gives you a hard time, you should lose them as a friend because they are not your “friend.” A true friend would never do that.

I know you are bound to make mistakes in life and it is my job to let you fail and make them. It is the only way you can learn. But you are too young to make some mistakes you may be contemplating. You are too young to pay the price of such errors. You are too young to learn these lessons. Trust me. I am your mom.

Most important, if you do make some wrong decisions, or if your friends do, your father and I will always be here. We respect honesty and will always have your best interests at heart. If for any reason you feel you or a friend is in jeopardy, please call us at once, even if you are unsure. I am more concerned about the safety of you or a friend than lecturing you on a rule you may have broken. I promise.

I’m not going to tell you about the innocent days of my youth when none of this existed and everyone just rode their bikes around until they left for college. That did not happen. There were plenty of ways for kids to get into trouble, just like there are now. And I’m not going to tell you about the car accidents, hospital admissions, and deaths of people I knew who made such decisions. They speak for themselves.

I’m just going to tell you that I get it. That I’ve been there.

Life is full of crossroads. No matter which ones you may reach, I am always here to guide you and to love you, even if you make wrong turns along the way. But please, do not make those turns just yet.

Love always,
Mom

Unwritten

12 Mar

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A wise friend recently implored me to get tested for the BRCA gene. Up until then, I was fearfully disinterested. My mother and maternal grandmother and aunts were all diagnosed with breast cancer at one point or another, and some, like my mother and grandmother, received multiple diagnoses. I have grown up watching women I love fight brave battles and then go on to live their lives as extraordinary survivors, putting scars and tears behind them. Nevertheless, my friend was persuasive and, because I love and respect her, I promised her I would get tested. And so I did.

My blood was drawn in December. I did not even think about it until I was told the results were in. They tried to schedule an appointment for me immediately prior to a February family vacation. I refused. Although I assumed I would test negative for the gene, what if I didn’t? What if it was positive and I had this heavy secret to carry around the beaches of Punta Cana? I postponed my appointment for one month.

Upon my return from vacation, I had my routine mammogram. I constantly see doctors throughout the year as a means of surveillance. I have an annual pelvic ultrasound and breast MRI. I see a breast specialist and my OB/GYN twice a year. I do everything I possibly can short of prophylactic surgery. And, like my mother and grandmother, I’m just living my life without focusing on what for them, has been, or what for me, could be. My mammogram was normal, making me two years older than my young mother when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. A milestone.

I did not realize that my appointment for my BRCA results was today until I looked at my calendar on Monday. Thinking I had little chance of having this gene, I asked no one to accompany me to the appointment and intentionally did not even tell my mother I was being tested. After being kept waiting for an hour, allowing maximal anxiety to fester, the doctor finally told me that I do not carry the BRCA gene.

And then I lost my shit. I wept. I stopped breathing. I reacted enough for the doctor to suggest I have a drink. It was 11 am. It was actually a good idea. Why didn’t I bring a drinking buddy and confidante to this appointment? I am an idiot. And then, because this appointment involved genetic counseling, we discussed my options. There are other genes associated with breast cancer although their detection is not as reliable and there are wide margins showing your chances of getting several types of cancer throughout the course of your life. These genes are not as thoroughly studied as the BRCA genes. Importantly, it is likely that this testing would reveal that I do carry such genes, as my mother too tested negative for the BRCA gene.

It is one thing to know, with a definitive statistical probability, your chances of a breast cancer diagnosis and taking intelligent, aggressive, surgical safety measures. It is another thing altogether to lay awake at night after you tucked your children into bed and ponder the weight of potential cancers that decided to show up in your genome. So screw that. My life is not fully written and I am it’s sole author. I’m going to politely decline the benefits of this scientific advancement, thank you, in favor of sleep, peace of mind, and taking life as it comes: unplanned, not always pretty in the details, but wholly beautiful nonetheless.

After phoning my mother to tell her the news, and fogging up the windows of my parked car with my own suffocating relief and tears, I decided to just love the day. My son asked me to pick him up from school. I did. I took him for frozen yogurt AND a cupcake on this first sunny day in one of the longest winters I can remember.  He told me all about his day in great detail. I hope he never stops. It is a luxury to have a mind free enough of worry and knowledge to listen to him and his stories. Because his life is not fully written either.

The Soundtrack of My Life

30 Jan

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My father is singing Cat Stevens’ Moonshadow to me. I am 3 or 4 or 5 years old. I wonder about the limbless body singing until all the parts of him are gone and he is seemingly nonchalant, perhaps even grateful to be without eyes and a tongue. My father continues to sing the same song to me like a lullaby.

I am in a full body cast in a hospital. I am 6 years old. My mother is sitting, surrounded by sick children, with her ukelele, playing and singing Puff the Magic Dragon. I am proud and yet jealous. I do not want to share her with the rest of these patients. I want her to sing and wrap her oversized heart around only me.

I am in my Mustang convertible while Carole King’s Tapestry cassette plays on a loop. I am 17 years old. I am weeping. My boyfriend is going to college and every single song was written for me. I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, Home Again, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Where You Lead, Beautiful. My boyfriend makes several stops to say goodbye to friends while I wait for him in the passenger seat, disconsolate. He gets back in the car and gives me an inscribed locket I will wear until the picture inside is all rubbed out and he breaks my heart years later.

I am lost. I am 18 years old and without a sense of direction. I am listening to Van Morrison’s Moondance album. I am driving my car from Connecticut to New York and it is midnight. I finally find a commercial area where it feels safe enough to get out of the car and make a phone call. I call my father from a  pay phone. I beg him to rescue me. He tells me to find my way home and that it will be good for me. I get back in my car and blast “Caravan.” I circle who knows how much of the tri-state area before I pull into my parents’ driveway sometime after 2 am. I have found my way home.

I am standing amongst piles of boxes in my apartment in Brooklyn waiting for movers. I am 23 years old. The only thing not yet packed is my stereo. I am listening to Nanci Griffith CDs for hours as the movers have forgotten me. By the time they pick me up, I am distraught, fearing NYC condo regulations will forbid me from the late move and I will be temporarily homeless. Two men load up the packaged belongings comprising my life and offer me a ride uptown. I sit in the front seat of the movers’ truck as we drive up the FDR to my new home on East 81st. I lean my head against the window, listening to Nanci Griffith on my walkman, equally terrified and excited about this move. I dislike change even though this is a good one. My parents are waiting for me and it is all ok.

I am getting married. I am dancing with my husband to Ben Taylor’s version of The Beatles’ I Will. We are alone on the dance floor, moving in choreographed rhythm thanks to Ernesto of Arthur Murray’s East 86th Street studio. I can see him counting beats in his head as he leads me. We later break loose to The Emotions’ Best of My Love. We don’t yet know that both songs will feature prominently at the bar mitzvah of our first son.

I am in my apartment on East 75th Street. I am nearing the end of my 20s. I am pregnant with my first child. I am working from home for the day, listening to Counting Crows’ This Desert Life. My belly tightens and my son kicks and flutters every time this album plays. He has good taste. I know I will love him.

I am rocking in a glider in the bedroom of my baby boy. He is sleeping on my chest and I think I might never move. I sing him every song I know and love. It goes like this every night. Sweet Baby James, The Way You Look Tonight, Annie’s Song, An American Tune. I sing him Moonshadow and deposit him back into his crib. He tucks his legs beneath him, looks briefly at me, and goes back to sleep.

I am at the obstetrician’s office. I am alone. I am 7 weeks pregnant. My husband is traveling for business. For days I have had a premonition that my doctor will tell me he cannot find a heartbeat. The doctor squeezes jelly over my belly and after several minutes of searching, says “Lisa, I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.” I am even sorrier. Sorry to be right. Sorry to lose a baby I already loved. Sorry. I listen to Eva Cassidy’s cover of Fields of Gold over and over, weeping until I tell myself I have punished myself enough and I turn it off.

I am again rocking in a glider but I am in a new room in a new house beside two new babies to love. I sing them the same songs I sang to my first baby. I sing them Moonshadow. I put them into the same crib so they know each other’s presence.

It is my son’s 10th birthday. I am listening to the Circle Game. I cannot believe I am at the second verse. I do not know where the time has gone. I know I will be at the third verse in six short years. I am dragging my feet to slow the circles down, Joni Mitchell.

It is my birthday. 10,000 Maniacs’ These are the Days is playing on my desktop. We have just returned from dinner with my family and I am making my husband and sons dance with me in the kitchen. I will do this every year as long as they will. I turn up the music as high as it will go and watch my family in the reflection of the windows in my kitchen. They indulge me because it’s my birthday but I hope there is enough time in the song for them to feel how much music can lift you, how it can intoxicate you, how its joy is utterly contagious, how necessary it is to be in love with music: to let it infuse your heart, your mind, your soul. To let it literally play the soundtrack to your life.

The Greatest Show on Earth

20 Jan

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I never liked the circus.

Even as a child, the format of three rings with three simultaneous acts made no sense to me. What was I supposed to be focusing on and regardless, all three acts were not entertaining. At all. I didn’t buy into the costumes, the acrobatics, the parades. I finally just started to beg my parents not to bring me anymore.

When I got around to having my own kids, I felt obliged to take them to the circus as a rite of passage. It was as awful as I remembered and my kids were not sold on it either. Thank goodness for good taste.

Last weekend I walked my own tightrope as my oldest son was in an emergency room in Massachusetts and my mother was in an emergency room in New York. I have been in this position so many times yet each time it happens it is a shock and I yearn for the luxury of a monotonous existence.

When my oldest son was a baby, he let us know he was ready for a bed by launching himself out of his crib. The next morning he was seemingly fine with the exception of a slight alteration to his usual routine: he danced to The Wiggles but he used only one arm. I could not fathom that he might have seriously injured himself. He was such a champ that we did not even know he had fractured his clavicle until a follow-up x-ray revealed a healing bone. On Sunday, this same son broke his clavicle in two.

Inhale.

When my oldest son was 4 years old, I went to Mexico with my family and my parents. While walking back to the room with my mom to call my aunt, my mother began to have a heart attack. We did not know what it was at the time, and it did not unfold in the typical way in which it is often depicted: a man with left arm pain grabbing at his chest and directing someone to call 911. Rather, it was as if she had a sudden and severe reaction to something she ate, vomiting until it was over. And then she was fine. Until we learned she wasn’t. On Sunday, my mom called me in the morning to tell me she did not know what came over her but she couldn’t stop vomiting. But once you have a history of something kind of terrible, you cannot just crawl back into bed and assume that you have a virus. Thankfully, after an EKG and blood work, she learned she had a virus.

Exhale.

On Sunday, as if not to be left out of the disastrous emerging trend, another son of mine injured his hand and wrist simply while walking in the hall of our home. Nuts. But no broken bones; just a sprain. You try leaving an orthopedist’s office with two wounded boys and not being  looked at suspiciously. I joked with the woman at the front desk, asking if she was going to contact CPS. She just eyed me and went back to questioning my children.

Repeat.

When I was pregnant with my twins, the sonogram technician advised that I was going to be having two more sons. Broken bones was in my future; it was a given. Although you never expect it when you get that call, when you see that dangling arm, when you hear that primal scream that alerts you that something is very wrong, you always know that these things are possible, that they happen all the time and you are not going to be excluded from this club. After all, if I got through this life with 3 sons and no broken bones, I would worry that I was somehow failing my boys.

Aren’t we all performing some kind of high wire act? Teetering between news–both dreadful and wonderful, striking the great balance of life and making careful–extra careful–to keep our balance and not succumb to a mere slip of the foot.  The more we love our people, the more we’re going to be walking that tightrope. Because we care. Because we are lucky.

Maybe the circus is our introduction to life. Maybe by throwing so many things at us at one time, we are learning how to focus, how to zero in on what makes us the happiest, and to filter out all those tricks we see right through. Life is both the Worst Show on Earth and the Greatest Show on Earth and I wouldn’t want to live it any other way.