HomeMarch 20, 2012
Toby and I lay together in bed. The environmental LED nightlight cast a green glow in his room, making it feel like we were in the big tank at the Boston Aquarium. Since returning home, Toby only wants me to put him to sleep, which doesn’t make David feel all that bad since Leo only wants him to put him to sleep, which makes me feel horrible. But at least Leo now lets me hold him, which he didn’t for the first few weeks they visited in China. If he wakes in the middle of the night and I go to him he still asks for Papa but when I tell him that Papa is sleeping and Mama can hold him he now accepts my arms, folding his body into mine as we rock on the glider and I whisper to him about the stars and the moon and the sleeping animals and how much I love him and how sorry I am that I had to be away.
Putting Toby to sleep is relatively easy compared to the protracted nighttime rituals of many of my friends. We plug in the nightlight, turn off the lamp, snuggle together under the covers (if I have energy to stay with him), say the nighttime Shema, and give kisses and hugs. When I first came home, Toby put his stuffed animal Cat at the foot of the bed saying he was a big boy. But I guess he must have decided he wasn’t that much of a big boy since Cat quickly resumed her place in the crook of his arm under the covers and he now insists I give her goodnight kisses too.
Like everyone in my family, Cat has had her share of adventures. I bought the simple, hand-made stuffed animal in China from a group of young women with a little shop at the RT Mart supermarket mall. Cat wasn’t the most elaborate of all their wonderful creations – beige, two dark buttons for eyes, a line of simple brown embroidery stitching. She was perfect. Cat would be the emissary of my aching mama love. I packaged her up with some other toys, bags of tea, local English-language periodicals, and other little gifts and sent it all home for Thanksgiving. A month later Cat made her second transcontinental voyage in the outer compartment of Toby’s purple carry-on wheeled suitcase, returning to her birthplace.
Knowing how important Cat had become to Toby, David packed her into his backpack before their return flight home from Hong Kong. But in the chaos and sleep deprivation of those hours before their flight, the backpack, and Cat, were left behind in our friend’s car. No diapers. No snacks. No extra clothes in case of diaper explosions or food spills. No EpiPen for Leo. No Cat. David would just have to make do and be resourceful on the three-plane ride, 24-hour journey home. And he did. And they were fine. I’ve come to admire and frankly wonder in amazement at the resilience of my husband and children.
At home in Arlington, I gave Toby another kiss goodnight. “I’ll see you in the morning,” I said getting up to leave. “No,” he whined pulling me toward him. “Stay with me for a little while.” I felt the conflict of wanting my own time to relax after a long day, but really couldn’t the dishes and tomorrow’s lunch and emails all wait?
“Okay, just a bit longer.” I climbed over Toby to resume my place in bed and gave Cat a little pat. A friend who was visiting her son in Hong Kong had room for extra luggage and graciously returned David’s backpack to Boston. But I held on to Cat. When she made her second long journey to the United States it was with me, for good, to stay.
“Where does Cathay Pacific fly?” Toby asked me.
“Oh lots of places. China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, the United States, Australia. I don’t know. Lots of places.”
“I would like to see those places,” he said.
“Where would you like to go first?” I asked.
“Oh, you know.”
Really, I didn’t.
“To the Philippines of course!” he said exuberantly.
“To see the jeepneys?” I asked.
“Yes to see the jeepneys!” he exclaimed, dreaming of riding those shiny kaleidoscopically colorful long jeeps they use for public transportation in the Philippines. I had brought Toby and Leo toy jeepneys when I came home and Toby was instantly enamored of these wildly decorated vehicles.
“Mama,” he continued. “If you need to go away again we all go with you. I have to go with you because I love you so much.”
I hugged him to me tight.
“I was worried about you,” he said, “well, just a little.”
“Were you worried I wouldn’t come back?”
“No!” he said as though I were the dumbest person on Earth and that was the silliest thing he’d ever heard. “I was worried about that cancer inside you. I don’t like it there.”
“Me neither,” I agreed.
“But I’m not worried about you anymore.”
Maybe it was my way of apologizing to him for going away so long, certainly far longer than I ever anticipated, or for having gotten cancer in the first place, but I promised him that if I needed to make another big trip the whole family would go together.
I have been home for over a month. Slowly I have been seeing people, reaching out, answering phone calls and emails, making lunch and coffee dates. The children and household tasks take up most of my time and energy. I had forgotten how much effort just goes into feeding a family every day. Shopping, cooking, washing dishes. And I’m not talking about three meals a day – that would be a luxury. Our kitchen is open for business all day long. Leo wanders around demanding “snaaaack” and Toby flops on the floor as though he’s hiked through the desert for days “I’m huuuungry” he whines.
I’ve baked two gluten-free, dairy-free chocolate birthday cakes. Gluten-free challah. Corn bread. Corn muffins. Hamentashen for Purim. I’ve made chicken soup, mineral broth, five-element Chinese broth, potato-leek soup, red lentil soup, lamb stew, turkey meatballs. I’ve made fish dishes and hummus, guacamole, and bowls and bowls of salad, nori rolls, and Vietnamese veggie rolls. I’ve baked sweet potatoes and roasted root vegetables. I’ve made frittatas, omelets, and gluten-free quiches. I’ve blended smoothies and made fresh juices. Oh how I missed my kitchen.
One afternoon while I was chopping or stirring or mixing something up and the kids were munching on snacks at the kitchen counter, our babysitter Claudia said: “it feels complete now that you’re back. It feels like home.”
Almost everyone asks me what it’s like to be home. I tell them it’s a lot of things, a vague and true answer. Honestly, I’m still discovering what it’s like to be back and after four weeks I can tell you that I may never be back. What I mean to say is that I am different. Five months away changed me. And I am so glad.
Last Saturday we attended a Shabbat service with a small, warm, lay-led Jewish community in a neighboring suburb. Sara has been trying to get us to attend this service for a good year now and finally we did. The community apparently knew about my diagnosis and travels to China through Sara, who had accompanied me there and who every Shabbat has been saying my name when asked to think of people in need of healing. Services are held in an 1800’s barn on a bucolic New England estate. Our family was welcomed with big, friendly smiles, and people I never met before welcomed me home.
When it was time for the Torah service, the leader of the community, Daniel, invited me forward to perform the great honor of holding the Torah scroll. I want you to try to understand how meaningful this was to me, what it felt like to be so received by a community I had no direct connection with before, to cradle the holiest of Jewish texts in my arms, its heft surprising and fulfilling a need I didn’t know I possessed to belong somewhere. I walked the Torah around the community so that people could touch and kiss the scroll.
Following Daniel’s instructions, I held the Torah while he undressed the scroll, removing its simple cloth covering and the silver yad used to point to the Hebrew letters as they are chanted aloud. He placed the scroll on the table then said to me: “And now place the cover over it just as lovingly as a mother tucks her child into bed.”
At that very moment, my own children were squirmy, hungry, bored, and just a bit annoying. Thankfully, a friend put out Legos for the kids, and after happily rummaging through the bin Leo grabbed two chunky red blocks and turned them into a train. I knew this because he immediately, and very loudly said “traaain” just as Daniel opened the scroll to read the week’s parsha. Daniel located the passage from Exodus and using the yad read in Hebrew about Moses shattering the first set of tablets when he came down from the mountain and learned that the Israelites had made a golden calf to worship. It is a dramatic scene and one that encouraged lively discussion among the community. While people talked about the significance of the passage, all I could hear echoing through the old barn was Leo’s “choo choo” as he chugged his red Legos along the length of a floorboard. “Traaack!” he said, the word elongating and triumphant in his quickly developing two-year-old mouth. “Traaain!” I couldn’t help but cringe at every sound. I looked at Sara who is my barometer at such moments. She gave me the eye. I caught David’s attention and gave him the eye. “I’ll take them out,” he whispered, “you can stay.”
I turned my attention back to the desert where the Israelites had felt abandoned and hopeless, and in that state of anxiety, that transitional place between the old life and the new one, they resorted to the comfort of familiar habits. What were they thinking those Israelites? Hadn’t God led them out of slavery, performed amazing miracles like parting an entire ocean for them to walk through, and even promised them a land of milk and honey more abundant than their wildest dreams? And what did they have to do in return? Stop praying to idols. No big deal. What’s so hard about that?
God was so furious he wanted to kill them all and find a new chosen people. Moses was so enraged that he threw the tablets to the ground where they instantly shattered, necessitating a second ascent up the mountain to return again with those two iconic tablets.
My sympathies lay with the Israelites. I could understand why they fell off the wagon and resorted to their old M.O. of idol worship. If they were caterpillars on their way to becoming butterflies then they were somewhere in the chrysalis stage where the caterpillar breaks down to a liquid. The Israelites were soup. Rather, they had soupy consciousness, no longer slaves but not yet free either. They were still in the stages of becoming, gestating, getting ready for rebirth.
Sitting in that chilly New England barn with my head wrapped in a scarf because I am bald from treatment, listening to people’s comments on the text and what it means in their lives, I felt the thousands of miles and the many months that I had traveled. It made me happy, and tired too. My life right now is not terribly dissimilar to the Israelites in the desert: I am no longer the person I was who left for China in September and I am still in the process of integrating all the realizations and learnings.
I see the temptation of old habits. They appear like a chimera, a possibility of one life. But I don’t want to fall back into the patterns that kept me spinning in a perpetual craze of anxiety, hurriedness, and fear. These days I find myself choosing to drive more slowly. It’s a small thing. I try to leave myself more time to get from place to place. I refuse to talk on the phone while driving or playing with the kids or cooking a meal. When I am depleted and exhausted by Toby’s behavioral outbursts and loud sounds, I can still lose my temper and scream at him, but I catch myself more quickly and apologize for hurting his feelings.
At the end of the night, before I fall asleep, instead of making a catalog of my day’s failures, beating myself up for being a terrible mother or for not accomplishing anything on my to-do list, including writing a to-do list, I now tell myself a very simple statement. It’s the same every evening, and here’s how it goes: “I forgive myself.” Sometimes I add: “And I love myself anyway.”
I pull the covers up high to protect my head from getting cold. I tuck myself in.