There is a moment when you can feel the rain before you can see it. When an unconscious glance at the sidewalk reveals gathering polka dots of grey, and you are flooded with relief for this confirmation that your skin still tells the truth, and the world still operates as you expect it to.
There are moments when your phone ringing at night makes you jump, the sound too sharp for nighttime, the pulling back of sheets, the silky cool of them against your skin, the weight of blankets on your legs, the dog encroaching on your hip.
You set down your book (and your newest pharmacy-rack readers), and your distracting thoughts, and answer the phone. You know who will be calling. Your son, asking if you can mend something that has broken. A heart, say.
Not so long ago, he brought home a torn sweater and asked if you could sew it. It was a jagged tear in the fabric, not on a seam, like it caught on something rough. It was a favorite sweater — its perfect softness, weight, warmth, color — and he wanted nothing short of full restoration. You knew at a glance that what he wanted was not possible.
You said: What if we patch it?
He answered: Can’t you please just sew it?
You loved that he believed you had some special skill to make it like new, so you did not want to tell him what he wanted was impossible. You wanted to believe it, too. You and your inexpert hands went in search of your grandmother’s sewing kit, with its yellowed quilted fabric and basketweave, the one she had brought with her when you were laid out with the chickenpox for two weeks and made pink satin overalls for your teddy bear.
In the sewing kit, the spools of thread her hands put in it half a century ago and a needle. Hoping he knew something you didn’t about mending, you brought the sides of the torn fabric together, stitch after uneven stitch. Maybe it would work? In the end, the best you could do, was a scar across the sweater’s surface. He thanked you, and even wore it like that for a while.
Now he reaches out from the distance of another state. You answer the call, and in the pause before he speaks, you rummage through the kit of your experience, gather your thoughts and wisdom to prepare for whatever might need stitching, hoping the world still operates the same as when you were young, and knowing scars are inevitable, and beautiful in their own way.
Last night I got stuck in that thin layer beneath consciousness, running through lists and worries. A single consolation prize — an idea for an essay. I did not get up in the dark, pilfer a pen from the mess on my window seat, and tiptoe to the bathroom where I could turn on a light without waking Christopher to write the opening sentence that was speaking itself, as I sometimes do. Sleep might be on its way, and I did not want to scare it off. I had a feeling that this one would stay with me until morning, unlike most nighttime whispers.
I would remember to call it “Welcome,” I told myself, and it would connect two stories: one about welcoming Maria home for Thanksgiving, her first visit after a year and a half; and one about finally welcoming an asylum-seeking family from El Salvador into America. I would write about chalk drawing in rainbow colors with my six-year-old neighbor Winnie, Maria’s former pre-school student, who calls me “Maria’s mom” because that is how Maria introduced me and she accepted it as an uncontroversial truth. And I would write about the asylum hearing that finally happened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the day Maria arrived home.
Back in June, when the hearing was supposed to have happened, I practiced every question to ask on direct and re-direct as I coasted over pre-traffic freeways on my way to court. I expelled all my anxious fumes back then, and this time my nerves were less ratcheted. I felt confident. Ready. My clients were prepared. I knew where to park. I knew which of the several government buildings housed the court, and on which floor the courtroom was. All these knowns added to my sense of ease and mastery, my sense of control.
Of course, I knew anything could happen. I told myself to expect the unexpected. For sure something would go sideways.
While I drove to court, Maria’s name and number lit up my phone. She wished me good luck and said her cousin would be taking her to the airport soon. We would hopefully have something to celebrate that night.
In the courtroom, we faced a raised “bench” where the judge would sit, a desk for the interpreter, and two rectangular tables, one for the government and one for my clients and me. Ours was set with two pairs of headphones for them to listen to the interpreter and two microphones for us to speak into. Their four daughters, ages 6, 12, 13, and 19, waited in the hallway so as not to be exposed to their parents’ testimony about why they fled their home — the multiple death threats from gangs because the father was a police officer. On the right, an empty table where the government attorney should be. The judge called our case, then dialed a conference line.
The government attorney’s voice materialized. Present by phone, a Covid option.
We began. And the sideways detour arrived: the judge asked if we could skip my direct exam (all those questions I had practiced!). “In light of the voluminous and detailed record” I had submitted – hundreds of pages including my clients’ written testimony, psychological evaluations to prove their trauma, personal references, police reports corroborating their persecution, expert government reports and news stories – “could we proceed to any clarifying cross-examination, and then any redirect, if necessary?” I understood that we had made our case. I agreed to skip direct, sparing my clients the rehash of their trauma.
The government attorney launched into his cross-examination, something he had not expected to do for a couple hours. He began with the husband, pushing him as to why he did not “do more” to get the police to investigate the death threats against him and his family. The lawyer’s tone grew increasingly hostile as he warmed up. Besides making the police reports, what else did you do? What else?What else? My client held his ground, explaining the steps he had personally taken to protect his family when the police would do nothing. Reinforced bars on the home. Extra ammunition in his gun. Sleepless nights watching out windows. Pulling his kids out of school to keep them safe at home.
Finally, his composure broke and his wife sobbed as the memories of her family’s danger flooded her. I interjected once. After forty minutes, the judge stopped his questioning. “You cannot see their demeanor,” she said to the disembodied government voice, “but they are…affected.” A weak word, I thought, to communicate to the official who could not see his prey, that they were wounded, distraught. He finally understood the outcome as much as I did. When the judge asked, he said the government would defer to the court’s decision (i.e. he would relinquish his right to appeal if she granted them asylum).
Under this circumstance, the judge then asked me if I needed to ask any questions on redirect. It was apparent from her expression that she did not need any more information.
“No re-direct, your Honor.”
The judge indicated that I should go get the daughters. The detour had found its conclusion. I knew in my gut good news was coming.
The girls flowed into the room and sat together, four in a row behind their parents.
The judge looked into my clients’ eyes, and spoke slowly enough for the interpreter to state without a stumble:
I find the Respondent to be credible.
I find that he has suffered past persecution
And has a well-founded fear of future persecution
Based on his political opinion.
A grant of asylum is merited.
Welcome. I do not know if the gasp I felt at the ridgeline of my heart is audible in the recorded transcript.
We took a photograph in the courtroom after the judge left, the mother telling her eldest daughter to be sure she got the flag in it. I turned to see an American flag standing at attention that I had not noticed the whole time we had sat facing it.
Six days later, my family and theirs met for a picnic celebration at the park. Emmett taught the dad to throw an American football. Christopher entertained the six-year-old with his unique antics. Maria told the teen girls and their mom about her path from asylee to Legal Permanent Resident. The 13-year-old daughter interrupted to ask Maria, Wait, so how are you related to these people?
“Son mis padres,” she answered with a smile. Unlike little Winnie next door, who had taken our relationship at face value, this teenager’s face twisted into a universal expression of, what in the hell are you talking about? Maria laughed and added an explanation. We are her extra parents.
So yes, these are the things I wanted to write about this morning, about welcoming someone home with a gorgeous sign made of chalk and love, and of welcoming a family with sandwiches and football into our country’s safe harbor.
But my story turned sideways this morning when my high schooler texted at 9:40 a.m.
Hey guys, apparently there’s a rumor of a kid with a gun that might be on campus.
It’s probably BS but about half the student body left.
Oh hold up
They found the kid
He had a gun
He was tackled
I have a Spanish quiz
But I think I’ll leave just in case.
Any day can go sideways.
My morning drowned in fielding texts from him, talking to him to hear he was safe, texts from other parents, replying in a daze, chasing down more rumors:
They were locked down.
They were not “on lockdown” but they were locked in, no one allowed in or out.
They were not locked in, they were just processing departures slowly due to demand.
Another local high school had been threatened and kids had fled it, too.
The school sent a message to parents after 11 am, long after the exodus of our children: There were no “credible threats” to campus. There had been rumors among students about threatening social media posts. All information has been reported to LAPD, which continues to investigate and monitor. Extra security had been requested as a precautionary measure.
So those texts from my son? Pure rumors. No kid, no gun, no tackle. But there had been enough concern that the school had requested “precautionary measures.” Was there a real threat, or were they being (thankfully) responsible in light of last week’s abhorrent breach of duty in Michigan?
The school had left us without any information. My son and his peers were left to decide whether to stay put or flee. I had no information to help guide him. What was their conversation as hordes of students flooded out the gates? Did they wonder if their teachers would let them make up tests and quizzes? Did they wonder what might be in the backpack of the kids leaving with them?
My son’s voice was light when we spoke soon after. He was with friends, going to one of the girl’s houses. A free pass for a day. I was taking this harder than he was, at least that was what it seemed. Who is to say? Maybe he walks around in a ball of anxiety because this could happen any day.
I left the house to take a walk and I found myself across from the school. A bell rang and kids materialized in the quad and the paths. Easy targets. One local news station had set up a camera on a corner, pointed at the school as if to capture a moment no one wanted to happen but would be a great scoop if it did, fellas! I kept walking, a stray thought that I could take a bullet for my chosen path. When I got to the bluffs, I sat on a bench and cried, though not enough to release all my clenched fear. Maybe the body needs to hold some of it to remain alert.
My client stood at the window of his house while his family slept, looking out for danger, locked down in his house waiting for bad guys to come. What else did you do to protect your family? What else?
What do we do in the face of this constant threat to our children? We text them, Be safe, Don’t leave the classroom. Or Do leave. Trust your gut. Forget the quiz. Nothing matters. We are scared for our kids. We are tired. At the end of the day, he went back to school for a play rehearsal. I let him. There had been no real threat, after all. Just rumors. What about tomorrow?
The notebook paper is warped and stained with coffee from the mug I knocked over when I pushed my laptop screen away from my “maturing” eyes. An accident, though you may tell me there are no such things.
I blot the paper dry, and the mark it leaves on it does not obscure what is written in my 17-year-old’s hand: “College Possibilities.” His list, unnumbered, stretches more than halfway down the horizontal blue lines, in penmanship neater than years past. He is thinking about his future.
I time-travel backward, and sit at this same table writing a list of names for the baby who is still a part of my body, who at 17 will still be part of my body in a way he will never understand until he is a parent. I try out the sound of each name, closing my eyes to envision what each collection of syllables and histories and meanings might predict for this as-yet unmet soul, how he might live into the sound of them.
Over the next 12 months, he will do much the same with his list, trying on each for fit as best as he can. If time is not linear, the lists sit side by side.
I could find that list of baby names if you gave me an hour, folded into a journal or photo album or baby book. I could place my hands on it, wipe its spine coated with dust, particles of our skin and sweat that have collected these past 17 years.
In the end, none of the names on my list rang true. Days after he was born, it was my sister’s suggestion that wrapped him lightly like a cloud, wide enough to allow any adventure he might choose — artist or clown, athlete or sage — wherever his big heart may lead. I hope his list of possibilities does, too.
Around our town the burgeoning sound of children’s protest and despair can be heard rising up toward the burnt July sky, as they realize that with the arrival of August, we are dangerously close to the first day of school, bearing down like a runaway freight train too close to stop before it smashes us. If the stewards of your school district also have decreed that summer ends mid-August, then you too have heard these sounds, the “why oh why’s” and the “woe is me’s” with which I fully concur; school should start in September.
But the calendar is also why I have finally relaxed into the pace of unscheduled lazy summer days. I did not have either the foresight, spine, or budgetary willingness to sign my kids up for endless camps. So with me working from home, they were left to their own devices — really, they were left alone to interact only with their devices, if only I would leave them alone. You must know that means the first half of summer featured ample nagging on my part. (Me: “Go play!” Them: “We are playing!” Me: “I meant outside!” Them: “Where’s the extension cord?”) I kid.
But with only two weeks left, I can let go! Now it’s not weeks of this conflict stretching before me, it’s mere days. So I surrender to days that have no goals or plans besides waking up and staying in pajamas until at long last someone must walk the dogs or go to the market because we are hungry. Days that are not filled with unique enriching activities, but if I’m lucky have been sprinkled with boogie boarding and soccer at the beach, water balloons or card games. And days that are filled with, yes, truly countless hours of xBox and YouTube videos. And I think, what was I so worried about? Will I remember to relax when next summer comes?
For now, August is upon us. There are only two weeks left. Have a great summer.
I keep thinking about the little girl from Nevada who listened to her grandfather challenge me to explain why I supported Hillary Clinton, and then bet me that Donald Trump was going to win. The day before the election I wrote a message to her that was filled with optimism and exuberance about the impending election of our first female President of the United States. I owe her another message, so here it is:
America is ready for a woman President.
It didn’t happen this time, but it wasn’t because America wasn’t ready for a woman. Hillary Clinton earned more than 62 million votes (and counting) from men and women, more than any other candidate except President Obama, and about a million more votes than Donald Trump. (Those voters weren’t spread out in enough different states to give her the presidency, but let’s not delve into that now). What I want you to remember is that Americans are ready to vote for a woman President.
And guess what – your state, Nevada, voted for her! (Take that, Grandpa.)
Many smart, hard-working woman were elected to important positions.
Your state electedCatherine Cortez Masto, to the United States Senate, defeating a Congressman who had voted to defund Planned Parenthood nine times, cutting off access for low-income women to health care.
My state, California, chose between two accomplished, smart, hard-working women to be our U.S. Senator. Kamala Harris will join many other tenacious, brilliant advocates in the Senate, including Elizabeth Warren, Tim Kaine, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tammy Duckworth, to work for our country. So keep your head up. Which leads me to the next point.
Seek out people who build you up.
You will come across jerks in your life, people who think they’re better than you, who want to keep you down. (Remember, I met your grandfather.) Sometimes those people will have power; they may be bosses or teachers. But don’t let them get you down. Remember that they see the world through their own experiences. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, or let them define you.
Seek out people who see the world, and you, as full of possibility. We want and need to hear what you have to say.
The future is bright. And it needs YOU.
This is my most important message for you, young one, and all American girls and boys. We need you. So study hard in school. Strive. Do art. Sing and dance. Write. Express yourself. Learn a second and a third language. Leave home. See our country. See the world. Read books — novels and non-fiction. Challenge your assumptions. Talk to people who disagree with you. Develop empathy and curiosity. Strike out and make a difference. Be confident that you will make a mark.
We are ready for you to become your whole self, and to step into the world with confidence. This is my message to you this week: Kick ass, young one. Kick ass.
Barbara Kingsolver wrote in the Guardian this weekend that when she was a girl of eleven, she asked her father if a woman could be President, and he answered her with an unequivocal No. Something to do, he said, with menstruation, aversion to power, and a natural attraction to motherhood. It became for her part of the litany of things she could not do because she was a girl.
“The slap-downs were often unexpected. Play drums in the band? No. Sign up for the science team? Go camping with the guys? Go jogging in shorts and a tank top without fear of being assaulted? Experiment boldly, have a career, command a moral authority of my own? Walk home safely after dark? No, no, no.”
My parents, on the other hand, encouraged me to dream big. They said, “Yes, you can be President! Girls can be anything they want to be!” But their wishful thinking could not overpower the blatant messages I got from observing reality. Despite their fairy tale answer, there remained the persistent facts: No woman had ever been President. No woman had even been a serious candidate for President. Their encouragement was akin to them saying, “Of course you can go to Mars!” It was fantasy, in the realm of remote possibility in a far off someday. It was, “Never say never, but don’t bank on it.”
Only I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that society’s silent messages had overshadowed my parents’ answer until I was 15, and Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as Vice President shook my foundation. A cloud lifted and an idea rang in my brain, “Oh, I guess they were right, I guess that is not foreclosed.”
Only when I saw a flesh and blood woman speaking from behind the podium, on the debate stage with George Herbert Walker Bush, answering questions of substance like any other candidate, did I sense my own personal glass ceiling break a little. Only then did I believe that maybe a trip to Pennsylvania Avenue wasn’t as far fetched as a trip to Mars. Only then did I realize that I had never believed my parents.
The disappointment of Mondale/Ferraro’s loss reverted back to “the way it is.” That didn’t shift again until Bill Clinton began making Cabinet appointments. Here were women in roles previously filled only by men in the entire history of our country. Every photo of every President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Attorney General was another gray haired man. By 1992, I was an aspiring lawyer, and when Janet Reno, who died today, was named Attorney General, I felt the same blasting away of the old truth that important jobs were reserved for men.
“An Attorney General named Janet!” I celebrated. A friend asked me, “What does it matter?” He meant that all government officials were the same, that it didn’t affect our lives day-to-day. All I could tell him was that it mattered to me, to my personal sense of worth and possibility.
Yesterday I was in Las Vegas, canvassing neighborhoods to encourage voter turnout, handing out a paper that included the local polling place. At one of the last houses on my list, I met an older man and his granddaughter. She scooted outside and sat on a jumble of red rock gravel, while he demanded in a raspy voice that I tell him one reason I liked Hillary Clinton. (Before I could answer, he railed against Bill Clinton and some business dealing in Arkansas.) When he finished, I said, “ You asked for my reason: Hillary Clinton wants to help us get more good jobs, health care, and education, and that she cares about families like yours and mine.” Then, mindful of the little girl listening to this dialogue, I added, “When I was a little girl, I didn’t believe I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up. If Hillary is our President, all the little girls in America will know that they can.”
With that, I thanked him for his time, and turned back toward the sidewalk.
“Wait!” the girl stopped me. “Can I give one of those papers to my mom? She votes!” My heart lifted as I handed her the paper with the address of her polling place, and I spoke to her as though I was speaking to my own 8-year-old self, “Yes, you make sure your mom votes on Tuesday.” She took the paper and hurried inside.
I like to imagine that little girl walking into the house with the voting paper, waiting for her mom to come home from work and handing it to her, urging her to vote. I like to imagine the conversation they might have about it. I like to imagine that my words might have taken hold inside her head, that she will believe, “Yes, young one, you can be and do anything.” I will be thinking of her tomorrow, and hoping she gets the message she deserves.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
The only step we need to take tomorrow is vote. If you have to be late to a meeting, or school drop-off or pick-up, be late. It’s not much of a sacrifice compared with those who came before us.
When I tell someone we have two new puppies, the reaction goes, “Puppies are so cute! Puppies! Puppies! Puppies!” Followed immediately by, “It’s like having babies.”
I grant that there are many similarities. They are crazy cute. I am more housebound than I would like to be. And they pee in inappropriate places. But that’s where the similarities end for me. I feed them from a bag not my body, baby wipes are only for their ears, and I can leave them in a crate in a pinch.
Last week, my 15-year-old echoed the “puppies are like babies” sentiment, saying that raising puppies will help prepare him for being a father. (Awww…!) There’s some truth there: caring for puppies exercises your patience, love, and forgiveness. It requires you to do or say the same thing over and over and over before they “get” it. And at setbacks and joys alike, you must remind yourself “this too shall pass.”
One moment with the puppies recently reminded me of a feeling I had in my early days with an infant. About 15 and a half years ago, in the wee dark hours of the night I sat in a rocker with my baby in my lap for a middle-of-the-night feeding. He was asleep in my arms, finished with his milk, and the crib loomed a mere four feet away from us. I had never yet managed to get this love out of my arms and into his crib without him waking and crying (I would later discover co-sleeping, Praise Be). Hoping this would be the first time, that I would soon return my groggy self to my own bed, I slowly rose, glided soundlessly across the room, leaned my body over the crib with his body against mine until the mattress accepted his weight, I ever sooooooo slooooowly stood up. I waited. YES! I had done it! He was still sleeping! I was ebullient! I felt like I’d scaled a mountain! Cured cancer! Could do anything!
My comparable puppies moment: that same son and I gave them a bath.
The puppies had been playing in the yard after the sprinklers had been on, digging a hole in wet soil. They were filthy. White paws were dark brown. We couldn’t let them in the house. A bath was mandatory.
We had never done this before. There was no special puppy tub, and the kitchen sink seemed too big for these guys. How would we accomplish this? Where to begin? We retrieved a towel, a bucket, and put two inches of warm water and soap in it. Good enough start. My son stood ready with the towel while I put the first dog in. With a little rubbing, the dirt came off. I handed the surprised, wet pup to the waiting, towel-holding arms of my son, and repeated. These two baths lasted less than 30 seconds, and we had two clean, dry puppies!
We were so inordinately proud of ourselves we high ten‘ed.
That was no small thing. My son is a great kid, wonderful to be around. But I’m the mom, the one who asks about homework and reminds about appointments, so sometimes it feels like we are moving in opposite directions, like friction is our default. Joining forces to give the puppies their first bath, exulting together in that new-parent feeling of accomplishment, reminding ourselves of our bond, was a priceless moment that made every other little puppy mess well worth it.
We had planned a quiet anniversary celebration, since the school board transformed what used to be a summer night into a school night a few years ago.
Our first anniversary was a trip with friends to Hawaii.
Our third was a walk to a park with our baby in a stroller.
Our fourth through seventeenth…well, who can recall the details? A few dinners, a few nights with sick children, a few vacations, a search through my mind’s records would likely reveal.
But our eighteenth anniversary will be remembered as the day we got our first puppies. Two.
Officially I have lost my mind.
After years of saying no, I felt ready for a dog. A single dog. We discussed this in May, decided to wait until the end of summer, when travels were done. And then today our friend brought over four puppies for us to choose from.
The cuteness was the problem. How to choose? Add to that so many voices– the friend giving them away, my mother-in-law, my sons, my nieces, even my husband — insisting that a single dog would be lonely without a companion.
I tried using the rational mind: “Most people we know with dogs have just one dog.” And “My mental health is more important than the dog’s mental health.” But the rational mind does not always win. Because, remember, the cuteness.
When it was time for the woman with the puppies to go, pressure was applied. But it didn’t take that much. And now we have two dogs.
And so an 18th anniversary becomes trip to the pet store for supplies. Becomes friends coming over to see the new puppies. Becomes nieces coming back and back again to cradle the pups. Becomes an uncle coming to visit. Becomes my sons trying out names and playing with them and cleaning up after them, and feeding them and getting pillows for their bedtime crate. Become my incredulous parents popping by to wish us a happy anniversary. Becomes an impromptu barbeque, and opening a bottle of champagne and Martinelli’s cider, which had been cooling in the refrigerator since last year.
If ever there is a time to uncork some celebration, this is it. This is 18 years of marriage. Kids. Family. Friends. Blessings abounding. And, now, dogs.
This is life: Full and overflowing, throwing some caution to the wind, saying yes.
The youngest is graduating from elementary school today. “I can’t believe it’s over; I spent more than half my life there” he says. He recognizes this as a Big Moment. “It’s the first big school transition, Mom.”
“What about from pre-school to kindergarten?”
“I didn’t even know what was happening. I thought we moved.”
It’s a big transition for me, too, even though almost nothing changes. Same work, same routines.
Still, our children’s transitions are our parenting milestones. They mark the passage of time, creeping closer to the day they grow up and out. I may be wrong, but my hunch is that my kids’ 0-18 years will be one of my life’s favorite phases.
I remember one early, major milestone: The Stroller Transition. From the first days of motherhood, this new accessory came with me everywhere. In the car trunk, on the sidewalk — the stroller was an extension of me. It carried my child, and I guided it. It connected us. And then, one day, my younger son stopped needing it.
One would think this would be liberating! No more schlepping equipment to and fro, up and down stairs! And in some ways it was liberating. But it also meant I would no longer catch my reflection in a store window, arms extended pushing my baby, but instead chasing to keep up with a growing child running ahead of me on his own. It took me longer than necessary to abandon the stroller, because it signaled that I was leaving part of my then-identity behind — Mom of Little Ones — even as it heralded the beginning of new, wonderful phases, being the mother to growing, curious, expressive kid/tween/teens.
So elementary school will be behind us by day’s end. Onward and upward. Middle and high school. College. Jobs (please God). And at each transition, each new milestone, I will remind myself to appreciate the unknown wonders that will come next, and allow myself a few tears for the parts of ourselves — both the parent and the child — left behind.