It smells like fall here in El Paso. The nights are cooler, the birds quieter. The clouds are hanging heavy and low and the air is carrying an early trace of change, of sleep and new colors. It's a welcome break from the brutally hot summer we weathered and my cats are in their element... curled up across the house like they're posing for Christmas cards, dreaming cat dreams, luxurious in their heavy fur. They are so beautiful these four friends of mine, so warm and still. I love animals. I always have. I grew up in a home that was often grounded by four legged members...joyful dogs, yes, but also a startling array of cats...some disdainful, some angelic, some loners, some lovers. Some who curled up in our kitchen cabinets, others who would crawl under the covers with you only after the lights were out. Cats who followed us on long walks through the woods, and cats who waited by the door for us to come back. It was a home colored by cats, a happy, loving place made better by the purring of the feisty, little creatures who stood by us (or hid behind us). I knew I wanted the same thing for my children...I wanted them to learn the lessons of animals, of cats...to learn what a soft touch and easy voice can cultivate. I wanted them to learn to see beyond themselves, to know what it means to respect another life; to love something blindly and in that quiet way that grows inside you until it is a part of you. And then of course to learn to say goodbye, let go and continue living. Cats can shape you, if you let them, and in the best way. And so for the past five years I have been shaped by these four, fat, little beasts. I've raised them, named them, fed them, and loved them. They have driven across the country with me three times, the five of us jammed into a two-door Saturn with all my belongings; them curled up on crumpled maps, the dashboard, my shoulder, navigating us across the lonely plains and through the dark mountains. They have moved with me seven times in five years; from cramped apartments, to townhouses, to our first real home, always handling their "displacement" with far more grace than a cat is supposed to. They sit with me when I'm sick, they make me laugh when I'm depressed, they are there when I'm alone, they meow when they need me. They have nursed me through broken hearts, tolerated my tempers and are always happy to see me. Not that they are angels, in fact frequently far from it...they are lazy and spoiled and difficult. They have a nasty sense of entitlement; often terrorize the people who care for them while we're away; pee on the floor far more than is dignified; and shed like Golden Retrievers. And the older they get, the less they seem to accept change. We got a new puppy 7 months ago. The cats hate her. And they hate her just as much, if not more, than they did 7 months ago. They're not budging. They live upstairs, the dog lives downstairs, and God help us all if those boundaries are not respected. It's an unbelievably difficult situation and I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel. And that worries me. We're bringing a new baby into this home soon. And I don't know what I will do if they hate her, if they decide to despise the new person who will join our family and will sleep in their favorite room...the yellow room, their sun room. How will I forgive them for that? How will they forgive me? Is there a way I can prepare them for this change? My daughter will be the center of my world and the four who used to occupy that space - before husband and job and responsibility - will be displaced, again. As I've been writing this, they've all gravitated here, to me who they trust. They are sprawled out on the ground around me, a circle of cats who carry five years of my life with them. They are sleeping, tails fluttering, dreaming, perhaps, of quiet times when the apartments were small, the beds had empty lakes of space, the woman time to listen. Perhaps they are remembering how bright the stars were through the windshield, when they were the navigators...leading the way through the mountains and plains, their tiny car hurtling through space, full of cat and woman, safe in the center of the road.
"What's in a name?" Oh boy...what a loaded question for me lately. Shakespeare wrote that line, a whole slew of classic literature, and he managed to name three of his children. Sure, he called one of them "Hamnet", which is one heck of an unfortunate title, but still. It's a name, he came up with it, chose it, wrote it on a birth certificate (or ledger or whatever they did back then) and took the plunge. A plunge I have, so far, been completely incapable of taking. I have been carrying this baby for almost 7 months and I don't have a name for her. I don't even have a zygote of a name for her...a clue, a leaning, a short list, a maybe, a backup plan. Nothing. She is "baby-no-name". People love to ask what you're going to name your baby...it's a very popular question, up there with "is it a boy or a girl", "how far along are you" and, my personal favorite, "you are pregnant, right?" When I tell those well-meaning folks my husband and I haven't come up with a name yet, they always look at me like I'm lying...like I'm hiding the name from them...like I'm a name-hoarder. I'm not, I assure them, I just haven't found a name that pops yet. Friends and family have suggested beautiful names, names I love...like Zoe, Sophia, Eliza, Chloe. They're all great -- and I don't really know how to explain it -- but as precious as those names are, I just know for sure that they aren't my daughter's name. I know in my heart of hearts that I haven't found my baby's name yet. And I wouldn't consider myself to be someone who has a hard time making decisions...I named all of my pets without any trouble...Sasha, Ruby, Baby Electra, Little Bear, Chips, Juniper Blot, Nancy & Drew, Sour Lucy, Mary Sally, Squish. Those names all just came to me...granted some of them are weird and the pets who carried them were hamsters, foster kittens and sparrows, but name them I did. I'm usually pretty good at it. But this is different. There is a weight to this decision that I can't get past. A responsibility I am having a hard time shouldering. I don't want this little girl to have just any name. She is too special. I want her name to bloom on my lips like a smile; strike fear in her enemies' hearts; inspire great joy; fit in my pocket like a mouse; color the sky. I want it to be a revelation like this whole pregnancy has been and warm me on cold nights. I will say her name countless times through my life...I will scream it when she comes into this world and I will whisper it when I leave it. It has to fit her and fill her and give her strength and stand by her when I cannot. My daughter's name will be her calling card, her introduction, and I want her to be proud of it, to know it was given in fathomless love. So no pressure, right? Right. I wake up in cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking how badly I can screw this name thing up for my baby. But you know, while Shakespeare did write, "what's in a name", that wasn't the complete quote. It goes:
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
So I guess what the Bard is trying to say, is that I could call this little one Jane Doe Martinez and she would still make her way in the world. She will still be the woman my husband and I raise her to be...and will travel the paths that she chooses and color the sky if it suits her. And her name, whatever we finally choose, will bloom on my lips and fill my heart because I love her, my little girl, my sweet nameless rose.
I'm packing today for a two week trip home to Pittsburgh. I can't remember the last time I was able to go home without the stress of a holiday or a wedding or some big family party hanging over us all. People keep asking me what I'm going to do while I'm home and my answer is...hopefully nothing! Go to the movies with my sister, Genevieve, who never complains about the amount of butter I like on my popcorn; take long walks with my mother, as summer starts to pale in Western Pennsylvania; spend as much time as possible with my brother Gregory and his kids; soak up all the advice I can from my sister-in-law, Alexis, who is a wonderful mother; talk books and music with my brother Matthew; run errands with my father, just happy to be with him. Take it easy, relax, read, cook, laugh, sleep, stretch, breathe in the city I miss more the older I get. It may not sound like much, but I think it's plenty. I will get precious few opportunities like this in my life...there is never enough time for just being...and so I'm stuffing my enormous, red suitcase (my father will have a fit) and leaving for the cross-country trek in the morning. It's not an easy trip for anyone...it involves between 2 to 3 stops to get from El Paso to Pittsburgh...and I'm sure it will be a real treat now that I'm pregnant. Massively swollen ankles here I come! But I know it's worth it. And anyone who's ever lived far away from a home they love knows what I'm talking about. The final descent through the skies over the 'Burgh always seems to take so long...the other passengers way too casual about getting off the plane. I can never get through the terminal fast enough...my luggage is always the last to flop onto the carousel (if it arrives at all, which has been a disturbing trend of late). I simply cannot wait to get to the curb outside and watch for my family. Tomorrow it will be my brother Gregory picking me up...as he has done so many times for more than a decade now. Through my various bad hairstyles, bad break ups, bad tempers, and bad hangovers. He is always there on time...Mr. Dependable...with a big hug, a pat on the back, and a joke about the weight of my bag. And with those formalities aside we'll then start the 20 minute or so car ride (that I feel sure I could really drive blindfolded) to "The House", my family's beautiful home base for 25 years. And we'll unload my bags in the driveway, animals - and the ghosts of animals gone - bounding around us. And family will filter out of the sliding glass doors; Genevieve galloping like a colt, hair flying behind her; Matthew's smile lighting his way as he pulls a hat onto his head; my father's shouting about the size/weight of whatever poor martyr of a suitcase I have dragged along announcing his presence. And surrounded by them all, we'll trip over cats up the path together, under the old trees I used to swing from, piling into the house so bright with warmth...and at last into the arms of my mother, who is waiting and smiling and looks and smells so much like home that I have to bite my tongue to believe I can really be there. I'll admit, it is getting harder to leave El Paso...I long for my husband while I'm gone - everything is better with him - and I miss my cats and our silly dog and the routine of the life we all share together. But for me, right now, "home" is still in Pittsburgh. And I know as I get older, and raise children, and plant roots in whatever city we end up in, that feeling will fade, like the summer. But for now, I still feel the pull North...the ache for the rivers and hills and train tracks that will lead me to them all...to the people who make me whole. To my home.
I made homemade pizza for dinner last night. And as I was kneading the dough, smelling the warm yeast, I thought of my father. And suddenly I was ten again, in our old kitchen, watching him fling ingredients around like they offended him. My father does almost everything fast...he eats fast, he vacuums fast (God help you if you are in his way), he showers in around 30 seconds, and he definitely cooks fast. Watching him slice a mushroom is like a magic act, now you see it, now you don't. Efficient. He is an efficient man. And endlessly fascinating to watch. Which is often what my little brothers and I did, lined up, eyes following him as he darted around the space, whipping up his specialities...popcorn popped over the stove, salted in a paper bag; skinny French baguettes; waffle iron waffles; and of course, the homemade pizza I was attempting to emulate. He always seemed to me to be such a capable person...you need it, he could do it. From an oil change, to a balanced checkbook, to a beautiful birthday cake, to a backyard swing set, to a perfect pitch. If something was broken, he could fix it. If something was lost, he could find it. If something was worn, he could make it shine again. And he would go about the task in his jeans and flannel shirts, wool sweaters, t-shirts...walking on his long legs with great purpose, his children trotting alongside him like puppies...through airports and across backyards and beaches. I don't remember him ever saying, "Okay, gang...pay attention...this is how you do this." But the lessons were there. And not just in lawn and car maintenance (which are his fortes), but in a million, little ways. How to pack a suitcase, how to shift a gear, how to drive a boat, how to route for the underdog...ride a wave, shake a hand, tell a joke, open a bottle of wine, shave a cat, make a toast, plant a tree, take a chance, sink or swim. Make a pizza.
I still call my father all the time asking for advice. I'm 32 years old. And I may forget his birthday every now & again, and I may have gone to the college he didn't want me to go to, and I may have bounced one too many checks, but I have my own home now and when I make my mortgage payments on time every month, I do it knowing that would bring him joy. And I married a man who I know will also inspire his children to be great, to reach beyond themselves, to be kind and decent human beings. And he may not know how to make a homemade pizza yet, but I happen to have the best teacher lined up...and he's just a phone call away.
(My father told me recently that his only problem with my blogs, is that they're too long. He suggested I write an abbreviated version at the bottom for him. So here it is...)
I've taken up swimming at the YMCA pool. My midwife says she's never seen a woman have a difficult labor if she swam during her pregnancy and that is good enough for me. Now, mind you, I signed up for a Y pool membership months ago and just started going this week. I don't really have an excuse for the delay other than laziness and a general fear that I would look ridiculous in my giant maternity suit slobbing along while others in the adjacent lanes cut through the water like sharks. The fact that I was starting to get winded walking up the stairs in our house was what finally shamed me into going. And of course there was no reason for anxiety...on that first day, I shared the pool only with an ancient man who made me look like Michael Phelps and a frazzled-looking mother who swam her laps while dragging her little girl along with her (extra resistance, I guess??). I stuck my toe in, and the water wasn't too cold, a little murky and, judging from the smell, immensely chlorinated, but nothing I couldn't handle. I stood there for a second trying to figure out how to gracefully enter the pool, gave up, and just sort of flopped in like a frog. But once I hit that water, I was all sea lion. Water can be a pregnant woman's best friend...all that delicious weightlessness...and as I adjusted my goggles and pushed off from the wall I started my laps with a smile. Just a simple breaststroke to start, bobbing up and down, back and forth, legs scissoring, breath in through my mouth and out through my nose, all repetitive motions that bring everything into clear focus. Life is so simple underwater and so quiet. Your body is in charge and as I watched my arms slice through the water, I thought how strong they are...how much they have held. My little brother above my head in the ocean as the tide was moving in and we were about to go under waiting for help to get to us; my newborn sister, as I looked into her eyes and realized that the world would never end; the dog who slept under my crib and 16 years later died in my lap; my grandfather, when I knew it would be the last time I saw him. These two arms carry me through the water now, but they have also carried flower girl bouquets, and piles of kittens, and sandy children, and head shots, and resume tapes, and a wedding dress, and homemade Halloween costumes, and playbills and Thanksgiving turkeys and a million hopes and dreams and loves and heartaches. And soon they will carry my first baby. And someday my grandchildren. But on this day, they just drag this pregnant body through the water at a YMCA pool and that is enough.
My Aunt Suzanne has long told me that having children makes you love your husband just that much more. I think she might be right. Granted, Raul & I have not actually had any children yet, but she's brewing. And every time I look at him these days, the love I feel for him seems to be taking on a life of it own...like I could reach out and grab it. Even when he's annoying me...taking off his work clothes and leaving them draped around our kitchen table; endlessly defending our puppy against my frustrated tirades; forever putting off what could be done today until tomorrow. It's a pretty short list. He's a pretty great guy...my favorite person & my best friend. And the images I have of him through this early experience of "motherhood" are a treasure I will never give up. The way he talks to my stomach, loudly, mouth pressed right up against it, joyfully proclaiming, "Hey baby!" The way his eyes shined when the ultrasound tech told us it was a girl. The look on his face when he felt that girl move for the first time. The first outfit he bought for her...a little onesie with the words, "Mommy gives me hugs and kisses and love" on it. The watermelon, french bread and ginger ale he rushed to the store to buy me when I was so nauseous I thought I would die. The foot massages, the cold cloths on my head, the pregnancy pillow that was way past our budget. He's so good at this...at being a husband to a pregnant woman...at being my husband. I asked him this morning if he was scared to be a Daddy and he immediately said, "No...not at all." That this kid I started dating when he was 21, who loved playing beer pong, and never washed his bathroom towels, and hated writing papers, and spent what seemed like hours making out with me in dark corners in college bars, was now so ready to be a father is the most incredible thing in the world to me. What a journey we have shared. I remember driving across country with Raul when we both finished grad school...from Syracuse, New York to El Paso, Texas. We were literally driving into the unknown. I was going to visit for a few days, meet his family, and fly back home to start my post-school job hunt. He was going to stay in El Paso and start working. We had only been together for a year and had no idea if we could make it work long distance. And as we drove across the U-S, through sleepy towns and big cities, I remember trying to stall...to make it last longer. I didn't want my time with him to end and I was so scared it was going to. We had one spectacular fight along the way...I can't even remember what it was about now, but I remember the heavy silence in the truck as we drove. It was pitch black out and both of us were pissed. I turned my head away from him to look out the window and that's when I saw it. A huge field of crops and above it the most stunning light show I had ever seen...what must have been millions of fireflies flashing and courting each other in the summer night air. It was breath taking. And it filled me with wonder. I reached out my hand to Raul & he took it. And in that moment of anxiety and fear, I was at peace. I remember feeling so sure that everything was going to be okay. And so here we are...years later. An engagement under our belts, a marriage, a new home and now a baby. And it is all going to be okay. Because my husband, my favorite person & best friend, is ready and I am ready with him. And this baby will push us to the limits sometimes, and we will struggle to find our way, but we will. And like my Aunt Suzanne says, I will love Raul more with each baby, with each passing day, until I am old and wrinkled and finally burst from the weight of that love, exploding with light into the sky like so many fireflies on a hot summer night.
I'm sitting in what will be our baby's room right now. Clearly, it is still our "computer room". The walls are painted a beautiful, sunny yellow (which we did way before we knew we were having a baby and just happened to like enough to keep), but other than that it's pretty dismal in here. Let me take you on a brief tour. On one side of the room, there are piles of boxes full of clothes my husband and I couldn't bear to get rid of and haven't looked at since we moved...over a year ago. There is a gigantic TV in the middle of the floor by the door (NOT a flat screen by any stretch of the imagination), that I'm not sure even works anymore. In the far corner, there is a collection of monogrammed towels - still in their cellophane - that I got for my wedding...two years ago. There are frames without pictures stacked haphazardly (they fall nearly every time you walk in the room), a step ladder of mysterious origins, wrapping paper, thank you cards, old food magazines, a half empty jar of Vaseline (?), pens, photo albums, a heating pad, a dog leash, and three enormously fat cats sprawled across the floor. Oh. And one small pile of baby clothes balanced precariously on top of another pile of precariously balanced junk. This room is not ready for a baby. Not even close. It is the room things get lost in on the way to their "real place". I'm six months pregnant and time is running out, but I'm still waiting for that "nesting" urge I've been told takes over a pregnant woman's life. It's not that I'm not excited to have this baby...I am often sick with love for her...and waiting for her to be born is the most exquisite kind of ache (think never-ending Christmas Eve when you're a kid). I can't wait to smell her, feel her heart beating, watch her sleep. And I think I'm ready for it all...even the diapers and the throw up and the never-ending nights. But her room? Ugh. I can't get inspired. I can't get going and I don't know what that means. There is a lot we give up when we become mothers....there is a lot that changes. Old routines become new ones...they have to. And some of the things and people that used to fill our days (and nights) fade away. I know the nine+ months I will be pregnant are a time for my baby to form and grow and begin the insane miracle that is life. But it's also a time for me to grow, for me to change. And I've changed a lot. But is it enough? I guess what I'm saying is when I look around this room and I see all the clutter and all the mess and the bare walls and the fat cats and their endless piles of fur, I wonder if I am ready. Will I be a good mother? Have I changed enough? There are two hummingbirds outside my window now. They are whizzing around and singing at the top of their lungs. They must make their nest near us...I've seen the happy couple all summer long and I can only assume they've laid eggs and raised babies and sent them on their way. Hummingbirds are among the smallest of birds...they are almost impossibly tiny. And it's the female who is responsible for building the nest...the males are too brightly colored and attract too much attention. So for about a week that little mama toils, for hours every day, alone...building her nest out of spider webs, moss, leaf hairs, twigs and seeds. Out of junk she makes something beautiful...an intricate work of art. And she forms it with her own body. There is instinct there, but I like to think there is also love. And that I know I have. My baby will be born before I know it and the adventure will begin. And I will be shattered with love for her and the junk my husband and I have accumulated in our 6 years together will help form her life and fill this house and tell our story and build our nest. And my daughter's beautiful, sunny yellow room will be ready for her because I will be ready for her.
I keep thinking about what I'm going to wear to work today. It's the craziest thing. I know I'm not going to work today (or anytime soon for that matter)...but when my mind starts to wander, I'm planning outfits in my head. It's not that I'm a fashionista, it's just that I'm pregnant and finding an appropriate outfit for work was becoming a serious chore. It was a ridiculously hot summer here in El Paso, TX and as a television news reporter, I spent a LOT of time outdoors in that heat. Did I mention I was pregnant? I learned pretty quickly that high heels were a thing of the past (as was just about everything else in my wardrobe...my growing tummy saw to that). I hung in there for 6 months of my pregnancy (and 4 years in the business) before I started getting that itch. I guess in my case it was more like a rash. Going to work was getting to be harder and harder. I felt less and less motivated. Ordinary tasks felt monumental and tough days felt like the end of the world. And in broadcast journalism a tough day isn't extra paperwork and a bitchy boss, it usually involves knocking on someone's door after their loved one was murdered and asking them if they would talk to you on camera about the pain; sitting in a courtroom as parents explain to the drunk driver who killed their child why it feels like he killed them too; holding a hysterical woman who just found out the body lying in the middle of the street after an accident is her daughter; watching a family who just lost everything in a fire cling to each other, staring with empty eyes at what used to be. Those are all true stories, I was there for all of them, and so many more. I carry them with me, and I don't know if it was because I was pregnant, but the weight of all that misery just started to seem like too much. I started casually reading articles and blogs and posts about being a stay-at-home mother. I started imaging what it would be like to have my time be my own again. Most of all, I fantasized about not going to work anymore. I happen to have the most supportive husband in the world...and he pictured it with me. We checked our budget and started saving and planning. Since early in our relationship we had talked about how we would handle children...would one of us stay home? Both of us grew up with mothers who were home...busy and active, but home. If possible, we wanted to be able to give our children that same experience. So, even though it was scary, I jumped. I gave my two week notice. I started the countdown. And here I am. Staring down a day free of obligations, deadlines and bosses. I woke up this morning with a huge smile on my face. I watered the plants. I gathered the laundry. I'm planning a trip to Home Depot now to get some stuff for projects around the house (hooks for kitchen pots, stain for furniture in the guest room, new paint for the dining room to cover the hideous aqua color I insanely thought would work with the red living room) and then I'm heading to the YMCA pool for an afternoon swim. This evening I'm going to write some thank you notes, take the dog for a walk and trim the roses; make a spaghetti sauce, empty the dishwasher and plan my day for tomorrow. On the to-do list will be stuff I've been meaning to get around to for ages. It's now 1:41 in the afternoon...I would be due at work in 4 minutes. And though I'm sure a part of me will miss some of the action, the camradarie of the newsroom, my friends and the manic way we went about our days...I know the afternoon news meeting will go on without me. People will continue to murder each other, hurt their children & their pets, abuse their power and take advantage of the weak. But now I won't be on the front lines...those aren't my stories anymore. I have a new job and she's growing bigger everyday. My husband laid next to me last night, his hand on my stomach, and we both fell asleep feeling our baby dancing. And what a story that is.