My brilliant niece Carly wrote an essay in high school about how their family’s animal hierarchy suffered a seismic upheaval every time a new feline entered the household. When a new human being joins an existing family unit, the reverberations can be – and usually are – far more extreme.
In the case of S and CD, not so much, unless both of them have successfully hidden their trauma for years. In my mind, the seven-year gap in their ages was as responsible for the smooth transition as their respective temperaments. CD was more engaged with his peer group, less dependent on his parents, therefore less inclined to resent her intrusion.
However, just because sibling rivalry didn’t rear its ugly head doesn’t mean our home avoided an earthquake. I’d repressed all memory of 3 AM feedings and dirty diapers but total recall returned with a vengeance. We all rose and slept to the rhythm of a baby. Sometimes the sheer exhaustion was overwhelming.
What I wouldn’t give to live through those golden days again…
It’s typical that my mother and father asked about me before dropping their terrible news. If the situation had been reversed – if I’d been mugged – they wouldn’t have gotten a word out edgewise before I recounted every last detail. This particular episode shocked me on so many levels. Even though I know better, it stuns me when bad things happen around churches. As a child, I believed they were sacrosanct, safe. (That’s why I didn’t lock my first bike when I stopped by to visit my dad at his church office when I was 10. Of course it got stolen. I couldn’t believe it.)
It’s also typical of them that instead of crying about the injustice of it all, my father expressed gratitude it wasn’t worse. I couldn’t find much gratitude in my own heart. Forty years later, I’m grateful that this is one of few – if any – episodes of random violence to impact my family. Writing those words is a little scary – by calling attention to our good fortune, am I jinxing us? (That’s a silly, childish superstition. I hope.)
I was the same age as my mother when she gave birth to me when I gave birth to CD (a month after this shower, 16 months after J and I impulsively got married, in case anyone’s counting). Since I was an infant, I cannot testify to my mother’s state of mind or level of maturity but I strongly suspect she was more responsible and together than me at the same age. Living through the Great Depression– as opposed to the Summer of Love– would tend to mature people quickly.
John and I always planned to have children, just not in 1976. He was in his second year of law school and before learning I was pregnant I quit my job at USC, leaving us no health insurance. I doubt many people pay cash to give birth in hospitals today but it was possible then. These financial issues paled next to John and my psychological readiness to be parents.
Our parents made it look easy; we thought we had it wired – even though we lived in a world without children (unless you count USC students as children). My friends from college were appalled when I told them I was having a baby – “Are you crazy? You’ll ruin your life.”
It did cost me the life I’d led until the birth of my son – because the world and my place in it shifted – but my life wasn’t “ruined.” That said, I’d be lying if I claimed things got easier – for a while, everything – including our marriage – suffered from an overload of change and stress. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No regrets.
My children aren’t rushing into things like I did. My youngest is older than I was after my third child. Statistically, you’d think my odds of grandchildren would be high, with three adult children, but my youngest sister Joyce will soon have two and I have none (Waaaa!). Not that I’d ever want to pressure my children or anything.
Yolanda moved in with us in 1984. She loved Chris, Sam and Alex with everything she had – especially Sam, although she never admitted favoritism. The tip-off? She always referred to Sam as “the princess.” Alex was Ahni and Chris was Goose because that’s how the princess pronounced their names. Yolanda balked at calling us John and Kathleen; we were forever Mr. John and Mrs. Kathleen.
She confided her cancer to the princess, who stepped up. She drove Yolanda to all of her doctor’s appointments, sat by Yolanda through every chemo, visited every day when Yolanda was hospitalized. The rest of us pitched in but the princess earned Yolanda’s second nickname for her – my angel.
On Friday February 10, Yolanda’s doctor estimated she’d live thirty days. She had thirty hours. When she drew her last breath at 1:30 AM, we all understood it was for the best. Her pain was excruciating, cancer terminal, death inevitable. No surprises. We knew where this road led.
Except we didn’t, not really. We’re in shock. All day I shushed our dogs so they wouldn’t awaken Yolanda – as if anything could. Three fat cats looked increasingly concerned – where’s our Fancy Feast? ‘Where’s the human who opens cans?
The light is on in Yolanda’s room. For a second, I think she’s there. I haven’t been in her room alone in years. Everywhere, pictures of our children – framed on her bureau, taped to the wall, stacked in photo albums. She carried their photos in her wallet. She loved it when strangers thought they were hers. Was I jealous, did I worry she’d spirit them off to El Salvador? No. If anything, it endeared her to me. If I couldn’t be there, who better than someone who loved them like they were her own?
On a sheet of paper tacked above her bed she drew a cross and scrawled, “Please god please god no cancer. Please god no cancer.” A purple spiral notebook was scribbled with recipes. She saved expired coupons for things she didn’t buy. A few of her clothes trailed price tags, waiting to be worn. Whoever clears my room when I’m dead will find comparable artifacts.
The photos we leave behind show what we did. Fragments of incomplete projects remind us of all left undone, bits and pieces of Yolanda. I should have known her better, more deeply, sooner. I don’t know her sister’s name or phone number in El Salvador and I don’t speak Spanish even if I did.
So what did I know about Yolanda? She made the LA Times her own personal illustrated blog. She drew devil’s horns on basketball players she hated, basically everyone but LeBron and the Clippers. She trapped a rattler outside our door by slamming a concrete slab down on its head. (I would’ve been dead from heart attack.) She didn’t drink, smoke or party. Her modesty did not permit her to wear shorts, swimwear or sleeveless blouses – ever.
She loved our forays to Costco – “the big store” – but recently I was too busy to take her until she was too weak to go. There are so many things I meant to say – should have said – but didn’t. I hope she knew – I think she knew – how much her kindness meant, how her patience and loyalty changed our lives, how many others – my sisters, parents and friends – grew to love her like we did and always will. How much we’ll miss her smile, her red coat, her curly hair, her commentary on current events (you thought she’d stop at sports?) in the LA Times, all part and parcel of the boundless heart and infinite capacity for love we knew as Yolanda Hernandez.
We’ll meet again, Yolanda.
(I’m not trying to make a political point about immigration. However, since Yolanda was an illegal immigrant when I hired her, here are the facts. She always worked, either caring for the elderly or children. She neither asked for nor received welfare. She became a US citizen in the early 90s. For the next twenty years plus, she paid taxes like everyone else. In other words, she writes checks to our government without cashing checks from them. Our country gave her something more valuable than food stamps – a chance at a better life. The way I see it, she was lucky to get into our great nation – but not as lucky as we were to get her into our family.)
This decision was a turning point in my life – so it surprised me that until I re-read my diary entry, I remembered it wrong. The big beats – the struggle and the decision – remain essentially the same but over the years, I romanticized the fight. In my mind, it became a testament to J’s belief in me as a writer. While in essence this remains true, his willingness to bet on me didn’t come easily or with his whole-hearted support.
And in retrospect I can’t say he was wrong to have reservations. Neither of us knew that a month later, around the time the health insurance my job provided terminated, I’d discover I was pregnant and we’d pay 100% of all the ensuing medical bills. Most of the free time I envisioned after quitting my job would get eaten up with taking care of our infant son.
While I did develop a successful career as a writer, it would be three years before I earned a penny writing – seven or eight years before I’d earn enough writing to support myself, let alone our growing family. If I’d kept my job, those breaks on our tuition and medical insurance would’ve come in handy, particularly since I didn’t accomplish anything much during that interval anyway.
Betty Friedan was right – work expands to fill the time available. Later in life, when I worked forty plus office hours a week co-producing a television show, I got more writing done on other projects at home than I ever had before. When my time is limited, I use it more wisely.
So, quitting my job to provide me with unlimited free time wasn’t our best decision although it was good for our relationship. It meant the world that J believed in me but I probably should’ve believed in his judgment and stayed employed.
Because I’m a pastor’s kid (PK), my father confirmed me – married me – and baptized my children. Every time I stood in front of the congregation and looked into his eyes, tears welled and I teetered on the edge of complete meltdown. I wasn’t sad, just overloaded with emotion. The same thing happens when I think about him now. The memory of my father officiating at CD’s baptism makes me reflect on unique aspects of life as a PK.
When I was two years old (before the Alien Baby emerged, and ruined my life), my father took me with him to give communion to rural parishioners. Halfway through the ceremony, his communicant’s eyes wandered so he turned to investigate what caught their attention. It was me, toddling behind, imitating his words of blessing and passing out imaginary wine and wafers.
We acted out Bible stories to amuse ourselves. The Good Samaritan was a favorite. My father played the battered victim near death by the side of the road. I took on multiple challenging roles ranging from a snooty priest to a snotty Pharisee and a self-absorbed Levite. Basically, I pretended not to see the dying man by the side of the road. At this point my sister Janet, bobbing with excitement, took center stage in the starring role of Good Samaritan. Between you and me, a monkey could have played her part. All she needed to do was hoof it as far as the kitchen and ask Mommy for a glass of water. When she accomplished this feat, dramatic tension peaked. Invariably she paused – and guzzled most of the water, saving a few drops for our dying dad. And I’m the one who got typecast as being selfish?
Sometimes Janet and I played Israelites in search of manna. Confused about what constituted manna – was it vegetable, legume or dairy product? We agreed it probably resembled chocolate chip cookie dough and hid globs of it in the sofa cushions for the Israelites to discover and devour. Who knew about salmonella in the fabulous fifties?
(Future blogs will explore other aspects of growing up P.K.)
I love Art Everett’s observation about how some humans maintain their cock-eyed optimism in the face of certain disappointment. There are plenty of people at the other end of the spectrum – perpetual pessimists – but I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by optimists. I flirted with cynical despair myself in my senior year of high school when I struggled with clinical depression but it’s not my natural inclination. (Senior Year Depression ) If it was, I’d work hard to change as empirical evidence suggests that most people’s happiness meter is set. Basically, we’re about as happy as we expect to be. A sudden windfall or financial disaster might make you go TILT for a moment but your internal happiness meter will reset at its normal level before long. Given this, why not put in a little effort to set that meter as high as possible?
What can I say about that mortifying pratfall? Admittedly thin-skinned and over-sensitive about looking stupid, it bothers me more than it should when people laugh at me. Consequently, I rarely tell stories in which I’m a complete buffoon. This pratfall was hard to forget. Years later, whenever I ran into Tony, Laraine or Debbie, we’d laugh about the day I totaled their plant with my fat pregnant butt. On the bright side, I never backed up without an eye to the rear-view mirror again.
 As you may have surmised, when attending a reject gift party each couple brings a newly-wrapped hideous present someone else once gave to them. Hilarity ensues as guests swap one atrocious gift for another. It’s a really fun party and I highly recommend it.
By “one big pregnant blur” I meant seven more months. Little did I know it would be fourteen more months. What the hell happened?
A month prior, I took a pregnancy test at Verdugo Hills Hospital as opposed to a do-it-yourself pee stick. Why? Because I didn’t trust my ability to read the results accurately. I wanted professional eyes.
After the positive test, I packed on pounds like a sumo wrestler.
I quit nursing Sam to ensure adequate nourishment for the new baby.
Let’s back up. Three children weren’t part of John’s or my master plan. We were satisfied (and exhausted) by our current two, a boy and a girl. We convinced ourselves this third child was meant to be.
Our childless friends mocked us mercilessly. “What did you do, mount her on the way out of the delivery room?” they taunted John. Truth be told, back-to-back pregnancies struck me as a tad trailer-trashy and unseemly but I waddled on.
In March, at my monthly appointment, my OB couldn’t find a fetal heartbeat. (This was the first time she tried.) Alarmed, she ordered an ultrasound and – surprise!
Despite looking ready to drop, I wasn’t deep in my fourth month – not even close. I was two weeks pregnant. In other words, months ago – when I fretted about how 1984 would be one big pregnant blur – I wasn’t even a little bit pregnant. Instead of giving birth in July, as everyone I knew now expected, I’d deliver in October.
How could such a mix-up happen? The hospital stood by their initial positive pregnancy test, suggesting I subsequently miscarried (without noticing it) and promptly conceived again. I thought it far more likely they screwed up the test and – under the delusion I was already pregnant – I quit nursing after which I conceived for real.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. By now, John and I were fully adjusted to the prospect of three children. The fact he or she would be a Libra rather than a Gemini was no reason to reconsider.
I have another more fantastical theory about what happened. It has no scientific basis in fact. In my myth, Alex and Sam knew each other in previous incarnations, different lifetimes. Maybe they were lovers, maybe one parented the other, maybe one saved the other’s life. Regardless of what bound them, their connection ran deep. In this lifetime, Alex wanted to be close to Sam – this time, to watch her grow up. The strength of his love and the sheer force of his will powered him through time and space and created that magical mishap with my pregnancy test all to bring them together again – this time as siblings.
Watching them grow up together might make you a believer too. I never want to spend two years pregnant again, thank you very much. But if I was required to be pregnant for ten years to bring Alex into the world, I’d do it. No regrets. It was meant to be.