Learning to Be Home

IMG_5004 Anna got her hearing aids today. They are “princess pink,” which doesn’t actually do the metallic, muted rose color much justice. The audiologist in Seattle thought they’d look good with brown hair, or strawberry blonde, if Anna’s happens to grow lighter. Around the edges, her hair is beginning to look auburn, like my Irish Grandma Donnelly’s. She is growing in length, but not as much in weight. There is a constant guessing game with her: is she growing enough? Is she changing in the right ways?

We are home now. It is sunny every day, our home has a happiness I didn’t quite remember, or didn’t quite need till now. But I am more overwhelmed than I thought I would be. Anna does not sleep for more than 10 minutes during the day, and those ten minutes are spent in my arms or she wakes immediately. Partly, probably, because she’s three months old and that’s just her. But babies with cmv can also jerk themselves awake more often than normal (sometimes so much that they can’t even nurse), and even in a state of awakeness, they react to a gentle breeze or a small seam in the road with the morrow reflex, their body believing it is falling. I have noticed this far more since being home since we are doing far more driving. The thing with cmv is there is nowhere to turn to for anecdotal consolation–every baby is different, and many are so much more afflicted than Anna, I am afraid to find their stories.

How different this is, being home, than how I imagined September at the beginning of the summer. And how the same. We sit on the porch every night for dinner, Zaley respecting the end of the driveway when she paddles down on her wooden bike, our kind neighbors bringing her birthday gifts and wanting to hold Anna. I tell Luke, “This is what I dream about,” just us, here, the season behind us, our girls peaceful in the pink light of the sunset as it comes between the houses across the street. Most of the time, I think of Anna as Anna right now, looking up at me, faintly smiling and focused in my lap. But then, I look at our calendar, at our three and four doctors appointments a week, and I am stunned at what a month will become. I think of the mother from Fairbanks I talked to in the Seattle airport, whose son was in a reclined wheelchair, his mouth gaping open, his legs twisted, and she said they come down once a month for his treatment even though they have 8 other kids. “You just do it,” she said. She didn’t sound defeated. She sounded ok, really ok. She was smiling. “It just becomes your life.”

I should mention I probably would never have spoken to her if I didn’t have Anna. I probably wouldn’t have even sat nearby.

IMG_5005-2It is more different here than ever, having returned home with the reality of Anna’s diagnosis. Alaska, in ways I only realize now, made her diagnosis easier to bear. I see Alaska with such a temporariness, I think I sub-consciously thought of Anna’s condition as temporary. Here, the permanence is so much more apparent. What do we do with all the baby toys I saved that play music when you push a button? With the lullaby CD I left on her dresser for our return?

In Alaska, there was the oft-repeated, “We’ll figure it out when we get home.” But now we are home, and there’s so much to figure out, I’m not sure where to start. There is paperwork to be mailed out, there is insurance to call to change our pharmacy, there are early interventionists calling to schedule home visits, there is a 3 year old who starts school tomorrow and needs 100 Dixie cups, 2 sets of washable markers, and 20 other things on a school supply list I failed to bring to Target when I went earlier this week. And then there are the general household things that would be difficult even without a child who qualifies for the state’s disability services. There was another woman I saw in the Sitka hospital who had four children, one of the middle ones in a wheelchair, and she was smiling, and all of the kids were touching either her or the wheelchair as they came down the hallway. How beautiful they were, how complicated her life must be, how she was beaming.

Zaley is into “collections” right now–piling up any number of things she sees and can hold. Seashells, wood chips, large crumbs, leaves. It occurs to me I am in the habit of collecting mothers of kids with special needs.

IMG_4932We have been eating elk steak salads with Swiss chard from the garden. It is so lovely and sturdy, how it came up while we were gone, red-spined and with fat leaves that shine a silver-white in the sun. Zaley likes to come outside and help me pick chard while I hold Anna over my shoulder. Her hearing aids emit a squealing when they’re loose, and during dinner tonight, I kept having to push the left one back into her ear to get rid of the feedback. She’s wearing the hearing aids mostly to prove to insurance and the FDA that hearing aids do not bring her closer to hearing, but that cochlear implants will.

Tonight, even the readjusting of Anna’s hearing aids feels like too much to do. Not because I don’t want to give her what she needs, but because it feels superfluous, this one extra task, these buzzing apparatuses hanging from her perfect and pointless ears. I kept asking the audiologist today, “But she won’t hear, right?” And, “Even if the hearing aids are turned really loud, even if they stimulate the auditory nerve, will she ever hear it?” But the answer is no. It is still no. It will always be no. If I need to repeat this, I figure I am still not ready to accept it.

Zaley and her cousin Clara danced in the middle of the family room after dinner tonight. They slapped the ground and tumbled down and spun and their little girl silly joy filled the room with both a lightness and a heaviness for me. I cannot help but picture Anna spinning next to them and wonder how dance will be different for her, how all of this will be different for her. My hours are filled with small prayers: God, let her experience this. And this, too. Oh, and this one thing, especially, too.

Zaley’s uniform is tumbling in the dryer. Anna’s hearing aids are turned off and zipped into their case for the night. This is the last night my girls will be this young, this my own. Can you miss something even as it is happening?

September Time Capsule

IMG_4842 We leave Alaska tomorrow. We have more laundry than I thought we owned in clothes, toys are still lodged in the heating vents, I started a fire in the kitchen last night, and the cleaners are coming first thing in the morning. As I sift through the last things we'll give away, I know I won't really know how to feel about this time in our lives until I look back on it many years from now. I know that big change and the making sense of it never come at the same time, even though one of my greatest daily efforts has been striving to make them happen simultaneously.

One summer here, while teaching a few writing classes at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, my students wrote letters to their future selves for a creative writing time capsule. We collected current newspaper clippings and selfies and recently used doodads and zipped the whole pile up into a neoprene cooler. We buried the bursting thing in the old Russian cemetery under a patch of ferns and a sky of rain gentled by the canopy of 200-year old trees.

FullSizeRender-8I picture making a time capsule this summer and inside are all the words to which I have not yet been able to lend order or priority. Doctors and tests and deaf and Deaf. Patience, gratitude, God, and reason. Trust and landslides, newborn and toddler and patience. Anna. Zaley. Mermaids. Macaroni. When you open it, there is music--a new kind of music, the most wonderful of music, the kind no one has ever been able to hear. I would bury the time capsule down by Indian River where the salmon this time of year are sliding upriver to lay their eggs then die. They are bruised now, red and blue and rising over stones and water in this last, burdened stretch.

FullSizeRender-7It must be true that part of us dies, too, when we give birth. As Luke slipped Zaley's watercolors and some photos from under their magnets on the fridge, I looked at the pictures of me pregnant with Anna and I hurt for that naive fullness, for her life when it was contained and safe and unnamed. I know I will ache for this summer, too, in the same way. How I can walk through the bookstore, like I did yesterday, and people love a tiny baby, and they have no questions, because right now, she looks like every other healthy, normal baby. Her disease and her deafness are such secrets. Next summer, she will be different. There will be cochlear implants and then questions. There will be the other ways her self unveils itself and unwinds from this illness.

I know I'll look back on this summer with a pervading sense of something, like our mystically autonomous memories always ascribe. annaopeneyesAnna's birth is becoming this way to me already--a dream-like, breezeless, yet still vague sensation hovering over those initial hours of her entry. Unlike the 20-some hours of struggle to get Zaley out, my labor with Anna was quick and furious. I was loud. And as soon as I saw her, I knew something was different. The room was candlelit. Her hair was black and slick, matted into waves like doodles done with a felt-tip pen. The sun was coming up just behind the hospital chapel and as my doula brought her upwards, still attached to me, she was quiet. In her fixed black eyes there was a pleading. She did not cry. The nurses brought her to the corner where they coaxed the wails out of her, and I kept asking "Is she ok? Are you sure she's ok?" I wonder now if she was quiet because she was born into quiet. At Lutheran Hospital, they play a song through all the hallway speakers when a baby is born. They were wheeling us up to our room when I heard it. I was so proud. I cried looking down at her. I did not know she had hearing loss but when I heard the song, I thought to myself, I wonder if she can hear that. She was five pounds and she nursed with an urgency. Our room overlooked the mountains and when people visited, they noted a calm. Zaley was with grandparents. I was waiting for Luke to come home from Alaska, but I was through-and-through content. A nurse bathed Anna the next day in my room, in a sink. She made no sound. Her hair was so much darker than I'd pictured in a child of mine. Her eyes found my eyes. We were suspended in a liquid-like peace.

FullSizeRender-10What of these days, this now, now knowing? What will this feel like when it is past tense? I know there will be worry in my memory, but also a deepening that was never here before Anna. This summer's suns and rains, usually three day bursts of each, were of an unusual intensity. We broke a record this week: 4.37 inches of rain on a single day. A friend tells me something about the stars and planets that I don't understand, but the gist is that things are in a state of uncommon flux. While I write, Luke is at the Science Center with Zaley, petting the octopi and counting the colors of coral reefs. Anna is asleep on my chest, and behind me, the sun makes dramatic appearances between clouds that pour intermittent and crescendoing rain. Before me, in this first house we've ever had here to ourselves as a family, is the biggest mess I have ever seen in my life, and I am ignoring it so I can try to keep track of a season that, like all others, will become only a sentence if I let it.

This is the time of year I become most grateful for this place, and I know, a bit shamefully, it's because we are leaving it. This feels like a small betrayal, to leave our other friends to a season of cold monsoons while we get 80-degrees still ahead and then crisp leaves and there is a clear transition to the wearing of scarves, but I cannot help that I love Colorado. I will miss the proximity of everything in Sitka, the geography, the rain-inspired innovation of indoor games, the fresh salmon, the safety, the good, wild-hearted people.

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I will miss my close friend Lisa, who will be moving right after I get here next summer because her husband is in the Coast Guard. The other day, while our kids picked through kelp and crabs and jellies on the beach, I told her I'm worried that at three months (and less than 8 pounds) Anna cannot yet hold up her head. Lisa, who has six kids, doesn't try to explain Anna's differences away with conjecture. She comforts me with the stories of each of her children, the ways they are both different than her expectations, and how each one is the same, in certain ways, as the moment they were born. She brings Anna to sleep by patting her little butt absent-mindedly like a mother who has done this way more than me. Her mothering is so natural and energized, my observations sometimes make me feel like an amateur. She warns about saying yes to the first request of a sleep-over, strictly enforces a daily quiet time so she can read or knit her girls sweaters. She suggests I say a prayer with Zaley every day on the way to her school. As the tide gurgled up the rocky beach, we ate crackers and called to the kids when we lost sight of them behind moss- and barnacle-covered boulders. Lisa says that each child carries within them their mom's sense of hope, that the whole family takes its cue from the mother.

FullSizeRender-9On Saturday evening, at church, the priest presented two ankle-width, white candles to the father and mother of the boys who died in the landslide. I wonder how this mother can have hope, this smiling woman with tears running down her face who somehow buttoned her blazer and got in the car and made the sign of the cross. But then I see that there are other children sitting with her, and I think of what Lisa said, and I look at my girls who are in a state of noticeable deterioration during this one hour of the week I would like them to be good, and I think that if I lost it as much as I wanted to with the choir singing a sad Catholic song from my childhood and the hard rain falling irreverently from the roof, my kids would fall apart even more, too. Hope is not always a given in motherhood--or for any person, really; it comes when our children or families summon.

I must be hopeful. I must not do what I did earlier this week, which is see how early you can spot signs of cerebral palsy (a symptom of congenital cmv) in a child who does not yet lift her head. So instead, I think of a quote I read online from another mother whose daughter has the same condition: "Our kids won't live common lives. They'll live extraordinary ones."

Yesterday, using a hot pink, hand-me-down, Barbie fishing rod, Luke caught Zaley one last salmon in the river. We said our annual goodbyes, talked of how hard it is to leave a place even if staying would be harder. Tomorrow, the plane will cut through the fog and take us back to Denver.

The Sound of Sounds

Because there was enough sun to see the dark blue outline of theFullSizeRender-5 mountain across Sitka Sound this morning, I figured I could handle the google search I've been postponing all summer: "What does it sound like to hear through a cochlear implant?" I'd successfully made sweet potato muffins with a dough-testing three-year-old while talking to an auditory-verbal therapist on speakerphone while nursing while the laundry was going and by the time some friends came over, the muffins had cooled, the muffins had not fallen apart, the baby was asleep, and even though Zaley tried to mount my friend's one year old multiple times, the morning was good. After talking to the therapist, I'd gotten a much better idea of what it will be like to educate Anna. Involved. Difficult. Constant. Different. All words that come to mind when our path as parents of a deaf child comes into clearer view. The therapist's points that stand out are these:

-On average, a deaf adult is on a fourth grade reading level.

-Most deaf adults who have learned how to listen through the auditory-verbal method (and through an assistive device like a hearing aid or a cochlear implant) can read on a level appropriate to their age.

-Cochlear implants do not sound like what we hear. They sound like electronic beeps which the brain then translates into meaning.

-"Being a mom and teaching a deaf child to hear is like being a mom times ten with more focus, intention, and tracking of progress."

-There are 40 lessons I can start with Anna right now.

-The therapist is putting me in touch with a girl who had congenital cmv and is starting her freshman year at Wake Forest this fall.

The last of these makes me have to put down the phone and mute it so I can cry a little bit. This is how I cry lately--in little bursts that rise quickly and then fall away just as fast.

FullSizeRender-4This week I started voluntarily listening to music, enjoying it half-way, through a thick layer of ambivalence. I notice acutely not only music now, but the effects of music: how it imparts levity, how changed I am by it, how it will alter emotions, deepen a mere surface-level feeling. I think of what Anna is missing, but I also think of what Zaley will be missing if I keep her right up against this big, laden lug of my sorrow.

And Zaley is way into dance parties right now. She usually bangs on a plastic tambourine, but when I turned on the iPad a few days ago, I opened up some long-untouched joy for both of us. We have since been playing everything--bluegrass ditties, Beyonce, and Prince. Jason Derulo, Gregorian chants. Anna likes the dancing, too. I hold her straight out from my belly, with one hand under her back and one under her head. Her arms fall to her sides, and when I bounce lightly to the music with Zaley's fingers grasping one of my pant legs, Anna's eyes close slightly in pleasure and her mouth tilts up into the smallest of smiles. Sometimes in a room of pounding beats and motion, she grins till she falls asleep. I have never loved anyone like I love Anna.

Today seemed like the day. So when our friends left, I gathered my courage and looked up what I've been dreading: hearing what Anna will hear when she hears. I chose a youtube that looked like it would be less sentimental, more on the scientific side of things. And this is what I watched. I couldn't tell what the voice was saying on the first three channels of cochlear implant-simulated sound. It sounded like heavy sandpaper sliding across a table, or, even at its clearest, a garbled, deep, Darth Vader-like drone. Once revealed through regular speech, the human voice, perfectly enough, was asking, "What kind of bait do you use to catch salmon?"

FullSizeRender-6But then the music. I think of what my mom said when I first told her that Anna was deaf. She said it took her breath away. And listening to the cochlear implant version of music did that to me today, too. It sounds like 100 stomping feet underwater. It is not a song. It is not beautiful. It is not what I want to give to Anna when we give her the thing we call music. There is rhythm, yes, but when I heard the classical song with my normal hearing ears, the rich and irreplaceable depth of the tones, the high-pitched chiming completely lost by the transmission of the cochlear technology, I promptly fell apart.

I had to sit down. I had Anna asleep in my arms, but Zaley climbed up in my lap, too, staring and silent in the terrible space my tears can create around her. She stroked my hair. She held my hand. She said, "Mommy, don't cry, here let's play with some beads."

After Zaley went to bed, I watched about 20 other simulations of cochlear implant sounds, searching for a voice that sounds human, and looking for the loveliness of a melody. And then I watched this movie about a deaf young woman at Oxford who has cochlear implants, and while the now familiar, tinny and synthetic sound of the implant saddened me, I took great hope in two things: she loves to dance ("it's where she can bring music to life"), and she loves to turn the implant off and be in a "sanctuary of silence" while she's doing sign language with her friends.

FullSizeRenderI am trying to bookend my days with hope, even if sometimes the middles are a little mushy. I know that if I make Anna's suffering too much my own, I may be distorting the great pleasure she will take in life and bring to mine. Tomorrow might be a better day for music. Tonight, we walked home from sushi and there was sun touching the top of Luke's boat in the harbor. I am grateful for the light we still have. For the shape of the mountains against the sky. For the visual splendor this place puts in our life.

Learning from Slugs

We go home on September 15. This will be the latest I've ever stayed in Alaska. In my head, we will go home to 90 degree days and it will feel like mid-August: mornings will be pleasantly hot and pools will be open and the ice cream truck's creepy song will chime through the neighborhood at 2. September is good in its moderate way and for me it means our family is finally in the home we own in the place we have all chosen together. But I dream of August, knowing that we are missing it. FullSizeRender-32Like any fisherman's wife, I imagine our lives without fishing. If we weren't fishing, we could be camping. If we weren't fishing, we could pull the Swiss chard and peppers that grew huge this summer at home, the renters sending me proud pictures of the raised bed in our backyard. In the August in my head, I am wallpapering the baby's room now that we know she's a girl, and penciling sign language letters on the walls. As shallow as it sounds, August is the back-to-school time to hit up Target with well-reasoned abandon, and online just doesn't cut it. Zaley starts preschool the week we get back and I'm hoping there are enough uniform shorts left at Old Navy this late in the year that she won't look different than the kids who started on time.

I know that Alaska brings such beauty into our lives, I would mourn the loss of it if we didn't come here. And I also know that almost all of the things I miss (besides family and friends) are creature comforts and if we weren't fishing, well, we wouldn't be us. But still. The inner child in me wants what's mine, and sometimes, nothing here feels like it is.

Alaska is not easy. I spent this past week waiting. We ran out of Anna's medication on Monday--the anti-viral that stops the progression of vision impairment and other neurological delays. FullSizeRender-25Every time she cried, I wondered if it was something worse than usual, my over-active imagination conjuring microscopic versions of a spindly virus branching into the blood stream. Days went by. Anna cried out in the night as though startled, which she has never done. The slight rash on the bridge of her nose took on a deeper red hue. Profanity was used in reference to Accredo Pharmacy, where Anthem Blue Cross is making us order our medications. The woman on the phone from Children's Hospital Denver says, "Oh. You have the worst possible insurance for her condition. Parents with Anthem have switched even when they've almost reached their out-of-pocket maximum because Anthem is almost impossible to deal with." A 25-day supply of her Valganciclovir has a $900 copay. Let it be known: do not buy the Blue Cross Blue Shield Independent PPO.

At home, we could have driven to Walgreens the same day and picked up her medication. Here, the meds got sent to Anchorage (not close to Sitka at all), then stopped for 48 hours by airport security. I called Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage and, in true Alaska fashion, their phone number didn't work. When I called the specialty pharmacy who shipped it and UPS, they both transferred me to "Alaska-specific departments" because it's so hard to get things to us here. Meaning, it's easy for things to get lost.

Which is how I feel here on so many days. This place, since day one, has posited in me a profound sense of longing. And that longing is not just for home. It's a longing that sits, that has no proper goal at its end. It's a longing for everything and nothing, to be here forever and be here no longer. It is a longing for childhood and for future, for escape and for safety. Like the longing you feel at a music concert, in the midst of great beauty. A nameless thing. A gnawing. The longing of displacement, of no everyday belonging.

Problem is: my home is with my family, and my family is here.

FullSizeRender-31Today, when the raindrops are big and the wind is turning the leaves sideways, I keep thinking about a hike I took with five scientists about five years ago on an even more remote neighboring island. We ended up on top of a mountain just as a storm was stacking up against the ridge line. No one spoke up there. Everyone's hair was starting to piece and go wild in the wind. It was the most beautiful place I have ever been. Above the tundra line, Southeast Alaska spread before us in a collage of greens: jagged emerald islands cut through by teal streams, white snow drifts radiating with the magical blue given by glacial ice. It turned cold and the clouds began to leak. People rustled in their bags for waterproof layers. And we all sat there wondering when someone was going to say, "It's time to go home."

FullSizeRender-33This is something I cannot say no matter how bad the summertime gets. Luke says this year's fishing has been the worst he's seen--both the weather and the yield. I know this is the most difficult summer I've ever been through up here, and here we are, staying till the end. We only have a little more than two weeks left and today I feel like giving in. An airplane takes off and crosses the seven front windows on this house (warmed today by the heat since it's 48 degrees), and a big part of me wishes I were up there, closing my eyes in sunny relief when we finally lift above the fog.

On that hike five years ago, one of the scientists eventually did sFullSizeRender-29ay we should turn back and begin our 6-hour trek back to the cabin. He explained the Abilene Complex: how sometimes, when there's a group of people, each person depends on someone else to verbalize when the group has reached their limit. When no one speaks, the group keeps going, moves beyond their boundaries, encounters dangers. I can wager a lot of fishing families have an Abilene Complex, especially the closer they get to September. I do not need to tell Luke it's time to go home. He feels it, too.

We find things to do. We beg big duck eggs from a yard-tending neighbor. We suit up and walk, no matter the weather. We find the sign language alphabet on an almost forgotten playground. We build puzzle after puzzle. We even bring them to the brewery when Luke gets in and we only have energy for food-truck dinner.

And yesterday, Zaley and I entered a slug into Sitka's very own Slug Race. Ours was a short, fat slug that didn't move a millimeter. The quicker ones stretched their lengths out long, then waited for the rest of their bodies to catch up at a pace that was painful to watch. Slugs are deliberate things. They move towards what they want by way of rhythmic muscle contractions. They thrive in wetnes, hide when it's dry. They have light-sensing feelers and smaller nodes that pick up smell. They are hard to hold onto. And get this: slugs are deaf.

FullSizeRender-34While we were cheering for ours, a friend with two daughters spotted us, so we turned our attention away from the race and talked while Zaley jumped from rock to rock with the boats of A and B harbor bobbing in the background behind her. Because her husband is in the Coast Guard, my friend won't find out till next spring where they'll have to move to in early summer. I asked her if it bothers her not to know in advance where their lives will be spent. "I don't like to think too far ahead anyways," she said. "Makes my feet feel like they aren't under me." I like this advice and this image, since I often try to ground myself by putting my head too far ahead--I'm already thinking about Anna's first day of school three or four years from now, the differences she'll encounter beyond the look of clothes bought online or in-store.

Our slug didn't win. I don't even know whose did, so inept am I at attending to slowness. I've never liked waiting because waiting makes it feel like time isn't my own. But as I see Zaley grow--in bangs and in language and in overall being--I see that time can't possibly belong to me. If I were more like my friend, I'd stop thinking about waiting, and then I'd just be living. I recently reread a line by Ellen Gilchrist, one of my favorite writers, whose wisdom comes from writing as a grandmother looking at the mothers of today, and she writes: "In the end happiness is always a balance. I hope the young women of our fortunate world find ways to balance their lives. I hope they learn to rejoice and wait."

FullSizeRender-28 FullSizeRender-27Rejoice and wait, I think today, as Zaley is pushing a mini grocery cart through the store, excited about something in every aisle. People stop for her and they smile and they wait, even though her cart is so piled with her choices, she can barely keep the wheels going straight. I wait for her even though I have to pee and the baby is on the verge of screaming. In the car, she is victorious with her goods: a bucket of cashews, new lipgloss, a box of Lucky Charms. She looks out the window and says, "Mom. I like this rain."

 

Finding Ground

This town is on edge. After a fatal landslide this week that buried three people, you can feel the anxiety everywhere. I feel it looking out the front window, at the long trees swaying on the steepest mountain in town, about 100 yards from our front door. FullSizeRender-24On Tuesday, the morning of the landslide, the rain growled and receded then revved up again, coating the windows like water in a car wash while we ate eggs and toast at the table. "The rain hears so loud," Zaley said, her wide eyes looking into the streams running down the window panes. Friends texted things like, "This is ridiculous." Sometime in the afternoon, it stopped and the sun appeared and we took advantage and went for a walk. We did not know about the three men down the road who tried to outrun the running earth. In our front yard, the little creek had become a powerful gushing thing the color and opaqueness of a frapuccino. Purple fireweed petals were spinning down from Eliasen Loop, the street perched on a shelf of stone above ours. And sometime around the time we were walking, a woman put on rubber gloves to look for her husband's body on the hill behind a washed away house.

Last night was the first heavy rain we've had since the landslide. In the middle of the night, the blue tarp strung tight over the hot tub snapped in the wind, and my dreams translated the sound into the cracking of fast-moving trees. I flew awake, didn't sleep for three hours, and then Luke was leaving in the dark trickle of morning.

FullSizeRender-23There is no TV station to turn to here, to see what has transpired overnight. There's a "Sitka Chatters" Facebook page, so at 5 AM, I cruised through there, watching movies of the deceased till I realized I felt weird invading into the sorrow that should be reserved for the lovers of the dead. There are receipts posted on the Facebook page, too: people "paying it forward" all around town, buying meals anonymously for families who have evacuated, funding $300 worth of coffee at the Highliner for anyone who orders till it's gone. Someone who makes oven-glazed ceramic mugs has been leaving them on the trails with love notes to locals pinned between clay and stone.

This aftermath-feeling of surrounded aloneness reminds me of the New Orleans feeling: a low-grade, disappearing and reappearing dread. Like butterflies before a performance, wings steeped in a real, unshakeable worry. My friend Lisa went to set crab traps in Nakwasina Sound--an area 11 miles from town, but bordered by other islands--and she said she saw the scars of three new slides on those similar mountains. I heard there were six landslides yesterday on our island alone. Even though this was called a 25-year storm, it would be  foolish to assume that more of these mountains won't fall. I have learned this summer that you can't always be surprised when you are the 1 in the statistic--1 in 25, 1 in 250, 1 in 2,500.

FullSizeRender-21I have been doing what I do, which is seeking consolation through questions: "Are you scared this will happen again, too?" An acquaintance whose boys were playing with Zaley on the beach yesterday said, "If Mount Verstovia came down, my house would land on top of yours." But then I saw my neighbor and her one-year old boy at the kid's storytime and exercise class at the library and while the toddlers were pretending they were bears, she told me that the mountain that fell has a foundation of almost pure mud, whereas Verstovia is only inches of mud atop a thick rock slab. A slab, she said, that should stay put. I have been clinging to the image of that slab since we spoke.

I drove past Kramer Avenue, where the deadly slide happened, and my arms prickled in the sun. It's all taped off, but you can see where the trees are still supine, where the cadaver dogs had their horrifying success. The two bodies they've found were guys in their 20s from our church--pretty boys I would have had a crush on if I were their age. The other was a man I've seen in town many times, the Facebook photos jarring me with how much sharper loss is made by familiarity. There's also a video of the precursors to Tuesday's slide: 20-foot logs creeping downhill on a tall bed of brown. There is only the slightest volume to this deluge of soil, and I think of Anna, how she will not know danger first by its sound.

All day, looking up at this mountain through the window above our front door, I picture another landslide. I picture running with my girls, if we had time, if we would go down the steep gravel driveway in reverse, the baby on my lap, Zaley in the passenger seat, no time for carseats or brakes or belongings. I keep comparing natural disasters in my head, and though it seems I've always neglected to think of landslides in the list of the biggest and bad-est (hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis), landslides may be the worst because there's only a second or two of warning before that life-eating suture.

Some people escaped the Kramer Avenue disaster by bolting up the mountain. We escape this morning's ominous sky full of helicopters and clouds by going to my friend Shelley's for coffee and Dutch baby pancakes, which she pulls puffy and golden from the oven in butter-coated, glass casserole pans. Inside Shelley's warm home, Emmylou Harris's voice croons from the counter and I realize it's the first time I've heard music since we found out Anna is deaf, and I am so full of sadness I cannot speak.

FullSizeRender-20Zaley is the best distraction, though--the kind I wish I'd had in New Orleans ten years ago this week, when I found our street stripped down to nothing by the power of water. She is excited today to "balance like a tree," waving her arms and lifting one leg. She doesn't know about natural disasters, despair, any feelings that might underride all the joys in one given day. I wish that Luke were here, too, but he sends an email from his boat: "Don't worry about the things you can't control." It is simple, but that's what saves me from thinking too much today about what we lose before we're ready. I keep saying it over and over again, "Do not worry about the things you can't control," looking at this mountain overhead, looking at my Anna.

The Answers

FullSizeRender-18 This weekend was warm enough for a knee-length skirt tan and for Zaley to build gravel castles on the beach. But tomorrow there's a west gale, which Luke says he has never even seen. 16-foot waves and an airborne chowder of fog. The rain in town is winter-like, misty, shrouding the lighthouse, coastline, mountains, and water we can usually see out all the tall windows in the house we are staying at this summer. "Socked in" they call it. This is apt. These days you must put on socks. You're better off staying in. Zaley's feet blister in her boots when she gets them on before I realize the lack of socks. Then we are out. Then there are tears. There is a forgotten raincoat. A swim lesson gone wrong. The early interventionist arrives at the house when frozen chicken nuggets have just burnt in the oven, the boob is out, both kids are screaming, and Dad has left a beer in the My Little Pony house (which the speech therapist notes aloud).

FullSizeRender-19One night at dinner a few weeks ago, when Luke's youngest brother, Max, was here, he asked, "How much does the ocean fill when it rains?" Luke said "It never fills, it evaporates, that's where the rain comes from." I had never thought of this. Sometimes I wonder why I don't know simple things. I thought I was being a supermom and made blueberry muffins the other day while Jules and her kids came over and swam with Zaley in the hot tub. But I put way too much sugar on top and it crumbled off in brown powdery chunks when we ate the muffins right out of the oven, hot. I do not wait for baked goods to cool. I always miss one step in any set of directions. I over-sugar, over-cook, over-think, under-estimate how long it will take us every time we leave the house. The only thing that makes this better is not when I get it right, but when other people are late or their muffins are gummy.

My friend Jill who has two young kids lays out smoked salmon, sliced cheese, a ring of crackers, fresh banana bread with a perfectly glazed, flat top. She blow dries her hair! Her house is spotless when we arrive. Secretly, I consider where all ten decorative pillows go when people like Jill--people who make their beds--sleep. There must be a pile! I love other people's piles. I think of the preparations we forget in the presence of perfection till I think of the pillows. Nothing is easy for any mother, I think, when Jill's son keeps announcing his farts and when I get home and look at the crumbs on my stove, the half-eaten, un-organic, frozen whatever in the sink. I must believe this or I will crumble like that topping.

I ask all my mom friends, "Is it easy? Is [this] easy for you? Is [this other thing] easy for you?" Why are we supposed to make fishing season look easy? Why doesn't one mom just throw her hands up and say, "Hey! You know what? F-- this! I'm done!" And then we will all mutiny and the boats will all go away and the kids can play wrestling games with Dad and we will eat late, greasy, family breakfasts at The Nugget. That's what my ideal life looks like. Just Luke here more, really. But because this won't happen, I keep asking The Questions. I want to know when other moms quilt/knit/write/shower, when other kids wake up in the morning, if they want their moms to hold their hand for 15 minutes at nap time. Does your toddler run circles before she collapses with rage when you tell her she can't have macaroni at 6:30 AM? The answer, which I don't always remember: all phases shift. My mom reminds me, this always-consolation.

FullSizeRender-17Anna smiles now when she sees me. I'm becoming more aware that when I'm out of sight, she can't sense me because she can't hear me, but I still say, "I'm here, shhh, I'm here." One nurse says, "Anna, yes! A good old-fashioned name." Most people say, "Oh, she is so tiny!" I don't notice her smallness anymore, pulling her up from resting places, her head wobbling back as I catch the weight with my fingers. At two months, she is Zaley's weight as a newborn. Her legs are always warm. She wrinkles one side of her nose in anger when I haven't fed her or moved her in the last five minutes. In sleep, her eyes twitch and roll and I have to tell other kids she sleeps with her eyes open so they don't try to kiss and pet her. Sometimes just one eye opens and surveys the scene from left to right, a judicious little pirate's eye. I google this, scared that what I don't remember about Zaley at two months is maybe the cmv virus making Anna abnormal. In the case of open-eyed sleeping ("nocturnal lagopthalmos"), the internet offers its rare comfort: "this is very normal."

I am still skeptical--a constant, internal uncertainty underlying everything Anna-related right now. I'm wary of anything stated with finality or confidence since everyone said they were sure her hearing would be fine. I look for alternative sources of comfort both for her and for me. The chiropractor at home recommends me to an herbalist in Glenwood Springs who is sending up a tincture of lemon balm and astralagus I should take 20 minutes before I nurse, plus some topical essential oil to put on Anna's skin where the smooth, dark pink rash spots up--the one physical marker of this quiet monster virus. Another chiropractor in town sees Anna and says something that sends relief through me, viscerally, like a wave: "If she were going to be immobile at any point, I think we would already see signs."

My brother sends Padre Pio oil and prayers in the mail, passages from the Bible about Mary's wounded heart. I have a hard time ever seeing my way out of right now, out of myself, and this helps. I do think of Mary in this line of other mothers who struggle so gracefully as to make me feel alone. I remind myself that I am less important than all the suffering Anna's suffering has made me aware of.

A friend needs a blood transfusion. A friend's son goes to the hospital for meningitis. A friend miscarries. A little boy we know here is mute, may never talk. A friend across the country calls me to tell me what worked best for her child with autism. Jules says her school-age kids are attracted to other kids whose parents parent the same way. I pray for such continuity between will and outcome. I know the parents I want to be like are the parents who have shouldered through very hard things.

I postpone making (what I know will be imperfect) bread today for lying in bed with my tiny child. I will never be another woman. My daughters will never be other children. The ocean will not rise.

Two Worlds

I haven't listened to music since I learned that Anna can't hear it. I've gone to turn it on a few times, but something stops me. I know it's part sadness (I teared up in the Seattle airport when I walked past the cheesy synthesizer guy playing outside the bathrooms), but it's also a little bit of guilt. It feels wrong to enjoy something Anna may never experience, as though my access to the world of sound is unfeeling and privileged--two things I've always worked against as a teacher and now as a mother.

This week, I called my high school friend Lexie, a speech pathologist for kids ages birth to 3, to find out what we should be doing for Anna, and the answer is that we should start signing to her even this early. This will be Anna's deficit year before she gets cochlear implants. Whatever sounds would build to meanings have been missing for her since the day she was born. And in case the cochlear implants don't work (or when we've intentionally taken them out for bathtime and bedtime), we will need a language for her that doesn't depend on sound.

Besides the list of 200 recommended first words to learn, Lexie suggests supplementing it with the words that are the most important in our lives. We have a different vocabulary during this part of the year. I think: she will need to know salmon and fog and rain and cereal (which we eat a lot of when we're bored and which I think is the cutest sign so far: you make your index finger scoot like a little worm under your chin, wiping off the milk). Zaley and I made up the sign for Anna already: an "A" shaking back and forth like it's holding a maraca.

I have very little experience signing, but I do remember learning the prayers in grade school, especially the Our Father: an "L" (for law) in one hand stamped against the tablet of another for will; wiping the slate of the hand clean with the other hand for forgive; slicing one curved hand with the other, like a knife over a loaf, for bread; the letter d rising on one side of the body then setting on the other for day. I love the sensory basis of sign language, so much truer to experience than trying to explain in words. Zaley says, "We will make Anna happy with our hands."

Besides learning how to communicate with our child this year, we will spend these 12 months proving to our insurance company that Anna is a good candidate for cochlear implants (her total deafness qualifies her easily, but she'll also wear hearing aids for a year solely to keep active the auditory nerve). While the implants are usually very successful on infants, there's still a chance she won't speak or be able to decode music or talk on the phone. Some children break down crying when they're first turned on because sound makes no sense. They haven't ever heard a voice; it has no antecedent. Can you imagine? No, we can't.

The implant is a magnet that is surgically inserted between skin and skull, transmitting sound by radio wave or code or both--I get confused on the physics. Ears are complicated. I can't even really picture the work of the tiny hairs called cochlea except for the audiologist's metaphor: like tiny little piano keys rolled up inside each ear. To be honest, the thing that got me the most excited about cochlear implants (besides the fact they could bring to Anna speech and sound) are these. My friend Mia and I are already scheming on how to make them in bulk.

But part of me also wants to live a Little House on the Prairie life. And that part of me resists cochlear implants and the internet and all advancements in science. I know, I know. Look at how far we've come! Modern medicine saves lives, returns joy, restores hearing. But I look at this child and part of me doesn't want to mechanize one of her senses (the loss of which might be maximizing the skills of the others). Today, while Anna's eyes chased a flashlight across the whale-stenciled walls of the pediatrician's office, he said, "Man, she is really looking." Everyone comments on the hugeness of her eyes, the way they lock in on a thing, never blinking. What natural functions of her brain and being are we taking away if we add wires and magnets to the sides and insides of her head?

There is such a mystery to me about Anna's body. Her quietude and calm alertness, the texture of her silence. Is it static in there? Is it liquid-like or simply a void? Are there noises in there we can never imagine, like new colors, or a hundred wings flapping in the unseen space between her ears? I picture the sound would be like the look and feel of a cumulus cloud. Like soft cotton. Like comfort.

Luke pulls me up for air when I say I'm thinking about the two sides of the cochlear implant debate and says, "We're talking about giving her back her hearing."

And, in the end, even if we fit her with implants, Anna will always be deaf. Zaley's little friend Johnny, who's 8, happily (and out of the blue) reminded me yesterday that when Anna swims, she'll have to take out her implants and that will make her "deaf again." I take an odd comfort in this, knowing that she can take them out any time she wants--to go to sleep, to be free of the child we have decided she will be. I think of how nice it would be, to go into full silence mode right before bed. When Zaley yells every morning at the top of her lungs, "Mommy, come IN HERE," it will never wake our Anna.

Even though I imagined these girls doing everything together, including walking to St. Peter and Paul school down the street, I am realizing there may better options that will open worlds to us--to Anna--that would give her way more than my pre-Anna expectations ever could. The Jeff Co school district has resource rooms for children who sign. The Rocky Mountain School for the Deaf happens to be on our side of town (although Lexie confirmed yesterday what I've been sensing in the stories I've been reading: they may not accept students with cochlear implants because if a child can hear, is that child still deaf?). The Deaf School prepares children to be members of the Deaf community (capital D, indicating the specific culture of the deaf). I guess some people believe that cochlear implants take away not only a person's deafness, but their Deafness, too.

In one study in How the Deaf Learn, which my sweet dad found and shipped to me right after we found out about Anna, a young girl with cochlear implants said she sees herself as "not quite deaf and not quite hearing." Educators are unsure how best to teach kids who have implants; they often struggle in reading and writing. While the well of language is the deepest source of meaning in my life, it may be so bungled for Anna, it may be her deepest struggle. I want to give her everything I can, but for now all I find myself doing is smiling at her right near her face and signing I love you.

Lexie said our choice about cochlear implants, whatever it may be, should "help Anna enter the world where we live."

We live in two worlds, which is now more clear than ever. Our world in Denver with resources galore, a whole community of deaf children, long drives, more than one elementary school, and two kinds of (D)eaf. And then this world on this island: where I don't know a single deaf person other than my daughter. Where I had my six-week OB appointment at one hospital (executed by my next door neighbor, it turns out. Awkward.), then drove across the street to catch the last 15 minutes of Zaley's swim lesson, then drove another two minutes and over the only bridge here to the other hospital for Anna's six-week appointment.

On our way out, the sticker-stocked nurse from a few weeks ago called down the hallway, "Wait! Wait! I want to hold Anna again." She held Anna out in front of her, head higher than her feet, like a prize. "Anna! Swee-eet Anna!" she sung to her, clicking behind her teeth for the baby to respond, to move her head. I knew that Anna wouldn't look toward the sound of her name. But when she didn't, my heart still dipped.

Face of Wonder

We found out on Friday that Anna is deaf. We knew she had hearing loss, but because she had passed one hearing test when she was first born, I did not expect this news. So much did I not expect it that I was eating a Red Vine while the audiologist was explaining the results of the 2 hour diagnostic. When things got real--learning that they had turned their equipment all the way up to 105 decibels, which would be like standing in front of a jet engine--and learning that Anna did not respond in either ear, I put the licorice down and put my tongue to the roof of my mouth to stop the hot build-up of tears. Luke's mom had flown to Seattle to meet me (which absolutely saved me from self-implosion) and at that moment, she put her pen down, knowing that all the notes she had taken about a working ear wouldn't be needed anymore.

On a chart which indicated the decibels of birdsong, speech, the rustling of leaves, the audiologist pointed to items circled in red, with arrows pointing down.  She swept her hand over all these sounds, wiping them away from Anna and away from me. She did not offer me the word deaf, just "profound loss in both ears," until I asked her, "does this mean she's deaf?" and she said yes.

I still can't believe it. I couldn't believe it when we left and it was still a dazzling summer day, people oblivious and jumping from party boats into Lake Union, the surface like white snakeskin under the sun. Me, thinking, how does the world not reflect how much my life has changed today? I couldn't believe it when Luke called and the phone rang loudly right next to Anna's ear and I jumped to silence the ringer so it wouldn't wake her. "What do we do?" he asked, his voice quiet, the roar of the boat behind it. I do not believe it when I get back to Sitka and am sobbing into Jenn's shoulder and the baby is asleep on my chest, and I say to Jenn, "I still can't believe that she cannot hear this," my heart banging behind the baby carrier, one of my hands instinctually cupped over Anna's right ear.

It has been sunny here, too. Jenn and I dragged camping chairs and snacks down to the beach and watched dark heavy boats pulling their loads into town. The kids made sand cakes and ate anything they wanted. Chocolate bars, juice, lollipops, whatever bribery we had tucked into our bags for grocery store trips gone awry or entire days that require no enforcement of rules. I nursed Anna and imagined what her silence is like. Luke's dad told me he thinks she can hear in there, just not the same things we can. I love to think of this when I think of her isolation.

It is likely that Anna did hear me weeks ago. The cmv virus is aggressive enough that it could have taken what little hearing she had in the first month of life. I feel grief, but I do not feel loss. Loss would be if I knew she could hear me for the next two years, and then had to witness her hearing slip away like some parents of kids with congenital cmv do. Loss would be if after these six weeks of scanning her eyes and seeing that she's tracking and focusing, this virus took her vision from her, too.

People always play that game: would you rather be blind or deaf? Deaf, deaf deaf, I think now, looking at her eyes, my prayers a shriek that this favor of her seeing forever will be given to me.

My closest friends have told me their families will learn sign language, they will call me just to say a prayer over the phone. My friend Jules watches Zaley while Anna and I are in Seattle and makes her pancakes with syrup. My priest brother is starting a "thermonuclear novena" for her total healing, my sister-in-law gives me the contact info for the parents of a two-year-old who hears with cochlear implants. Co-workers at Lighthouse and my close friend Sara in Kodiak say the writerly things that cut straight to my heart and begin the healing work with just the right words--the ones I'm not sure I would think to say to someone in fresh grief. My nurse friend Lizzy says, "I know this is a shit hole question, but what can I do for you?" And then she vows to figure out from former colleagues who work in the NICU how I'm supposed to get on Medicaid. A woman on the plane ride home says, "Wow, look at that face of wonder," and asks if she can take a picture of Anna for her two daughters who are sitting behind us, coo-ing at her between the seats. My mom's cards come in the mail at the time of day every mother with a toddler is ready to board a plane to anywhere else.

I wish for clairvoyance now, in the rawness of knowing nothing. I want to see her when she's five, and we don't have to test her retinas anymore. I want to know if cochlear implants will work on her, if she will be able to pronounce an 'S' or an 'S-H' sound. I want to see if she has to hide her eyes because roaming has taken the place of them working.

The audiologist said the best thing to do is treat her like I normally would. This is the easiest thing ever. She is so calm in the mornings right next to me, still so small and waiting for milk and dryness. I do like I'm told, like I would anyways: talk to her, bring my face right up to hers. She has navy blue eyes, lit up from the middle in lighter gray rays, and they have a knowing to them, a fixation that I have seen in other sick kids. They are looking right at something. This morning she smiles more than ever. When I look at her to see if she is seeing me, she does not look away.

 

 

Celebration in the Midst

 

Anna's ultrasound came back clear. No infection in the brain, no signs of calcification, just a little worm-like thing (blood pumping through a coil?) that pulsated on the same kind of black-and-white screen where I saw her so many times in utero, wondering who she would be. I think the same thing looking at her now, wondering what life will hold for her--what her personality will be like, what she'll excel at; what she will need in the next few years, what I can do that I am not yet doing to get an early start on her hearing, her language development, her speech. This development all starts, I am being told, before her fourth month. Before fishing season is over.

But I know people handle all kinds of craziness in the midst of all kinds of craziness. Luke's mom tells me about everything she had to do with her sixth son, who had craniosynostosis. Hung him inside a hammock, had to work up to 20 seconds holding him upside down. She sat specialists around her kitchen table, did energy work over the phone with a man who wrote a book about measuring it through the air. How do we find the right people? How do we know who has the right answers? How do we ever know we are doing enough?

Today, on a long-awaited conference call (taken between two carseats in the back of a running car while nursing a screaming infant and promising Zaley chocolate chips if she'd give me ten minutes of quiet), the Infectious Disease doctor at Children's Hospital in Denver and Anna's pediatrician here finally agreed we can just wait till the end of fishing season--mid-September--for the rest of her tests, rather than fly to Seattle. We had been on our way to church, and in the parking lot, while trying to hear the two doctors over the incoming rain and the thumping windshield wipers and Zaley's whispered song about candy, I said a tiny little prayer of thanksgiving for the first summer in 8 years I have ever had a thought that went: "Thank you, God, for letting us stay in Sitka through this."

I feel like half a year has passed this summer. We have been in the hospital over ten times in the last two weeks. Monday, they tried seven times to draw blood, then finally resorted to extracting it from her scalp. I told the nurse I couldn't do this every week. And unlike what would have happened in a large hospital in a city, the lab manager came, profusely apologized, promised to set me up with their best blood drawer every week (Erin, whose eyelashes are so thick, a single one has to be wider than Anna's hairline veins), and sent me on my way with a $100 gift certificate to a baby and toddler store online.

I'm not sure who to spend the money on: Zaley, who speaks softly into Anna's ear every morning and asks "Is she big yet? Can she hear me yet?" or this swaddled child in whatever clothes we remembered to bring here for her, who seems like she needs nothing but milk and sleep, but who the doctors keep saying will need many things.

There is the inevitable thought: what if we hadn't tested her? What happens to these kids who don't get their twice-daily tutti fruity Valganciclovir in .86mL doses that were walked to a small plane in Juneau by a saintly pharmacist named Michael who called four times to help and speak slowly and ensure that we had gotten the meds and weren't confused by the James Bond-like amber vials bubble wrapped with worriesomely specific reconstitution instructions? Seriously, though. I wonder how much results from naming a thing and how things change when that thing either goes undiagnosed or undiscussed. How much is this medicine changing her? Should we have been doing all of this more quietly so when our friends see her or see pictures if her, they don't think of her as sick?

Probably not. Not only am I prone to over-sharing, in this small town, reticence doesn't trump rumor. It's been best for us to just tell everyone we know exactly what's going on. Everyone knows everyone, some way or another, and now people know Anna. The doctor said he knows my cell phone number and insurance policy by heart. In the frozen aisle of the grocery store today, I had to introduce Anna to three people who have been waiting to meet her.

In the empty ER (a single room with four beds), next to a cabinet labeled Fishhook Removal Supplies, I lie nursing Anna while a kind nurse dims the lights for us and tells me about last week when they had to bring in bunk beds to accommodate higher numbers than usual. Other nurses take both girls so I can pee in peace, and when I come out, Zaley is beaming, all covered in stickers. The audiologist here is from our neighborhood in Denver, was born at the same hospital as me. I love how people identify with each other based on where they were born, as though confirming the singular importance of that single second of birth, of the moment when one body comes out with everything it will always have and always be. This audiologist and I, brought into being within the same walls, brought later to this same island. Both of us listening yesterday to the same small ears with hopeful expectancy.

Anna's ears both failed that test. But we went fishing for humpies with friends when the rain stopped, and the salve was all this living beauty--one baby asleep in my arms, Zaley giggling at the boys who had stripped down to nothing and waded out waist-high into the silvery water, the salmon leaping from the surface in what must be some form of celebration.

 

Hearing Anna's Diagnosis

I am laying in bed. I have given in, I am crying, it is raining. The chickens next door have finally gone quiet after four days of racketing in the sun. It is all white outside and the drizzle on the windows sounds like the pricking of tiny metal needles. It's as though this place knows today is the day I will yield to the grieving. Three days ago: it was sunny, the baby was asleep, and Zaley and I were kicking a basketball in the yard. The phone rang. Before the word "positive" slid out of the nurse's mouth, I knew it was coming, as inevitable as the ball rolling down the gravel path and into the trickling creek. Zaley was laughing at the ball, and I was running after it, feeling--if not in my body--an inward sense of crumbling.

I had never heard of congenital CMV till I looked it up the day after they tested her and found pictures of kids in wheelchairs, eyes asymmetrical, ears pinched down by the smallest of hearing aids. Questions thick in my mouth, but too little time and too much distance between mine and the voice on the other end of the line to get any out. Later, I fill pages of a notebook, plus scattered napkins with questions that don't have answers. "Under-studied" is what doctors call this virus. "Not much literature" on it. I never expected this, none of it. Luke always says I read too much. Now, on the subject of CMV, there is not enough to read.

Now, our careful planning of clothing and diapers and toddler distractions for the trip to Alaska have unravelled into IVs, internet searches, insurance phone calls, blood running down an ankle the width of two fingers. Naps are scattershot, I nurse in the back of the car while Luke drives because I cannot stand the sound of an unnecessary cry. I have memorized the contours of the insides of Anna's mouth as her lips widen in pain in the emergency room, in the lab, at the pediatrician. I am knowing her so differently than I ever knew Zaley, knowing her as diagnosis and baby at once, and trying vigilantly to not let the first confuse the second.

In the white fog of this afternoon, Anna is sleeping next to me making little honking noises she probably cannot hear. This morning they gave us a list of tests she needs. We will have to leave Alaska for almost all of them. I don't want them to have to ultrasound her tiny brain. I don't want to be a testimonial on the website I found about parents whose kids have congenital CMV. My vanity doesn't want a child who cannot speak like other children. My pride doesn't want a child who may not do well in school.

I had imagined two daughters playing together in the yard. I pictured Anna as Zaley's co-conspirator in her tree house, at her tea parties. I know that Anna could make it through this with only hearing loss. But even so, my mind keeps going to the dark, quiet place--what if she cannot speak, climb a tree, hear a song? A mother's imagination is much more inclined towards the severe end of the spectrum than the slight when a diagnosis is almost by definition a series of unknowns. I guess picturing the worst is my way of preparation, of premature (and illusory) steadying. "Late onset" has taken on a sinister tone every time I see or say it. She might be fine, she will be fine, part of me says. But the internet is very good at refuting both our good sense and our hope.

Luke's aunt whose son is undergoing his hundredth of surgeries says to "guard my imagination." I picture a gate when she says this, the sound of it locking down. Inside the gate is a tea party and two girls. I am not allowed to imagine more. They have cups raised to their mouths. One girl is smaller than the other. I am not close enough to see the wires of cochlear implants or listen to the sound of their voices. When I'm being good, I do not try to rattle the gate or peer in.

Friends offer help, my mom feeds her bottles which she drinks vigorously. I keep a tally of the ways her health must certainly outweigh the three letters of the virus stamped on her charts now, forever. Her hearing will be tested for the rest of her life, lest it begin to slip. I go to the rosary this morning and a friend says Anna is the angel they have been praying for. I feel selfish thinking about her health so often, this healthy-seeming baby who may be just fine, just not according to my idea of fine.

I want her to hear like Zaley did during these newborn days of little songs, my voice for Anna gone high again with love. I realize a diagnosis raises your awareness, antennae, expectations, makes every tiny movement of the eyes a harkening back to the shuddering eyelids of your firstborn, none of which you can really remember, but you could swear you do remember, and that these sisters are made of exactly the same stuff, surely there is nothing wrong, there just couldn't be, because it wouldn't be fair.

I know though, this isn't about fair. It's about the way life changes, the way a body fights, the way a mother fights (mostly with insurance companies). It's about accepting what I didn't want, which I am not good at. It's about fitting our lives into Alaska, complications and all, even if this would be easier at home. I am finally reading Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, and he writes of his nomadic childhood: "Every new development came to me as a reasonable and worthy change...people came into our lives and went out of our lives. Things were always changing. To me, it seemed as natural as the variations of the weather and the seasons.

I accepted it all."

The Thief of Joy

Despite what it looks like, I have been writing. Little things here and there. A poem, a sentence, 1,000 words, a revision, a post-it, a half-essay, an email, a note to self in the side of some book. People always ask if I’m getting any writing done. The answer is yes and no. I’m writing. But I’m not getting it done. This could apply to so many things about right now: I’m doing, but not done-ing. And I’m assuming, at one point, to do meant to finish, if to be done comes from the same root as to do.

 

This completion part of my life seemed to stop when I had a child. Process has become so much more actual than a finished product, maybe because now that I have Zaley, I see that once you think you have a product (a child who sleeps, who eats well, who snuggles, who [fill-in-the-blank]’s) that product changes and you are employing all assets to get back on a track that you know, despite your best efforts at stabilization, will always be changing. It’s not so much that process trumps product, but that product is elusive, uncontrollable. The only way to live is to figure out how, not where.

 

A lesson, in Alaska, I am definitely still learning.

 

There has been heavy rain three days this week, which makes me tell Luke things like “your career has ruined my life.” Zaley has learned to say outside ("ahh-sad"…fittingly, on days like today) even when it will soak her and she will have no fun. “No fun,” I say, when the rain is coming off the roof and off the big lettuce leaves and off the edges of the car doors when I open them, and yet, I am wrong: she does has fun. She swings in the rain, squeals in the rain, and there is no end to her delight in a playground puddle and her pair of tiny Xtra Tuffs. I think one of the huge benefits of raising her here in the summertime is that she won’t have the other summer of down south to compare to this. As my friend Lisa said to me, quoting Teddy Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I realize, while watching Z, that getting things done might be that same kind of thief. Up here, at least, those joy-robbers have got nothing on us.

The Future House, Hopefully Un-Plain

This is my favorite time of year and the hardest time of year. I’m back in Colorado and waiting for Luke to come home. Zaley started sleeping through the night last week, which makes me feel a little less crazy than usual. But there’s still the waiting—for the renters to move out, for the bronze of September, for the end of fishing season, for Zaley to walk, for the newness of sleep to catch up on the deprivation of it—and waiting for anything makes me feel a little wobbly, like I’m leaning forwards some days and backwards other days, bracing myself for the unreadable wind that will blow me into the what-next. When you admit to having a tough time, people use the phrase “day by day” as consolation, but for me, that furthers the dread. I know I have a comparatively easy life to most of the world’s population, but when has day-to-day ever been easy for most of us? Or at least for most of us women?

I started rereading Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping tonight by the light of a paper lantern removed from my childhood bedroom and re-hung on my parents’ back porch where it still smells of grill from earlier bratwursts and the crickets are so constant I forget to listen to them until I remind myself, these are the sounds that I miss in Alaska, and that there are people who would promote gratitude in moments like this. But I rarely trust gratitude. So I was half-hearing the crickets and feeling both at-home in their sound and nostalgic (another untrustworthy sentiment, brought on most often by lotions from my past and Coldplay), and comparing myself to Robinson’s people, which might be the reason I write nonfiction (narcissism) and here, she describes the faith of the grandmother:

“She conceived of a life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one’s destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting.”

And I was thinking, man, I have never conceived of life as an easy enough road with a concrete destination at its end. I conceive of life as right now, and the right now is either good or bad, and there is no measuring the distance of the future, it’s just there, vaporous and potential, as many thousands of miles away as Luke is now, and I couldn’t tell you if that’s 1,000 or 7,000 miles, such are my faculties of calculating the mileage of past or future, physical or metaphorical.

Point being, sometimes I think I find it difficult to live this life, always waiting for the next transition, because I do not have this vision of the future in my head of a plain house, with respectable people, and a gathering of all my lost things. Besides the fact that MR's version of heaven sounds gnawingly boring, it’s also disturbingly foreign to me to see my life as a path moving towards a place. If I’m on a path, is that place decided already? Or, maybe more terrifying: am I forging my own path, like the lines of lawn-mowing (tough decision, there: diagonals or right angles), and how do I know which design will best hold my values, hopes, happiness-procuring skill set?

Getting to the point...I think...which is: are Luke and I living in the right place, in the possession of the right jobs, all in the interest of our child(ren, eventually), and will we get to place where we redeem all of the lost things? It is a nice thought, that what we have lost is waiting for us. But to want to have faith is almost further from having it, it seems, than being ignorant of it. Sometimes it feels like the ignorant make more discoveries than the constantly hoping.

It would be nice to operate on the fuel of the future. Sure, I love to plan things—my next home, job, vacation—but I cannot feel the way they will feel. I am not good at escaping the dread of Sunday if it’s Sunday or the expectation of Thursday if it’s Thursday. Luke keeps saying, “I’ll be home soon and I’ll make this all worth it,” and I know this, and I know that single moms have it way harder than me, but that does not diminish the fact that it is Sunday and Zaley and I had a hard day and I wanted to swim laps and she wanted to take good naps and we did neither.

I cannot think of Thursday today. I can only think of right now, wine glass one inch away from empty, crickets whirring, baby thank God sleeping, wondering how long we trace this shifting pattern of working and waiting. And, also, questioning how we measure the costs and benefits of the life we have already chosen.

A Changing Sort of Happiness

I've been changing my mind this summer. And I love when my mind changes because it usually means something's happening, even if it doesn't feel like anything different has occurred. It means that monotony doesn't win. Maybe it's the sun or maybe it's being a mom, but Sitka has more warmth this year than it ever has for me. I wake up, and I know what I'm doing. That might sound overly simple, but it's true; so many other years here, I'd wake up and think, what am I going to do all day? There was always the temptation of t.v. or too much coffee. There was always the buoy of loneliness bobbing on the surface of my consciousness, reminding me that all of my efforts at engagement were a distraction from a low-grade depression. I think this is the ongoing imbalance of the fishing life--every day the same, every day not wanting to admit to the sadness, and when a day is not the same (it's 70 out!, or, Luke has a day off!) and the sadness recedes, feeling that it might have been ridiculous to acknowledge any down-ness in the first place.

I have realized, this year, in the fluctuations of my body and my lifestyle and my redirected love as a mother, how much each day rolls a new texture over me. This texture has to do with the sky, with sleeping patterns, with a song I hear, with nothing at all. It's like I'm making more of an effort than ever to pin down how to live the best life since I'm living it in front of someone every hour. How funny that even though we try to control every minute of our lives, and often succeed, we still cannot assure our own happiness. But maybe this version of happiness is off. Maybe real happiness comes in bursts, or in hindsight, and not so much in longevity. Maybe we expect too much of the word happiness, and we should take happy when we can get it.

There's a group of five or six moms and our kids, and we work out every morning, rain or shine--rain, under a vaulted tin roof shielding a lumpy basketball court; shine, on the playground, improvising pull-ups and high knees on purple and yellow playground equipment. It's one of the only times in my life I haven't dreaded exercise because commiseration makes all pain easier. I mean the pain of not sleeping and the pain of loneliness and the pain of pull-ups when your triceps have atrophied over the course of a less-than-exerting 9 months. It's a good substitute for the grueling swim practices of last summer, though I miss those, too. It seems I am always missing past summers, in some way. Maybe we have seasons of nostalgia, some stronger than others, depending on where are happiest memories live.

Up here, I am allowed the luxury of allowing Zaley to nap. At home, daytime sleep comes on the fly, between working and grandma's and wherever I'm driving to next. We are only here one more month, and I'm excited to go home, but I'll miss this summer more than I expected. It's not necessarily missing this place, but missing what it means. Walking where we need to go. Seeing the ocean and hearing it whenever we feel like it. Living as a family in one place, without traffic, without billboards, where life might be closer to that caveman era I'm always comparing in my head to the ugly convenience of the urban now.

A friend of mine up here who also has a 9 month old said that she thinks summer is the hardest time to be here. Not because of the weather, but because it's the time of year when she  grieves the loss of her own childhood the most, which she spent on a farm in Ohio. Now, though, she admits, even that childhood wouldn't be the same. The land her parents moved to has been changed by urban sprawl. Even if she lived at home, she'd be living the summer of a mother, not of a child, closer to neighbors than her own upbringing, with the desire we never had when we were children: to be them.

It's true: I believed that I would give Zaley the same sweet summers I had, participating in the greased watermelon contest at the pool or making sand birds in glass bottles in the dusty heat of the Colorado State Fair. Instead, I bundle her in two layers and we look for kings on the fish finder. I dream of hot pavement, melting popsicles. But it might be that one day, she'll dream of here--stripes of fog, shrouded strolls in Totem Park, combing through the tide pools for crabs and shells with little friends and wet dogs, off-leash and covered in kelp.

First Salmon, the Season Starts

The saws were louder today, cutting through the white noise in the back bedroom where Z sleeps on her king size bed. Luke and I have removed ourselves to the double bed in the other room. Queen Z. Whatever it takes to get that child to sleep. While the buzzing down below woke her this morning, I think she’s also getting wise to my system. When I went in the bedroom, she had snuck across the bed silently and was gnawing on my phone (the white noise device). Who knows how long she had been up, happily gumming the phone case.  

In the other bedroom, where I placed her after much protest and shoulder chewing, the industrial sounds are slightly more muffled. Behind the maroon curtains, the fifth day of sun threatens to spoil me. This has been the longest stretch of blue skies I can remember here. When it’s this nice here, I’m not sure what to do with myself. Although I probably feel that way when it’s rainy, too. Long stretches of similar weather give me amnesia. I can't quite remember what it feels like to wake up to rain. Or, my mind stops me before it remembers. Recently, on days like this when the air in the house feels bright even before I even pull back the shades, we hurry (sort of) through our post-nap morning routines, and take long walks with our friend Jake, 2, and his mom, Jenn, also a fisherman’s wife.

 

The other night, over crab cakes and martinis garnished with a speared local spot prawn, (while Spike and Luke were watching the kids) Jenn and I talked about this fine balance of spending all your time with your kids because you know it’s the most important thing, but still having that pang, that distracting call for a deeper, more individually productive life. I think of my complaints last summer, and now I think how stupid that I ever would have lamented all that free time I had to read and to write. Jenn fills herself up by constantly reaching into new pools of in-person knowledge, finding companionship in people who do things well, whether that’s a bartender or a public speaker or an old man she walks with every Monday morning.

 

Jenn hasn’t seen her husband for a month. She lives in a trailer (which is classier than you’re picturing--leather couches, fireplace, granite countertops) with one of the most beautiful views on this continent. Fishing boats and float planes cut through the two avenues of blue, while Mount Edgecumbe, the dormant volcano, overlooks with its severe-ish flattop in the distance. Her ocean-side yard is overgrown with Fisher Price toys and dandelions. She planted lettuce and mint and parsley in terracotta pots and cleaned their entire truck inside and out before her husband came home today.

 

Jenn is a woman who is always trying to be better. I remember last summer seeing a Post-It in her bathroom that said, “Who are you serving today?” I think of that line often; how even though it's a call to action, there's something about it that's alleviating. I also remember thinking, this is a woman like me, who needs Post-It notes in her bathroom to remind herself how to be here. Maybe we all do.

 

I am learning from my time with Jenn how to find comfort in abundance: of podcasts, of arm-toning exercises, of ways to love and entertain small children even when you feel like you might enjoy running through Crate and Barrel with an aluminum bat and destroying everything in sight.

 

Today was Luke’s first full day of work, meaning he got up at 4:30 and will be fishing till around 5 tonight. In some ways, it’s almost easier when he’s gone, when I am not trying to balance portraying that I’m happy here; with letting him off the hook to get done what he needs to get done; with my selfish inclination I always have during any of our free time to pin him down and make him spend it with me. Last night, we ate the king salmon we caught our first time out on the boat this season. I got seasick, and had to ask Luke to start pounding shore-wards before I blew it. Zaley didn’t made a single unhappy peep. She must have her dad’s seafaring genes. I know I'm biased, but that pink-cheeked little thing is a marvel.

 

This morning, I scrubbed fish scales off the cookie sheet and realized we have no baking supplies here. Baking bread is one of my favorite things to do in Sitka. Whole wheat bread, banana chocolate chip bread, focaccia, sea salt white sandwich bread. When you’re making bread, you can’t help but feel like you’re home. This summer, I am missing coffee (a breastfeeding child who doesn’t sleep isn’t worth the risk of caffeine) and the humble sound of the morning birds in Colorado. Here, the ravens sound like someone knocking the wind out of a jack-in-the-box. Of course, at home, if I heard a raven, I’d long for these mountains, black and painted with swaths of rabbit-white snow, and all this space to walk and breathe in the wet dirt and the spruce trees and the sea.

Alaska Again but New This Time

Zaley spent her first night in Sitka last night. Even though we hung a comforter with bears on it over the thin window shade, she woke with the white sun pouring in through the shade's edges around 4:30. Zaley greeted the day with one fist in the air. Then she ate a bowlful of Cheerios (or spread them around, just as good), on the aluminum-flecked carpet. Luke crawled around her picking up tiny glinting shards of metal till we couldn’t see anymore of them snagged in the short white fibers.  

We are living in a spacious, brightly lit two bedroom apartment with large windows facing Mount Verstovia to the right and Gavin Mountain to the left. Down below the window is a rusty maroon flatbed truck and abandoned containers from the backs of other trucks. And down below our apartment is a company called Alaska Skiff where they make and repair aluminum boats. They usually open at 7 AM. Luke told me to be careful about saying I liked our apartment last night until I heard the workday begin in the morning. I braced myself for it at 6:30 when he brought the baby back into bed with me. When I asked him how loud it really would be, knowing my husband is not one to exaggerate when he knows it will negatively affect my happiness, he said: “It’d basically be the loudest thing you could ever imagine.”

 

So, the bracing continued. Spike came over and showed the baby his huge mouth for a half an hour, much to her delight and my relief so I could brush my teeth and count how many hair products I have left here in storage over the years, each year forgetting how many I have acquired and how little I use them, while Luke was loading the comforters from last year (covered in bright blue shampoo from an unfortunate stacking mishap in the storage unit) into our washer. Improvement #1 from other summers: the washer comes accompanied by a dryer!

 

Despite my dread of coming up here this year to what the inside of a migraine headache might sound like (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever had the misfortune of watching the movie Pi—not Life of Pi, just Pi) the worst I’ve heard from the depths of the metal working down below are a couple of pipes dropping and some dull thuds. It could be that business is slow still for the season. It’s 48 degrees outside and spitting rain. More like loogey-hawking rain. A little more violent and F-you than spitting rain, but not an all out vomit of precipitation.

 

I tell Zaley “It’s SUMMERTIME” overly enthusiastically every time we go outside as I lift her fleece hood over her pointed ears. It actually does feel like summer, when we are all together up here, even though it’s so cold it makes you wonder why anyone on earth would choose to be here when it’s 80 everywhere sane people live. This morning, at Murray’s, the fish supply shop, a friend of our who moors his boat next to Luke’s pointed at Zaley and said, “You know she’s the whole reason he’s doing this up here, right?”

 

It reminds me of the priest I talked to in Spokane, who I told of my ambivalence (and often dread of this time of year) who said, “You’ve been asked to do something very generous and affirming of your husband.” I suppose affirmation has a way of keeping going, of cycling back to its giver, if that’s really what I’m doing. I would like to think of my time here as a measure of generosity. Maybe then I won’t complain as much, and I’ll like myself better.  Zaley, so far, does not seem to mind the rain. Her hands are always curious and warm.

 

Last night, we watched the movie Promised Land on the slumpy futon here (one thing I have yet to see gotten right in Sitka is the furnishing of any home we’ve lived in with an even halfway adequate couch). It’s a movie about a town that can’t decide how best to move forward—towards impending poverty or towards dependence on natural gas and greed. It’s about how much we value our homes and how these values shape the way home changes (or doesn’t).

 

I looked around the apartment, at the exposed pipework along the ceiling, at the baskets sitting on top of the cupboards from some long-ago renter, and I realized how easily our idea of home can shift. This apartment with its slanted ceilings and electric heating units and the buzzing dehumidifier—which is doing its part to mitigate the sound of a skill saw cutting through a sheet of metal downstairs—will, I know, feel like my life in only a few days. The process of familiarization goes even more quickly when you live like we do, never getting too comfortable in any one place, and always having to reorient to a new set of windows, new buttons on a dishwasher, a new key in a new confusing door.

 

We bought a crib from a woman with two little girls today, who moved here last year from Asheville. When I told her I’m from Denver, she said she could live in Colorado for the rest of her life, the weather there is so nice. She was wearing a puffy coat that went down almost to her knees. She said she’d see me around town for sure and that she has lots of girl stuff to give me from when hers were babies, which sounded like something a new friend would say. Maybe it’s having a child or maybe it’s getting older or maybe it’s just that I’ve hung around with the wrong people before that, recently, right when I meet a person, I know they’re a person I’ll want to continue to be around. I’m hoping this will help me in a town where my friend Jules says she didn’t have any friends for the first 13 summers she spent here.

 

One other thing I noticed today is that I seem to always forget how small this town is. The guy painting the inside of the house where we bought the crib ended up behind us in line at the Sea Mart an hour later. A friend we ran into at Murray’s is fixing his boat up in the shop next to our apartment. They both waved at me, making me feel that pleasure of familiarity even though we’re still in the rusty part of transitioning (after picking up moldy bathrugs realizing there was no hand soap in the bathroom; still pulling underwear out of various pockets in my suitcase and hoping I chose the clean pocket). Usually, people can’t quite place me—the girl who haunts corners in the library and the coffeeshop—but like I said, this year feels like it will be different. People already, after seeing us two places in one day, remember Zaley’s glacier blue eyes and her victorious lifted fist.

Dispatch from the Sleepless Planet

I did not breed a sleeper. Zaley turns six months old this weekend, and I haven’t written for the past six months. People at the AWP conference last weekend kept telling me not to feel bad about not having written, and I don’t, but maybe that’s the real concern. Every time I try to write, it ends up being about not sleeping and numbers of diapers and all the other stereotypical things new parents write about their babies and I would rather be thinking and not writing than writing fairly thoughtlessly about pedantic, poopy occurrences in these blurry, lovey, new baby days.  

I have been thinking about something. In Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, he writes about how when you do the same thing every day, time passes in an instant—days become months, months become years, and you look back and it has all flown past. But if you pack memories and novelty into your experience of minutes, time will unfold. This means that taking trips and going to new restaurants and having out-of-the-ordinary experiences will make a life feel longer, more lived. I am thinking this might explain why people must say the most repeated thing I’ve heard so far about parenting: “Enjoy this now! It goes so fast!” I don’t want this to go fast. I don’t want having a baby to mean that my life has turned boring.

 

Six months have, in fact, felt fast, but they’ve also stretched out beyond my comprehension of a pile of days. I feel like a planet orbiting a different track and looking back at the all the people still on the old one (the track on which planets move at a sensical and consistent pace because they are planets on which people sleep). We have not been bored. We went to Kauai and drank milk from five-dollar coconuts, we hiked up ocean-side cliffs, we hid Z under a striped umbrella on the beach and drank gin and orange juice and ginger ale, we came home and we met new neighbors, we celebrated new pregnancies, we witnessed the births of our friends' children, we snowshoed with our friends and their baby up to an old, sun-shot mine. We ate Mississippi catfish and squid spaghetti neri on my thirtieth birthday, we traveled to Boston in a snowstorm, we stayed with friends with walls of art and wooden measuring spoons and a Ukrainian grandma who calls Z "zaichik malenka" (small rabbit). We cut down the sumac tree, we stained the fence, we walked for miles, we rearranged the furniture, our days, our lives, for a crazy little foot-long addition to everything that had begun to seem normal. If I was bored, it was in the middle of the night when I was awake and she wasn’t, and I was thinking about how many people do this and how strong all those random, maybe weak-seeming people must be to be new parents because this shit is hard. Harder and better than I would have ever believed. See--even the childrearing clichés have become truer than I ever expected ("Your life will never be the same," "You'll never sleep again," "You'll worry till the day you die.")

 

I think that time must only collapse or unfold when you are looking back at it, because right now, time has no bearing besides the weeks left before I go to Alaska, and I don’t know right now if it feels like Zaley just arrived or like her growly breath has been been beside mine all my life. Luke left a week ago and he’s in Port Townsend, Washington, grinding down a deck under a shower of sparks and getting ready for weeks at sea sending black cod through an on-board guillotine, which he is proud of and which disgusts me. I, meanwhile, take photos and send the ones that look like real life to him--me tired, the baby beautiful--wishing I still learned at the rate of an infant. Eating! Walking! Language! Language!--the wildness of this when considered and witnessed.

 

Zaley started eating avocados this week. I started writing. I feel like I’m pushing the words out like she does the fruit. It runs down her chin in chunks and she purses her lips each time I reintroduce it. No! It's not good! Stop forcing it! It snowed last night and it will be 75 on Friday. The spring moves forward and the clocks just did too, and I hope I remember enough of right now for this new part of life to feel long, but not too long, for sleep to come but not so much of it that I will not have those moments to wake up in the middle of the night and do what my mom always did, but which I never understood or which I maybe even thought was sentimental, and that is just staring at those perfect clamped eyelids, criss-crossed by scratchy maroon veins, a pulse hammering its own rhythm under skim milk skin, this miracle, this miracle of sucking and (rare but exquisite) sleeping and pumping to all extremities the same blood that I saw on the ultrasound before I knew I would do such things and feel doubled over and doubled instead of just being one being.

When Worry Turns to Waiting

Luke gets home at 4:30pm today, but there’s no knowing when this baby will come. For the last few weeks, I have been holding onto my belly and saying “Stay in there, just stay in there till September” and now it is finally September. I have a lot to do today, now that I’m not on a self-imposed near-bedrest. We’ll need more vegetables so Luke can make morning smoothies. I’ll get the truck cleaned. Since the days of expensive coffees are drawing near, I should probably get myself one last one this morning while it’s cool out and the caffeine will still count. By afternoon, I’ll need a nap, a shower, a snack, I will look down at the baby and it will still be in there even after all these months of worry that today would arrive and I’d already have a baby outside of me and Luke would have to introduce himself like a stranger. I know other people do this, but it doesn’t make the anxiety any easier. A friend of mine was living in France when she had her daughter and her husband couldn’t make it from Ireland until the next day. In France, they had taught her how to touch the baby in utero so it would respond to her hands during delivery. She pushed them down the curve of her core, willing that the baby would come out fast, and she did, but it wasn’t until the next day she met her dad. I want this baby to hear Luke’s voice right away like I did because it was one of the first things I loved about him.

My friend gave birth mostly alone. I asked her if it was really lonely for her, and she paused and said, well yes, as though she hadn’t thought about it in that way before. She is a strong woman, a painter who speaks many languages and used to live in community. You can tell she is comfortable with solitude. I often wish for this gift. This morning, I am here alone, and it is soothing to have the breeze coming through the open windows (and through the hole in the backdoor Quincy tore out one night last week after he’d ransacked the trash and eaten a rotisserie chicken carcass and didn’t want to vomit in the house). The air pulls through here like it might in one of my houses in New Orleans—a straight warm shot from the front through the back.

I like this airy aloneness in the morning, but by afternoon, it will shift, and I will be looking for someone with better ideas. One of the reasons I like having a life partly separated from Luke is the excitement of days like today. It’s like someone says to me, when you wake up, today, you’re going to meet the person you’ll spend the rest of your life with. Good thing I already know who he is and he’s still the person I’d choose to meet with his leather bag and Dansko clogs in front of the airport fountain. All of today is composed of distracting details until Luke’s plane touches down with his five carry-ons and the 200 pounds of fish we will eat over the coming year.

My mom washed all the floors yesterday, put clean sheets in the dryer, helped me haul off trash. I watered the plum trees and the trumpet vine. I guess I have been trying to hold off two harvests for Luke (baby and backyard). The baby has worked out so far; the backyard, not as much. But the morning glories were triumphant this morning, their curls wound round the front porch banister and the back, and a few purple blooms tangled up and competing with the roses. Luke has seen none of this, and when I look at it, I try to remember it with his eyes, before the change of seasons and change of trimesters, before the rocking chairs on the porch and the high chair at the table and all the other baby items strewn through every room in the house, and I wonder if he’ll feel like he’s coming back to his own life this afternoon.

I stayed at my parents’ house last night, and at dawn this morning, I heard the pack of coyotes in the flood plain down the street making moans. Their sound is one of both mourning and annunciation, of change and of staying put. I heard them the morning of my 8-week ultrasound, too, when I was nervous that things wouldn’t make it this far and my belly would not turn moon-shaped under my shirt. I wasn’t sure if they were a good omen that morning, but then on the screen, the baby was already a baby and the blood swishing through its systems flared red and alive and working, so those coyotes must have been a harbinger of health, of this primal perfection that occurs during birth whether we can predict the day or the hour or the circumstances.

It is a full moon—a new moon this month—and it was hanging over the mountains like a single-object mobile this morning as I drove west. I might have missed it if I wasn’t looking carefully. It looks like a disc of shed skin or a pale fish scale that could up and blow away. I hope Luke can see it from the plane.

Dealing with Leaving

I wish I could just leave places without thinking so much about leaving them. I leave Alaska on Saturday. Today is the last day I will drive fish out to the processing plant and layer ice over our bags of yellow-eye. Today was the last time I will buy medjool dates at the health food store before I have to go in the doors with a stroller or a sling. This week is the last week of being in Sitka without a baby. I wonder if I timestamp all my "lasts" so that I will remember them. I guess it's a way of lending significance to the commonplace, but maybe that's overrated. Or at least depressing. In Jonathan Tropper's new novel, This is Where I Leave You, he puts it like this: “If you could remember every last time, you’d never stop grieving.”

Grief does accompany these biannual transitions for me. Coming to Alaska, I miss the garden before I get to DIA. Leaving Alaska, I miss the rain before I've landed in Denver. Before I leave Luke, the week is a countdown of moments I try to ziploc for later inhalation when I'm at home and I realize his texture is slipping away and our phone conversations will grow shorter and shorter, like whisps of hair on a balding head--wondering where do these small but important things go, until we see each other again.

I wonder if living in two places will make us age faster, as I've seen in so many fishermen's faces up here, or if this lifestyle doubles our experiences and that's worth more than tight, less-lined skin. It depends on what time of year you ask me about living like this. Just before I leave either place, everything gets good. There are parties. People want to see you when they realize they won't be able to come over anymore, even if they rarely came over when they could. It almost seems like the longer you stay in a place, the lonelier you become. When you are leaving, you are at your most loved.

It's the plane ride from here that is always lonely, bearing the absence-wound of Luke and wondering if I should have stayed a little longer in Alaska. When I get home, I am awkward for a few days, trying to figure out how to insert myself back into a city where the traffic is fast and my calendar is full and it seems like every one's every moment is planned. Today, I had to do work, and that was it. When I was done, I drove our fish out the road and watched the trollers coming in from the north, heavier in the back with their catch icing in their holds. They move so smoothly, coming back to town, like they are at rest and being pulled in by a giant string.

If I have strings, I must have two, which must be why the leaving is hard--I cannot sever myself from either end. When the year is segmented, so are the heart and the head.

On the Team

I started working out with the Master’s team last week. I love it. And it’s kicking my pregnant ass. I asked my doctor if swimming hard was ok at this point and he said “sure, sure,” totally unconcerned, but I can’t tell if that’s because he’s Belgian or because he’s a swimmer or because he’s retired or because he actually believes it aside from all the reasons he’s probably more laid back than your average American doctor. Before I leave the house for practice every morning, I have to eat a banana and peanut butter and an iron pill. After practice, I’m so hungry, I have about a ten minute window before I start to feel dizzy. Then I eat a huge bowl of Grape Nuts. (Why are they are called GRAPE Nuts? There's nothing grape in them). Then about an hour later, I eat something again.

Not surprisingly, the most welcoming people I’ve met in this town (outside of the fishermen) are the people on the swim team. They invited me to go catch a king salmon on a sunny day. Yes! I love invitations! But I must be more of an introvert than I think I am. I turned them down. It was uncanny sunny, the sky National-Park-photo blue, and I had a date with Sandy Beach. And a book I could finish in a few hours. Maybe I should have gone fishing, but at least now I'm feeling, for the first time here, like I'm involved. I guess you have to become a part of something to feel that you're a part of it.

The swim coach is a spritely Turkish man who calls every woman baby and used to host nights at the coffee shop where he made Turkish coffee in tiny cups with chocolate and grounds that gather like silt at the bottom. He plays showtunes from a staticy speaker at the deep end and has taught me things I’ve never thought to improve. My pinky finger on my right hand “tries to get away,” which has been a surprisingly difficult adjustment to make. Forcing that puppy to stay stuck to my ring finger made my right arm cramp for half of the first practice. My chin is too high on the breaststroke; I don't hold my kick for long enough.

It’s a wonder how these small revisions never occurred to me. It’s scary, really, to learn how much more efficient you can be when you have someone else pointing out how to do it better. It makes me feel like I should have a consultant for everything I do. Where are my other Achilles Heels, and can I find them without someone else's diagnoses?

What I can pinpoint are my own limitations. I dropped down to 50's sprints instead of 100's, and I can't do seven strokes for every breath. It’s probably better for me to start scaling back, anyways, now that I’m only 10 weeks from my due date. The coach told me this week I’d better get enough oxygen to my little girl and not push it too hard. I told him I’m not sure if it’s a girl or a boy, and he said he's sure, it's a girl in there.

We've decided on names. Now we wait.

Small Town Laps

Since I’ve been in Sitka, I’ve become even more addicted to lattes, swimming laps, and chocolate. I never liked chocolate that much before I was pregnant. Now I want it in everything. I almost put it in my peanut butter and jelly sandwich this week. Same with swimming. It's like I need it now--the weightlessness (the body weighs 10% of its on-land poundage in water), the motion that makes my emotions a little more slow and spread out (the pregnant woman can control only 10% of her emotions at any given time). As usual, and maybe even more so now that I'm pregnant, our seasonal situation needs constant explaining. Am I native? No, I'm not. Why am I going to the native hospital? They have the only OB in town. But I'm not delivering here, in Alaska? Hopefully not. What if the baby comes early? Then I hope I have no trouble nursing. Has the constant rain affected the way the baby feels in there? They say barometric pressure induces labor, but I can't tell the difference between home and here once I've been here for a while. All of these are questions with uncertain answers. This is how it is to live seasonally--on whims, on spec, on the basis of what the weather's doing and what the body feels like doing in that weather. Today, a baby blue sucker hole opened over the water and the color reminded me of a Colorado morning in the mountains. Everyone here keeps bringing up the fires at home, and that heat feels so far away, I am again unequipped with an adequate response.

I've been to the doctor a few times here, and every time, I'm amazed how different it is to be cared for in Alaska than it is in Denver--there's less rush, more warmth, and less professionalism. It's a mixture of charm and not-quite-up-to-snuff. But in ways, I like that better than the barrage of technology and decisions that accompany care in an updated urban hospital. My nurse tech here, Kim, has a limp and tight white curls like bedsprings and I liked her immediately when I met her a few weeks ago. I asked her how much fish I could eat while I’m in town. She said fish in the Southeast have less mercury than most places. “And halibut—well, eat the chickens,” she said, meaning the small ones, “Not the barn doors.” Luke was down at the boat getting ready for another four months at our first appointment, while I’m getting ready for the next less-than-three. My biggest fear right now is not to go through labor, but to go through labor without him.

My doctor here is an older Belgian man, retired, and also a swimmer. He gave me a riddle that I can’t remember, but I solved it, figuring out he speaks French and German but isn’t either, and he said his next clue would have been “waffles.” I have my next ultrasound on Thursday of this week, but I almost don't want to have it. It seems like most of the time, I am treading between joy and anxiety and wondering why everyone is so insistent that they know what's going on in this great big mystery of childbirth. A friend at home suggested I put on an ipod and rock out during the ultrasound to make sure they don't blow the gender without meaning to. But even that involves using technology to escape the spontaneity of reality. I found out recently, with relief, that our doctor at home doesn't do 3-D ultrasounds so I don't have the option of seeing my child's face before it sees mine.

Early this morning, I went to swim laps at the pool I never swam in till this summer, thinking it would be as dingy as the other one. But it turns out the water goes all the way to the edge, which I love, and the ceilings are high and white and almost give the illusion that you’re swimming outside. An older woman next to me with nice muscles and lighter skin around her eyes than the rest of her face asked if I’m a coast guard’s wife, which is the third time I’ve been asked that this week. I guess it’s better to be noticed for being new than it is to not be noticed.

Her name is Ann. She said a lot of the young women who come to the pool here are coast guard's wives, but it seems like I've only met locals in the water. Ann said she’s not a coast guard’s wife, either, "just old." She looks like she's 60, but she's 75 and has swum almost every day of her life. She’s only here for the summer, too, while her husband, who's retired, does what he loves to do while the real doctor's out of town. Is he an OB? I asked. Yes. Turns out, he’s mine. Ann and her husband met on the swim team in Belgium. She swam through all of her pregnancies. And with her fourth child, she swam the morning she delivered.

I hope I can do the same. This morning, the coach for the master's swim team invited me to join them for their workouts. I'll start tomorrow. I need a new suit. I can feel the baby's elbow wedged between my ribs and my skin, and the way it rolls is like a hurt and a hello. The sucker hole outside has spread into strips of blue above where Luke is pulling his parents and little brothers over king salmon and halibut in his silver boat.