Tagged Ties

My Brother, the Hospice Graduate


Credit Giselle Potter

When I was a college sophomore living in a sorority house at the University of California at Santa Barbara, my parents called to tell me that my baby brother, Gavin, was dying. He had been given a diagnosis of a very rare disease, Aicardi–Goutieres Syndrome.

The doctors immediately placed him in hospice care.

He was 4 months old.

I hung up the phone and rode my red beach cruiser to class, trying to pretend that it was like any other day. I sat through Spanish class, but stared off into the distance, numb to what was happening. When I emerged, the sun seemed too bright. People were laughing, talking on their phones, surfing waves at sunset and meeting up with dates at coffee shops.

I thought back to Gavin’s birth in June. He looked like the rest of the babies in our family, with a thick pad of blond hair. A happy baby. Then at 6 weeks old he started having fevers of 104. They turned into weeklong affairs. And no one knew why.

My parents and Gavin’s doctors tried, for the next few months, to solve a seemingly unsolvable case. We just wanted to know what was wrong. But when we finally had the right diagnosis, it was awful. His disease had triggered brain calcifications, causing permanent brain damage. He was going to lose his motor skills and be unable to eat, so he would eventually die, we were told.

At first, I wanted to avoid dealing with the situation. The playground feeling of my oceanfront college campus was in stark contrast to the atmosphere at home, where my devastated family waited, heartbroken. My impulse was to stay away. I didn’t want to be crushed by the grief that was promised to me.

But I also knew I couldn’t live with myself if I never tried to face it. So I dropped out of college and spent every day with him and the rest of my family, including my sisters, who were 9 and 14 at the time.

Gavin’s disease showed up like Louisiana rainstorms — quick, strong and mean. Sometimes he was the handsome baby who smiled at me with his innocent blue eyes. Then, it was as if he was gone. Possessed. His fevers were now paired with jitters and vomiting. Gavin would shriek uncontrollably, turn a pasty gray and roll his eyes in different directions.

Mom called these visits from the Monster.

The hospice nurses stopped by every week to check Gavin’s temperature and weigh him. There was no handbook on learning to love your dying baby brother, but eventually, I did. Instead of hiding from the Monster — when his body shook, his lips turned jelly purple, and drool spilled from his mouth — I looked at him and said: You are worth it.

With his impending death sentence, Gavin was baptized in an oversize white gown. Mom wanted his soul to be protected.

After the ceremony, we played a slideshow of his short life. I saw a picture of me holding him and thought to myself, how could I not love you? We all loved him, the best way we knew how.

My parents did not give up on him, even though he was on hospice. A major change came when a friend of my mom’s who was an occupational therapist suggested the Haberman bottle, a baby bottle with an elongated nipple for children with special needs. Part of the reason Gavin was in hospice care was that he could no longer breast-feed and it was hard to get him nutrients. But he took pumped breast milk through that bottle.

And somehow his demise never came.

On Gavin’s first birthday he was taken off hospice: a hospice graduate.

The journey shifted. Instead of waiting for a baby to die, we were learning to love and live with a handicapped boy.

Now, Gavin is 9 years old. He is a quadriplegic; he cannot walk, talk or eat solid foods, but he is a survivor. He is joy.

That doesn’t mean his life is easy – for him or for the rest of the family.

Every morning one of my parents carries him downstairs around 7 a.m. They sit him in an egg-shape chair in front of the TV to watch cartoons, usually “SpongeBob” (he’s graduated from “Sesame Street”). His breakfast usually involves bran cereal for digestion, a fried egg, a couple of blueberries, maybe a waffle, sometimes crispy pork sausage. All of that is put into a coffee cup with whole milk and butter, and puréed with an immersion blender.

Gavin’s three epilepsy medications get pulled into plastic syringes. Then the hero of the morning carries a tray, with a handful of towels and a water cup, along with the delicious breakfast surprise and medicine into the TV room, and the real work begins.

Feeding Gavin can take up to an hour. And it can be messy. Sometimes he spits up his food, other times he is just not feeling well and he lets it roll down his chin, onto his neck.

Gavin’s life includes physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. But it also includes floating in the pool in a life vest, going to school and even gleefully crossing the finish line in a marathon – with my husband pushing him in a stroller.

Instead of dismantling our family, he has brought us closer together. We treasure Gavin’s small accomplishments, whether that is running down the driveway in his special gait-training walker or using an eye-gaze communication device or nodding to let us know that he wants to use the bathroom, play with his sister or bounce on the trampoline.

We don’t know what his future looks like. But we don’t know what the future looks like for any of us. The mystery of his life is no different from any of ours.

Courtney Lund is working on a memoir about her brother.


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Why I Decided to Stop Writing About My Children


Credit Giselle Potter

There is a hunger in our culture for true stories from the parenting trenches where life is lived mud-flecked and raw. I’ve written extensively, intimately, damningly, about my children for seven years without once thinking about it from the point of view of their feelings and their privacy. A few months ago I stopped.

I wish I could say that I deeply reflected on the ethics of writing about my children and heroically pivoted myself out of a concern for my character, but here’s what really happened: My father called.

He called me after reading a blog post I had written about my son’s first signs of puberty. It seems an obvious line-crossing that I wrote about such an intimate detail, but I did. At the time I didn’t pause for a split second; I was more than willing to go there. I had been writing and reading extensively about parenting tweens. I knew people might be mildly shocked, but mostly interested.

We live in a break-the-internet arms race of oversharing. And adolescent sexuality is an emergent, fascinating topic, especially for parents who are figuring out how to address difficult questions with their children. For example: I ate up Peggy Orenstein’s marvelous new book, “Girls & Sex,” with a spoon, shocked and upset the whole way through.

But when my dad said, “Elizabeth, are you pausing to deeply consider what you’re writing about?” I wanted to get defensive. I said, “Uh. I kinda perceive myself as a confessional poet, Dad,” I said, “Heir to Plath, Sexton and Sharon Olds. And the photographer Sally Mann, if I’m honest, Dad.”

But he said, “I’m not talking about art. I’m talking about my grandson.”

He was a lion for his grandson. I listened. I heard him. His words went to my heart, my maternal heart, which is in equal parts steel and cornmeal mush. I thanked him honestly for his feedback, got off the phone, and cried into my daughter’s stuffed animals, which are very soft and plush and forgiving.

So began my wrestling with my relationship with the Nora Ephron line, “Everything is copy.” Until now it has been my battle cry and artistic excuse for printing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted with very blinkered vision. Maybe, in fact, not everything is copy. Maybe it’s people’s lives, and we should be considerate and loving and respectful of their privacy. It’s a new point of view for me in our clickbait culture of confessionalism and parading nakedness.

When I started blogging, my kids were babes in arms, hardly people; they were creatures, mewling, milk-drunk, with eyes so deeply slate they were alien-denim blue.

I used the blog as a live journal to get me through postpartum depression and “the lost years” for me that were “the magic years” for them, when I felt overwhelmed by washing out sippy cups, lurking at the edges of the mommy wars, and co-sleeping and diapering.

Writing made the joys and the hardship of parenting into stories. Stories I could tell. Stories that I considered as one considers a diorama.

I was always the narrator, the main character, even if I was also the storm-tossed heroine, the hot mess in mom jeans who couldn’t get the overalls on her 2-year-old. Or figure out fourth-grade fractions homework. I was working out my issues. My kids were always satellites to the big round-faced moon of me.

I’ve shamed their eating habits in chat rooms. I have Facebooked the things they’ve said. I have skewered them horribly, but also with great interest and affection, as a collector might do to some butterflies.

I think Sally Mann’s photographs of her kids are luminous and transcendent, while others accuse her of child pornography. The lines between art and privacy are blurry. You have to consider what you are doing carefully. And previously I wasn’t.

Sally Mann and I don’t belong in the same sentence. I’ve been a Baltimore mommy-blogger writing about things like head lice. She is a world-class artist. But she and I have done the same thing: publicly disrobed our children.

My children didn’t give me their permission to tell their stories, or strike poses in a waterfall, naked, gorgeous as all get out, and human, with lives ahead of them, as Sally Mann posed hers. And now that I see that, I don’t want to mar my children’s glory and subvert their beginnings for my so-called art.

If I’m going to continue writing, I realize I need to find some new material, and for that I’m going to have to look more deeply within myself or entirely outside. For inspiration I have turned to writing about nature. The environment. The sea. Things that are bigger than me. I’ve been reading John Muir. I’ve been reading “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Nature is for all to see. Nurture is between me and my kids, off the record.

Elizabeth Bastos lives in Baltimore and writes about urban nature. Follow her at thenaturehood.blogspot.com and on Twitter @elizabethbastos.

Learning to Scale Peaks From My Underprotective Mother


Credit Giselle Potter

I grew up hearing stories of my mom’s grad school days at M.I.T. in the early ‘90s: pulling all-nighters in the Fishbowl, a cluster of computers off of the Infinite Corridor; writing messages to other Project Athena users on black screens with green text; sneaking through tunnels at night. Later, after dropping out, she gave birth to me.

And after that, she climbed mountains in the Himalayas: Everest and K2, Gasherbrum II and Kanchenjunga. As the only child of a single mother, I stayed in Connecticut with my grandparents during her journeys, swinging on the swing set in their backyard, waiting for her to come home.

I missed my mom desperately and feared for her safety — so much so that she nicknamed me Mrs. Potts, after the motherly teapot in “Beauty and the Beast.”

But death was a real possibility in the Himalayas. I understood that much. Luckily, my mom always came back, her fleece smelling like countries I might never see.

For my 18th birthday in 2010, my mom drove from Connecticut to Boston to visit me at Harvard. She parked beside my dorm at 9:30 p.m. and texted: Come outside.

I met her at her car. We drove across Cambridge in her silver Subaru, not talking much. She parked at M.I.T. near the Small Dome, a structure that sits atop 10 Ionic columns. From the car, the dome looked like the surface of the moon.

“Leave your ID and wallet in the car,” Mom said.


“Just do it.”

We slipped through one of the building’s open doors. She held my hand as we snuck upstairs, past corridors of professors’ offices and classrooms with empty chairs. The few students we passed didn’t recognize us as trespassers.

We found our way to the door she was looking for. The crash-bar read: “Emergency exit. Alarm will sound.”

Mom took out her car key and gingerly depressed the latch. She procured a piece of duct tape from her pocket and covered the latch so that the door wouldn’t lock. The alarm didn’t sound. Without another look back, she stepped onto the roof and started walking.

I hesitated in the doorway, one leg out and one leg in. “Mom,” I called out. “I’m scared.”

I was not then (nor am I now) drawn to climbing. For years I had a deep fear of mountains –– they represented an uncontrollable force, the thing that took my mother away from me when I felt like I needed her the most. But as early as elementary school, I understood that my mother’s way of healing was to seek solace in ascents and summits.

Many American parents would probably say their primary responsibility is to keep their children safe, to teach them to respect authority and stay out of trouble. These were not my mother’s goals.

She turned around to smile and reassure me. “You’re going to love it.”

I followed her. Late September wind gathered along the sides of the buildings, blowing my hair up and out, wrapping stray curls around my face. The late-night pedestrians under the streetlights looked like Lego figures.

We trekked across a long section of the roof, turned, and stared up at the dome. The summit. Mom laced her fingers together and went down on one knee to give me a boost. I took my fingers out of my pockets and breathed on them, trying to summon some warmth. I stepped onto her hands.

The first time we tried, I stepped without confidence and stumbled. The second time, my hands made contact with the lip. I did a half-pull-up and wriggled my torso onto the dome. I rolled over, turned around, and called down to Mom: “You coming?”

“No. You go. I used to have the upper body strength to do this alone. Not now.”

“You sure?”

“Go enjoy the view.”

I kept climbing, trying to get handholds and footholds on the surface of the dome.

I stopped just before the window above the atrium of the building, not wanting to feel vertigo, not wanting to test how thick the glass was.

From up that high, I could see the Charles River unfurled like a wing. Stray lights reflected on its surface. The domed skyscraper on Huntington Avenue stood across the river, as regal as a Himalayan mountain –– or what I imagine one looks like. I’ve only seen pictures. The moon was full, another gray dome in the sky.

I scrambled back down. We walked in silence across the roof, through the door (Mom removed the piece of tape with her fingernails), down the stairs, across the lawn, and into the silver Subaru. Only there did we collapse into laughter, relief. We’d had our adventure. No parking tickets waited on the windshield.

A year ago I rode my bicycle solo along the length of New Zealand. In the South Island, I cycled to the base of Aoraki Mount Cook, the mountain where Sir Edmund Hillary’s mountaineering career began. It was there I realized that my mother’s example has allowed me to be a female adventurer of a different sort.

I didn’t become a mountain climber, but for the last two years I have been traveling mostly by bicycle in the United States, Fiji, Tuvalu, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I’m halfway through a project to collect 1,001 stories about water and climate change from people I meet.

Now I can see that my mom’s birthday gift to me was more valuable than the kind that comes wrapped in paper and ribbons, even though the only tangible thing she brought was a strip of duct tape.

Devi Lockwood is a poet who will be attending the United Nations COP22 climate talks in Morocco in November as a youth delegate for SustainUS.


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My Autistic Son’s Lesson: No One Is Broken


Credit Giselle Potter

My youngest son, Sawyer, used to spend far more time relating to his imagination than he did to the world around him. He would run back and forth humming, flapping his hands and thumping on his chest. By the time he was in first grade, attempts to draw him out of his pretend world to join his classmates or do some class work led to explosions and timeouts. At 7 he was given a diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum.

That was when my wife, Jen, learned about the practice called joining. The idea behind it, which she discovered in Barry Neil Kaufman’s book “Son-Rise,” is brilliant in its simplicity. We wanted Sawyer to be with us. We did not want him to live in this bubble of his own creation. And so, instead of telling him to stop pretending and join us, we started pretending and joined him. The first time Jen joined him, the first time she ran beside him humming and thumping her chest, he stopped running, stopped thumping, stopped humming and, without a single word from us, turned to her and said, “What are you doing?”

“Learning what it’s like to be you.”

We took turns joining him every day, and a week later we got an email from his special education teacher telling us to keep doing whatever we were doing. He’d gone from five timeouts a day to one in a week.

The classroom was the same, the work was the same – all that was different was that we had found a way to say to him in a language he could understand, “You’re not wrong.” Emboldened by our success, we set about becoming more fluent in this language. For the next couple of years we taught ourselves to join him constantly. This meant that whatever we were doing had to stop whenever we heard him running back and forth and humming. But we could not join him simply to get him to stop running and thumping and humming. We had to join him without any judgment or impatience.

That was the trickiest part. The desire to fix him was great. I had come to believe that there were broken people in need of fixing. Sometimes, I looked like one of those people. I was a 40-year-old unpublished writer working as a waiter. My life reeked of failure. Many days I looked in the mirror and asked, “What is wrong with me?”

The only way to believe that Sawyer wasn’t broken was if no one was broken – not anyone anywhere ever.

I was used to seeing good people and bad people, smart people and stupid people, talented people and untalented people. I had to break that habit. I did this through a trick of perception. If someone was flapping and humming, or insulting you or saying something cruel about a whole group of people, I taught myself to pay attention to the person beneath the behavior, to the one who was scared or confused, who felt unlucky or undeserving or inadequate.

I did this, ostensibly, so that I could be Sawyer’s dad and help him flourish in the world. And by and by he began emerging from his bubble, began talking about wanting friends, began talking about his future. Now, 10 years later, at the end of our classes (we home-school him) every day he asks, “Dad, can we hang out today?” Had this been all that had come of joining Sawyer and learning to see a world without broken people, I suppose it would have been enough.

But 10 years later the writer who couldn’t get published, who felt like failure, now finds himself talking to groups and even crowds of people, telling them, in so many words, “Everything is O.K. even though it looks like everything is not O.K.!” I would never have talked to these people, nor published the essays that inspired these talks, if Jen and I had not joined Sawyer.

Yet the moment I really understood the power of joining came long before any of this. I was having an argument with my wife. I consider ours a good relationship, by which I mean it is the relationship against which I measure all my other relationships. But on this evening we were in the thick of a particularly nasty back and forth. It started small, as they all do. We each felt wronged by the other. The more we talked, the more we tried to “clear things up,” the worse it got. We raised our voices though we live in a small house and our boys would hear us. As the argument grew more heated, as Jen’s voice grew louder and sharper, she shifted before my eyes. I wasn’t seeing my best friend and lover anymore; I was seeing an enemy. Her words, it seemed to me from the opposite end of the couch, were daggers aimed squarely at my worthiness. I had to defend myself.

It was just as I was preparing my next attack that I remembered Sawyer and our practice. I took a beat, and even though Jen still looked like an enemy, even though she still sounded like an enemy, and even though I had learned over the years to protect myself against enemies, I asked myself this question: “What if she’s not your enemy? What if she still loves you? Then what are you looking at?”

This is often how I’d practice with Sawyer or myself or strangers on the street. If any of us looked broken, I’d ask, “But what if no one is broken? Then what are you seeing?” So that’s what I did with Jen. And as I asked this question, she changed again. Now I saw a woman who was as upset as I was, who wanted to be in agreement as badly as I did, who didn’t understand why we couldn’t reach an agreement. In that instant my war was over. Soon, the argument was over as well. As always, it had just been a misunderstanding. We still loved each other after all.

Joining Sawyer taught me that unconditional love is not some point on the map. It is a path that leads me where I want to go – to the world I want to live in, rather than the one I’m seeing.

William Kenower is a writer and the editor of Author magazine.


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The Secret Superpower of a Shared-Custody Kid


Credit Giselle Potter

At 5:25 p.m., my mother pulled into our driveway. I saw my dad’s Cadillac waiting for us and glanced at Mom, whose broad smile instantly flattened. At 10 years old, I could already read her thoughts: Pickup time was 5:30, and she wasn’t willing to suffer accusations of tardiness, just because he was Mr. Punctuality.

Six-foot-five with jet-black hair, my father cut an intimidating figure, even if I knew that he liked nothing more than to turn his long arms and legs into props as he made up the words to songs and did goofy dances. Now, he was all business, and gestured at his watch angrily.

“I still have five minutes,” my mother said. She was generally vivacious, but when feeling threatened, she could transform herself into an ice queen.

“What’s the matter with you? Daylight saving time,” my father said. He’d been waiting an hour. She had made this mistake at least once before.

The color drained from my mother’s face as indignation gave way to embarrassment. Now, in the era of digital clocks that spring forward and fall back automatically, and cellphones that make it simple to communicate, it’s easy to forget that something as ordinary as daylight saving time could once have been so disruptive. But it was 1991, and ever since my parents got divorced, the day after we changed the clocks always felt slippery. My dad prided himself on his superior organizational skills while my mother lived in a house littered with scribbled notes-to-self to compensate for her bad memory.

That evening, I rushed out of one car and into the other. I didn’t need an overnight bag; my parents had done what they could to avoid a situation where I’d be packing and unpacking twice a week, and I had two rooms outfitted with essentials and beyond — two pairs of pink-framed glasses, two closets full of clothing, two favorite stuffed animals. Dad backed out of the driveway quickly, and said very little until we made it past the traffic light at the end of the block.

“Your mother,” he started, his lip twitching. I waited while he paused.

He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. Then, his jaw softened. “How long do you think she would have gone until she figured it out?”

I laughed, utterly relieved. “At least another day.”

I would learn, eventually, that all families have rules that – when violated – threaten to dismantle the whole arrangement. At the time, however, I thought I was the only kid in the world with two houses and a handwritten schedule in either kitchen; at the start of every month, my father listed the nights I would spend with him and then presented my mother with a copy. His diligence was a safeguard against situations just like this one, when he rang the doorbell to an empty house and then let the frustration and resentment wash over him.

My mom never made that mistake again. Daylight saving became another scribble on a Post-it note, another thing she was careful not to let her busy mind forget. And my dad let it go, for the most part – her blunder became a private joke for us, shorthand for the way such a smart, put-together woman could also be so ditzy.

My parents broke up when I was 5 years old, which means memories of life before shared custody are available to me, but limited. They set the terms of their divorce under the guidance of their lawyers, and I – as many young kids do — adapted and accepted the new parameters of my childhood.

But as I tipped into my teenage years, switching back and forth became more difficult. There were, of course, small aggravations, like when I accidentally left something I wanted at the other house. Yet that didn’t account for the new anxiety I felt at those twice-weekly hand-offs.

My two homes could not have been more different. By that time my parents had both happily remarried and they’d created new lives: my mom went back to school and our house was quiet, our conversations intellectual. My dad had two more little girls, and every time I stepped through the front door, it felt like I’d joined the circus. Mom stressed the importance of academic achievement; Dad pouted when, in our limited time together, I shut my door to do my homework. My mother thought manners were a sign of good breeding, and she frequently appended a “please” to the end of my requests. When I asked my father for “a glass of orange juice, please,” he ribbed me for behaving like a guest in my own kitchen.

My father’s car had become a portal between two parallel worlds. Somewhere along the way, every day had started feeling like the Sunday after daylight saving time. I straddled two time zones, both familiar, but conspicuous.

Now that I am an adult, with a husband and young son, I sometimes let myself feel sorry for the girl who frequently woke up in the morning not knowing where she was. And the Sunday morning after the clocks change still makes me uncomfortable.

But I know that not all children of divorce are lucky enough to have two parents who work so hard to stay connected. I’ve also come to appreciate the ways my childhood shaped me. Growing up across two households with two distinct sets of customs has made me observant and adaptive: I’m bilingual, in a sense.

That anxiety that plagued me as a teenager is gone, replaced with confidence in my fluency in both families. And like children who actually learn two languages from birth, that innate ability to switch back and forth serves me well, especially when I find myself in unfamiliar settings. It’s not just me: I often admire the way my husband, another shared-custody kid, moves so easily through new environments. He’s good at parties, but he’s also the kind of person who lands in a city for the first time and, within 24 hours, gets asked for directions.

The expected legacy of a joint custody childhood is a craving for stability, which my husband and I share. The unexpected one is real agility: a knack for adapting, switching gears, understanding the language of families, blending in.

We’ve learned that a family needs to be strong, yet flexible. Just as we can’t control the changing of the season or the clocks, we have to accommodate hiccups in the rhythms of our lives.

Rachelle Bergstein is the author of “Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us” and “Brilliance and Fire: A Biography of Diamonds.”


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Playing Catch With Strangers


Credit Giselle Potter

I’m shooting hoops at the playground in the schoolyard around the corner from where I live in Forest Hills, Queens, when I see a young mother pitching a baseball to her son. He’s probably about 8 years old.

She lobs the ball toward him, but it goes nowhere near the strike zone. The boy frowns with serious purpose and swings wildly, missing. Again and again she pitches off-target and again and again he strikes out.

I amble over to the mother, as nonchalantly as I know how, to offer my services as a relief pitcher.
“Yes,” she says, radiating gratitude. “Please.”

My father played catch with me only once as far as I can remember. We went out on our front lawn and tossed a baseball back and forth, each throw smacking loudly into our mitts. That summer afternoon, I felt about as happy as I’d ever felt. That’s just how it goes when you’re 8 years old and playing catch with your dad.

But then my father got busy with work, too busy to play catch with me anymore, always leaving early in the morning and returning late at night, and that turned out to be that. He had to do what he had to do. He was also born deaf, creating an extra barrier between us, and tended to keep to himself.

I promised myself everything would go differently with my own son and daughter. We tried pretty much every major sport together – baseball, basketball, tennis, soccer, you name it. We flung around Frisbees. We raced in sprints. We saw who could swim underwater the longest. It went great.

But then our kids turned into teenagers and young adults. They moved on to more independent physical pursuits – push-ups and jogging and such. And once again, that turned out to be that.

Play has always meant the world to me, even as a so-called adult. So now, if I spot a kid who evidently needs to play, I am happy to oblige.

Once, my wife, son, daughter and I went to a Thanksgiving dinner our friends held in our neighborhood. Halfway through the feast, the oldest son of our hosts, in high school at the time, looked as if he had mingled quite enough with all the grown-ups at the table. As it happened, so had I.

Knowing him to be a serious athlete, I invited him to have a pass with a football in the street in front of the house. Out we went into the November night, shrugging on our overcoats to shield us from the chill. We flipped passes to each other for who knows how long.

“Better than turkey,” the teenager later told me. “Much better.”

Clearly, I suffer from an acute case of Peter Pan Syndrome. But just as clearly, I’m ever-ready to answer my calling as a Pied Piper of play.

So it went last August when my wife and daughter and I took our annual vacation in Mystic, Conn. One afternoon, as we sunned ourselves by the pool at the motel, a boy about 10 years old left the lounge chair next to his mother and slid into the water. Soon, clearly bored, he started to toss a tennis ball in the air to himself. I joined him in the pool and held up my hand to signal for him to toss me the ball.

We played catch for the next half-hour, throwing the ball back and forth, the kid smiling the whole time. It perfectly fit my lifelong definition of fun – an activity spontaneous, absorbing even therapeutic.

Afterward, I said to my wife, “I swear, I could go through my whole life playing catch with strangers.”

“Yes,” she said, “I believe you could.”

A short time later, I realized that in a sense I already do. Playing catch, after all, is a dialogue, a conversation, a connection made. Every school had meant new classmates and new teachers, every job new colleagues and clients, every backyard barbeque new friends and acquaintances, every neighborhood new tenants and merchants, and every basketball court new teammates and opponents. I’d always, after a fashion, played catch with strangers.

Playing catch with kids is a job I still covet, even though I’m now eligible for Social Security. Play is a language children speak fluently.

Every time I engage in a sport with kids, I’m in effect re-enacting that catch with my father on our front lawn and those games I played with my kids. I feel, if only for a few moments, restored to my roles as father and son, connected both to the boy I used to be and the father I’ll always remain.

Back at the playground now, I pitch the baseball right down the pipe and the kid belts a shot into left field. His mother drops her jaw in disbelief. Then the kid clubs another blast even farther. He’s walloping every pitch all over the playground, smiling now, proud of himself.

“Thank you,” his mom says as I start to leave, then repeating: “Thank you.”

I go back to shooting hoops and hear a Mr. Softee truck pull up to the curb nearby, its familiar jingle a siren song drawing children and parents. And a minute later, the same kid, now probably feeling rather like a future Hall of Famer, walks over to me bearing an important message from his sponsor.

“My mom told me to ask you,” he says, “if you want some ice cream.”

I picture swirls of creamy chocolate piled on a cone and feel a twinge of earthly desire. But I decline. I’ve already had my treat.

Bob Brody is an executive and essayist in New York City. This essay is adapted from his memoir, due out next June.


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A Poster Family for Diversity


Credit Giselle Potter

Clicking through the new website of the private school my three children attend, I landed on a close-up photo of my oldest child’s smiling face. I shouldn’t have felt jarred, but I did. The picture, accompanied by a short interview highlighting everything she loves about the school, had been posted on the admissions page. Born in India and adopted by my husband and me, who are white, she’s a minority student at a majority white school that’s striving to become more diverse. Her interview was one of many, but for me, her mother, it generated a spotlight’s heat.

My older daughter is 14. Our son and younger daughter, siblings born in Ethiopia, are 13 and 12. When the children were small, strangers often mistook them for adorable, boisterous triplets. The kids’ friendly smiles and our family’s multicultural makeup ensured that we attracted attention everywhere we went. More than once, professional photographers stopped us on the street to propose a photo shoot. Religious strangers felt compelled to thank my husband and me for “loving the Lord and loving orphans.” Shoppers in the grocery store flagged me down to gush, “Your family is beautiful.”

The idea of us made a lot of people feel good, hopeful even, but I quickly grasped that we could also be perceived by some as a kind of entertaining novelty. For years, another mom at our elementary school referred to me, in public and private, as “Angelina Jolie.” I did my best to shield the kids, and myself, from the attention, so that our family could be just that — a family, not a symbol of post-racial equality or evidence of a supposed Hollywood trend, a trend some critics characterized as white celebrities adopting black babies as fashion accessories.

By virtue of their white parents, transracial adoptees often move in majority white spaces, inadvertently providing diversity for others. Although I’ve always tried to place my kids in environments where they encounter peers and role models of the same race, they inevitably end up in the minority at school, at camps, in enrichment classes and on sports teams.

Early on I noticed how schools and kids’ programs love to feature children of color in their marketing materials to highlight their commitment to diversity, just as the big corporations do. As much as I wanted pictures of my three to entice more minority children to join my children in their activities, I couldn’t bring myself to sign the blanket photo releases that came with every registration packet. I didn’t want my children being used to promote an ideal of diversity that didn’t exist in reality.

But complications arose. Without my release, my son’s fourth-grade teacher couldn’t post group pictures to her classroom website, an inconvenience that didn’t seem fair to her. Then a photo of my daughter, taken without my knowledge at our town’s Christmas parade, popped up in a catalog for the recreation department. A picture of all three kids appeared in a brochure for their favorite summer camp, even though I’d specified no photos. Complaining after the fact felt petty and pointless when I couldn’t identify any tangible harm done.

And then there was the problem of my work as a writer. Frequently when I published a parenting essay, the editor would want to run a family photo. For years I resisted, putting myself at a distinct disadvantage in the world of mommy blogs and image-centric parenting websites. As the kids matured, I discussed the pros and cons of every photo request with the whole family. The kids voted to publish the photo every time, and sometimes I did. Although I’ve been careful to never include their real names in my work to guard their privacy, there’s no question that using my children’s photos on occasion has helped my professional career, a reality I’m conflicted about, even if my kids are not.

And so I gave up. These days I sign all the photo releases for schools and camps and teams because this is the way the world works. All I can do as a parent is maintain an ongoing dialogue with my children about the hidden messages in advertising, about the ways minorities are portrayed in the media, and about why I feel so protective of their likenesses.

Sometimes, when I find a picture of my daughter playing bass guitar on the girls’ rock camp Facebook page or discover a video of my son’s deft footwork being tweeted by his soccer club, I’m thrilled. To see my kids promoted for what they do, not what they look like, feels good. Finding them featured in a camp catalog or a school brochure doing nothing but looking “ethnic” alongside their white peers brings up less positive emotions.

The photo and interview on the school admissions page felt like a “do nothing” at first, even though the school does a good job representing students of all backgrounds in its marketing as a whole. The post also felt like an intrusion. I’d never signed a release for an interview, and nobody had warned me it was coming, let alone sought my permission.

“Did you know they were going to put this interview with you on the website?” I asked my daughter.

“Of course,” she said.

“And you’re O.K. with it?”


She’d made her decision. With my children approaching adulthood in the age of the selfie, they’ll be making decisions daily about how to use and distribute their own images, with their status as members of minority groups an added twist. As a mom who shies away from the camera, I hope I’ve given them the tools to figure it out.

Sharon Van Epps is a freelance writer.


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With Our Father’s Death, a Chance for Me and ‘the Boys’ to Connect


Credit Giselle Potter

When I was a small boy my dad used to ask me for show tunes. “Sing ‘Happiness!’” he’d say to me on the ferry to Shelter Island, and I’d happily comply, the wind blowing the notes out into the Peconic Bay. And he liked to call me into the living room when he and my mom had company and say, “Sing something for us, Artie!”

My two older brothers dealt with this by secretly teaching me the song “Sodomy” from the show “Hair,” telling their credulous little brother that this would be a big hit next time Dad asked for a party number. It was a big hit all right.

Dad loved us all equally, but that didn’t mean he saw us as the same. “The boys and Artie” was a phrase I heard a lot, despite my protestations that I, too, was a boy. Perhaps he’d just gotten used to my brothers as a duo because they were only two years apart, and there was nearly a four-year gap between the middle one and me. Perhaps they were just more boyish.

My brothers certainly were the smartest kids I knew. (The smartest kids, it seemed, that everyone knew; as I came up behind them in school, I could count on teachers to say, “Oh, you’re a Levine brother – I’m expecting a lot from you.”) They never got less than an “A” as a grade. Each one, in turn, became the captain of the wrestling team and the tennis team. I idolized them even as I struggled with a sense that I’d never truly measure up. I was diabetic and I struggled physically. I was less perfect in school.

Dad didn’t make these comparisons (at least out loud). He expressed his love by showing up. He came to the musicals I performed in and clapped loudly. He went to every wrestling match my brothers competed in, shouting advice and living every takedown and pin, as if it were happening to him.

He wasn’t a heart to-heart conversation guy. As a gastroenterologist, Dad was more interested in talking about organs in the digestive tract. But he proudly (some might say relentlessly) reported our accomplishments to his patients and friends.

My father may have passed his tendency to express love by proxy on to us. Once when I was in seventh grade, I overheard my middle brother, Dan, who was a high school junior, talking to the kid who was running the school variety show. “You should get my brother to sing,” he told her. “He has a beautiful voice.”

Forty years later, this small comment still sits on the open shelves of my brain like a trophy, for an accomplishment you’d think I’d have outgrown by now.

Of course, overhearing something requires being in earshot of one another. And for us, that kind of proximity was fleeting. As adults we lived too far apart for a spontaneous hamburger or a cup of coffee, or a guy-like sharing of a sports event.

Over time my brothers seemed to have become more and more like my dad and I less so. Both became doctors, like my father. Both married nice Jewish girls. I married an Italian guy (O.K., a doctor, but still… ) and became a children’s book publisher. We each found “success,” but were careful not to talk about it with each other too directly.

For my dad, however, I would save up facts to report. If I was getting a promotion at work, if a poem had been accepted for publication, if someone praised my son, I would enjoy the good news. And then I’d enjoy packing it up for my dad and unpacking it in our next phone conversation, after which he’d say, “Terrific!! Want to talk to your mother?”

If my father was satisfied by this, I think my brothers and I were less so. Certainly, over time, it seemed to serve our relationships less and less well. What fact exchange over the phone can convey the complications of a marriage? What fact can express the near-fatal vulnerability of parenthood? What fact can reveal the passage from youth to middle age, the glimpses of what comes next?

And so we actually communicated less. It was nothing dramatic. We still loved one another. But we didn’t see one another more than once or twice a year. I’d drive past my brother’s town and think about stopping, but wouldn’t. We’d each visit our parents. Separately.

As my dad got older and developed cancer and heart problems, my brothers’ roles as medical consultants became more prominent, but we didn’t truly draw together. To spare my feelings they sometimes spoke with my husband about my dad’s problems, but in our concern we were still siloed, even as age began to make us all look more like each other … and more like him. And even as age began to take my father away from us all.

We started talking more during Dad’s long, slow, torturous decline from Alzheimer’s disease, but in some ways this just meant that the facts we had to report were not vacations, business news or our kids’ activities, but sad, tactical communiqués from a losing battle.

Then, after my dad died, a strange thing happened. My brothers began to call me just to check in. My oldest brother took to texting cartoon strips with fart jokes in them that he thought my dad would have loved. (And it’s true, the phrase “break wind” was a real favorite of his.) They asked to visit. They meant it.

I realized that the most powerful, tangible reminders of my father resided in my brothers, and in me, too. I reminded them of him. And I was one of the very few people on earth who could remember him as a father, if not exactly as they did, well, then as closely as almost anyone could.

My dad, whose affections had been a (sometimes sore) point of comparison in my head, was becoming the person who might now draw us close.

The other day I got a starred review for a picture book I’d written based on my dad, and I so wanted to call him up to share that perfect, shiny fact.

Maybe I’ll send it to my brothers.

Arthur Levine is the publisher of Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic, whose books include the Harry Potter series. He is the author, most recently, of the picture book “What a Beautiful Morning,” about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.


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How to Tiptoe Around a Depressed Mother


Credit Giselle Potter

A depressed mother hates noise. She hates a lot of things — sometimes it seems as if she hates everything. But noise is her particular enemy. This is because she needs her sleep. She doesn’t always seem tired. But sleep is sacred to her, and you must never interfere with it. Particularly in the mornings. This makes life complicated if your bedroom — the nursery — is directly above hers and the floors are covered in linoleum, as they are in London in the 1960s. When you wake up and need to go to the bathroom you must avoid certain creaky spots. So you navigate like a cat burglar, tiptoeing on the more solid sections until you get to the stairs down to the bathroom. You hold your breath as you pee as if not breathing will somehow mitigate the sound. Do you flush? Not at this ungodly hour.

Silence is what your mother craves, but it is also her weapon. When she is in one of her moods, she settles into a powerful silence. She actively ignores you. She doesn’t respond to your attempts at conversation, your questions, your pathetic efforts to amuse her, to cheer her up. It’s as if you don’t exist, even when you’re in the same room. Over the years you learn what can trigger these silences and you do everything you can to avoid them. But when they inevitably settle in, it’s as if the world as you know it comes to an end.

Your mother’s depression, previously intermittent yet intense, has settled in with a permanence since your father left the house and your parents announced they would be getting divorced. You’ve always known she suffered from the blackest of moods. Your father has told you the story of your younger brother’s birth, and how he wanted the new baby christened Sebastian. But because your mother “wasn’t speaking” to your father throughout the period between birth and baptism, your brother is now called Paul.

Paul is the person you go to after you’ve been to the bathroom. He’s a little boy, just 4, and at three and a half years his senior it’s your responsibility to put him in his uniform, tie his tie and get him down to the kitchen where you make his breakfast. Your mother can’t tie a tie. And she doesn’t get up for breakfast. She doesn’t get up to see you off to school. The two of you eat quietly, grab your anoraks and having quietly shut the front door behind you, walk together. Recently, Paul has begun to stutter. Eventually he will be taken to a specialist who will try to find out the cause. Your father says he used to stutter a bit as a boy, too, and often imitates Paul. This drives you mad.

It’s hard to remember when you decided that you don’t love your mother. But there is a definite line in the sand when you become her fiercest critic. You hate her arbitrary moods. You hate her selfishness. You hate her neglect. Being depressed and being maternal don’t exactly go hand in hand. A depressed mother rarely puts her children first. For example, if on a Saturday morning you’ve been told to stay upstairs until your mother says you can come down, don’t (dying of boredom) find a rubber ball and start to play catch with it by yourself. Because every so often you’ll drop it. Eventually there will be a roar of rage from below. “GIVE ME THAT BALL,” she’ll yell. As you silently hand it to her, she will shout in your face, “GET DRESSED! AND GET DOWNSTAIRS!”

You’ll put on your clothes and creep down to the hallway with Paul. The two of you will half run, struggling to keep up with her as she marches rapidly and in silence out of the house and into Hyde Park about 10 minutes away. As you cross the street into the park she’ll hurl the ball into the trees.

“Go find your ball,” she will say. “And get lost.”

Having a depressed mother is an excellent way to turn a child into a liar. It’s completely against your nature, but some instinct in you makes you aware that there are some things your mother just can’t handle. So you lie by omission — you don’t tell her a lot of the fun things you do with your father. You’re hardly aware that you do this, until a few years later when Paul tells you he finds it easier to lie than to tell the truth. He’s more used to it.

Is it the lying that causes you anxiety? Or is it the general atmosphere in the house? Anxiety is the air you breathe, and it constantly affects how your body works. You’re supposed to put your light out at 7:30 at night, but sleep doesn’t come easily now, so you put your lamp under the covers and read for another two hours or so. Sometimes when you have to go to the bathroom you are too scared to, so you have accidents. You throw up from nerves. You watch yourself as if from a distance, interested in the experience, making a mental note of it.

You make mental notes of everything. (Having a depressed mother is great training for a journalist.) You note when the fridge is empty to get your mother to call the grocers. Your first experience of actual note-taking is when you decide to make shopping lists for her. You see when the laundry hamper is three-quarters full so you can start encouraging her to get the washing done. When she ignores you and you run out of clean underwear, you turn your dirty underwear inside out.

Routine is extremely important to children of depressed mothers. The clock becomes the nanny. Any deviation from a schedule is not to be allowed. The moment tea is over you take Paul upstairs for bathtime. You lay out your grubby clothes for tomorrow, and you brush your teeth. You go downstairs to say goodnight to your mother, now in her best mood of the day. There is a drink in her hand. She laughs as she allows the two of you to jump on her bed.

Then she says goodnight, and up you go to bed where you read about jolly red-cheeked children with fathers who smoke pipes and mothers who bake pies, wearing aprons over their tweed skirts, until you fall asleep.

Emma Gilbey Keller is a journalist and author who is working on a memoir about her experience of motherhood, from which this essay is adapted.


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After a Stroke at Age 30, Making Our Own Luck


Credit Giselle Potter

On our flight to Hawaii for our “babymoon” last June, Dave turned to me and asked, “Does my right eye look weird?”

It did. His pupil was asymmetrically dilated, a seeping pool of black that blocked out all of the beautiful green. He couldn’t see.

Two minutes later, Dave lost consciousness. We made an emergency landing in Fargo, N.D.

An ambulance whisked us to the Sanford Medical Center, as a team of medical personnel buzzed around him. “Does your husband smoke? Drink? Have a history of stroke in the family?”

No, no and no.

Dave — only 30 years old, a lifelong athlete, an aggravatingly healthy eater — had suffered an incredibly rare, often fatal stroke; a clot had blocked an artery to his brain, starving his neurons of critical oxygen, leaving several graveyards of dead cells in his mind.

The babymoon was to have been a much-needed rest after a bruising year of Dave’s medical residency and a huge round of edits on my latest novel.

Five months pregnant, I played many roles. Wife to Dave, my college sweetheart and hard-charging, fun-loving orthopedic surgery resident. Writer of historical fiction, sister, friend, daughter to two great parents, one of whom had just announced his candidacy for president.

Our parents would arrive in the morning, but in those first hours I was alone, and terrified. And freezing — I could not stop shivering.

I pulled out my iPod and clicked on my favorite playlist, songs Dave had introduced me to in our 12 years together.


“Comfortably Numb.”

“Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”

I tossed the iPod. My mind was a dizzying highlight reel of Dave. What was the last thing he’d said? I saw images of Dave in college, graduating from medical school, on our wedding day.

The day after Dave and I got engaged, we found three four-leaf clovers in less than five minutes. We’d never found one before, we haven’t found one since — but that day, we took it as a propitious sign.

I glued those clovers under a photo of us and wrote: May we always remember how lucky we are.

Now, years later in Fargo, some of that luck kicked in: Dave woke up.

He opened his eyes.

But the man who woke — vacant eyes, no voice, fractured mind — was not my Dave. We didn’t know if that Dave would ever return.

Once medically stable enough to travel, Dave, hooked up to wires and machines and being fed oxygen through an endotracheal tube, flew via air ambulance back to Chicago.

There we settled into the neuro-intensive care unit at his home hospital, Rush. Over the past three years he had spent more time there than at home, but now he had no idea where he was.

My days were full of holding Dave’s hands and signing paperwork, meeting doctors and nurses, tracking heart monitors, feeding him gelatinous meals and repeating every few minutes where he was and why he was there.

I’d always lamented how often Dave’s medical training took him away from me. Now, there wasn’t a moment of his day in which I was not intimately involved; I knew when he’d last been to the bathroom.

There was a packed schedule of physical, cognitive and occupational therapy. It was hard not to grow disheartened when Dave, who had excelled at Yale before going on to medical school and his first-choice surgical residency, could not think of a woman’s name beginning with the letter “A.” My name begins with the letter “A.”

May we always remember how lucky we are.

After long days, I would return to our empty apartment and I’d look at that photo with the four-leaf clovers and I’d want to hurl it across the room. Had I really needed to revel in my good luck, gloating before the gods, daring them to rob me of my fortune?

I had always prided myself on having it more or less together, but this was beyond me; I learned to ask for help, and to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when the path before us was littered with fear and unknowns.

When you’re swimming in the ocean, there’s always that one scary moment when you have to confront the white, roaring wall of breaking water. I swam directly at the breaking line of my fear, anger, sadness and loss.

I hugged Dave tighter in the middle of the night.

There was laughter, too, as Dave healed. There were so many loved ones who showed up for us. There was celebrating, like the day when Dave officially emerged from the state of amnesia and remembered we were having a baby girl.

When she arrived, Dave was beside me in the delivery room — he counted me through contractions. I studied his face the moment he held our pink, healthy little girl. He was immediately and irrevocably in love with his daughter.

I’m tired a lot these days. I’m tired from having a new baby, from the early feedings and the mental and emotional attention that is required of new moms. I’m tired from the work of writing and launching a new book. I’m tired from being a caregiver — lying awake at night worrying about Dave’s recovery, wondering when the plateau will come, wrestling the many unknowns that lurk in our family’s future.

We are fighting hard not just to reclaim the memories of the past, but to reclaim our present. Our right to our future.

I’ll always bear the scars from that plane ride, the Fargo intensive care unit, the Chicago hospitals and the long days of rehab. I’ll never again look into Dave’s soft green eyes without making sure his pupil is not dilated.

May we always remember how lucky we are.

I can finally stare at that photo again without wanting to hurl it across the room.

We aren’t lucky because life is easy or smooth, or because it makes sense or because we are in control. We are lucky because life is fragile and entirely out of our control, but it is ours to live.

Allison Pataki is the author, most recently, of “Sisi: Empress on Her Own.”

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We Lost Our Soldier, But We Are Still an Intact Family


Credit Giselle Potter

I am still not sure what hits me the hardest, Father’s Day, his birthday or the anniversary of his death. At least Memorial Day brings pride with the pain.

My son and I lost our soldier, First Sgt. Charles Monroe King, in October 2006, just 30 days before he was due to come home from a yearlong tour of duty in the United States Army in Iraq. The improvised explosive device that detonated under his armored military vehicle shattered his body and our lives. Jordan was just 6 months old and met his father only once, during a two-week leave from the war.

Since then, we have lived through nearly a decade of his absence – from parent-teacher conferences, from holiday dinners, from trips (thankfully few) to the emergency room. And yet I still think of us as an intact family.

We are not whole in the traditional sense, of course. I am a single mother of a now 10-year-old boy who has his father’s soldier-straight posture and sensitive soul. But like many other military widows and partners who have experienced war’s ultimate wrath, I sometimes struggle with a compulsion to defend my soldier’s place in our family to anyone who might assume he is gone because of infidelity, abuse or neglect.

One Mother’s Day a few years ago, my son and I went alone to our favorite neighborhood diner. The owner handed him a rose to give me, escorted us to a cozy table near an open window and offered me a complimentary glass of Champagne. Jordan toasted me with his Shirley Temple and handed me the flower. I had tucked money into his pants pocket before we arrived because he wanted to be able to pay the bill for his chicken fingers and my pasta.

We seemed to draw attention, and not just because we were the only African-American family in the restaurant. People smiled watching my sweet little gentleman being so attentive at our table set for two. I was proud but also self-conscious. Was I imagining the pitying glances from a few of the diners who seemed to notice that no father had joined us by the end of our meal?

“No, it’s not what you think,” I wanted to shout. “I am not a stereotypical black woman who got knocked up and has been left alone to raise yet another fatherless black boy. We planned my pregnancy and loved our baby and each other.”

You don’t have to be black or a woman to want to shout out about why your soldier is not there. I am sure that many military spouses and partners of all kinds have felt the same need when they arrive alone for parents’ day at summer camp or during spring break vacations. But I am particularly sensitive about how our family structure might appear because of the disproportionate number of single mothers who look like me.

The truth is, most people are probably too consumed with their own lives to care much about mine. And of course there are many other single parents doing their best to raise their children on their own. It’s just that I want people to somehow know our reality as a reminder that everyone who died in service to our country deserves their respect — and so do the people who loved them.

I want them to know that Charles would have been retired by now and probably coaching Jordan on a flag football team. He would have been the one to take care of the back-to-school medical forms that I turned in almost a month late. I know he would have remembered Mother’s Day.

We will always feel the void that Charles left, but after so many years without him we are finally happy. We spend summer weekends on the Jersey Shore. We host about 25 relatives and friends at our annual Christmas dinner. I no longer feel guilty when I go out for an evening of grown-up conversation and companionship.

But there are still moments when I am nearly overcome with fear about how I will manage to keep our family thriving. The anxiety seems to grip me most on stormy nights, when the wind is howling and thunder cracks in the distance.

As I watch over my son sleeping sound and snug on those nights, I know that he is bathed, his belly is full and he is safe. And yet, it is when the storms seem to be bearing down on us that I have my doubts about how I will continue to manage the responsibilities of two parents.

I was having just such a moment a few weeks ago when Jordan and I were saying our bedtime prayers. I asked God to please help me to successfully raise this child.

Sensing my anxiety, Jordan hugged me after we prayed. “Don’t worry, Mom,” he said. “I’ll help you raise me.”

Dana Canedy is a senior editor at The New York Times and the author of the memoir “A Journal for Jordan.”

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A Truce With My Aging Stepdog


Credit Giselle Potter

There’s one good thing about my old dog’s fading memory: He seems to have forgotten he hates me.

Our dog, Eddie, is 15 years old and generally in good health, but he’s showing his age. His hearing is about gone, and he can no longer jump on sofas or navigate a long flight of stairs. And he’s losing his memory. Either because of that or perhaps because he just doesn’t have the energy to bully me anymore, our geriatric dog is no longer the jealous creature who had been my nemesis over 10 years of marriage.

Eddie, a 40-pound Blue Heeler mix, was prone to possessive impulses and aggressive behavior with other dogs, and that didn’t change after he was adopted by the man who would become my husband and his two young children. He had settled into his new home from a rescue foundation barely four months before my husband and I met. The children were shy and polite to me, but the dog didn’t bother with manners. He sized me up from a distance and, on the first night I slept over, he peed in front of the closed bedroom door.

Eddie stayed on message through courtship and marriage. He barked when I came down the stairs to the kitchen in the morning, when I came home from work and whenever I tried to approach my husband. One move, one kiss, one dance, and my stepdog would work himself up into such hysterics that I was afraid he would bite me (he never did).

When Eddie wasn’t expressing hostility, he showered me with indifference. He came to me only when called repeatedly and tolerated petting just for a few seconds, offering tepid tail wagging. I grew up with dogs and I was hurt by his rejection. Some research suggests that dogs are capable of jealousy, but I never found a study that would tell me how long it took them to get over it.

On bad days, Eddie got under my skin and I wished he’d escape — successfully. No matter how much I jogged with him, fed him biscuits or took care of him when my husband traveled, my attempts at bonding were rebuffed or only temporarily welcomed. To him I was forever the intruder, the attention hog, the competitor who kicked him out of his daddy’s bedroom and — maybe as unforgivably — no longer let him lick the dirty dishes in the dishwasher.

Over time the children grew up, wedding anniversaries came and went, the household moved to New York from California, but through every milestone our dog remained resolute in his allegiance to only one master.

Friends were used to my complaints. One suggested therapy. My sister occasionally asked — jokingly — if I had poisoned the dog yet. On the contrary, we all took such good care of Eddie that he seemed indestructible.

But Eddie was aging faster than we were and the thaw in our contentious relationship came, unexpectedly, as he began showing his mortality.

With time, dogs, much as humans do, will have mobility problems, lose learned behavior, slow down, forget. We first noticed that Eddie limped slightly after long walks. His veterinarian diagnosed arthritis in his front legs. One day, he could no longer propel himself into a cushioned chair or onto our beds. Eventually, Eddie had trouble rising from his own bed and could only do it tentatively, legs splayed like a newborn foal touching ground for the first time.

Other physiological changes came in spurts. He stopped greeting us at the door because he could no longer hear us coming in. He sometimes couldn’t or wouldn’t wait for his walks, so he marked a corner of the living room as his indoor territory to relieve himself.

Our fearless junkyard dog, the one we were afraid to take to dog parks and who was expelled from more than one kennel for brawling, grew clingy and afraid to roam. He’s constantly underfoot in the kitchen no matter how often we tell him to sit. He licks himself noisily in front of guests. He refuses to pose for selfies.

But as the canine equivalent of a centenarian, Eddie finally has eased up on me. He lets me caress him and lingers under my touch. He follows me around and seems to enjoy my company. The barking is long gone. Through his aging, Eddie became a normal pet to me.

I’ve aged and changed too. I had already softened a couple of years earlier when Eddie almost died from a major blockage in his bowels. As I lay awake while the animal hospital kept him on an IV, I pondered a dog-less life and was overcome with regret. Eddie had been the relentless companion and protector, the fixture in our home once the kids had grown and gone. He had brought out to me my husband’s tender side. He was the safe topic of conversation at a tense dinner table. In my stepfamily, I realized, Eddie was a unifier.

But true affection, and yes, love, didn’t come until this last phase, when Eddie sleeps most of the day and we have to clap to get his attention. Every day I enter our home clapping, holding my breath until I hear the click-click of paws on the wood floor and dreading the day I will not.

As if we needed reminding, the owner of his longtime kennel recently told us that Eddie was getting too old for weeklong stays while we traveled. He explained that he didn’t want to make a life-or-death decision on his own if he couldn’t reach us.

For the time being, Eddie has a healthy appetite and all his choppers. He still demands his walks and gets excited at the sight of the leash. He still greets my husband — and only my husband — like it’s midnight on New Year’s Eve.

But there’s no going back to the sour personality that clashed with mine and once made me dream of “Lost Dog” ads. I wonder if Eddie realizes that neither of us ever posed a threat to the other’s relationship with the love of our lives. Does he appreciate that we both succeeded in carving out roles in our ready-made family?

Rivals no more, we are finally able to simply be members of the same pack.

Mireya Navarro is a reporter for The New York Times and the author of the memoir “Stepdog.”


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Donating an Organ to My Son


Credit Giselle Potter

Sammy was born small and had a hard time gaining weight. When he was 2 months old we learned he had a rare condition, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. This disease, inherited from both sides of our family, significantly impaired Sammy’s liver function, as it does in a very small percentage of patients. We were told that he would probably outgrow this dysfunction, as most children with his condition do because their bodies learn how to compensate for the disease process. But Sammy didn’t.

By the time Sammy was a year old, he had developed the consequences of liver failure. His swollen abdomen and bloodshot eyes reminded me of the cirrhotic patients I cared for as an emergency room doctor. Every night, while changing his diaper, I would feel along his abdomen to measure his liver size and check his belly for fluid. I couldn’t help myself. My identities as a physician and mother were clashing. Sammy was my son, and despite my desire to leave the medicine to his doctors, and only be his mom, he was also my most important patient.

One afternoon Sammy’s doctor said: “I think we are heading toward transplant.” I had been expecting this, dreading it. His next question: “Would you consider serving as the living donor?” Unlike other organ donations, this can be done by removing a piece of a donor liver, which can then regenerate in the recipient. He explained that Sammy was an ideal candidate for a living donor liver donation and that he wanted to proceed with an evaluation as soon as possible. “Of course,” I said. “Where do I sign?”

We quickly learned that in a family where both parents are suitable donors, like ours, there seem to be fewer complications when a mother is donating to her child. This is based on small studies and anecdotal data, but Michael and I wanted to stack the odds in our favor as much as possible.

The morning of the transplant we took the obligatory pre-surgery family photo and rode the elevator up to the pediatric pre-surgical admitting suite. Once Sammy was registered for his surgery we broke up into teams. Team Sammy consisted of his father, grandmother and grandfather. Team Mommy had my sister and a doctor friend from my medical residency.

The surgeries took place in separate buildings. The retrieval of the healthy left lateral segment of my liver occurred at the adult hospital, while the removal of Sammy’s diseased liver and replacement with his “new” organ happened in the children’s hospital.

As a physician and as a mom, I was used to solving most problems with my two hands and my brain. Not today, I told myself. Today, I just need to say a prayer, go to sleep and make myself available for parts donation. I closed my eyes.

The next thing I remember, I woke up in the intensive care unit. Only a few hours had passed and Sammy was still in surgery. I wanted to get up and be there for my baby, but I couldn’t. I was a patient bound by tubes and lines and physically incapable of moving. So I went back to sleep.

They woke me as soon as he was in recovery. Just knowing we were both out of the O.R. was enough for me to take a deep breath. We had come through this experience together, as mother and son, and a piece of me was helping him get better.

Over the next few weeks I would have to delegate both mothering and doctoring to other people. Michael sat with Sammy and I was a patient. I got out of bed and moved to a chair. I took small walks down the hall and then came back to my bed exhausted. I considered it a small victory when I could finally hold down a sip of juice.

I was discharged two days after the operation. Leaving the hospital with Sammy in the I.C.U. was harder than I thought, even though I knew it would happen. It’s kind of like getting discharged after having a baby, but the baby can’t come home: You feel as if you are leaving some part of yourself behind.

At home my recovery was pretty unremarkable. It turns out that other than being slightly uncomfortable and relatively exhausting, re-growing your liver is easier than being a new mom. I could take pain meds if I needed and nap like a preschooler.

When Sammy and I were both awake, we could FaceTime (he used Daddy’s phone). There wasn’t much to our conversations, but I could see his face, to look in his eyes, and know that with each day he was getting better, closer to coming home.

Post-operative day 5 was also Sammy’s 2nd birthday. He was still an inpatient but out of the I.C.U. We threw him a birthday party in the hospital family lounge. Pizza, cake, family and Sammy’s favorite music teacher made it feel like a true celebration. That was also the first day I actually held and kissed my son. It was amazing.

He was discharged the next day. At home we lounged in bed, watching lots of television and taking way too many selfies on my phone. And savoring the luxury of doing nothing special together.

It has been a year and half since the surgery. Sammy looks great and is on minimal medication. He goes to school full time, and most people have no idea what he went through. The scar on his abdomen has mostly faded, and we aren’t sure if he even has any memories of this experience.

My liver has grown to full size and my scars are nearly invisible. But that doesn’t mean I am entirely recovered. There are moments, and they are less frequent and further between, that I get spontaneously choked up. This experience was both frightening and inspiring. I had to briefly give up being both doctor and a mother to become a patient. It was as a living donor that I was able to help my son the most.

Dara Kass is an emergency physician at NYU Langone Medical Center and editor of feminem.org.


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A Mother’s Lesson: When Memory Fails, Delight in the Moment


Credit Giselle Potter


In 1988, the author’s mother wrote in The Times about her own mother’s dementia. <a href="http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1988/01/31/399888.html?pageNumber=159">Read the full article in TimesMachine. </a>

In 1988, the author’s mother wrote in The Times about her own mother’s dementia. Read the full article in TimesMachine. Credit The New York Times

The first sign that the Alzheimer’s disease that ravaged my grandmother was back for her daughter was when Mom began having trouble saying “CNN.” She’d watched the cable news network for years with ferocious interest ever since returning from a life abroad in the Foreign Service to rural New Hampshire. There she nested in her mother’s house, saying she’d never move.

It was a distinctly peaceful life. I’d listen to her play the grand piano — the passion that had taken her to Juilliard decades earlier — and marvel at the lightness of her hands on the keys. On Sundays, she was the favorite lector at our church, reading the liturgy with an elegance instilled by her mother and grandmother, both trained elocutionists.

She also wrote and recorded essays on country living for NPR on subjects like “Mahler and Macaroni.” Words mattered a great deal to her. She mattered the world to me. I used to say I’d won the lottery when it came to mothers.

After Dad died, my mother continued to live alone in the big white house on the common. It was here in 1988 that she’d written a keenly observed Sunday commentary for this newspaper about her own mother’s battle with aging — and the dementia that “erased her life, line by line.”

She wanted me to promise that if her own light dimmed – or as she put it, “when I lose my mind too” – I wouldn’t upend my own life to care for her. But we never came up with a real plan.

About a year after CNN became “C…D…D…” and the home care team we’d improvised announced my mother’s decline was too much for them, my brothers and I barely convinced her to “visit” sunny California where my middle brother lived.

That visit became a new “post” in a fancy retirement community where, for $7,500 a month, she had her own studio and bathroom. She enjoyed music events and a stately dining room with a menu. There was even a church on the corner.

But like so many living with Alzheimer’s, Mom’s biorhythms were upside down. She’d often sleep during the day and be up all night doing what is known as “exit-seeking.”

Nights are the Achilles heel of most eldercare facilities staffed by the fewest caregivers — and the most inexperienced. Across the country, in many well-meaning Alzheimer’s units, memory care residents are treated with confinement.

So Mom “graduated” to the locked Memory Care unit for her “safety.” It broke my heart to watch her on tiptoes, peering through the locked door’s porthole across to the dining room she once enjoyed.

Alzheimer’s is not a mere matter of Swiss cheese memory and odd behaviors. It is a serious medical condition. It is terminal. It should be known for what it is: Brain Failure.

One morning, Mom emerged from her Memory Care room covered with bruises. The police came. The state came. There was even suggestion of a rape kit because my mother, clearly agitated, could say only, “the man, the man.”

We will never know what happened. But it stands to reason that if you lock up the most advanced Alzheimer’s residents with their attendant behavioral disorders, and apply nominal supervision, well, something is bound to happen. On the night in question, one newly hired caregiver attended 17 residents.

So we moved her again, this time to Seattle, close to my eldest brother and me, thereby violating the cardinal rule of Alzheimer’s care: thou shalt not move the patient. Change registers a full 10 on the Alzheimer’s Richter scale. The more Mom’s brain failed, the more I twirled to try to make things better.

Within a matter of weeks in the new place, she had fallen and broken her hip. Surgery followed, then three months in a rehab facility, and finally a move to a small adult family home with just six residents. She was exhausted and utterly disoriented. I was a wreck.

Still, I knew I was among the lucky ones. Despite the recent scan that showed her brain a mostly blank white slate, my mother somehow always managed to recognize me during our visits (although she’d begun calling me “Mom.”)

Where once I’d thought I’d lose my mind if she asked me the same question one more time, now I prayed to hear any full sentence just one more time. Ever the peripatetic family caregiver, I rarely stopped to inhabit my mother’s world: the one with no past, no future, just the present.

On our last Mother’s Day together, I took her to the big morning Mass at St. James Cathedral. As I attempted a Houdini maneuver getting her out of the car, up the curb and down the sidewalk to the church door, she somehow slithered from my grasp.

My mother sank to the ground in what seemed like slow motion. She never made a sound. She just lay there in the green grass in her rose-colored tweed suit, brilliant white hair glinting in the spring sun, blue eyes open wide, staring straight up into an unusually cloudless Seattle sky.

With church bells pealing through the cool morning air, my beautiful, brilliant mother stretched out her arms and made angels wings in the grass.

And all the doctors and all the medications and all the years of worry that couldn’t bring my mother back together again, also couldn’t defeat the magic of that moment.

I lay down next to her, threaded my fingers through hers, and for a brief wondrous moment, we held the present.

Mary Claude Foster is a journalist living in Seattle.


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Seeing the Cycle of Life in My Baby Daughter’s Eyes


Credit Giselle Potter

Like many new fathers, I spend as much of my free time as I can get away with gazing into my baby daughter’s eyes as she stutters and scans. I remember a day not long ago when I rocked my daughter, Eva, in my arms, and her eyes stopped and steadied as they looked back into mine. Her arms and legs ceased to rock and her entire body just relaxed. A chill went down my spine.

I felt that for the first time, she had really seen me. She was about 3 months old at the time. Within moments, though, her eyes left mine and started whirring around in their sockets again. While this was the first time I had shared such a moment of joy coupled with disappointment with her, I had experienced this many times with patients at the end of life.

Many have alluded to the symmetry of the beginning and the end of life. Most people, however, become parents long before they become caregivers. For me the order was reversed. For while I only recently became a father, medical training has made me much better acquainted with those at the opposite end of the spectrum.

The agony of death is more than just physical – it is an existential wound that gnaws away until there is slow, and frequently unwilling, acceptance of the inevitability of one’s mortality. I sometimes see a similar pain in my baby girl’s eyes as she makes another arduous journey – learning how to be alive. Frequently, as she cries when she is hungry, or cries when she is overfed, or cries as she tries to have a bowel movement, or just cries, it seems as if she is yearning to go back to the simple comforts of her mother’s womb.

Changes in the medical system have brought the medicalization of the shallow slopes of our bell-curve-shaped lives. At the start of the century, most lives started and ended at home. However, while hospitals started to become the place where we took both our first breaths and our last in the 20th century, in recent years people have become eager to reverse both trends. Nutrition, too, has shifted from being completely natural, to being almost exclusively artificial formula for children and tube feeding and intravenous nutrition for the terminally ill, followed now by a realization that natural routes are best for both groups. What hasn’t changed, and what binds the pediatric and the geriatric, is the obsession with their bowel movements.

As medical science has progressed, while we have extended life, we have transformed death from a singular event, into dying, an entire phase of our lives that can last from days to years. This is mirrored by an extension of childhood as well, with children being more dependent for a longer period of time than ever before in human history. Parenting therefore has become more demanding – and more expensive.

Caregiving for those at the end of life, as those who live it will attest, is equally arduous yet is barely recognized at a similar scale. In some ways, caregiving is similar to parenting – women do most of the heavy lifting. In fact, two-thirds of all caregivers are female. Yet, caregiving for the dying is different from parenting because it does not yet have a formally recognized role within the care of the patient. While there is no chance Eva would ever see her pediatrician without her parents, elderly patients, some with levels of dependency equal to that of a 3-month-old, present to the hospital or clinic all by themselves, all the time. Furthermore, while there is much debate about paying workers through maternity or paternity leave, a similar discussion does not exist around whether leave granted to those caring for parents or loved ones at the end of life, particularly those getting home hospice services, should be paid.

Part of the problem is also how differently we view infancy and old age. A daily struggle my wife and I face is how to hold back from oversharing pictures and videos of Eva on social media. We document her life meticulously, afraid of letting any single gesture slip away. Yet, not only do we siphon off old people to live outside of our immediate circles, but images of what the end looks like are scant, uncelebrated and frequently morbid. There is a significant disparity of empathy toward children versus the elderly. Children’s shortcomings turn into viral YouTube videos, while those of the elderly are often derided and ridiculed by the very people charged with taking care of them.

In a more longitudinal sense, we care for our young the same way people have for thousands of years yet how we die has changed significantly over just the past few years and continues to be in flux. Advanced technology means that many people require much more assistance at home than before. Furthermore, while our lifespan has been extended dramatically, the years we spend with disability have also increased. Therefore, while we have had eons to define our roles as parents, the modern caregiver remains undefined and unrecognized, and thus, unsupported. Investing in children makes intuitive sense, but a similar case has not been built for taking care of the elderly.

As with raising a baby, the answer might come from the heart. What is really needed is for us to love the old as we do the new and celebrate the end as we do the beginning.

Haider Javed Warraich, M.D., a fellow in cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, is the author of the book “Modern Death – How Medicine Changed the End of Life,” coming in February 2017.


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Now You See Him, Now You Don’t


Credit Giselle Potter

My friend’s father died at the age of 91. I hugged her, offering tears and sympathy, but I was jealous. I was 4 years old when my father first vanished from my life.

We were living in a moshav, a cooperative farming commune in Israel. In the early 1960s, the Israeli government had been recruiting South American Jews — sponsoring families to populate the state. My parents, with four kids under 10, had moved there with friends from Argentina, our native country. An Israeli agency paid for our passage and our little ramshackle farmhouse; once our produce was profitable, we’d pay them back. In Argentina, we were living hand-to-mouth. Perhaps the land of milk and honey would provide. But after a few years of attempting to farm in a desert, my parents and their posse decided to return to Buenos Aires.

It was shortly after we boarded the ship to South America that I noticed my father’s absence. “Your father will join us at home — soon,” my mother said, and left the details to my imagination. Weeks, then months went by. Eventually I almost forgot I had a father.

What I didn’t know until decades later was that my family had left Israel under murky circumstances; we were running away from our debt to the government. The story was that we were just going to visit our relatives in Buenos Aires. If my father had come with us, things would have looked suspect. Instead, penniless, he embarked on the next ship to Argentina a week later — as a stowaway.

I like to think of him back then as a rebel with a heart of gold, fleeing the law to join the family he adored.

The plan failed miserably. After the ship set sail he was caught and promptly booted at the first port in Italy. It would take months of working odd jobs until he could save up enough money to buy a passage to Argentina. How my destitute mother managed to house and feed us in the meantime remains a puzzle I’d rather not solve. Then one day, my father suddenly reappeared. I realized our life had been in suspended animation while he was gone. I had a freshly shaved cheek to kiss each morning, and a sturdy lap to climb onto in the evenings.

But our reunion was short-lived. I was 6 when he went missing again. I’d come home from kindergarten one day — and he was gone. My mother, notoriously tight-lipped about difficult, life-altering matters that concerned us, simply said, “We will join him in the United States — soon.” The words “United States” were as ambiguous to me as the word “soon.” We were going somewhere; again. That’s all I knew.

My father had left for America to find a job and a place for us to live. My parents’ friends, the nomadic posse from Israel, were already settled there and would help him. Even so, it would take a long time to save enough money for five airplane tickets. Six months in all; an eternity to a child. My mother would periodically snap black-and-white photos of us, to mail to my father overseas.

One day we were city kids in urban Buenos Aires, the next we were plucking peppers for harvest on a desert farm in Israel. One day I went to school where everyone spoke Spanish, the next we were going through customs at J.F.K. International Airport, where a group of people — the posse — was waiting for us along with a willowy, handsome stranger who looked familiar. I was sick all over my clean dress just as our plane was landing, and I remember worrying that the stench would be his first impression of his youngest daughter. But he swooped me up and held on tight, and I felt a tinge of recognition.

My father had landed a job at a watchmaking factory in Brooklyn and rented us a small place in Queens. It was literally under the El, on Roosevelt Avenue, so we learned to live with the 24/7 rattle. To make extra money, he set up a workbench in a corner of the house, where every evening after dinner, he soldered watch casings, a filtered Kent cigarette dangling from his mouth. Keeping him company in a haze of smoke: the “Tonight” show with Johnny Carson.

Slowly we established ourselves in America. But I was always uneasy, expecting my father to up and vanish any day. I kept my anxiety to myself. In our house, we didn’t have heart-to-heart talks about our feelings.

But as the years passed, I began to relax, thinking that maybe, just maybe, in the land of opportunity, my father might stick around after all. I found myself understanding his occasional temper flare-ups, and appreciating his otherwise quiet demeanor. I admired his dry sense of humor and sometimes made him laugh – his approval was like winning the lottery. I wished he would work and smoke less.

By the time I was in college, my brother and sisters had moved out and married, and my parents started to enjoy their empty nest status.

One evening, when I was home during my junior year in college, my father came into my room. He was heading to a bar mitzvah in a light blue suit that set off his green eyes. I remember thinking that at 54, he was still dashing, despite the graying hair and heavy, dark bags under his eyes. He looked at me, placed his index finger under one eye and said, “Ojo.” Spanish lingo for “Keep an eye on things.”

That was the last time I saw him. After he danced the night away, not one of the many doctors at the party could get his heart working once it stopped.

He’d done it again, just when I had begun to think he was a pillar of stability. I was caught off guard, as I’d been that day I came home from kindergarten. And yet — through my grief and devastating sorrow — deep inside, of course I knew. I knew he’d leave again. All those years of worrying and waiting and wondering had worked their way into my very being.

I’d been preparing all my life to lose my father.

Claudia Gryvatz Copquin is the author of “The Neighborhoods of Queens” and founder of Word Up: Long Island LitFest.


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The Gift of a Lost Coat


Credit Giselle Potter

Midseason, with plenty of New England cold stretched ahead of us, our 12-year-old daughter, Birdy, lost her winter coat. This was not a tragedy. Things are only things, after all.

The Yiddish expression for this is nisht geferlach — no big deal or, more literally, “not dangerous,” which I love for the way it expresses the important distinction between matters of life and death and, well, everything else. (As my father likes to say, “There are very few geferlachs in life,” which is, I suppose, the Jewish equivalent of “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”)

Still, as Birdy explained what had happened — she had, she thought, dropped the jacket somewhere at school, but it had not turned up in the lost and found — and as it became clear, over the course of a few days, that the jacket would not be reappearing, I behaved strangely about it, at least mentally, with the emphasis here on mental, as in patient. And that’s because I am parenting.

Parent has become a verb, only it’s very rarely clear what sort of action is being propelled. Most verbs translate into decisive movement. But while I understand what it means to be a parent — the happily ontological noun — the verb form can be paralyzingly befuddling, as if you turned “wife” from a state of being to an action. Although if you said, “I’m late because I was wifing my husband,” everyone would know what you meant. (Texting him to pick up a bag of cat litter.)

Back to the coat. Birdy, a vegetarian, had researched the down industry earlier in the year and concluded that it was not her ethical cuppa. Her father and I, in love with her and her principled self, offered to replace her old feather-filled jacket with a good-quality synthetic one, which we bought on Ebay and which, despite being “gently used,” cost approximately one million dollars. Now it was gone.

I evaluated potential solutions. There are many schools of parenting thought right now, and so many of them have so much to offer.

Should Birdy enjoy the full opportunity of not being rescued by me? Should she learn from her mistakes by scouring the school, earning money to replace the jacket, wearing her old one disturbingly stuffed with dead geese? Should we get her a new jacket, a lesser jacket, a hand-me-down? Should I dig out the old baby sling and stuff her into it, singing “Baby Mine” from “Dumbo”?

The problem with parenting is that it’s a cross between diagnosing and fortunetelling, and it starts when they’re newborns. Everything’s a geferlach. Does this mucus look green and viscous? What does it mean? Does it mean the baby’s going to die? Run a meth lab? Go to M.I.T.?

And then it turns out that it doesn’t mean anything. It turns out that you like having your babies in the bed because you’re too lazy to get up in the night, or because you like to look at those silvery little moonlit eyelids. Or you don’t like having them in your bed because they’re like diapered squids suckered onto you with their squid beaks and flailing tentacles. One child is verbal early, and you have rational conversations about how best to comport oneself in the frozen-food aisle (M.I.T.!); another persists in wordlessness, and you have to carry her wailing, writhing shape out to the car, prying tiny fingers from the icy box of a Salisbury steak dinner (meth lab!).

You know how the one-size-fits-all yoga pants technically fit everyone, but for some of us, they make your butt look like it’s been sculpted from a quesadilla? Parenting is like that. Every kid requires something different; every moment does. We can love them. We can lean down to listen, tune in to who they are. We can enjoy ourselves, enjoying them. We can care for them, set limits, try to be gracious, smooth their hair behind their ears, walk them into town for froyo, hope they trust us enough to unburden themselves. Those are just some of the verbs. But we don’t have to pick a one-size-fits-all style from parenting’s extremes. We don’t have to strand them or solve all their problems.

We can look at our near-tears jacket loser and say, “Don’t worry, my love. It’s just a jacket. And hey, what do you think we should do next?”

Which is what I ended up saying. Because Birdy is a person who does not overvalue things, and we don’t want her to. Because she is also a person who trusts that nobody intentionally stole her jacket, and we love that about her. Because she could probably stand to keep track of her stuff a little better, but does not have a history of losing important things. Because she is inclined to be fretful, to be hard on herself, and we don’t want her to linger over mishaps.

She thinks we should get another jacket, another black one, but cheaper. “And then we should order a dog tag for the zipper, with my name and Daddy’s cell number on it. So people know it’s mine. So if I lose it I’ll get it back.” She’s not a test case, not pie-chartable. She’s just one person, with a small problem and a good solution. And spring is on the way, regardless.

Catherine Newman is the author, most recently, of the memoir “Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy In Childhood’s Messy Years.”


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Fighting Heroin Addiction With My Mother on My Side


Credit Giselle Potter

When I was a young teenager, my mother would watch tales of addiction on her nightly TV programs. “Love the addict, hate the addiction,” she would say as she sipped her diet sodas. Little did she know that I would become just like the characters in the stories that played out on her screen.

While other parents would boast of children graduating from college or having grandchildren, my mother had no photos of me to hang in her cubicle at work. All she had was my high school senior photograph in a dusty frame.

That senior picture gave no indication of the turmoil that was coming. Just a few short months after it was taken, I got my first taste of prescription opioids in the late ‘80s. They had been casually prescribed for me after the extraction of my wisdom teeth. The event was unremarkable, but those pills changed the trajectory of my life. An instant feeling of warmth came over me. It not only helped me forget my pain, it helped me forget my problems.

I bookmarked that feeling, coming back to it a few years later, just after I extracted myself from the abuse of my first serious boyfriend. I craved the warmth. A friend of mine got pills from someone’s medicine cabinet, and I wanted the relief they promised. I got it when I swallowed them. It wasn’t long before my college classes and work were replaced by the search for more pills, which eventually led to my heroin addiction.

The first year I was using heroin, my mother used my love of sweet potatoes and buttered rolls to get me home for Thanksgiving. She used the visit to probe into my deteriorating condition. I was tired, I told her. Sure, I had lost a few pounds, wasn’t she happy for me? My long sleeves covered up the truth. I was grateful for the opportunity to see her, but I bolted as soon as I could get back to the city. When she received my grades a few weeks later, her concern increased. By then, though, there was no reaching me. I had severed the last tie from my childhood and the city of my birth in favor of the open-air drug markets of San Francisco.

In the following years, while I lived temporarily in various hotels and on the streets, my mother struggled to understand my “choices.” In the depths of her despair, she would appeal to me to return home. I called her when I thought to do it, in between highs.

My mother worked to find a way to connect with the person I used to be. On one visit, I told her, “I have been living as a junkie prostitute out in California. If you can’t accept me, let me hop the next freight train home.” She quietly handed me a plate of food. “I think you need some rest,” she said as she closed the door.

Eventually, she simply requested that I stay in touch whenever possible. Her unconditional love invited me to put aside whatever guilt and shame I felt about my circumstances. She sent me letters whenever I went to jail. She let me call collect. She even continued to send me birthday cards, a reminder of the life I had squandered. When I was finally ready to stop drugs, she didn’t have to “accept” me back. She had never quit being a guiding force in my life. I knew no matter how tough an uphill journey, she would be there for me.

We spent 11 years becoming friends after I stopped using drugs in 1998, nearly a decade after I first tried heroin. There were family vacations, holiday sweaters and lots of time spent talking through the issues of our lives. My mother was deathly afraid of flying, yet she summoned all her courage to come to California to see me walk across the stage to receive my diploma when I graduated from college after seven years clean. I found my graduation picture alongside my senior picture and pictures of my children in her hallway when she died in 2009. She finally got to update the images of my life. I took them home to remember how far I had traveled in my life.

In the 18 years I have been clean, I have been asked many times what I will tell my own children about my addiction. Will I explain to them that I was a homeless drug addict? In fact, I have already started that conversation with them. They are 5, 6 and 8 years old and have grown up while I’ve been working to help heroin addicts, including distribution of naloxone to reverse the impact of an overdose.

In the process of explaining what mommy does, I also explain the world that mommy once lived in. In their words, they say, “Mommy helps sick people.” I couldn’t have phrased it any better myself. I was fortunate in that my mother and I spent those 11 great years together. She experienced the joy of seeing that graduation and another, for my master’s degree, as well as my marriage, and the birth of my children.

I was lucky that she never bought into “tough love,” a strategy based on the idea that cutting a drug user off from everything that is familiar will somehow be a motivator to get clean. It can, in fact, be just the push a user needs to fall deeper into the downward spiral, creating a profound sense of isolation and self-loathing.

My mother’s love was strong and welcoming and accepting, and she used it to help open the door to my recovery.

Tracey Helton Mitchell is a person in recovery and the author of the memoir “The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin.”


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My Banished Brother


Credit Giselle Potter

The first time I saw my brother, Jimmy, he was 60 years old, and I was standing at his hospital bedside in the town of Dunkirk, N.Y. He was intubated with intractable pneumonia and lay in a drug-induced sleep, his sparse ginger hair so different from the rest of my brunette family. His ID bracelet showed his birth date: June 26, 1953, exactly 18 months after mine. Until that moment, I hadn’t known his birthday.

Ten days earlier, I was at work in New York City when my phone rang. A voice said, “This is Wanda from your brother Jimmy’s group home.” Tears came instantly, although I’d never heard of her and had no idea why she was calling.

Jimmy was the third of my parents’ four children, born severely disabled with Down syndrome. “Send him away and put him out of your mind,” they were told.

Back then, there was a widely held idea that having a child with disabilities was a judgment from God. The parents must have done something terrible to merit such a punishment. The principal of my high school cautioned us students against premarital sex, explaining that he’d strayed once, resulting in a child who was a “vegetable.”

My father was a radiologist in our small town, where all the doctors were friendly. He once told my sister that he was in the delivery room when Jimmy was born, and the obstetrician, knowing something was wrong, had wordlessly indicated that he could do away with the child with a bit of pressure on its neck. His offer was declined.

So Jimmy was sent away, becoming a ward of the state. My knowledge of my brother consisted primarily of a snapshot taken at the institution showing a small boy with slanted eyes on my father’s lap. My sisters and I learned from our parents’ bitter response not to ask about him.

One day my father, when asked how Jimmy was, replied, “How’s Jimmy? He’s an idiot!” My mother sat watching a television documentary about retarded children, weeping. My father, after a furious argument with my mother, broke down, asking over and over: “What did I do to deserve a son like that?”

As an adult, I met others with developmentally disabled siblings. Sometimes I’d break training and mention Jimmy. “Do you visit him?” they’d ask. I’d say no, and after an awkward moment I’d go back to avoiding any thought of him, the way you avoid bumping against a painful wound. I believed he’d be too frightening to even look at, a “vegetable” living a grim, pointless, institutionalized existence.

I had never seen my brother, and now someone named Wanda was saying he was gravely ill, she’d been caring for him for 20 years, and loved him. I had ignored my brother my entire life. Now I was devastated that he was dying. I should visit him, I thought, then had an irrational fear that my parents — both long gone — would be angry. Jimmy would have no idea who I was or even what a “sister” was. His caretakers would think I was a hypocrite, showing up for his death when I hadn’t shown up for his life.

“I feel so guilty,” I told Wanda. “I never visited him.”

“That’s how it was,” Wanda said. “There was shame. I had one woman — her sister only visited after the parents died. It would have upset them. Nobody is judging you.”

“Would it make any difference to him if I came?” I asked.

“It would,” she said decisively. “I think he would know. Come.”

Three days later, I stood in the I.C.U. as Wanda lovingly stroked Jimmy’s face. “Jimmy, this is Lisa,” she murmured. He looked at me quizzically. Wanda treated him as if he were her child. I was his sister and a stranger.

That night, I finally learned who Jimmy really was. Though nonverbal, he made his feelings known, Wanda told me. When he was happy, he’d let out a “Yiiiii!” He loved “Wheel of Fortune,” especially Vanna White. He was particular about his clothes, rejecting shirts without his favorite sports logos. His housemates called him “Rezzie,” short for our last name, Reswick.

Wanda showed me his room, where I was astonished to see a menorah next to his bed. “We take Jewish residents to a special synagogue program,” Wanda explained. She pulled out photos of parties, picnics and trips — evidence of a rich, full life I’d missed completely, one I should have been part of.

“My guys,” she said of Jimmy’s housemates, “they know something’s wrong. They keep asking about Jimmy. They can’t communicate like we do, but they understand more than you think.”

Wanda told me she’d arranged for a service and a cemetery plot. “But the family can do whatever you want,” she added. But you’re his family, I thought.

At the memorial service a week later, my sisters and I met the rest of Jimmy’s family: his housemates, caretakers — even a woman representing the synagogue.

A retired pastor named Fred who had taught Jimmy’s life skills classes opened the service, saying he would miss “my friend Jim.” A man in a wheelchair, his hands curled stiffly on his chest and eyes staring blankly, started to wail. A caretaker sprang up to wheel him out. “Bring him back,” Fred called. “I can yell louder than he can.”

A woman stood up. “Jimmy always gave me a hug,” she said. “He didn’t do that with everyone. I think people like Jimmy can sense who needs their love.” Jimmy’s gray-haired roommate, Harry, rested his head on Wanda’s shoulder, eyes downcast. My sisters and I sat tearful and silent, struck by how deeply Jimmy had touched all of them.

“I’m sorry I didn’t see Jimmy sooner,” I told Wanda.

“You saw him when it counted,” she said. I don’t believe that. I could have been a sister to Jimmy. Instead I turned away, clinging unquestioningly to my fears and ancient prejudices. Until Wanda reached out and released me.

Lisa Reswick is a writer in New York City who is working on a book about how families cope with having a developmentally disabled child.


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When Friends Are ‘Like Family’


Credit Giselle Potter

“My friends are the sisters I was meant to have,” a woman told me. Another said that her friends are more precious than her sisters because they remember things from her past that her sisters don’t and can’t, since they weren’t there. And a man commented that he didn’t enjoy a particular friend’s company all that much, but it was beside the point: “He’s family.”

I interviewed over 80 people for a book I’m writing about friendship, and was struck by how many said that one or another friend is “like family.”

These comments, and how people explained them, shed light on the nature of friendship, the nature of family, and something that lies at the heart of both: what it means to be close.

For friends, as for family, “close” is the holy grail of relationships. (In both contexts I often heard, “I wish we were closer” but never “I wish we weren’t so close.”)

What people meant by “close” could be very different, but their comments all helped me understand how friends could be like family – and why I often say of my friend Karl, “He’s like my brother.” First is longevity. We met at summer camp when I’d just turned 15, and the seeds of closeness were planted during one of those wondrous extended self-revealing teenage conversations, when we sat side by side behind the dining hall. Our friendship continued and deepened as we exchanged long letters that traversed the distance between our homes in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

After college, Karl was the one I called at 2 a.m. when I made a last-minute decision not to join the Peace Corps. Two decades later, we were traveling together when I showed him the photograph of a man I’d just met, saying, “It’s crazy but I keep thinking I’m going to marry him” – and I did.

I was there when Karl left Brown for Julliard, and, years later, when he came out as gay. Karl knew my parents, my cousins, my first husband and the other friends who have been important in my life, as I knew and know his. I visit his mother in a nursing home just as I’d visit my own, were she still alive. We can refer to anything and anyone in our pasts without having to explain.

If I’m upset about something, I call him; I trust his judgment, though I might not always follow his advice. And finally, maybe most of all, there’s comfort. I feel completely comfortable in his home, and when I’m around him, I can be completely and unselfconsciously myself.

It’s not that we don’t get on each other’s nerves. It’s that we do. A cartoon about a married couple could have been about us: A woman standing in the kitchen is saying to the man before her, “Is there anything else I can do wrong for you?” I sometimes feel that whatever I do within Karl’s view, he’ll suggest I do a different way.

All the elements making our friendship so close that Karl is like a brother were threaded through the accounts of people I interviewed. “We’re close” could mean they talk about anything; or that they see each other often; or that, though they don’t see each other often, when they do, it’s as though no time has passed: they just pick up where they left off. And sometimes “close” meant none of the above, but that they have a special connection, a connection of the heart.

There were also differences in what “anything” meant, in the phrase “We can talk about anything.” Paradoxically, it could be either very important, very personal topics, or insignificant details. A woman said of a friend, “We’re not that close; we wouldn’t talk about problems in our kids’ lives,” but, of another, “We’re not that close; we wouldn’t talk about what we’re having for dinner.”

“Like family” can mean dropping in and making plans without planning: You might call up and say, “I just made lasagna. Why don’t you come over for dinner?” Or you can invite yourself: “I’m feeling kind of low. Can I come over for dinner?”

Many grown children continue to wish that their parents or siblings could see them for who they really are, not who they wish them to be. This goal can be realized in friendship. “She gets me,” a woman said of a friend. “When I’m with her I can be myself.”

It would be easy to idealize family-like friendship as all satisfaction and cheer. And maybe for some lucky people it is. But friends can also resemble family by driving you crazy in similar ways. Why does she insist on washing dishes by hand when dishwashers do a better job of killing germs? Why does he always come exactly five minutes late?

Just as with literal families, friends who are like family can bring not only happiness but also pain, because the comfort of a close bond can sometimes morph into the restraints of bondage. The closer the bond, the greater the power to hurt – by disappointing, letting you down or, the ultimate betrayal, by dying. When a friend dies, a part of you dies, too, as you lose forever the experiences, the jokes, the references that you shared. A woman in her 70s who was mourning her lifelong best friend said the worst part was not being able to call her up and tell her how terrible she felt about her dying.

Sometimes we come to see friends as family because members of the family we grew up with live far away or feel too different, or are just too difficult to deal with. A woman who ended all contact with a sister explained that the option of cutting off a family member who brings you grief is a modern liberation, like the freedom to choose a spouse or divorce one. Holes left by rejected (or rejecting) relatives — or left by relatives lost to distance, death or circumstance — can be filled by friends who are like family. But family-like friends don’t have to be filling holes at all. Like my friend Karl, they can simply add richness, joy and, yes, at times, aggravation, that a literal family – in my case, two sisters I’m very close to — also provides.

Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of “You Just Don’t Understand!” and “You’re Wearing THAT?”.


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An Experimental Autism Treatment Cost Me My Marriage


Credit Giselle Potter

What happens to your relationships when your emotional perception changes overnight? Because I’m autistic, I have always been oblivious to unspoken cues from other people. My wife, my son and my friends liked my unflappable demeanor and my predictable behavior. They told me I was great the way I was, but I never really agreed.

For 50 years I made the best of how I was, because there was nothing else I could do. Then I was offered a chance to participate in a study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. Investigators at the Berenson-Allen Center there were studying transcranial magnetic stimulation, or T.M.S., a noninvasive procedure that applies magnetic pulses to stimulate the brain. It offers promise for many brain disorders. Several T.M.S. devices have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of severe depression, and others are under study for different conditions. (It’s still in the experimental phase for autism.) The doctors wondered if changing activity in a particular part of the autistic brain could change the way we sense emotions. That sounded exciting. I hoped it would help me read people a little better.

They say, be careful what you wish for. The intervention succeeded beyond my wildest dreams — and it turned my life upside down. After one of my first T.M.S. sessions, in 2008, I thought nothing had happened. But when I got home and closed my eyes, I felt as if I were on a ship at sea. And there were dreams — so real they felt like hallucinations. It sounds like a fairy tale, but the next morning when I went to work, everything was different. Emotions came at me from all directions, so fast that I didn’t have a moment to process them.

Before the T.M.S., I had fantasized that the emotional cues I was missing in my autism would bring me closer to people. The reality was very different. The signals I now picked up about what my fellow humans were feeling overwhelmed me. They seemed scared, alarmed, worried and even greedy. The beauty I envisioned was nowhere to be found.

Seeing emotion didn’t make my life happy. It scared me, as the fear I felt in others took hold in me, too. As exciting as my new sensory ability was, it cost me customers at work, when I felt them looking at me with contempt. It spoiled friendships when I saw teasing in a different and nastier light. It even ruined memories when I realized that people I remembered as funny were really making fun of me.

And the hardest thing: It cost me a marriage. When I met my former wife (a decade before the T.M.S.), she was seriously depressed. She’d accepted my autistic even keel, and I accepted her often quiet sadness. I never really felt her depression, so we complemented each other. She could read other people much better than I could, and I relied on her for that.

Then came the T.M.S. With my newfound ability I imagined myself joyfully shedding a cloak of disability. I thought she would be happy, but instead she said matter of factly, “You won’t need me anymore.” My heart hurt, and I felt unspeakably sad. Later, people at work told me they’d liked me better the way I was before.

I’d lived with my wife’s chronic depression all those years because I did not share it. After the T.M.S., I felt the full force of her sadness, and the weight of it dragged me under. At the same time, I felt this push to use my new superpower, to go out in the world and engage with other people, now that I could read their emotions. When I think about the way my behavior must have appeared to the strangers I encountered, I cringe.

Normally people change in a marriage, over time. What happens when one person changes overnight? We were divorced a year after the T.M.S. experiments began. After the divorce, I embarked on a disastrous relationship with someone who could not have been more different, and I was devastated when that, too, fell apart. I learned the hard way that emotional insight allowed me to see some things, but another person’s true intent and commitment remained inscrutable.

After some initial tumult, the changes in me proved transformational at work. My ability to engage casual friends and strangers was enhanced. But with family and close friends, the results were more mixed. I found myself unsettled by absorbing the emotions of people I was close to, something that had never happened before. Strong emotional reactions welled up in me, and I showed feelings I had never expressed.

It took me five years to find a new balance and stability. In that time, my sense that I could see into people’s souls faded. Yet the experience left me forever changed. Before the T.M.S., discussions of emotions were like cruel taunts to me; it was as if someone were describing beautiful color to a person who saw in black and white. Then, in an instant, the scientists turned on color vision. Even though that vision faded, the memory of its full brilliance will remain with me always.

I’m married again, to someone who’s emotionally insightful. To my amazement, she became best friends with my first wife, and helped me reconnect with my son. She started a tradition of family dinners and gatherings, and brought new warmth into my life. Even more, she helped me become part of a web of emotional connectedness I’d never known before, and surely could not have known pre-T.M.S.

That really shines through in my relationship with my son. We had grown apart before the T.M.S. through a combination of his teenage rebellion and our mutual inability to read each other’s feelings. (My son is on the autism spectrum, too.) We joined the T.M.S. study together, and it became a powerful shared experience. Even as the T.M.S. effects pushed my ex-wife and me apart, they drew my son and me together. The T.M.S. also helped me understand my mother, in the last years of her life.

I’ve made new friends, and built a stronger business. And there’s something else: I’ve learned that the grass is not always greener when it comes to emotional vision. For much of my life, I’d imagined I was handicapped by emotional blindness. When that changed, seeing into other people was overwhelming. Becoming “typical” proved to be the thing that was truly crippling for me. Now I realize that my differences make me who I am — success and failure alike. I’d call that hard-won wisdom.

John Elder Robison is a consultant on autism and the author, most recently, of “Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening.”


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That Extended Family Party Everyone Hated? It Was Mine.


Credit Giselle Potter

For years my husband and I threw a Christmas Eve party that was completely out of control: Friends brought their friends, and those friends brought their entire families. I never knew who was coming or how many of them there would be. Every year the house was packed with people I’d never seen before. I found them sitting on the couch in my study with the door closed. I found them in the basement. Finally I changed the rules: Only family was invited.

I have a very loose definition of family, and anyone who could fit beneath that wide umbrella was welcome, including, but in no way limited to, my mother’s third husband’s first wife, their grown children, and the spouses and children of those grown children. My stepsister’s husband’s parents came. My husband’s first wife came with her second husband, and her second husband brought his first wife and their son as well as his mother. Did you follow that? No, probably not.

Because my parents divorced when I was very young and my father was never friendly about being in the same room with my mother, I thought I was creating the holiday equivalent of Switzerland. There would be no warring factions at my party. Neutrality reigned. You could see your mother and your father and your stepparents and grandparents and step-grandparents in the same room and wish them a Merry Christmas instead of driving all over town like a crazy person trying to fit everyone in.

Of course, this was easy for me because I lived in Nashville and my father and stepmother lived in California, and the person I thought of as my stepfather, who was my mother’s second husband, lived in Texas, and his four children, two of whom I am still very close to, lived far away, which is to say the real complexity in my own family was someplace else on Christmas Eve.

Then one year while I was going over the menu with my mother a couple of weeks in advance of the party, my mother’s third husband, a very amiable fellow who was then in his late 70s, said NO. No, he would not be coming to the party. He could not stand this party. He could not stand it one more year.

I explained that I had this party in large part for him, because two of his sons lived out of town and there were many grandchildren (whose origins are too complicated to be listed here), and wasn’t it nice they could all get together not only with him but their mother and other siblings?

“I don’t care,” he said. “I’m not going.”

When I reported this conversation to my husband later that evening, he got a steely look in his eyes. “I hate that party,” he said. “I’ve always hated that party.”

And so that party was dismantled. It didn’t take much. It turned out our holiday bash was almost universally despised and the people who attended did so mainly because they thought it was The Right Thing To Do. I was left to ask myself what exactly I had been trying to prove all those years – that we were the most evolved and open-minded family in Middle Tennessee? That in my attempts to negate the strain I had felt in my own childhood, I had served up a miserable Christmas Eve for everyone?

I’m sorry about that. The modern family is a dark and twisted river. All I can say is that I was trying to navigate as best I knew how.

For much of my life I met every relationship that came as a result of marriage with a vast open-heartedness. I introduced my stepsisters as my sisters, stepparents as parents. I accepted the cousins and aunts and uncles of all newly acquired family, as later I would accept their spouses and children and partners.

But I didn’t meet my mother’s third husband and his three children until I was in my mid-20s. We never slept in the same house, shared a bath towel, or lent one another money, so while we all got along, it was a very different relationship from the one I had with my sister, or with my first batch of stepsiblings who had become part of my life when we were all very young.

I met my future husband’s children when they were in their teens, and didn’t marry their father until those children were in their late 20s. They had their own wonderful and loving mother, their own wonderful and loving father, and were in need of no auxiliary parenting, which made me what exactly? Family? I couldn’t help but judge myself against the standard of my own spectacular stepmother whom I had known since I was 6. In light of all she had done, I came up short.

By continuing to throw the Christmas Eve party, I was interacting with this endlessly extended family as if I were still a child, brightly rolling up my sleeves and getting along. When you’re a kid someone else deals you a hand and you have to play it. As adults we’re free to fold.

There’s a restaurant in a fancy hotel in town where I like to go for dinner. One of the waiters there is the son of the first marriage of a woman who married a stepbrother of mine before I met any of them. But the stepbrother came to me from my mother’s third marriage, which is to say my second set of stepsiblings, so even though I’ve known my stepbrother’s stepson most of his life, I’ve really only seen him at family holidays. He always came to the Christmas Eve party.

And I like him, not as a far-flung family-ish person but as himself – a nice guy. That’s what it all boils down to over time. Obligation and shared history can get us only so far. After a while you keep up with the people you like and the rest fall away. I always introduce him to whomever I’m having dinner with, and I tell them, even though I have no idea if it’s actually true, “We’re related.”

Ann Patchett is the author, most recently, of the essay collection “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.”

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The Family Footsteps We Follow


Credit Giselle Potter

My father is one of three brothers who thrived in their respective professions, lifting themselves above the economic station of their Italian-immigrant parents. They’re archetypal American success stories. Buoyed by their good fortune, my siblings, my cousins and I racked up athletic trophies, won scholarships, gained admission to competitive schools, built enviable careers.

So when the generations of Brunis reunite for mountains of pasta and a marathon of conversation, the talk is often like the text of one of those what-a-year-we-had holiday letters. Someone just bought and renovated a dream home. Someone else just directed a hit Broadway musical. Someone made partner. Someone finished the course work for a doctoral degree.

The goal is to catch everyone up; the impulse isn’t boastful. But I’ve risen from the table and walked away from these occasions feeling pressured, almost panicked: How can I be sure that I won’t disappoint anyone in this crowd? What if I arrive for the next feast without shiny medals in tow?

The glory of a close family is that you never lack for cheerleaders, enveloping you in support. The flip side is that you never lack for judges, weighing you down with expectations. I’ve seen this not just in my own life but in politicians I’ve covered and public figures I’ve admired. Like many clubs, a family has dues, and you have to figure out how to keep them from rising too high.

Every year my siblings, their spouses, their children, my life partner and I carve out an uninterrupted week to pack into a beach house somewhere. We prioritize it. We relish it: the card games, the group runs, the cocktail hour. Especially the cocktail hour.

But almost always, there’s an awkward instance when a nephew’s or a niece’s disappointing report card, abandoned sport or episode of bad behavior pops up in discussion — incidentally, accidentally. Frequently he or she sulks off, weepy and mortified. Because we’re the people he or she cares the most about, we’re the witnesses he or she can’t shake off. We’re the opinions that can’t be ignored. That’s not our goal. But it’s a byproduct that’s maddeningly hard to avoid.

I’m more and more conscious of this. Recently, at the prodding of one of my siblings, I had a conversation with one of my nieces about working harder in school. I kept it short, studying her body language to determine the precise moment to end the admonishments. Then I switched quickly to a lighter topic, so that something other than a sense of recrimination might linger. I was careful to say, “I love you,” but I was just as careful to say it in a somewhat casual manner, not a pregnant, theatrical, shaming one.

Is that the way through this prickly briar patch?

The delicate ecosystem and difficult byways of family were much on my mind on the campaign trail over recent weeks, as I watched the Bushes gather around Jeb.

His stooped, 90-year-old mother, Barbara, trudged alongside him in frigid New Hampshire, making a last-ditch effort to reanimate his presidential bid. His older brother, George W., traveled from Texas to South Carolina for a special rally, where they did an offstage chest bump — perhaps a holdover from their roughhousing as kids — and then hugged.

I took in all of this and thought: What a lucky man Jeb Bush is. Surrounded by so much loyalty. Cushioned by such love.

Days later, he tearfully ended a campaign that he’d never seemed entirely sure of. This time I thought: What a burdened man. Measured against daunting examples. Compelled to keep pace. His quest for the White House was a kind of parable of the blessing and the curse of a tightly knit family deeply invested in each member’s advancement.

Of course few broods fly at the Bushes’ altitude, with its privileges. But many know its tensions. And many know one of its obvious binds: How do you glue a family together strongly enough that it’s a dependably nurturing force without having it become an oppressive one? Have the Obamas figured that one out? Their daughters are clearly cherished, but they must also be daunted. Getting the balance of that right is a family’s toughest, trickiest work.

On the athletic front, did the Mannings succeed? I bring them up because of all that chatter after the Super Bowl about Eli Manning’s mien as he watched his older brother, Peyton, add another championship to his legendary career. Caught on TV, Eli had a blank — even downbeat — expression on his face.

The brothers now have two Super Bowl rings apiece. But Eli’s recent season with the New York Giants was a bust. Peyton’s with the Denver Broncos was triumphant. Peyton has always been the larger figure, casting a long shadow, and their father, Archie, was himself a distinguished pro quarterback.

Does Manning-hood entail as much obligation and torment as pride? That was no doubt the question on many viewers’ minds when they observed Eli during that game. And it probably struck close to home. They’d wondered the same thing about their own families.

I actually started writing about the Bushes all the way back in 1999, when I was assigned to cover George W.’s presidential campaign. I followed him almost daily for the next two years.

It was clear that family, more than anything else, had given him the confidence to pursue the highest office in the land. It was equally clear that family had made him feel compelled to do that — as proof that he was worthy, as evidence that he belonged. It informed all the decisions he made. It warped them, too, so that you couldn’t be sure what was genuinely felt, what was pantomimed, what was a reaction, what was an overreaction.

I learned then about a pair of gold cuff links — a family heirloom — that the first President Bush passed down to George W. on the day of his inauguration as the governor of Texas, explaining in a heartfelt letter: “Now, it is your turn.” I believe those words and that jewelry were presented as comfort, not summons. How they were received is a different matter altogether.

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and the author of “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” which was just published in paperback. (www.frankbrunibooks.com)

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