By Any Other Name

I was named Holly Christensen at birth. Seven years later, I walked into a courthouse in Toledo, Ohio with my mother and her second husband of two years. I came out Holly Slusher. It was the early seventies and along with a name change, my official birth certificate was permanently altered deleting my biological father from all records and replacing his information with that of Mr. Slusher.

When I was nineteen, my mother and Mr. Slusher, both of whom had long been involved with the parties they would each later marry, divorced. Afterwards, my stepfather and I saw each other on occasion and then without incident, sometime in my mid-twenties, we stopped. Around that time, I went to the courthouse in Columbus, Ohio where I was a student at Ohio State, and changed my name back to Holly Christensen. I did so not as a repudiation of my stepfather, though Slusher was easy taunting fodder throughout a childhood where I was frequently the new kid, but because Holly Christensen is my name.

In reclaiming my name, I staked out my allegiance, some small sense of belonging to my historical past, while self-determining my future. If ever there was an adult in my life who made me feel wanted and loved, it was my grama, Dorothy Christensen. She always claimed me as hers, even when she wasn’t happy with me. There was nothing that could have caused us to lose contact with each other—neither miles nor time apart. Even now, nearly seven years after her death, I talk to her in quiet moments when I am alone.

As an adult, I have never taken a man’s last name. I never will.

Naming Children

My first litmus test in naming my children has always been the French pronunciation. Anyone who suggested a name immediately heard me pronounce the name with a French accent and, when possible, a French translation. You say Monica, I say Monique. You say Stephen, I say Étienne. I did this because, in my opinion, most words sound better in French than they do in English, especially names. All names, in fact, except for my name, which is unfortunately pronounced, “Oh-Lee,” sounding not unlike a call for pigs to slop.

Traditionally, the Sioux Nation would not name a child until the child revealed his or her true nature, often only when they were several years old (and the name could again change, later in life, if and when the person changed). Until receiving their first name, Sioux babies were given generic placeholder names identifying their birth order. Such a system would have saved me three times from the pressure of turning a birth certificate in a timely manner combined with the anxiety that the reluctantly agreed upon name was wrong for the child.

Boy One

Boy One

In most name books, Claude is typically defined as “lame,” which is direct reference to the Roman emperor, Claudius. Claudius was dismissed by many in his family because a childhood illness had caused him to limp and left him partially deaf. Fortunately, my Claude, a serious distance runner, has strong legs, but for years he felt crippled by dyslexia. Emperor Claudius overcame his limp in his teens and proved to be an astute, if not provocative, historian. My Claude overcame his learning disability through dogged discipline, and earned entrance and substantial scholarships to a great university. Meeting the challenges of his one-time affliction may well have shaped Claude into the young man he now is—tenacious, hard-working and concerned for a society that is fair and just for all its citizens (a concern that grows with each political science course he takes).

Claude’s name was chosen before his birth, but holding him in my arms, I felt instantly that Claude was not the right name for my newborn son. My ex-husband dismissed my emotional pleas to talk about a different name as Simply a problem with your postpartum hormones, Holly. You agreed to the name, you lived with it for five months. We are not discussing any other names. Two years ago, I found a letter I had written to my ex-husband in the weeks after Claude was born. In it, I wrote what hurt the most was that rather than discuss my concerns about the baby’s name, he instead walked out of the room each time I brought up the subject. At the county health department, where we turned in the paperwork for Claude’s birth certificate two weeks after his homebirth, I remained in the car with my baby, sobbing with hollow heartbreak. I wanted to name him Luke.

Boy Two

Babies_0001Hugo means “bright mind and spirit,” which my Hugo certainly has. He is also huge in all that he is and does. At each preschool parent-teacher conference, Hugo’s teacher, Miss Peg, would tell me, “We’re trying to get Hugo to calmly ask his friends to stop doing something he doesn’t like instead of yelling right away.” Twelve years later, we are still working on that. But when happy, Hugo is equally demonstrative and at such moments will often throw his arms around me, pinning my own arms to my sides, and swing me around the kitchen until I tell him to “Put me down!”

Those of us who live with him have long observed that Hugo functions best when busy enough to keep him on his mark. Like a rubber band stretched just far enough so that it can fly across the sky. Occasionally he allows his schedule to stretch him to the point of breaking, and when he does, Hugo snaps at all who come near, often screaming at me not to yell at him when all I have said is something like, “The clothes in the living room that I told you to pick up yesterday are still there, go and get them now.”

Or, he will yell, “Jesus Christ, Jules, do you have to make your lunch in front of the damn coffee machine? Some of us haven’t had our first cup yet!” (Yeah, we noticed.)

Yet this same child makes me laugh harder and more often than any other. He has always been nostalgic and even back in the days of Miss Peg, he remarked regularly on the fleeting passage of time. And while Claude and Jules regularly vanish in the ether of their thoughts, Hugo keeps record of life’s details, albeit from his particular perspective. He now combines these traits to retell humorous stories from when he and Claude were little, most often tales of when they were naughty.

There was that time when Claude was about 12 and he was standing in the hallway outside our bedrooms and he called you a bitch and you heard it all the way down in the basement because the laundry shoot was open and you yelled up, “What…did…you…call…me?” and started stomping up all four flights of stairs and Claude just stood there frozen, unable to move and I was scared too even though I hadn’t done anything wrong and you just stomped loudly up the stairs, but not fast, while Claude stood there panicking and I stood in the doorway of my room watching him, neither of us could move and when you finally got to the top of the stairs you got right in Claude’s face and again yelled, “What did you call me?” and Claude said in this meek little voice, “A bear?” and you roared in his face like a bear and, I swear to God, I thought he peed his pants and I was so glad I wasn’t him.

When Hugo’s in trouble or avoiding work I’ve asked him to do, his trump card is to pull out his guitar and sing one lovely ballad after another. Our house has a central stairwell, which functions as an acoustic chimney. When Hugo sings and strums, music fills every room and brings levity to all the inhabitants.

Huge passion, passionate Hugo. I wanted to name him Oskar. I’m glad he’s a Hugo.

Boy Three

Jules means “youthful, young.” Jules is not like anyone else I have ever known and, as such, is the hardest child to describe. I only wanted two children (yes, it’s true, zero growth and all that) but when Hugo was two years old, my ex-husband campaigned for a third baby with all his potent skills of charm and subterfuge. At the time, I assumed my ex’s drive for a third child could be traced to the fact that in his own family he was the third child. Now, however, I believe he presaged, presumably subconsciously, that when I was no longer in what many mothers think of as “the baby fog,” I would escape. Which is exactly what I did when Jules was six.

However, if for nothing else, I am undyingly grateful my ex-husband crusaded for the baby who is Jules. An easy baby and ethereally beautiful toddler, he came into this life rolled in pixie dust, or so I’ve always said, and for years I was uneasy about him being more than an arm’s reach from me in public.

“Jules is not the angel you think he is,” Hugo has told me on more than one occasion.

“Yes, I am,” Jules has quickly responded at least once.

“Yes, he is,” I have told Hugo every time. Jules slinks out of chores, forgets to brush his teeth or make his bed, gets caught lying on occasion (mostly since becoming a teen)—he is human. But consider this: Claude, Hugo and I have potty mouths. There is no denying it, nor does it seem a habit we can change. We’ve tried swear jars, but Hugo only steals the money and we all continue swearing. Jules, however, never, ever swears. Like a lotus blooming in a quagmire of sewage, it’s just not his nature and he rises above it.

At school, where he is now in the seventh grade, Jules continues to interact with all the students in his class—the boys and the girls, those for whom things comes easily along with those who struggle. The one deal breaker for Jules is meanness. It has always been so. When Miss Peg was his preschool teacher, Jules’ closest friend would not stop smashing anthills on the playground. For months, Jules tried to convince his four-year-old best buddy to stop killing the little worker bugs and to watch them instead. All to no avail. Finally, Jules told the boy he would no longer play with an ant-killer. From that day on, Jules never spent time with, nor really spoke of, that child again.

Jules engages the world with the openness of an infant and the wisdom of a rinpoche. He has a patience uncommon for one so young, making him an accomplished birder, chef, and, in the past few years, big brother. I wanted to name Jules after a great Ohioan from the Shawnee people, a political leader who also possessed the gift of prophecy. Jules’ father scoffed at the idea and so instead I suggested Theo, godly, even though we are Buddhists. I lost that battle too. It is no secret that I was uncomfortable with the name Jules for many years. Jules himself had difficulty pronouncing the name until he was nearly six and people thought he was saying either “Juice” or “Jews.”

Three years ago, he took the Shawnee leader’s name as his spiritual name.

Boys Two, Three and One

Boy Four

Leif’s name was pre-ordained, Hugo the conduit of the message. Twelve years old at the time and standing with his hands on his hips, he told Max and me, “Claude and Jules are just alike. They look alike, they act alike, they both have dyslexia. This baby boy is going to be like me. I am going to raise him in my own image and I am going to call him Leif!” (Don’t think we don’t remind Hugo of this whenever Leif’s behavior is less than ideal. We do. Hugo grins.)

We had waited as long as we could to tell the boys I was expecting because even though I had left their father three years earlier, the divorce continued interminably. The juxtaposition seemed less than ideal. “This is the worst thing that could happen to your children, all the literature says so!” said the therapist I had been seeing for many years, including marriage counseling with my ex-husband. I credit this therapist for helping me to see my own role in my marriage, one I was groomed for by my upbringing. Until I saw the script I was living, re-writing my life was not possible. But like many women, she too was vulnerable to my ex-husband’s charm and only recognized his narcissism after I left him and he no longer hid his deeply hostile nature.

“Leif is a wonderful name!” said Claude’s former teacher at the Waldorf school when I introduced her to our newborn son. “In Norse mythology, Lif and Lifthrasir are the two human children who survive Ragnorak, something like an Armageddon, and repopulate the world. Both names mean life!” Leif cemented our new life. With his birth, my boys became officially related to Max, the father of their brother. If ever they wondered, and what children of divorce don’t, Leif’s existence gave my boys the certainty that Max was more than a passing fancy of mine.

Once upon a time, before Leif was conceived, Max told me that while he thought he’d be a good father, the opportunity never presented itself. “Your boys are all I need,” he said and I believe we would have lived an equally full life without producing more children together. But it would not have been the same. I suspect we would have continued maintaining our two households rather than merging together in a house right out of my girlhood dreams. Which means Max would not be with us every night, dependably available for homework help and bedtime stories (he’s currently reading Inkspell to Jules while Leif is stuck on repeat readings of Moody Cow and Katie the Caboose). Max probably wouldn’t take off work to go to the high school with me to argue for Hugo to be placed in a better English class. Nor would he be there to drive the boys at all hours of the day and night to places near and far for their school and social activities. Our lives would have been parallel pieces of fabric serged together where they overlapped. With Leif, and later Lyra, our seven lives have been wafted and wefted into a textile, the detailed pattern of which we have slowly come to recognize. Without having been here before, it feels like coming home.

I doubt that the therapist who disparaged my pregnancy as damaging to my existing children was ever a mother herself. Had she been a mother, she would have congratulated me (I didn’t say I was trying to get pregnant, I said I was pregnant) and then advised me on how to prepare my boys for their new sibling. But I was a mother and I did know how to proceed with my children. For starters, I never saw that therapist again.

Girl One and Only

“How did you come up with the name Lyra?” we are asked all the time. Quite simply, I found it in a baby name book. The last few months of my pregnancy, when the summer was vexatiously hot, I would take Leif to Barnes and Noble. As I sat in the children’s department next to the Thomas the Tank Engine table, Leif played happily for an hour or more. While he did, I paged through baby name books taken from the shelves on our way back to the trains.

After pining for a daughter for nearly twenty years, it’s surprising I didn’t have a ready list of names. I had but one. Arabella is a name I have loved ever since reading Thomas Hardy’s dreadful Jude the Obscure. While the main characters, Jude and Sue, whine chapter after chapter about their unhappy lives, Jude’s coarse and lusty wife, Arabella, unapologetically takes what she wants and discards what she doesn’t. When the world is the straight, white man’s oyster, where those same men get to define the ideal woman as tubercular in aspect, fearful of sex and wracked with guilt—a brash character like Arabella is a feminist heroine. Arabella means “beautiful lion” and having been born in August, our beautiful girl is indeed a Leo.

The problem with Arabella as a first name is that in the twenty years I have been naming children, Bella has become popular to the point of common. It is today what Jennifer was when I was a girl. I like names that are both familiar yet uncommon. So instead, for several weeks in the middle of the pregnancy, we lived with Pippen Violet or Piper Violet. Until we learned of a couple nearby who had a daughter Leif’s age named Piper Violet. Really? Same first and middle name? Too weird. We started looking again.

Lyra, Lyra, Lyra (pronounced lie-rah, not leer-uh), I let the name roll in my mouth that day in the bookstore when I was seven months pregnant. It means musical as does the more popular name “Lyric.” But in that watery well of pregnant connection to my little fetus, I felt my girl’s name must have soft syllables. Lyra. It was only after texting the name to Max did I remember the heroine from Philip Pullman’s novel for children, The Golden Compass. Lyra Belacqua, a quick-witted girl raised in a college at Oxford University, who generally runs wild with the local children and sees little problem in spying on, and lying to, adults. When one of her friends is kidnapped, Lyra sets out to rescue him and the rest of the story is a fantastical tale of adventure and loss.

The entire family listened again to the story on CD and by unanimous vote decided to name our girl Lyra Arabella, though I fear Lyra will grow up believing her middle name is Jane. This is because when my children are babies, I find a short refrain, unique to each child, which I sing to them. For Lyra, I have adapted the American folk song, “L’il Liza Jane.” During blood draws and contact lens cleanings, when she’s sleepy and when she is fussy, she calms and directs her attention to my voice when she hears, I’ve got a house in Baltimore, little Lyra Jane. Fancy carpet on the floors, little Lyra Jane. Oh, my Lyra! Little Lyra Jane!kidsinOrchard


“I’ve long had a name for you,” my husband said to me as sat across a table from me drinking his second vodka martini. At first he refused to tell me what it was. We were in the emotionally gooey weeks just after I had announced the need to separate, but had not yet figured out how.

“You can’t tell me you’ve had a name for me and not tell me what it is,” I said, knowing he would. He wanted to tell me, why else would he have brought it up?

“It started when Hugo was a baby. I’d come home from work and see you with him and think, There she is, Depression Kitty.”

Hugo’s birth, which included ten pounds of baby and shoulder dystocia, would have ripped up my lady parts had I been in less capable hands than those of my midwives. Two days later I developed a uterine infection with all the gross symptoms of sepsis on the move.  Powerful antibiotics were given and gratefully taken. They coursed through my blood stream and my breast milk, trashing the delicate bacteria growing in Hugo’s intestines. His first three days of life, Hugo’s eyes were swollen shut from having his head out of the womb for several minutes before his body could be delivered. By the time his eyes opened, he writhed with gut pain and remained severely colicky for the better part of his first six months.

Anyone who has lived with a colicky baby knows calling it torture is neither flip nor satiric. Sleep deprivation diminishes clear thinking, while each thought is splintered by the constant cries from the squirming baby who, if not in your arms, is never far away. Anxiety over the baby’s health is constant, as are jangled nerves. Living with a colicky baby for a short period of time can make a perfectly healthy person depressed and many medical professionals treat parents of a colicky babies accordingly. A colicky newborn has caused more than one couple I know to stop having children.

At the end of the long days with baby Hugo, I hoped for relief from his other parent. Instead, when he came home from work, he seemed angry with me. Which I told myself couldn’t be the case and for even thinking it, I ladled guilt onto my raw emotional state.

But he was. My necessary and unceasing attention to our colicky baby (along with three-year-old Claude, my other constant companion), detracted from the attention I could give the man of the house. When I needed support, I was given anger. When I needed comfort, I was told I was depressed and should consider taking something for it.

In an Instant

“I think I may be depressed,” I told Max, who had been my friend for years but my lover for only six months.

“Well, maybe,” he said, holding me in his arms on an autumn afternoon. Through the doors of the Juliette balcony that overlooked a small, forested yard, two extruded trapezoids of golden light cast themselves along the foot of his bed where we were lying. Dust motes floated gently in the illuminated spaces.

“Let’s see, you’re grieving the loss of your grandmother, you’re going through a long and bitter divorce, you’re in graduate school, you’re raising three children and you hardly have any money, so you clean houses in your so-called spare time. These are some of the most stressful things anyone can go through,” he said and I tried to respond.

“No, wait a moment, let me finish,” he said softly, kissing my forehead as I remained curled next to the length of his body, my head on his shoulder, my face relaxed in the soft flannel of his shirt. “Your kids are doing well, in spite of everything, because you keep them your priority. You’re getting As in grad school while enjoying your coursework, and you’re paying all your bills. All the while, you have been actively working through your grief and dealing as reasonably as anyone could with an unreasonable divorce process.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way.

“It seems to me you are a person under a tremendous amount of stress and you are managing it better than most people would. I am so impressed by how you handle it all.”

The therapist whose unconscionable reaction to the news of my pregnancy had once told me something useful: that no matter how long an emotional or psychological injury had lasted, no matter how deeply it had wounded, healing could happen in an instant.

Just as I reclaimed my birth name as a young woman, that afternoon with Max I rejected an unspoken and insidious appellation, worn for more than a decade like a musty woolen cloak placed over my head and shoulders. It simply was not me.

A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose

Do names have the power to alter experience? There are some studies that conclude, yes, they do. How much? Probably not a lot, particularly if you have a somewhat typical name.

What seems more important is how we are treated. Recently, Hugo and I were listening to an NPR report on birth order. Firstborns, which Max and I both are, tend to have greater professional, financial and other successes in life than their younger siblings. The reasoning for this is that firstborns tend to receive the full force of their parents’ attentions and expectations. Subsequent children often get a watered-down version.

“You’re getting the same package as Claude, you know,” I told Hugo as we stood there in the kitchen next to the radio. “So don’t think the bar is any lower for you than it was for Claude when he was in high school. It’s not.”

“Oh, I know!” said Hugo. He went on to say that anyone who needed to motivate their kids should send them to me. Please, no. I’m busy enough with my own offspring right now. Hugo’s lifelong pushback on my pushing is far less than it was even a year ago. He’s now close enough to finishing high school that he is thinking about college and a career. And he’s mature enough to show gratitude regularly and without provocation.

“Hey, you know what, Mama?”

“What, Hugo?”

“I love you!”

“I love you too, Hugo. Now put me down, please.”


Best Laid Plans

6:30 a.m. On a Recent Saturday Morningphoto 

“You’re a good mom,” said Max.

“Yeah, okay, right. But I need more balance. We all do.”

We were in the parking lot at our local Starbucks and had just decided that I would, as previously planned, take all three of the younger kids to the Toledo Zoo, a little over two hours away. The Ohio Young Birders Club was holding its annual conference at the zoo and I had registered Jules and myself earlier in the week when it seemed a perfect plan for everyone. Max, who had an important work deadline, could do what he needed without feeling guilty for going into the office on the weekend. Jules, the consummate birder, could have a day devoted to his passion. And the little tikes and I could wander around a zoo. Win-win-win, we all agreed. In order to arrive in time for the pre-conference behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo’s aviary, we had the alarm set for five a.m.

3 a.m. A Cat Purrs Me Awake

I looked around the bed for Boggart, our faux Himalayan cat (when he was a four-week-old flea vehicle in danger of developing anemia, I took him from his feral mother, an all-grey tabby who roamed our neighborhood), who is as big as our shelties and the color of a mocha latté. Max and I each brought two cats into our relationship, but only Boggart remains in the house because he, unlike the other three, continues to behave himself. Preferring to sleep with Hugo, as he has for all his eleven years, Boggart rarely comes to our bed, but his size and color make him easy to spy when he does. When I didn’t see him, I slid my hand towards the purring until my fingertips brushed upon the fur of the cat I couldn’t see, a calico of the dark, tortoise shell variety.

“Segovia’s in our bed, Max,” I said, waking Max who took her outside. You may reasonably wonder why I didn’t just cart her off myself. And I’ll tell you: because she’s mean. The only person she allows to touch her is Max. (Her meanness to all sentient beings and her love of shredding furniture are what earned her placement in the resettlement program to the garage and great outdoors).

Max returned to our bed and as soon as he’d pulled the covers back over his shoulders, he resumed the measured breathing of sleep. Even though I’d been exhausted all week, even though I hadn’t gotten to bed as early as I had wanted the night before, I was wide awake. Two hours remained before the alarm on Max’s phone would emit the sounds of gently strummed chords. Pressured by the limited time, every moment felt like an onerous taskmaster who chanted, You must sleep, you must sleep, if you don’t sleep you’ll be too tired to drive, you must sleep, you must sleep. I took ibuprophen for my sinus headache, I focused on my breathing and I thought of what I needed to do not just tomorrow, but in life, before my children are grown, before I am no longer able, before I die. Anxiety easily owning the pre-dawn hours when only my irrational mind is awake.

Nearly an hour and a half later, sleep and I reconnected as if finding one another on an elevator gliding down to the less knowable parts of my thoughts.

4:30 a.m. I Dream of Leif

Somewhere, Leif is scared, crying out and I don’t know why. In my dream I run to him, calling for Max when suddenly I pull myself up, awake.

“Max, Leif’s crying,” I said, shaking his arm, and Max quickly went to comfort Leif from what I assumed was a bad dream. I hoped to sleep just a little longer, long enough to take the edge off the fatigue that felt more like I’d just gotten to bed rather than soon needing to rise. But Leif continued to cry. Max shut our door to the bathroom that connects Jules and Leif’s room to our own. Something’s not right I thought. Lifting my body from the bed, I lumbered ungracefully to the bathroom.

“Leif threw up,” said Max, “Not much, and he doesn’t have a fever, but we needed to clean him up.” Leif’s sheets were not spared either, and so, once he was washed and in fresh pajamas, we took him to our bed. For twenty minutes I slept with Leif in my arms, his pale face on my shoulder, the silken softness of his hair on my cheek, which rested on the top of his head.

Five a.m. Time to Get Up!

“I’m hungry!” said Leif when the alarm went off. That’s a good sign, Max and I agreed, and the two of them went down to make coffee and get Leif a bowl of cereal. I took a shower and while I was dressing, Max brought me a cup of coffee.

“Leif threw up again, I need to get him new clothes,” said Max.

“Should he go to Toledo?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t have a fever, he’s cheerful and he keeps telling me he wants to go to the zoo. He’s holding a bowl in case he needs to vomit again. Why don’t I go to Starbucks and get those breakfast sandwiches while you finish getting ready and we can decide when I get back?”

Six a.m. We All Go to Starbucks

Starbucks doesn’t open at 5:30 on the weekends, so Max returned home empty-handed. Jules, who purposely had showered gone to bed in his clothes the night before, was ready three minutes after I roused him. When I had Lyra dressed and a bag packed with everything I thought we needed for the day’s adventure, the kids and I piled into the minivan and Max followed us in his car.  Leif willingly, almost cheerfully, carried his small plastic barf bowl. The five of us crowded around a café table meant for two with our breakfast sandwiches, Lyra eating every bite of the custard-like egg I gave her.

Unclear Decisions

What’s the right decision? In the normal course of life very few decisions, in my opinion, are absolutely right or wrong. Assess a situation, consider the options and attempt to predict the eventual outcomes, though nothing is ever fully predictable. But there are times, and this was one, where the prognosticating information was dubious. Was Leif really sick or, as so often happens with kids, was it one of those cases where having thrown up he was fine? Options: If Leif stays with Max, Max won’t be able to work nearly as much as he needs. And Leif will be very sad to miss the zoo. If we all stay home so Max can work, Jules would probably understand, but feel disappointed. I hate disappointing Jules, who so rarely disappoints anyone (quite literally to a fault and on the rare occasions when he gives me teen push-back, I secretly cheer). Or, I could carry on as planned and hope Leif would not throw up again or, if he did, that he’d accurately hurl in the bowl.

This was the discussion we had while I drank a red eye (coffee with a shot of espresso) for the extra punch of caffeine. Was he really sick? He seemed fine. In the end, there was no way of knowing and I was too tired to tease out all the options any longer. Other parents may have erred on the side of caution. For better or worse, I erred on the side of adventure as I often do.

“We’re going as planned. But we need to go now if we are going to get there in time for the aviary tour,” I said. Max helped me load the tots in the car. My head, well acquainted with garden-variety tension headaches up to eye-popping migraines, had been experiencing a novel form of pain devised by a pernicious sinus infection for which I’d only begun taking antibiotics the day before. The infection still remained in control of what felt like a lead ball rolling in the space behind my eyes, smashing the pliable grey matter to the inner surface of my skull. I imagined a cross section of my brain would look like a fat letter “C,” like the plastic ones kids put on the refrigerator when learning to read. Meanwhile, under my scalp the muscles squeezed the boney plates in equal measure, like some sci-fi shrinking helmet. My skull felt as if it would disintegrate into an anthill of bonemeal. I had managed the previous week with Sudafed and nasal spray, but nothing completely stopped the pressured pain.

Looking Good, Holding Steady

Lyra was asleep before we’d pulled out of the Starbuck’s parking lot. Ten minutes later, as we queued up to get on the toll road, I looked back at Leif. With his barf bowl still in his lap, his head was tilted back and his jaw hung open. He had passed out. Jules, however, stayed awake and chatting with him helped me focus as we drove in the dark. The babies slept, we made good time, and easily found the zoo.

The Toledo Zoo is striking for its modern exhibits on a campus filled with WPA buildings and statues. We were told that the zoo has more WPA buildings than any other single institution in the country. I’ve long loved the iconic look of the art and architecture built in the 1930s under Roosevelt’s public works program. The conference was held in one such building, a former science museum, far from the parking lot. Hurrying so we could catch the aviary tour, Jules pushed Leif in the stroller while I carried Lyra in my arms. It was chilly, but the forecast predicted warmer weather and as we dashed by exhibits and playgrounds I plotted out the places I would take the little ones while Jules conferenced.

We arrived just as a zookeeper announced the last aviary tour. The large aviary is organized geographically with several rooms containing birds in cages, while in other rooms, the birds fly freely around the visitors. As so often happens nowadays, when I shared interesting bird facts with Jules, he would say, “I know,” before leaving me in the dust with an explosion of information. It is one of the wonders of being a mom that I never tire of: this young man, who came out of my body with only his instincts, is now an expert in things I know little about.

Hatchling Leif
Hatchling Leif

Leif, meanwhile, energetically gamboled about the aviary, running ahead to other rooms only to have me call him back. While Jules went into the feeding station and nursery with our zookeeper/tour guide, I stayed back with Leif who climbed into child-sized eggs, in a play area designed for kiddos like him. After the tour, we made our way to the conference auditorium, where Leif devoured the remaining breakfast sandwich, which I had packed in my bag. I sent Max photos of a happy Leif titled, “Hatched and Feeding.”

A Real Conference

Because I do not have the time to investigate much else than what is in front of me, I had not looked closely at the conference schedule. I had assumed that we would hear some interesting talks given by adults who work with birds in some professional capacity—ornithologists, conservationists, park rangers, zookeepers. But in the opening remarks, the director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, the organization who founded the Ohio Young Birders Club and hosts the annual conference, explained that it was young members who were presenting papers that day. She proudly went on to tell us that one of their former members recently had a paper accepted in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. And that is the goal of the conference, to give these young birders an opportunity to learn how to give professional presentations. How cool is that? I thought. I don’t remember the first conference I attended, but it couldn’t have been before college.

The Americans with Disabilities Act coincidentally benefits the stroller set and the last row in the auditorium had two seats next to the aisle with wide-open floor space on the other side. We quickly established a little encampment next to the two seats and with Lyra and Leif playing on the floor, Jules and I listened to the first presentation, given by a young man who had monitored a bluebird trail using weights and photography. Our day had fallen into place.

And then it fell apart.

The Other Shoe Drops

Episode One:

“I gotta go poopy,” said Leif. He’d raced ahead of me after the first talk was over and then suddenly stopped. I looked at him and I knew. It was the way he bent slightly forward at his hips. It was too late.

Telling Jules to take Lyra, I raced with Leif in my arms down a flight of concrete stairs to the basement of the building where the bathrooms were located. In a stall, I pulled down Leif’s pants and popped him on the toilet. His underwear were soiled. I removed them and did the only thing I could do: I rinsed them in the toilet of another stall before drying them as best as possible with the hand dryer. The air of the hand dryer became very hot after I’d successively hit the button five or more times. His underpants were mostly dry when I put them back on Leif, telling him to let me know immediately if he had to go again.

Episode Two:

“I gotta go poopy again!” Leif said twenty minutes later. Because we’d wandered away from the conference to look at the amphibian exhibit on the main floor, Jules was not there to help. I plucked Lyra from her stroller, which wouldn’t easily go down the basement stairs, and carried both children to the bathroom. We made it in time, but as I stood over Leif in the stall, I watched the crescent moons under his eyes darken as though they were filling with octopus ink.

Episode Three:

It was bad. The second conference presentation had just ended and I was able to give Lyra to Jules before dashing to the part of the Toledo Zoo with which I was becoming most familiar. In the women’s restroom I removed Leif’s pants and underwear, both of which were soiled.

“It’s on my sock too!” Leif pointed out to me. I removed the offending sock and began rinsing all three items in the adjacent stall. As I bent over the toilet, I could feel my heart beat in my blocked sinuses, which felt like open hands slapping water balloons filled near to bursting.

Situation assessment:

One half naked three-year-old in the bowels of an old building at the far end of the Toledo Zoo. Shit. One pain addled mom who was done sticking her hands in the cold water of public toilets. Think, think, think.

“Honey, I’m going to put one of Lyra’s diapers on you.”

“NO! I don’t want to wear a diaper! I’m a big boy!”

“You are a big boy, Leif, but you are a sick big boy and I don’t want to rinse your poopy underwear out ever again,” I said as I leaned him back on the bathroom’s diaper-changing table, which sagged under his weight. Luckily, the last time I had purchased diapers for Lyra, I had decided to move her up from size two diapers to size three, even though she was just under the cut off weight for size twos. On Leif, the Velcro tabs of the size threes met the outer edges of the diaper, but it worked. Leif seemed relieved and told me he was a sick big boy.

Standing between both hand dryers, I blew dry Leif’s pants with my left hand and his sock with my right. He watched, seated on the sink counter near the dryer that warmed his sock. Hot air filled the sock. “Look, your sock looks like a foot!” I told Leif and he giggled. When the clothes were dry enough, I dressed Leif and we rejoined Jules and Lyra.

Near Normal Afternoon


Leif did have one more accident, but because of the diaper, none of his clothes were soiled. After lunch, which he did not eat, Leif fell asleep in my arms during the first presentation of the afternoon. Jules and I were again seated in the back row, Lyra slept in her stroller and, for a few minutes, I leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes. When Lyra stirred, I awoke and gently placed Leif on the floor where he slept for two hours.

IMG_2494When the conference ended at 4:30, Leif had been up and racing around the main floor of the science museum for more than an hour. We trundled out of the building in our coats and in the half an hour before the zoo closed, managed to see the penguins, the tigers, a growling male lion, an enormous polar bear eating fish and a seal sleeping on an underwater ledge. Leif scampered from place to place and nobody would have guessed how sick he’d been just hours earlier.

We arrived home at 7:30, where Max greeted us with orange roughy filets he’d prepared with a miatake mushroom and herb tapenade. He handed me a glass of cold chardonnay after I’d hung up my coat and joined him in the kitchen. Leif immediately took a tubby, where he stayed for over half an hour (promising me he wouldn’t drink the bath water). Over dinner, Jules described the conference to Max, telling him that the presentations were good, if a little too long. Max and I looked at each other and said in near unison, “Sounds like all conferences!”

Nice Work

Right, wrong. Good, bad. I don’t know that I believe in those words. Rinsing poopy underwear the public bathroom in a century old basement was not what I had wanted to do that day. But there we were and what else was to be done? And the truth is, I felt so tenderly for my boy that day. Because he is three and clever, much of our relationship these days is about encouraging the kind of behavior I want from him and not the whining, tantrum-throwing, demanding behavior he’s prone towards. In his brief but intense illness, all he wanted was me and all I wanted was to be there for him. We were both our better selves.

Work? Nah. But nice if you can get it.