Tuesday, April 10, 2012

retreating from ... or to?

The day my father died, I took Cowgirl to the zoo.

Cowgirl - September 2006

We had been home from China only a few weeks and the zoo was a weekly trip those first months home. I was packing up the gear for our outing (remember how much stuff we used to tote when our children were little? If an morning out should turn into Armageddon, I was prepared with snacks and drinks and divertissements ...) when the phone rang. It was my mother. She had found my father lying on the floor by his bed and had called the ambulance. The paramedics had just revived him and were headed to the hospital but in her words, "It doesn't look good."

Not knowing what else to do - at the time my parents lived 2 plane trips away - I continued with our trip to the zoo. We visited the gorillas, the big cats, had a snack and by the time we got home, my father was dead.

Today being Cowgirl's last day of Spring break, I requested a vacation day so we could go to the zoo to see the newly renovated aquarium. Cowgirl loves the penguins. Each time we visit she will point out which penguin is me (a nice, plump, slow moving one), which penguin is daddy (not as big as me), which one is her (always small and zipping around) and which one is Moose dog. I haven't figured out the deeper psychological implications of her identifying our family within animal groups; perhaps it is comforting to imagine ours is the template for all family structures? Whatever her reason, she repeats this activity with fish, butterflies, gorillas and always, the penguins and she has done so for as long as she could talk.

I was looking forward to this zoo day. And then my mother called to tell me the results from the biopsy of what we thought was a persistent rash or scratch on her cheek is really a malignant melanoma. And she needed to go in the next day - which was today - to have it removed.

So I decided we should go to the zoo anyway, before the doctor's appointment, although the symmetry of it all was a bit eerie. Bad news - off to the zoo.

Which got me thinking about all those zoo trips in the early months with Cowgirl - the months when I was adjusting to my new role as a mother and processing the loss of my father. I've never really thought about the one impacting the other but now it seems so obvious to me.

Those weekly zoo trips were my shaky hold upon routine. What no one had told me about being a mother was just how incompetent I would feel all of the time. Or maybe it was just me or maybe I am just more transparent about how I feel and/or less skilled in pretending otherwise. I took a long adoption leave from work and was alone much of that time. Well, alone with my child.

The other thing no one tells you is how lonely it can be being with a young child. You are - or I was - a slave to their schedule and coupled with my focus upon our attachment, I rarely was separated from her. I remember watching Mr. Rogers show and weeping every episode. His easy, gentle, patience and loving presence spoke of a comfort I longed for in my life and longed to model for my child.

Instead I was tap dancing as fast I as could to get up to speed on this whole mothering thing. One night I forgot I had left a glass pyrex dish on a hot burner until it exploded with an impressive bang! Two heavy pieces of hot glass landing on the floor by me and my surprised child. Another night I ran out to buy a pair of pants - I had lost 10 pounds in one month - and the saleslady kindly informed me that I might want to button my blouse. I looked down to see one lone button holding my shirt in place.

I couldn't run away and join the circus, so I ran to the zoo instead. For whatever reason, it was my haven. I felt anonymous and free as I rolled the stroller and Cowgirl around the unusually deserted paths and halls. The zoo early on a weekday morning in cold weather is a treat indeed. And while I rarely prepare for anything (tornado survival kit - hello?!) my bag was packed and loaded whenever we went to the zoo. Snacks and clothes and band-aids and toys galore.

I was thinking about all of this today while also worrying about my mother. Another thing no one can prepare you for is the care of an aging parent. There are the practicalities of it all - navigating health care and finances and decisions about home or retirement centers - and then there are the emotions involved in having to be in charge of your parent. There is the uneasy and steadily sinking realization of mortality and the finite nature of all relationships. As a parent, it is painful for me to consider my child being without my presence in the world; as a daughter I am grappling with the eventual loss of my last parent.

I wish I could say I discovered a soothing insight while watching the Andean bear nap on his bed of straw. Part of me felt like I was retreating from life for those few hours but another part of me is thinking that actually the zoo animals reinforce an understanding of my relevance in the scheme of it all. That my dramas are exactly that - stories in my head and the reality is I and Cowgirl and my mother are all just one facet in an infinitely complex and beautiful web of life. Not profound, but practical. We live our lives but really, life moves through us all until we are used up and then it moves on. And on. And on.

My mother's procedure went well. The doctor is optimistic that he got all of the cancer. Today, we are all safe and well. Cowgirl is sleeping in her bed after a week of sleeping in her tent in her bedroom. The plants are covered in case of a freeze tonight. Tomorrow who knows? New butterflies will be in the pavilion next time we go to the zoo and we will enjoy them just as we enjoyed the ones we saw today. This life is both marvelous and very ordinary and my intention is enjoy every moment given to me.

In the end, perhaps it is the ordinary that we seek but with eyes attuned to the preciousness of it all.


  1. you are a phenomenal writer.
    i am always so moved by your words Lis.
    such beautiful, poignant reflections...
    thank you.

  2. my friend. i wish i was there to come by with some tea and to wrap my arms around you. i am here a phone/skype email away. loving you and holding your mother in my thoughts.


  3. i so understand this...'the preciousness' of it all. lately, i have been realizing my fear of the passing of time. this never bothered me before - but now i look at my little boys and although in love with who and where they are on their journey right now - there is a heaviness that accompanies it as well when i allow myself to realize the impermanence of it all and then my breath shortens as i struggle to try and take it all in, absorb every detail so that i never forget. it is a fragile and delicate thread - realizing and staying present in the 'preciousness' of life. just know that you are not alone in your feelings, my friend.

  4. My mother died nearly five years ago and I don't think one day has passed since then that I haven't worried about my own mortality (with three rather young kids). It's like a kick in the gut, the difference between knowing you're going to die, rationally, and feeling it as inevitable. (I think going to the zoo is a completely reasonable response.)

    Thinking of you, Lisa.

  5. your eyes are attuned to the reality of love my friend... you are so radiant... <3