“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.
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.
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
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
When 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!”
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.