Leaving Colorado Part 4: “All Your Friends are Here”

Image Courtesy of Berkly Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration
Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

On the way to Colorado, we had been a caravan, a family of travelers. My partner Kellie drove a Budget truck stuffed with barn wood and boxes. The truck pulled our little along Honda behind it on a rickety car trailer. The kids and I followed behind in Kellie’s diesel pickup. Because I’m too timid to drive either of these rigs, we’d drafted two friends, Dee and Heidi, to help us with the driving.

By ten in the morning, as we crossed the line from Oregon to Idaho, the day had already warmed to 104 degrees, and the road was even hotter. The air conditioning in the truck was broken. Dee drove the pickup with the windows down, the hot air whipping our hair in all directions. It was too loud to talk, so we kept our eyes on the road ahead, trying to make it till evening, praying the kids would keep their cool. But eight miles into Idaho, Dee and I watched as one of the car trailer’s tires exploded and fell to pieces on the highway.

Our caravan pulled to the breakdown lane. As we stood on sand and asphalt, vehicles whizzing by at momentous speeds, we instantly began to melt. The baby screamed. I hunkered down with the cell phone, navigating the maze of numbers to connect with roadside assistance. Forty minutes, they told us. No guarantees.

Dee decided to wait with Kellie in the heat while Heidi took over the pickup, ready to drive me and the kids somewhere cooler. “I know where the Whole Foods in Boise is,” she offered.

Boise Whole Foods would become the only thing I’d see of Idaho both coming and going. It was where I was headed now, day two of my journey with two boys and two dogs in a tiny, stinky Honda.

This time, there was no emergency. Or, to put it another way, we’d become accustomed to a constant state of emergency, the car too hot, the endless road, the baby always on the verge of meltdown.

But Boise Whole Foods was everything I needed. It was vast and air-conditioned. They had vegetables there. By God, I wanted a fancy salad and I was willing to pay thirteen dollars for it.

But more importantly, Boise Whole Foods featured something so practical it was nearly miraculous: a nursing lounge for mothers. It had a door that locked, a sink, a changing table, an outlet where I could plug in my phone. It featured a comfortable chair where I could nurse the baby, along with toys and books to distract my older son while I sat and nursed. To top it all off, its walls featured a series of prints by Berkley Illustration titled “All Your Friends Are Here.”

Image Courtesy of Berkly Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration
Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Strangely, the appeal of the mothers’ lounge was that it was populated by these illustrations, and No One Else. I locked the door. I nursed. I charged my phone. I splashed water on my face. No one knocked. No one sized me up and shouted “Got your hands full there”—the line that was inevitably uttered at every rest stop.

I nursed the baby with my feet up, as my older son and I discussed which of the prints we each loved the most, and which one I should order at Christmas for Mommy Kellie, who was by now 700 miles away. We might have spent twenty minutes in the mothers’ lounge, but it was restorative in the same way that catnaps are restorative. We returned to the car, disoriented, groggy, but refreshed.

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration
Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

*Thanks to Berkley Illustration for permission to use these images.

Our Bodies are Connected

I arrived at the conference groggy and spent, the glands in my throat two swollen tender lumps. Both Smoke and Stump had been sick the week before with pink eye and a nasty cough, and now my own body hosted their germs. Stump had kept me up for half the night before, squirming and crying, and then I’d risen at five to catch my flight to Utah.

I traveled with five other colleagues, people I knew only from committee meetings and all-campus emails, and as we approached the hotel it began to snow. This was only last Tuesday. This was June. At first it was a joke—a few flakes mixed with pouring rain—but minutes later it was falling in earnest. It accumulated on the grass at the edge of the highway.

In my disoriented state, I was relieved to make it to my room alone. Here before me were the things I had dreamed of for months. Two beds with clean sheets, all to myself. A television. A heated outdoor pool down the hall. But it wasn’t the moment it should have been. I had no idea what to do with myself.

Snow, Utah, June. This is the view from my window.
Snow, Utah, June. This is the view from my window.

We were here for a conference and I’d given myself permission to miss the opening address. I was nursing a cold, after all. But already I felt torn between duty and self-care—the very feeling I was hoping to escape from.

I talked myself into taking a long shower, and once that task was through, I remembered that I needed to pump. I sat on the bed farthest from the window, and held the small plastic contraption to my left breast. The last time I had fed my son was this morning on the opposite side. He was in a strangely quiet mood, and he nursed with his eyes wide open, silent and content.

When my milk let down, a sigh went through me. I wasn’t crying, not really, but my eyes felt the pressure of tears and my body felt the pressure of longing and it was such a strange thing to be emptying my left breast into a plastic contraption so that I could continue to be away from my child for another three days.

medela

 For some reason, I began to think about women who lactated for babies they’d lost.

A week after my fist son was born, an acquaintance came to visit and she told me that she had a stillborn child many years before. “No one warned me that my milk would come in,” she said. Only two feet away, Smoke lay sleeping on my bed. “It was such a strange and terrible thing to have lost a baby and then to be making all this milk.”

My morbid thoughts were absurd. My baby was and is alive. He walks and talks and eats and demands every ounce of milk and energy I have. But I was sharing with a machine an event that I normally share with my child, and for that moment I felt somber and haunted.

And then the moment passed. I put on my pajamas and turned on the TV. I piled up the pillows made a spot for myself on the impeccably clean bed.

Over the next three days, a part of my brain held a constant awareness of the 900 miles between my body and my sons’ bodies. Since I wasn’t there to keep them safe, I prayed that they would be intact on my return. I tried to tuck this awareness deep into my brain, so I could Do Work Things, and when I wasn’t doing work things I flitted like a hummingbird from blossom to blossom, sampling all of the sweet uninterrupted pastimes I long for when I’m home caring for my boys.

When I returned, the baby walked to me, alone, arms open, saying “Mah. Mah. Mah. Mah.”

I have a belt.

I moved forward in the TSA line with caution, confused because the rules had changed since the last time I traveled. At the back of the line, a friendly officer had given us the lowdown: You can keep your shoes on unless you think they will set off the metal detector. If you have a belt, you might want to remove it.

This is my belt.
This is my belt.

I paused just before I reached the conveyor belt. I had a laptop to unpack from my carry-on, but there were none of the usual plastic bins. The officer manning the x-ray stood there waiting for me. “Just leave your laptop in there,” he said. He was gruff.

He hung onto a mid-sized plastic bowl for jewelry. I looked at it. “I have a belt,” I told him. “Good for you,” he answered. My throat made a tiny noise of hesitation. “Let me see it,” he said, throwing me a bone. Flustered, I raised my shirt.

Just above my belt sits my pouch of a belly, totally white and totally stretched out, like a deflated balloon. I could see it. He could see it. I had raised my shirt too high. I took off my belt and placed it in the bowl, avoiding eye contact.

On the other side of the metal detector, I looked at no one as I gathered my suitcase and my carry-on. The belt came through last. As I strung it through the loops, I tracked all the other bodies in my vicinity, careful this time not to lift my shirt too high.

Once I put myself back together–my bag strapped across my shoulder, my suitcase rolling behind me–I had a small revelation: that wasn’t my fault. I noted that my automatic reaction was to assume that somehow “I have a belt,” was an incredibly stupid thing to say, that my choice of words had plunged me into an unavoidable sequence of shaming events, and I was being punished by someone far smarter than me.

But he was just a snarky TSA guy trying to make his job more interesting.  He would have found a way to tease me no matter what I said. And if my flash of belly embarrassed him, then good.

Note to self: not everything is personal.

I’m Leaving Home

I’m leaving home this Tuesday and I’m not bringing my family with me. It will be the first time I’ve left Stump overnight. I’ll be flying out of Seattle to go to a four-day work-related conference in—-wait for it-—Utah.

I was invited in December and I thought that of course by then Stump and I would be ready for the separation. By then, of course, he would be sleeping though the night, and not crying every time I left the room. Oh, and I figured he’d be toilet trained, able to dress himself, and feed the dogs. And while it’s true that he’s grown and changed in the last six months, he hasn’t achieved any of the goals that I just named. He can now say “Mom-meeeee” while he’s crying. And twice in the last month he’s slept until 4 am without waking up and demanding milk. That’s about as far as we’ve come.

This is how we sleep.
This is how we sleep.

So I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that I’ve been dreading this trip, entertaining the worst-case scenario as the most likely scenario.

In the worst-case scenario, Stump barely sleeps for the three nights I’m away. He wakes up screaming and refuses to be consoled. Kellie loses her mind from the sleep deprivation, and when we talk on the phone, she makes sure that I know how miserable they are. I am miserable in Utah. It’s hot, and the pool is scummy, and everyone at the conference wears suits. I come home with bedbugs. Stump, upon seeing me, bursts into tears of anger and relief. Everyone is exhausted, including me. We never catch up, and Stump never forgives me. He grows up to be a convict, or an author of short stories that always feature neglectful mothers.

http://www.universitygames.com
http://www.universitygames.com

This worst-case scenario has been turning over and over in my head. But there have been a few brighter moments where I’ve entertained a best-case scenario.

In the best-case scenario, Stump is easy because I’m gone. He’s a little fussy the first night, but settles with a some comforting. He gets it that nursing is not an option, and the by third night he’s learned to sleep soundly. The hotel in Utah has a beautiful pool, and there’s a convenient place to hike. I eat good food and drink some wine with colleagues. I come home refreshed to a house of pleasant people who have had a good time without me, and a baby who is happy to see me and who now sleeps through the night.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Source: http://kentuckysportsradio.com
Source: http://kentuckysportsradio.com

Leaving Colorado Part 3: Long Stretch of Nothing

Image Credit: Doug Kerr www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone
Image Credit: Doug Kerr http://www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone

I should have stayed in Brigham City. From what I saw, it was a friendly little place. I sat with my kids at a Panda Express watching my baby throw noodles on the floor while my four-year-old reclined on the booth. It was six p.m. and we’d been on the road since four in the morning. I had traveled 450 miles with two kids and two dogs. A rational mom would have called it a day.

But I didn’t want to spend the night in Utah. This was an ungrateful attitude considering the events of earlier that morning, but Utah had always ranked high on my list of Places that Gays Should Avoid. It was kind of a silly fear, I reasoned with myself. It’s not like I was wearing a t-shirt that said “DYKE”. Without my partner at my side, I looked like any other run-down parent. But I couldn’t get past my uneasiness.

I should buy this hat to wear when I'm traveling.  source: http://www.zazzle.com
I should buy this hat to wear when I’m traveling.
source: http://www.zazzle.com

Besides, the sun was still high and Idaho was only sixty miles away. Driving on was a commitment though; from the TripAdvisor map, it looked like we’d have to drive deep into Idaho before finding a sure place to spend the night. I bought myself an iced tea and loaded everyone back into the Honda. The dogs, who up until this point had reliably ignored the snack box, had finished the last of my chips and left the car smelling like a fart.

By the time we reached the freeway, the baby was already crying. A summer of long car trips had trained me to recognize the cry of no return. He wasn’t tired, he wasn’t hungry, he was pissed. The nearest listed motel was in Burley. I watched the road signs, translating miles into minutes: 120 minutes of crying, 112 minutes of crying. I prayed for a better option.

dogs

As we approached Snowville, the last town in Utah, the baby still screamed and my fuel tank had fallen to E. Though the road had been quiet, the gas station was full of travelers. Just a few feet beyond was the town’s one motel, set behind a lot full of dying weeds. I nearly cried with relief when the clerk told me she had a room. The baby, red-faced, snotty, teary, nuzzled into my shoulder as I paid.

The moment we settled into the room, fear kicked in. Who did I think I was anyhow, traveling alone with two young kids? What if someone climbed in through the window while we slept? What if the motel owner was a psycho and let himself in with a key? What if my fear kept me up all night and tomorrow I’d fall asleep at the wheel? What if I never made it out of Utah?

But then I remembered: the dogs. Until now, I had seen them as two more beings who took up room, requiring care and food and space. But now they were protectors who would bark like crazy the moment they sensed a hand on the other side of the doorknob. Oh how I loved them for that.

I slept soundly for six hours, which was all I really needed. When I woke up, I poured warm tap water over two green tea bags in a Styrofoam cup and let the dogs out to pee in the brisk morning air. Then I loaded my tribe into the car, and left Utah, kind Utah, behind me. There was just enough light in the sky to make out the shape of the mountains, and also the glow of a few remaining stars.

Leaving Colorado Part 2: Strangers in Utah

[You can read Part 1 here.]

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It was 8:20 in the morning when I crossed the border into Utah. The sun was a cool yellow, and both of my sons—the baby and the four-year-old—were awake again, and both were whining. My two dogs had settled for the most part, but every once in a while the older one stood up on the passenger’s seat, turned a circle, and then settled back in the exact same spot just to remind me that he was there.

The desert stretched on either side of me. I floored the gas and held my breath, trying to will my little Honda up yet another mountain. As the road began to level, I spotted what I’d been wishing for: a quiet spot marked “View Area” with a small trail and a bathroom.

The parking lot was empty. As we pulled in for the first stop on our long journey home, I hoped we’d be alone. I was afraid that someone might ask me for a cigarette, or a dollar, and tell me his whole life story, or ask me for mine, or that some old lady would let a terrier hop out of her back seat. In this latter scenario, my own dogs would go ballistic, causing me to fall on top of my baby as they bolted for the highway; meanwhile my four-year-old would walk off a nearby cliff. I didn’t want that.

But somehow I managed to unload all the living beings from the car without incident. We walked together, the dogs pulling only a little, the morning air cool but not cold. Maybe we could do this after all.

From the view area, we looked over hills and blue sky. Another car pulled into the lot. A couple emerged, both of them round and middle aged. I held my breath, waiting to see if they had a dog.

“Got your hands full there,” the man called out to me. His wife was rifling through a cooler. Just as we reached our own car, she extended an arm in my direction, offering a zip-lock bag of peeled, hard-boiled eggs. “Will you take these?” she asked. “My sister-in-law packed too much food.”

“That’s really nice,” I said. The bag was ice cold.

I meant it. I hadn’t seen a restaurant in many miles. For breakfast, I had planned to keep passing crackers into little hands.

“Can I have one?” my son asked, and I was happy to hand him one, so that the lady would know I wasn’t planning to toss them out the window later. My son took a bite and the dogs crowded him. He held the egg above his head like a treat and laughed, taunting them. The dogs wagged their tails and panted. This was a problem we’d been working on all summer.

“Stop that!” I commanded, but it had no effect. The couple drove off.

Another car, a silver convertible, pulled in beside us. The driver was tall with a shiny bald head and a short beard. No dog, just clean leather seats. He was about to see me lose it with my son. I grabbed the egg from his hands, split it in half and gave one half to each of the dogs.

My son wailed. “But I’m so so hungry!”

“And I’m so so angry that you don’t ever listen and you always tease the dogs.”

I wondered what the bald man thought of us. I could feel him a few feet behind me. When I turned around, he had his wallet out. Oh shit, I thought. He’s going to try to give me money. And in one long second, I weighed my options. I could turn him down, say “Oh, that’s all right,” as I instinctively do so often when friends offer help. If I did that, an awkward battle might ensue, or perhaps he’d turn his eyes back to his wallet as he returned the money. Instead, I decided I would take it.

“Put this in your gas tank,” he told me, handing me a folded-up bill. “You’ve got a ways to go.”

I thanked him, stuffed the bill in my pocket, and clipped my kids into their car seats. I handed my son another egg, my own generosity restored. Once settled in the driver’s seat, I pulled out the bill. There were two, actually. He had given me forty dollars.

I’ve since told this story to friends and they’ve all said the same thing: “He must have thought you were a battered wife.”

I had the same thought initially. But upon reflection, I’m pretty sure that he was just a guy with money in his wallet, and money in the bank, who saw a frazzled parent and decided the transaction would bring us both joy. He did it not because he thought he had to, but because he could.

So many times since that day, I’ve remembered that moment, before he had even offered the money, when I decided to receive it. I remind myself what that felt like, saying yes to someone’s kindness.

About an hour after I accepted the money, I pulled into a gas station and filled my tank. It came to $39.84.

Images: http://travellogs.us/

Leaving Colorado (Part 1)

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I left Colorado at four in the morning, when the sky was still starry and dark. I left in a ’93 Civic that I’d loaded with boxes of toys and clothes the night before. I had carefully attached two dog leads to the passenger’s seat. I wanted to be prepared.

Ten weeks earlier, we’d caravanned to Colorado from Washington. The idea was to spend a summer in wilderness, to see if that was where we were Meant To Be, but I still didn’t know. I only knew this: a) wilderness problems were different than city problems and b) in the city I had a job.

And so, I was about to return to that job with both dogs and both sons, while my partner stayed behind, attending to commitments. I dreaded the journey. To be responsible for four living things while driving across four western states struck me as only barely possible. I knew we’d make it home in the same way that, during childbirth, I knew that my sons would make it out of my body alive.

In the morning I loaded the dogs. Also, I loaded my sons who still slept, but who woke at the morning air. I kissed my partner goodbye and drove down the mountain over rocks and bumps and ruts. My sons were awake.

The idea had been that both boys would sleep soundly for hours as I drove. But now the baby was screaming and my older son was already demanding snacks. The dogs refused to settle; they turned in their spots obsessively, unhappy with the space I’d allotted them. We had twenty-one hours to go.

I could not hear my music through the screaming, but I tried. I tried to relax, but I couldn’t see. The night was so dark. Even with my brights on, I leaned forward towards the windshield, trying to see where I was going. Each time I approached a corner, I imagined swerving to avoid a bear.

That baby, he wasn’t going to sleep. My older son quietly placed his hands over his ears.  It was quarter to five and still pitch black when I pulled into the empty parking lot of a grocery store—the one we’d been shopping at all summer long. There were lights on inside, a delivery truck outside, a man emptying palettes of bread. He didn’t seem to see me, though I felt conspicuous, a small car alone in a big lot.  I rearranged some bags so that I could sit next to the screaming baby’s car seat. The dogs rearranged themselves too. I leaned over the baby and pulled out my left breast. He drank. He quieted.  He slept. I put my breast away. After returning to the driver’s seat, I drove on.

From there, the roads widened. The edge of the sky grew light. I listened to music. In the rearview mirror, I watched my older son fall asleep.

A hawk flew alongside me for a spell. Ahead of me were yellow hills and a pinkening sky, but behind me were the mountains I was leaving. The end-of-summer sun rose above them turning the clouds crazy shades of orange. I was heading towards Utah, but Colorado, behind me, knew how to put on a show. I wanted—I needed a photograph. I could not safely take one.

It occurred to me that everything good—my sons, my dogs, my partner, the mountains—everything good was behind me, visible mostly through the slice of view afforded by the rearview window, some of it not visible at all.