Oh How I’ve Missed (Torturing) You

If you’ve recently spent time away from someone you care about and are worried about an impending reunion, perhaps you’d like some pointers from Veronica and Ivan. My children, separated for four days, have mapped out this approach:

1. Immediately launch into stories of all the marvelous things that have happened to you in the last three days. As soon as the other person finishes talking say, “Oh I wouldn’t even like that. But guess what I did?” You can include really banal things, as long as you are enthusiastic. “Well, I stayed up until 10:00 and ate pudding.” “I don’t even like pudding. I had a CRAZY COOKIE and hurt my foot.” You get the idea.

2. Since you haven’t spent any time together, you’ll want to argue about what to do as soon as you can. In fact, it’s advisable to demand that your reunitee do something they find absolutely boring. Then, when they won’t, say you want to play alone anyway. Point out how bossy they are. You don’t have to say “I haven’t missed you either!” in order to get that point across. During this time employ foot stomping and shouting right into each others ears. Very effective.

3. Choose a common enemy. Nothing unites old chums like a mission of ill will. If you are children, your mother will be a perfect target. Perhaps she has spent 5 hours in the car and has stopped using her nicotine patches. Easy target. While she lies in wait on her bed begging for a moment’s peace, you should poke her, make horrible, nasty faces and laugh hysterically while she tries to read a book. It is important to be resolute in your intentions to irritate her.

4. Finally, with the dragon slayed (or storming around the kitchen making dinner) you can settle in to playing. Plan and host a party for an imaginary friend. Rehearse and perform a concert. Put on your pajamas and spend a lot of time tickling each other, beacuse above all what you have missed is having someone so sit on and tickle until they cry ‘Uncle”.

By now you should be fully re-acclimated. And your parent or guardian, used to caring for only one child, will be thoroughly exhausted. Which means he or she is probably ripe to give you whatever you want. Can you have a popsicle? Yes, of-course. A sleep over in your sister’s room? We’ll see.



Aches & Pains

The howling starts just an hour after I’ve put the kids to bed. I race upstairs to see what is happening, stop to peek in Veronica’s room, but quickly realize it’s Ivan. He’s awake but sleepy, tossing in his bed, tangled in his quilt. Between gulping sobs he cries, “My ear. Hurts.”

I comfort him for a minute and check his forehead – cool, good – and leave to run the water for a hot washcloth. I ask him to press it to his ear and go to get some ibuprofin. After a half hour, he is still weeping, so I give him a second pill. I offer to tell him a story to help him fall asleep.

“Jack and the Beanstalk.” he says, “No, Pinocchio.”

I try to cobble together the details I know: Gepeto, wishing star, candy store, Lampwick – and add details and flourishes to compensate for what I’ve forgotten. The whimpering subsides. Once Pinocchio has become a real boy, I turn out the lights and soothe Ivan to sleep, and finally drift off next to him.

Two hours later at 12:30 he wakes me with restless kicking and arm waving, which turns to crying. Once he can stop crying long enough to speak, he says through trembling lips,

“I want to go to Dad’s.”

Six words that sink my heart like a stone. As I’m helplessly wiping my son’s tears, I’m also batting away doubts and regrets that swoop into my head like so many birds.

“Oh honey, we can’t go to daddy’s. It’s the middle of the night.”

“But I really want to go! I miss dad!”

Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind taking him to my ex-husband’s house, if it would help. But it won’t help, and it would breach our tacit parenting agreement regarding such things. Almost exactly a year ago, Ivan had the croup, and I called Dave in the middle of night. I was still newly single, and scared shitless by Ivan’s small chest heaving as he gasped for air. The net result was a small bout of hysteria (mine), a passive aggressive stand-off (ours) and an ER bill I’m still paying off (mine again). This time I’ll handle it on my own thanks.

Ivan continues to plead to go to this dad’s, and then to the doctor.

“I know your dad would do the same things I am doing now. There is nothing else he, or a doctor even, can do. It stinks, but it’s true.”

I know that kids show parental preferences, and when they were toddlers and Dave and I were married, we actually joked about it. “Looks like your the favorite!” we’d remark with a grin as we passed off a screaming child, “she wants you!” and then go back to bed. It was cyclical, and I never took their preference for their father that seriously. Because at the time I was the go-to parent, when the dog bit and the bee stung. Times have changed.

I crush a tab of Sudafed and put it in a spoon full of sugar in desperation. “I just want to be in my high bed, that’s why I want to go to dad’s.” he says, still trying. I tell him it wouldn’t help his ear, while I stack pillows behind him in bed so he’s sitting up, to help the fluid drain. I’m calm, and kind, but my heart is heavy. I know it’s not the bed he wants, but  his father’s deep voice, slow cadence. Probably his smell, and the scratch of his cheek. But, I’m the mother. Aren’t I supposed to be the one who he calls out for at night? Shouldn’t I be able to deliver my own baby from pain?

And that, more than a fear of being the lesser parent, is what kills me. I can’t cure it. When my son asks for his father in the middle of the night, I cannot grant his request. And that this circumstance, this life of cold comfort and co-parenting, was my choice. Like everything that results from the divorce, it’s my fault. And while I can acknowledge in the light of day that the failure of our marriage was a group effort, at two in the morning it very clearly registers as mine alone.

After a long hour of efforts to distract and comfort, the decongestant takes effect, and Ivan begins to calm down. I bring him back into my bed, and offer a second story.

“Jack and the Beanstalk?” I ask.

“No, we always do that one.”

“How about Hansel and Gretel? Too scary?”

“No. I like it.” This one I know well. The stepmother shakes them awake while it is still dark. They wake shivering on the forest floor. The pebbles shine like stars in the night sky as they guide the children home. Breadcrumbs, birds. The walls are made of gingerbread and the windows of colored candy glass. Gretel gives Hansel a chicken bone. When the children return, their pockets are stuffed with emeralds and the woodcutter embraces them.

I hold Ivan’s tiny hand until his breathing slows and he is out. Another ear ache, another long night, endured. I lie awake and wish for sleep. I wish for happy endings and stars that lead the way to them. I wish for my children to have a life I cannot give them. I wish for medicine to chase away the ache that rises up from my chest when I feel the full weight of the choices I’ve made. And I fall asleep, telling myself stories.

72 Hours

72 HOURSIn the first 72 hours of smoking cessation: Symptoms of chemical withdrawal have peaked in intensity, including restlessness. The number of cue induced crave episodes experienced during any quitting day will peak for the “average” ex-user.

Day 1

Hour 8: Before I am out of bed, I slide open the bedside drawer and pull a patch from the box. The cashier at Target forgot to charge me for them, so I feel karmically indebted to quit smoking. On top of a lot of other reasons. (it’s stupid, causes cancer, et cetera) Coffee_vs._no_coffee

I descend into the pre-dawn light of the downstairs and quietly begin the morning rituals of coffee brewing. CAREFUL! COFFEE MIGHT BE A TRIGGER! says my brain. SHUT UP! also says my brain. I predict many future brain-to-brain conversations. The patch is shiny and transparent and my bicep itches.

The kids wake and within minutes they remember I have told them they can destroy what is left of my cigarettes. I film it with my camera, because I believe in making a public spectacle of my life. They are purposeful in their destruction. It seems like a waste of money, until I remind myself that cigarettes in and of themselves are a waste of money.

Hour 12 When my oldest friend unexpectedly calls, I tell her I am quitting today, and she tells me she is so proud of me. “Thanks.” I say, and my voice cracks. “It’s only noon!” she says despairingly, which makes me laugh and cry a little. I think it will be a long day. But these little patches are cunning and I feel resolved to stick it out. Plus, I don’t have any cigarettes. Damn.

Hour 17 I only lose my temper once, dramatically, in the Holiday parking lot. It has something to do with boots and dawdling I guess, but more to do with nicotine withdrawl and cabin fever. I say to Veronica, “You know, I am quitting smoking and it is really, really hard! Can you just give me a break today and cooperate?” She says, “well I don’t see what is so hard about it!” and I say, “Well, have you ever withdrawn from a chemically addictive substance VERONICA? HAVE YOU?” Yes I actually said that out loud to my 7 year old.  I thought to remind her of how she acted when I weaned her from breast milk – tantrums I tell you! – but thought better of it.

Hour 22 I carefully sew a bird patch on the knee of Veronica’s pants while I watch the Oscars, which are a total yawn. During every commercial break, I think for a split second that I should go have a cigarette before I go to bed. But I don’t have any. Damn.

Day 2

Hour 34 My first real test comes as I run the gauntlet after dropping Ivan at Montessori; my first time alone in my car. A time I typically savor, free from parental obligations, window down letting in the arctic midwinter air, radio turned up loud and smoking my first cigarette of the day. This morning, as the car warms up, the smell of stale smoke is overwhelming and I feel nauseous. I grab a bottle of Rose Geranium I keep in the ashtray and inhale deeply. I look at the label on the side: BALANCING. COMFORTING. Indeed.

Hour 35 I have a lunch date in Minneapolis. I have a minor wardrobe crisis and begin a mantra that goes: Not smoking makes me pretty which I absolutely do not feel, but repeat nonetheless. Again with the car thing. But the sun is high, and I have gum. I turn up Florence and the Machine (from an album unironically entitled Lungs) and sing, well, scream actually, all the way to the restaurant.

Hour 37 – 39 I take breaks in the afternoon to play the trumpet happily along with Mission of Burma when I feel like smoking. That’s when I reach for my revolver!! BLAT BLAT BLAT BLAT!!! It tires my lungs and amuses me. A friend texts me to remind me I have to bowl tonight, which is great, because I was dreading the night alone without the kids and my cigarettes. I have the second wardrobe crisis du jour and spontaneously cut my hair. If you have ever cut your own hair, you know that once you start, it is hard to stop. Luckily, I am running late, so I put the scissors down before it becomes tragic.

Hours 40-42 I bowl for shit, but this is not unusual. A woman in lane two sets a half smoked Marlboro next to her pack while she bowls. She is a thin Northeast Minneapolis spectre with a grey, wrinkled face and caved in cheeks. Not smoking makes me pretty. Thanks lady!

Hours 43 – 46 I had grand plans for writing and sewing and cooking tonight,  but when I get home I see the pile of hair next to the sink, the trumpet next to my desk, and the couch in front of the TV. I feel scared, so I lay down and watch terrible broadcast television. I call my friend who is also quitting and he makes me laugh so hard I choke, for which I am extremely grateful. I climb in bed and wait for my new age book to put me to sleep.

Day 3

Hour 56 I realize that smoking has become the punctuation of my days, and it is for this reason that I miss it. Finish breakfast; comma smoke. Write proposal; period smoke. I’m bored; question mark smoke. When I’m drinking, it’s like: beer, comma, beer, question mark, beer, did I just smoke? Oh well, comma, comma, beer, beer.

I figure I need to find a new activity to punctuate the pivotal transitions in my day. Besides eating, which has become a long stream of consciousness monologue with my kitchen. I try sun salutations, and my friend suggested I run the stairs to get my chi going. Mostly though, I stand up and circle the apartment aimlessly every hour or so.

Hour 60 I find myself at Whole Foods around the noon hour buying ridiculously healthy foods (rainbow cale?). I feel ecstatic that I have driven here without losing my mind, and impulsively buy St. John’s Wort just in case. Just in case it gets harder. Just in case it might actually help. Just in case I forget for one minute that I am on day three of quitting smoking, I tell the cashier. She is nice about it.

The sun is shining and it is about forty degrees. I roll down the windows and drive half lost around St Paul, not entirely by accident. I sing along with Kate Pierson and imagine that my voice is already dramatically improved in range, and test this theory with abandon. Then, darkness falls.

Hour 64 Impulsively, I bake banana bread. Impulsively, I decide to go to Artemis’ house for American Idol and to gawk shamelessly at the Charlie Sheen debacle. I have to stop at my ex-husband’s house TRIGGER! to pick up school enrollment forms and my yoga mat. Veronica is having a meltdown for unclear, but surely not proportional, reasons. TRIGGER! I keep it short and civil (just like I learned in my court-ordered divorce class!) and get back in the car. TRIGGER!

At each possible point I make a wrong turn TRIGGER! but instead of telling me to backtrack, the GPS calmly urges me forward onto ever more unfamiliar roads. Cruising on my odd cocktail of nicotine patch and St Johns Wort, I calmly consider I would have likely smoked at least 3 cigarettes since leaving the house.  I pull into a gas station to pee.

I walk into the belly of the beast: convenience store. TRIGGER TRIGGER TRIGGER It would be convenient to buy a pack of cigarettes, smoke one, and throw the rest out the window. It would be super convenient to buy a pack, smoke three in quick succession and hide the rest under my seat. But it would also be incredibly disappointing and lame. So, instead I buy butterscotch discs and something approximating green tea. Back in the car, I pop in a butterscotch disc and think that it is the very best thing I have ever put in my mouth. I can’t believe they are legal, that is how good they are. Buttery warm nectar slides down my throat. I moan audibly and put the car in gear.

Hour 66 Artemis gives me pizza and offers me wine. I decline, because well: TRIGGER! Everyone says it will make you cave. But then I think I might as well face this demon as well, and have a glass. It’s a juicy little chianti and it goes great with butterscotch discs. Someone sings Judas Priest on American Idol and it is fucking fantastic.  Charlie Sheen is painful to watch but the best part is a shot of his girlfriend on a Cali Chronic magazine cover holding a bong and wearing a girl scout uniform (really!).

Jeff comes home and I am nervous because I know he has cigarettes. But  when he comes in it smells dusty and wrong. I feel pious and high on trash tv and several glasses of chianti. It is good to be with my friends and not think about when I can go outside and smoke. I drink water and pound wasabi peas and get ready to leave.

Hour 72 On the way to the car there is a sizable butt in the driveway I know Jeff has just left there. I consider picking it up. Twice. Then my brain says GROSS! and my brain agrees SUPER GROSS and I drive home without getting lost once.

I was inspired to keep this record by my good friend who also inspired me to quit, simply by deciding to do it himself. You can read his account here. I also did the illustrations, because at it turns out, drawing is a great pastime for your hands. At the time of typing this, I haven’t had a cig in 216 hours. Yay me.

Games for Boys and Girls

The following are illustrations from Games for Boys and Girls, E.O. Harbin, 1951.* The fifties certainly were a different time!

Game: Cat’s Meow
What You Need
: Chair, pillow, a subserviant boy, a mouthless girl
How to Play: Boy kneels on a pillow and mews plaintively until girl scratches boy’s head, signaling that humiliation is complete.
Everybody wins.

Game: Jawbreaker!
What You Need: Blindfold, brute strength
How to play: Blinfolded boy or girl “The Breaker” tenderly holds the face of “The Jaw”. The Jaw taunts the breaker until, filled with rage, The Breaker twists the Jaw’s head sharply clockwise. The other players yell “Jawbreaker!” and medical help, if necessary, is administered.

Game: Fetal Ball
What You Need: Fifth of whiskey
How to play: Pass around a fifth of whiskey until one of the players starts to cry. All players should hug their knees to signal fear. The player with the highest tolerance for alcohol stands and gently rocks the crying player until he or she tips over. Remaining players continue to pass whiskey until everyone is curled up like a fetal ball.
Game: Huff and Puff
What You Need: Paper bags, paint thinner
How to Play: Do not play.

Game: Sit and Spin and Barf
What You Need: One chair, one blindfold, barf bucket (not pictured).
How to Play: Isolate one player “Sitter” in a chair and ignore them. Choose a player with no empathy to be “The Spinner”. Blindfold  “The Barfer”. The Spinner turns the The Barfer while the other players scream, dance and taunt them. The Sitter calls out “What about me? Hey guys! I think he’s going to be sick!” Game is over when Barfer vomits. Game: Charades, Urban Dictionary Edition
What You Need: Internet connection, a willingness to experiment (optional: Box of Franzia White Zinfandel)
How to Play: I think you get the picture.

* For the record, the above illustrations are taken directly from the book referenced above; the descriptions that follow are conceived entirely by me. Except for the name “Cat’s Meow” which is the name of an actual gamebut, oddly, corresponds to a different illustration in the book.