About Steph

Your author, part-time, work-at-home writer.

Winter One Acts

Two Saturdays ago, we went to the Winter One Acts at North’s school to see some of their friends, including Ranvita, act in them. In the spirit of concise storytelling, I’m going to present what we’ve been up to over the past few weeks in bite-sized pieces, three paragraphs max per topic. Can I be that brief? We’ll see.

Theater

It felt novel for the winter one acts to be put on in winter, as last year a covid surge and subsequent scheduling problems delayed them until May and the year before, of course, they didn’t happen at all, as school was closed for most of the year and there were no extracurriculars even when it opened briefly in the spring.

It was our first outing of the year as we didn’t do much for New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. We got an invitation to go to a small New Year’s Eve party our neighbors were holding, but we didn’t feel up for it. We didn’t do our usual New Year’s Day hike or cheese board either. We did all watch Carol because North found it on a list of New Year’s-themed movies. Afterward we all agreed it was a good film (Beth and I had already seen it) but the connection to New Year’s was tenuous at best. Afterward the kids stayed up to usher in the new year with salty snacks, sparkling juice, and tv, as is their sibling-bonding tradition.

Back to the plays…there were three one acts, followed by an improv presentation. Ranvita had a small part in the first one act, which was also the best one. It involved John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt playing Monopoly in the afterlife and it was very funny. Ranvita also had several parts in the improv pieces. These weren’t being improvised in the moment but were workshopped as improv and then turned into very short plays. The schtick was the actors were trying to get through thirty of them in less than an hour (and they succeeded). It was fun to watch and North seemed to enjoy seeing friends, especially Ranvita, and they gave her a bouquet. They haven’t been able to see much of each other the past few months, but they did have a brunch date recently.

Game Nights

The next night, Beth, Noah, and I played Settlers of Catan with the Seafarers’ extension kit Noah got for Christmas. As you might guess from the game, there are ships involved, and you can use them to settle smaller islands off the coast of Catan. It took us a little while to figure out how strategy differs in this version, but we were getting it by the end, I think. Noah won the game. On other nights during his break, we played Sleeping Queens, Jeopardy, and Scattergories, some of these more than once.

Therapy

We have family therapy every Monday and Tuesday these days. Mondays it’s a virtual session in the late afternoon after North has gotten home from their day program. Noah joined us for a couple of these sessions. On Tuesdays it’s hybrid and it’s not just us, but all the families of all the kids in North’s program all together, which I have to say is kind of an odd format. All the kids are there in person, as it’s the end of their day. Some parents come in person, and some attend virtually. Often, Beth and I are the only parents in the room.

Beth has been working in a room she’s renting in a co-working space in a big office building near North’s facility, so she doesn’t have to make the hour and a half round-trip drive twice every day. Since she’s right next door, she always goes to multi-family group in person. I usually do, too, since the one time I tried attending virtually I couldn’t hear well and the person I could hear least well was North. Getting to Columbia by myself wouldn’t be easy, so attending group in person means I spend the day in Beth’s office on Tuesdays. There are four desks, so I can set up my laptop on one of them and I have new environs for my daily walk, so it’s not bad.

Anniversary

Beth and I had an anniversary a week ago today. It’s now been thirty-one years since our commitment ceremony and ten since our legal wedding (they were on the same date). We had breakfast for dinner, and I made muffins using the recipe for the spice cake that was our wedding cake (both times). I’ve made it almost every anniversary since 1992, usually with a lemon glaze, though the original wedding cake had white frosting with purple frosting violets on it. North is quite attached to the lemon glaze and was kind of outraged the year I made an orange glaze instead. Last year was my first year with diabetes and I left the glaze off entirely, but I’ve gotten a little more relaxed and when I was wavering about the glaze, North advocated for it and I ended up making it.

We exchanged presents after dinner. One of the advantages of having an anniversary two and a half weeks after Christmas is that you can just check your wife’s Christmas list and see what she didn’t get. I got Beth a kit of salad dressing spice blends and she got me Hamnet, which were unbought items from our lists. But I also got her two fancy dark chocolate bars, and she got me a roll of postcard stamps because I can always use them for get-out-the-vote campaigns and postage is going up later this month.

Her card said “Always and Forever” on the front, which is exactly what I wrote on the inside of mine. I’m taking that as a sign that we’re going the distance. ‘Til death do us part.

More Baking

I’d been in the mood to make cookies for a while, and I thought I should do it before Noah left so I could send some of them with him. The day I ended up making them was the Sunday of MLK weekend, which was also the thirteenth anniversary of my father’s death. It seemed kind of appropriate because he loved sweets of all sorts and Snickers bars especially, so something with chocolate and peanuts seemed a fitting tribute. North’s been baking, too. Their last creation was a very tasty carrot cake with a chocolate ganache. We’re still eating it.

Media Binges

The end of Noah’s time at home is often a rush to finish television seasons and books and this one was no different. In four weeks, he and I started and finished the current seasons of What We Do in the Shadows and The Handmaid’s Tale. I didn’t think we were going to manage that last one, but he ended up staying home a few days longer than he thought he would, and the extra days included a long weekend, so we watched the last four episodes in two days. That season was something else, wasn’t it?

With Beth, we also made it to the end of season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (bingeing the last three episodes in the middle of the day on MLK day while North was at their program). Noah is puzzled at how the series will continue for two more seasons, as the title character dies in the season finale, but we’re not telling. With everyone, we got to the midpoint of season 7 of Blackish. We’ve reached the covid era episodes and while the first couple about it were excellent and very evocative, I was disappointed that it basically fell out of the plot after that, as if it barely happened and didn’t deeply alter our lives for years.

As for books, over the course of his break, Noah and I also read What Strange Paradise, The Nova Incident, and Wyrd Sisters. We often save a Terry Pratchett novel for last because they are short and easy to fit into a little scrap of time if we happen to have one left. We finished it on Monday, the last full day before he left. (Meanwhile two days earlier, North and I finished The Inferno, which we’d been reading since early December.)

Goodbye

Once we’d finished Wyrd Sisters, around 3:45 on Monday, I had a bit of an empty feeling, because there was nothing else to finish, after spending much of the last three days in a sprint to read and watch all the things. But there was plenty to do: we had a family therapy session (Noah skipped this one to pack) and I made dinner, a vegetable-bean-noodle soup, not unlike what I made for his first night home, and North made the carrot cake, and I packed Noah some snacks for the bus (pecans, dried cranberries, and a half-dozen of the cookies), and that night we all played an online Jeopardy game. Noah made a valiant effort to fill up on homemade treats while he could, eating two slices of cake and a cookie.

Yesterday morning, we all got into the car at 7:55 a.m. and drove to a mall parking lot just outside Baltimore, where at 9:15, we put him on a bus that said “Let’s Go” on the side. And heeding its suggestion, we all did, to college, to treatment, and to a little office in a co-working suite.

All the Good Things

Christmas Eve

We drove to Blackwater a day later than planned on a frigid morning. It was eighteen degrees when we left Takoma, and the temperature rose and fell between ten and fourteen for most of the trip. Beth thought the traffic would be bad because, like us, others would have delayed their travel and there would be two days’ worth of travelers on the road, but for whatever reason, we didn’t run into traffic at all. Maybe everyone who could drove early rather than late.

About an hour and a half into the trip we started seeing patches of snow on the ground and by the end when we climbed up into the hills, there was a several-inch layer, and high winds blowing it all around and the temperature fell to minus two. Negative numbers on a thermometer are a novel sight for us Marylanders, so that was exciting. There was also a bit of tricky driving for Beth.

We arrived at the lodge a little after three and I was glad to get out of the car because the leg cramps that were bothering me around Thanksgiving had returned on this trip and it helps to walk when I get them. We learned the power was out at the lodge and some of the cabins, but not the ones in our section of the park so we got the keys, drove there, and unpacked the car. I tried to shovel the porch steps before Beth’s mom arrived, but the snow was too hard packed to get off the risers.

Setting up the tree that had been tied up in our garage for weeks and then on top of the car for hours was a high priority. We wanted to give the limbs a few hours to fall so we could decorate it. Once I’d unpacked the food, North took over the kitchen, making chocolate-peppermint cookies, and Beth decorated the mantle with evergreen boughs she’d cut from the bottom of the tree, adding a string of lights and our figurines of characters from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and then the house was nearly Christmas-ready.

Beth’s mom, brother John, and sister-in-law Abby arrived an hour or so after we did, after a more challenging drive than ours, because they came from the opposite direction. We sat and talked until dinnertime. Beth heated up chili from cans (blending three different brands) and made almond flour cornbread and salad.

After dinner, Beth strung the lights around the tree, and the kids and I put up the ornaments. John and Abby had their own place in a nearby resort, and they left to go get settled in before we’d finished the tree. We watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns before bed. I skipped part of the latter one because I don’t consider it essential, and it was late, and I wanted to get a shower and go to bed.

In our rush that night, we inadvertently skipped our yearly reading of “A Visit with St. Nicholas,” which we all regretted when we remembered the next day. We also failed to put out cookies for Santa (which North often wants to do, even though it’s been a long time since any of us have believed in Santa) or to open one early present each. I have no strong attachment or objection to this last practice—it’s one we adopted only several years ago. Noah doesn’t like change, so he doesn’t like it and it often leads to sibling strife anyway, so that might have been just as well that we forgot.

Christmas Day

I was the first one up on Christmas morning, which wasn’t really a surprise. I’m sleeping better than I was a month ago, but it’s rare for me to sleep past 6:30 and that’s about when I woke. (Note: every other morning in Blackwater I slept past seven.) I went out to the living room to enjoy the tree lights and look at all your Christmas Eve Facebook posts. One by one, people got up and opened their stocking gifts.

North was responsible for Christmas brunch, so they set to work making scrambled eggs, various vegetarian breakfast meats, sliced fruit, and chocolate-peppermint muffins. Noah and I read while North cooked. John and Abby came over around ten and we ate. Everything was delicious.

Next it was time for presents. This year more presents than usual couldn’t be wrapped either because they were subscriptions—I renewed Beth’s to the New Yorker and we upgraded North’s to the Donor Sibling Registry to lifetime membership—or they had already been received—when my Fitbit broke in November, Beth got me a new one as an early Christmas present. But there was still plenty under the tree. Books, soap, socks and other clothing, tea, chocolate and other treats were popular. Plus, Noah got an extension kit for Settlers of Catan and YaYa got new earbuds.

After presents, John, Abby, and YaYa went for a drive to look at the snow. By early afternoon the temperature had risen into the double digits, if just barely, and Beth and I were both eager to get outside, so we went for a walk. The kids gave this activity a hard pass. At first, we thought we’d just go as far as the canyon overlook, but when we got there, we decided to keep going to the frozen lake, ringed with towering evergreen trees. As we walked over the dam, Beth turned to me and grinned.

I said, “This makes you happy.”

“It does,” she replied. “Look at this! It’s snowy, it’s cold—all the good things.”

We were out almost an hour and when we returned, the kids and I made gingerbread cookies from the dough I’d made at home and decorated them with colored sugar, raisins, dried cranberries, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and pecans. They came out just right and I reflected that it’s easier not to burn some when the kids are old enough to heed my directions to roll them all out to the same thickness. After gingerbread, North and I read a few cantos of the Inferno.

Just before dinner, North felt a headache coming on. They’d saved a dose of their rescue medicine for Christmas, just in case, so they were able to join us for Christmas dinner. YaYa made her famous spinach lasagna and afterward we sampled a chocolate Pandoro. None of us were familiar with this traditional Italian Christmas cake, and we found it a little dry, but it’s always good to try new things. John and Abby went back to their place and after a struggle to download it—the Wi-Fi was awful in the cabin—we watched Christmas is Here Again.

Speaking of the Wi-Fi, earlier in the day I’d had a difficult time getting my day’s photos onto Facebook, but I finally succeeded. I found myself surprised at how much this mattered to me. I had an even worse time the next day, but it seemed to matter more that I have a nice post for Christmas, partly because I enjoy the communal nature of holidays on Facebook, when many people are experiencing and sharing similar things, but also because I knew I’d like to see the photos pop up in my memories on future Christmas days. Ah, modern life…

Second Day of Christmas

John and Abby came over in the morning for breakfast and to say goodbye, as they were headed back to Wheeling. We were considering hiking down to the bottom of Blackwater’s eponymous falls, but John thought it was too cold—it was only ten degrees. He seemed torn and I think Beth could have used her older sister powers to sway him, but she didn’t.

I read with both kids in the morning and in the early afternoon, Beth and I set out to hike the Balanced Rock trail. It took about an hour and a half. We crossed a footbridge over a half-frozen creek lined with impressive icicles, traversed fields of little snow-covered evergreen trees and rhododendron bushes with their leaves curled against the cold, and finally climbed up to the two boulders that give the trail its name. About halfway there, Beth said, “Look at the wintry woods. Isn’t it the best?”

Answering automatically at first, I said, “Yes…well, no.” Beth made an indignant sound before I could explain. “The ocean is best,” I said, “but this is very, very nice.” And it was. In the whole walk, the only people we saw were two snowplow drivers when the trail crossed a park road. They were witness to the only time I slipped and fell.

We visited the lodge before going back home to see if its power was restored, because I was interested in swimming later if the pool was open and Beth thought people might want to go to the gift shop, but there was a sign on the door saying there was still no power.

Back at home, Beth heated up the Spanish drinking chocolate North got her for her birthday, and we enjoyed it with cookies. It was very rich and luxurious. I alternated between trying to get Facebook to agree to post my photos of the hike, with only partial success, and folding the last of three loads of laundry I’d done that day. (This is less than it sounds like—the washer and dryer were tiny.) Noah and I watched two episodes of What We Do in the Shadows and then I made dinner—cauliflower with cheese sauce and vegetarian Italian sausage.

North had a migraine and had hit the limit for their medication, so they went to bed in the late afternoon, and we didn’t see them until after nine. We’d planned to watch Glass Onion, but since North wanted to see it, we decided to wait. We tried to download The Fabelmans but it took so long we didn’t have time to watch it. This gave me a chance to read a few stray sections of the Post I’d brought and wanted to read before starting any of my Christmas books and to get this account of our adventures caught up. Just before bed, Beth wrangled the Wi-Fi into letting her post the rest of my hike photos.

Third Day of Christmas

Beth had to work in the morning, preparing for a press release for a video game workers’ unionization drive. I went back to bed after breakfast and started to read The Daughter of Dr. Moreau, which was one of three books I got for Christmas.

After a while I roused myself to do some dishes and from the kitchen window, I saw a young buck foraging for grass under the snow in the circular driveway in front of the cabin. It caused me to reflect that over the past couple days, I’d probably seen more deer than people. We were always seeing them in front of and behind the house. The snow behind the house was pocked with their hoofprints. One day when Noah was photographing a half-grown fawn, it came toward him up onto the back deck. This made me think people feed them, and eventually North and YaYa were feeding them Pandoro and apple.

When Beth finished her tasks, Noah wasn’t up yet, so the rest of us went to the upper overlook to see the falls around eleven-thirty. It’s a short, level trail, good for YaYa and North. It was lovely, as always. The falls were mostly frozen with two cataracts running down the icy surface. The nearby trees were all frosted with frozen spray and there were huge icicles, stained gold with tannin, on the rockface nearby.

We came home for lunch and Noah got up, so we did the other trail to the falls, the one that goes lower and closer. You descend a wooden staircase with viewing platforms at two different levels. The staircase was covered with packed snow, but that’s better than slush or ice, and we made it down to the bottom without much trouble. From that better vantage point, I could see big spheres of ice swirling around in the water at the base of the waterfall. The larger ones were big enough that if they were rocks, you’d call them boulders.

We visited the falls gift shop and dropped Noah back at the house before Beth and I set off on our longest hike of the day, along the ridge behind Pendleton Lake to the Pase Point overview. The trail has occasional views of the canyon and crosses little creeks, but mostly goes through woods and groves of rhododendron. It took about an hour to get from the cabin to Pase Point, where we emerged from the woods to stand on a ledge between boulders and take in a full view of the snow-covered canyon below.

We were wiped out from almost three hours of hiking, so Beth and I took a little nap before I got up to help Noah make soba noodle soup for dinner. Afterward we watched Glass Onion, which is fun film, especially if like me you went through an Agatha Christie phase in middle and high school.

Fourth Day of Christmas

Beth and I went on separate walks in the morning. Every day we were there it was a little warmer and that day it was just over freezing when I left the cabin, less bundled up than previously. I returned to the falls, finding them with slightly less ice and slightly more water tumbling over the ice, and quite a few more people on the staircase. I guess the warmer temperatures brought folks outside.

I climbed back up the staircase and continued up the park road to the bridge that crosses the Blackwater River, and stood on the span, looking down at the smooth ice with a current of open water wending through the middle. On the way back, I admired a decorated evergreen in a median I hadn’t spotted the first time I passed it.

When I got back to the cabin, I noticed Beth had managed to clear the porch stairs of snow as it had finally softened. She’d also taken some evergreen branches we had piled on a chair and woven them into the railing. It was a festive touch I hoped the park staff would leave up for the next people. I told her she’d spruced up the porch and she laughed at the unintended pun.

In a happy turn of events, the power came back on at the lodge and the pool was open. The sled run was open, too, but tickets were sold out, as were tickets for tubing. In the early afternoon, Beth took YaYa and me to the lodge, so I could swim and YaYa could use the exercise room. Beth floated and stretched in the pool while I swam sixty laps in the tiny pool. It’s in a pleasant, airy room with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on evergreen trees. It’s nice to swim in a warm room and be able to see tiny icicles hanging from the gutters of the building and a dusting of snow on tree branches during the backstroke laps. After my swim, we soaked in the hot tub.

When we got back, North was excited to report they had hand-fed a deer an apple and even petted its head. I was surprised. The deer at Blackwater are very tame, but none of us had ever touched one

After a late lunch for me and an even later breakfast for him, Noah and I read and then watched a couple episodes of What We Do in the Shadows. Next in various combinations, we took ornaments and lights off the tree and dragged it into the woods behind the house, worked on the puzzle of movie posters (finishing it despite YaYa’s prediction that it wasn’t possible in the time left), and folded the last of the trip laundry.

We ate leftovers for dinner and afterward, Noah hooked his laptop up to the computer screen so he could show us a slideshow of the over six hundred pictures he took at Blackwater and people could select the ones they wanted. Then we spun off into different groups to read and watch television—North and I read a couple cantos of the Inferno. We got to the eighth circle of hell (of nine), but that’s not as far as it sounds because more than a third of the poem takes place in that circle. Beth and Noah watched Andor, and YaYa watched as much of Great Expectations as she could before the Wi-Fi gave out.

Fifth Day of Christmas

Beth and I both took early morning walks. For me, this meant leaving the house at 7:55—Beth was out earlier than me and came back later. I decided on the canyon overlook as my destination as I’d already been to the falls and the lake twice each and other than those, the overlook is best short walk from the cabin. When I got there the sun was just rising over the top of the ridge and touching the top of the canyon with light.

I was back at the house a half hour later, ate breakfast, and started packing up the cabin. We checked out at ten and after about a half hour of driving, we passed the crest lined with windmills and crossed the Eastern Continental Divide, where we left the snow and our holiday behind.

Before the Holiday

Monday afternoon at 2:40, Beth and I left the house together. She was headed to pick North up from their partial hospitalization facility, and I was headed to pick Noah up from the airport. Beth dropped me off at the Metro stop, where I shared an elevator with someone who didn’t see fit to extinguish his joint during the ride, so the elevator filled with pot smoke. I was annoyed, but it didn’t diminish my excitement to see Noah for the first time in three and a half months.

Despite what I said before about not taking pictures of the Great Barrier Reef, Noah did end up sending me some cool ones, taken from the air when he was returning to Robina, where he lived this fall (well, spring). He had a two-week stretch between the end of classes and his homecoming. Aside from the trip to the reef, he visited the beach, did some Christmas shopping, and then travelled to Sydney a couple days before his flight home. He sampled noodle dishes in Chinatown and went to see the harbor and the Sydney Opera House.

Noah’s phone battery died on the plane home, so he didn’t know I was waiting for him at the baggage claim, but we managed to find each other. He was travel-weary and didn’t want to contend with all his luggage on the Metro, so I called a Lyft. We had some trouble finding the driver and when we did connect, the driver was irritated with me and rude and accused me of wasting his time. Then in the car when I cracked the window because he was unmasked, he rolled it back up. Also, he was vaping the whole time. It was the first time in my many times in a Lyft I didn’t tip the driver, but I didn’t report him either because I didn’t want to be a Karen.

In the car I alternated between peppering Noah with questions and letting him be. He looked very tired after a journey across the Pacific and the United States. I thought he might want to go straight to bed, but he consented to stay up long enough to eat the lentil-noodle-chard soup I’d made, to keep me company and chop cilantro as I put the finishing touches on the soup, and even to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas after we ate.

Once he did crash, though, it was an epic sleep. He went to bed at 10 p.m. and didn’t get up until 8:40 the following evening. When Beth and I left in the early afternoon to go to participate in multi-family group therapy at North’s facility and then bring them home for the day, I thought for sure he’d be up when we got back but he wasn’t. And because North had a migraine that night, it was just Beth and me eating the broccoli-cheddar-quinoa fritters I’d made because everyone likes them. By the end of the day, I was checking on him every couple of hours to make sure he was still breathing.

Having slept that long, Noah couldn’t sleep Tuesday night, and he ended up with this sleep dysregulated for several days, but I told him he needed to be up by late afternoon on Wednesday because we had a family activity planned.

It was the solstice and when we travel for Christmas (which we almost always do) we have a tradition of opening a few presents on the solstice to lighten our load a little. We’re spending the holiday with Beth’s mom, brother, and sister-in-law, so once North got home for the day we opened presents from my side of the family. We gathered in the living room, cheerfully lit with lights on the mantle and in the Christmas village I just inherited from my mom (who’s downsizing), and ate butter cookies decorated with red and green sugar and butter-pecan snowballs I bought at the bakery for the occasion while we unwrapped gifts. Beth got a set of pumpkin-carving tools she’d been wanting and fancy chocolate bars. I got two books and three jars of unusual nut butters. Noah got a book and a camera strap, and North got a check.

Beth, North, and I had a virtual family therapy session and after that, we had tofu-veggie bowls for dinner and then we went to Brookside Gardens to see the light display. We’ve done this a few times, but it’s just as magical every time to walk along the wooded paths, admiring the colored lights outlining tree branches or in the shapes of animals and plants. There were a few new features, a machine blowing bubbles made of liquid nitrogen, and steam issuing from the sea dragon’s mouth, but mostly it was the same as I remembered. That’s nice sometimes.

It was also nice that the outing wasn’t derailed by a migraine. It could have been because North’s still having them quite frequently, more days than not. From that we can gather that at the current dose, the new preventative medicine isn’t helping, but they’re not at the full dose yet. They’re building up to it. The good news is that the rescue medicine is very effective. Most of the time it heads the headache off in an hour or less. But…North is only allowed to take it twice a week, so they need to ration it. Every time a headache starts, they are forced to consider if it’s medication-worthy, based on what they have going on that day. Anyway, this time when a headache started right before dinner, they decided yes, it was a medication day.

As it turned out, it was Noah who was ready to leave the gardens before anyone else. He’s not only having trouble adjusting to a time difference of more than half a day, but he’s also having trouble with winter weather, having just come from summer, and he’d lost one of his gloves. It wasn’t super cold, around freezing, but that was too cold for him.

We were planning to leave for Blackwater Falls State Park on Friday morning. If you live in the U.S. or Canada, you’re aware of the massive weather system that derailed that plan. Most of our route would have been fine, but there was a stretch of road that was treacherous, with snow and very high winds, so after monitoring it all morning, an hour before we were set to leave we decided to stay home an extra day. Blackwater is one of Beth’s very favorite places in the whole world, and we’ve spent every Christmas since 2016 in a cabin there, so we were all disappointed to have our stay there cut a day short.

But there were some compensations. North and I took a walk to Starbucks. It was raining for most of the morning and temperatures fell rapidly as the day progressed, so it turned over to snow briefly before the skies cleared. It was over quickly, and it didn’t stick, but it was our first snow of the year, so I thought the occasion merited warm beverages. The walk there was fine, but the wind picked up as we were at a table outside, enjoying our hot chocolate and chai, and we decided to get moving again. North’s feet were wet because they’d stepped in a puddle on the way there and I wasn’t wearing gloves and wished I was, but it was still a fun outing.

At home, I read with both kids—The Inferno with North, while they inked a cityscape that they’re working on for art class and What Strange Paradise with Noah, his Christmas present from my sister, one of the gifts we opened early.

Beth and Noah watched Andor and we all watched a lot of Rankin-Bass Christmas specials—Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and The Year Without a Santa Claus, the last one while we ate cheap delivery pizza, which as I ate it, I realized was just what I wanted. And even if we weren’t where we wanted to be, and with all the people we wanted to be with, it was still good to have an idle day before the holiday, with just the four of us.

Where They Are, Part 3

When I last wrote, I was frustrated by the long wait to get North into a partial hospitalization program and into the interim instructional services (IIS) program. A lot has changed since then.

Monday

On Monday, North found out that their review of Eurydice had been accepted for publication in a local paper in Falls Church. Fewer than 10% of the reviews Cappies write are published, so it’s an honor. They also got their PSAT scores and were pleased with them, especially the English score. Finally, we got word that North’s application for IIS was accepted.

Tuesday

For North take part in IIS, they needed to make some schedule changes and those came through the next day. Contrary to what I said before (and what we originally read about the program), there are no in-person tutors. It’s all online and there are limited course offerings, so North had to drop all their AP and IB classes and switch to honors versions of their English, History, and math classes. When they eventually go back to school, probably third quarter, they will stay in those new classes. They are also going to drop French and Foundations of Tech because there are no IIS versions and it seemed too hard to get caught up. So, the only two classes of their original seven they will return to will be astronomy (which has an IIS version) and painting (which doesn’t). When I met with all North’s teachers right before Thanksgiving, the art teacher seemed willing to be flexible about North’s second quarter work. I’m glad they will probably stay in that class because they enjoy it.

Wednesday

Even though North’s been admitted to IIS, they’ve only been enrolled in the astronomy class so far. They started to watch the lessons on Wednesday. They’ve attended a class—it meets twice a week– and taken some quizzes and have done all of last week’s work and some of next week’s, too. They’re supposed to hear from the English, history, and statistics teachers on Monday. I am glad to have a plan in place that should let them finish eleventh grade this year.

On Wednesday morning North and I went to the post office to mail their Christmas presents to my mom, sister, and niece. It was good we got that errand done because Thursday turned out to be unexpectedly busy. Later in the day on Wednesday we got the call that there was a spot for North in a partial hospitalization program. We’d have an intake appointment on Thursday and if all went well, they’d start the program on Friday. It was the same one that offered us a spot when North had covid. It’s in Columbia, about forty-five minutes north of where we live and one of the closer locations of the five programs to which we’d applied. (Two were in Virginia.) We were all very happy and relieved to get this news.

North also had a migraine that afternoon and took their new medication for the first time. They were feeling better after an hour—usually it takes several hours—so that was cheering, too. (However, the second time they took it, on Saturday, it didn’t take effect as quickly.) That night after Beth and I had gone to bed, North put up the Christmas decorations in the living room and made red velvet cookies. The decoration wasn’t a surprise, they told me they were going to do it, but the cookies were. They were also excellent.

Thursday

On Thursday we had a slew of appointments. North had a psychiatrist appointment in the morning. I was under the impression it was virtual because the last one was, but it was in-person, so when it was time to leave, I was still out on my morning walk and Beth texted me to say she’d drive to where I was and pick me up. That was a little rattling. North’s regular psychiatrist Dr. W just had a baby, so it was with her substitute Dr C. Luckily, though, North knows and likes him. He led the trans kids support group they attended in middle school.

We got back home just in time for me to attend a virtual meeting with my own health care provider about some mysterious leg cramps and pain I’d been experiencing. It had been worst while we were at the beach and right after and seemed to be resolving by the time I saw her, but I kept the appointment to talk about what to do if it comes back. I’m wondering now if it had something to do with having covid, because of the timing.

After lunch and squeezing in a little work, we hit the road for our intake appointment, listening to Christmas music in the car on the way. The program is in a suite in an office building, but the space is a little cheerier than what I saw of the adolescent psych unit when North was hospitalized. In the main lounge area, there were a lot of puzzles, games, stuffed animals, and evidence of crafts projects in progress. There were pillows and a throw on the couch and a rug on the floor. There were also big windows overlooking the grounds of Merriweather Post Pavilion, where there was a Christmas light show.

We met with a counselor, first as a family, then just me and Beth, and then just North. It took a little over two and a half hours. The whole thing felt thorough and unrushed, and we were able to go into more detail than we often can with psychiatric professionals. That was reassuring. When it was North’s turn, the counselor said we should feel free to leave the building if we wanted, so we went for a walk in the light display. It wasn’t dark out yet and it hadn’t opened, but none of the people setting up told us to leave. When we got back, the counselor said we were good to go, and North should come back in the morning.

Friday

The first day went well. North says there are seven kids in the program, and they are in various kinds of therapy most of the day, with a study hall to do schoolwork. There was art therapy that day and they decorated bags to fill with affirmations. Beth and I will be attending a multi-family group therapy session every Tuesday and then family therapy for just the three of us at a time to be determined. That night, we got pizza and watched a cheesy Christmas-themed lesbian rom com (Merry and Gay), which was just what we all wanted.

Weekend

On Saturday we went to Butler’s Orchard to get a Christmas tree. North saw the one they wanted early in the process, but we walked around to look at the others, just in case. Then while Beth was paying for it and watching one of the kids who was working there tie it to the roof, I took North to the snack bar. I saw people walking away from it with hot chocolate and noticed the cups were small but topped with a generous amount of whipped cream. I thought that ratio of sugar to fat might work for me, so I got one (and I didn’t go out of range on it). North got a pretzel and some hot cider. Next, we went to the farm market, where we browsed and bought some treats and Christmas presents. It was a very nice outing. We continued with the festive activities on Sunday afternoon while North was at Zoë’s house—Beth worked on the outside lights, and I addressed Christmas cards and wrote this.

Meanwhile, in Australia

While all this was going on, Noah went snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. He couldn’t take pictures because it’s underwater, and I wasn’t able to get much out of him about it. He said a boat took them out, and they all wore wetsuits to protect themselves from jellyfish, and that it looked “like a coral reef…with fish.” I am glad he had this experience, and perhaps I will learn more about it when he comes home, which will be in a little over a week. Between now and then he’s going to spend a couple days in Sydney. It’s good he’s getting a chance to explore a bit now that his classes are over.

He’ll be exploring the West Coast this summer, as it turns out. He got into a program Ithaca runs in Los Angeles, that helps communications students or recent grads get internships. There’s also housing, plus optional classes he can take. He’ll be leaving right after graduation. It seems things are falling into place for both kids.

Wait For It: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 78

So, we had covid and it was pretty anticlimactic. For me it was like a cold, and not even a bad one—I had a sore throat, congestion, and a cough. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, the first night we were home from the beach, Beth and I were both slammed with fatigue almost exactly at the same time. We went to bed that night at 8:30 and I thought we might be in for something bad, but neither of us got very sick. I guess being vaccinated and triple boosted helps.

I tested on Wednesday because I was thinking of going to book club. I was five days out from my first symptoms, and I felt fine, if a little phlegmy. But I was still testing positive. It was such a faint line I was holding the test at different angles and squinting at it when North came by and said, “Do you need my young eyes?” Eventually all three of us concluded there was the faintest of lines there, a contrast to the dark line I got three days earlier. I elected to attend book club virtually (it’s still hybrid). The average age of members is probably around seventy and some of them are in their eighties and frail, plus masking in the group has gone from almost universal to about fifty percent, just in the past few months. It didn’t seem responsible to go, so I stayed home.

North, who had covid first, also had it worse, more fatigue, chills, and dizziness and after they thought they’d recovered, on the Monday after Thanksgiving, they had a fever. This was unfortunate because on Tuesday one of the partial hospitalization programs (not either of the ones I mentioned in my last post—we’ve applied to a lot of them) called with a spot for North the very next day. Not an interview, an actual placement. We’d interviewed at this one in early November, before North was even out of the hospital.  I asked about their covid policy and learned you must be symptom-free for three days after having had covid and since North had a fever the day before, we had to give up the spot. Pause here for a long sigh. Anyway, we are still next on the list at this place, so we’ll see.

The other thing we’re waiting for, besides a space in partial hospitalization program, is for North to be enrolled in the school system’s interim instruction program. It’s designed for kids for are hospitalized or can’t come to school for other reasons. A tutor comes to you. It took a while to get North’s psychiatrist to fill out the necessary paperwork and now it’s taking a while for the school to get back to us, but you’re not surprised by any of this, are you?

By Friday, North was testing negative, and they’d been symptom-free a few days, so they went to see their therapist in person Saturday morning. In other medical appointments last week, we had virtual ones with North’s pediatrician to catch her up on the general situation and another one with a neurologist to discuss North’s worsening migraines. They’ve been much more frequent, starting last spring, and we all wonder if being in pain so often is dragging down North’s energy and mood. The neurologist prescribed some new meds, one for prevention and one for treatment. Fingers crossed they make a difference.

We’d been thinking of going to a Christmas market in an old bank building in downtown Takoma Saturday afternoon, but Beth was still testing positive, so we decided to skip it. North and I ran some errands of the post office and drug store variety together on Friday. I was glad to get them out of the house and walking around outside on a sunny day. (I bribed them to come with me with an iced peppermint white chocolate mocha and a slice of lemon pound cake.) At the beginning of North’s time at home, we were taking them on a lot of outings, but these have petered out at bit as Beth and I both got back to working somewhat more normal hours. None of us expected this hospitalization interregnum to last so long (three and a half weeks and counting).

We took the bus to downtown Takoma, and I wanted to walk home, but North didn’t so Beth and I consulted and decided we’d let them take the bus home alone. It was the second time we’d let them go out into the world without one of us since getting out of the hospital. (The first time was the Diner of Covid Doom.) I waited at the stop with them and texted Beth when they got on the bus, and she texted me when North got home. It reminded me of when they were in sixth grade and new at taking public transportation and how I used to wait with them at the stop. I asked North if they remembered that and they said, “No, but it checks out.”

The third time North went somewhere without us was Saturday night, and it was for something more fun than tagging along on their mother’s errands. They had been assigned to review a production of Eurydice at a high school in Alexandria as part of their participation in Cappies. We discussed amongst ourselves whether we should ask school officials if North was still allowed to participate in extracurriculars as they’d been out of school for over five weeks at this point. We decided to ask was to invite a no, so we didn’t. It was encouraging that they wanted to do it and it seemed appealingly normal. There was a carpool, so Beth drove North to their school where another parent picked them up and took them to the play with some other reviewers.

The result of this activity was that Beth and I had a rare evening alone in the house. My friend Megan brought us dinner—cauliflower steaks, cauliflower soup, bread, and salad, delivered in a bag tied with two jaunty yellow balloons. I recommend having a friend who will facilitate your at-home date night when you are too tired (and possibly contagious) to leave the house. Thanks, Megan!

Everything was delicious and Beth and I had a nice stretch of time to talk and hang out before she took a disco nap, starting around 8:30. These Cappies events run late and unfortunately, the carpool would take North back to their school rather than home, so Beth was going to have to drive about an hour to fetch them well after our usual bedtime. I did not wait up—even though I’m sleeping a little better this week. It’s still hit or miss, so I didn’t want to risk a short night’s sleep. Beth and North got home around 11:30 and I didn’t even hear them come in or notice Beth getting into bed.

On Sunday morning I tested negative, which made me happy because I wanted to go swimming. The pool where I used to swim lap weekly for years and which closed during March 2020, first for the pandemic and then for extensive repairs, just re-opened last week. Even though in the past few days I’d been riding buses and going into stores, briefly and double masked, breathing hard unmasked on someone in the same pool lane seemed like a different level of risk. But now I could swim in good conscience.

However… when I got there around one-thirty the door was locked and the hand-written sign on the door said 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. I recognized these as the weekday hours. (The pool is in an elementary school.) Are these the hours every day now? Are they only open on weekdays? Who knows?

I think the universe is trying to teach me something about patience.

A Wild Ride: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 77

Tuesday: Hello, Covid

It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, parent-teacher conference day at North’s school. I was in between my second conference (French) and the third (Foundation of Tech) when I got a text from Beth informing me that while I was gone, North, who’d woken that morning with a cough, headache, stuffiness, slight fever, and dizziness, had tested positive for covid. It sounds kind of obvious in retrospect, but I was surprised. After two years and eight months of dodging this virus, I guess I was feeling we were invincible, even though my mom got it in the spring, and my sister’s whole family got it earlier this month.

Two days earlier we had let North leave the house without adult supervision for the first time since they got back from the hospital. They’d had brunch at a crowded diner with several friends. It was an exception to our no-eating-inside-restaurants policy, though we don’t know for sure that’s where they got it. Given that the incubation period is two to fourteen days, the second most likely option seems like the school play, which we attended about a week and a half before they started to feel ill. And I suppose there was the cat café, and we did go see a movie (Ticket to Paradise), but neither the café nor the theater had very many people in it. Ironically, they’d been around people less than usual during the two weeks before they got sick, first on a closed hospital unit and then at home.

I wondered whether I should bail on the rest of my conferences, being an official close contact of someone with covid. That might have been the ethical thing to do, but I was already there and masked, and given that North’s been out of school for several weeks, I really wanted to touch base with each of their teachers to explain what’s going on and discuss various possible paths forward for North academically. It seemed important, and the conferences were less than fifteen minutes each, so I went through with it.

When I got home, Beth said, “I feel like the degree of difficulty of our lives just keeps getting higher,” elaborating that we were like the proverbial frogs being slowly boiled in a pot. There were a few reasons this was bad timing for our family’s first bout with covid. (Is there such a thing as good timing for it?)

  • We were supposed to have an in-person intake interview at one of the partial hospitalization programs to which we’ve applied the following morning.
  • We were leaving our annual Thanksgiving-at-the-beach trip immediately after the interview.
  • The next day was also Beth’s birthday.

Beth called the hospital and to our surprise, they said we could do the interview virtually, so that was a relief. After a brief discussion, we decided we would go ahead with the beach trip.  It usually involves Christmas shopping on Black Friday at the shops in downtown Rehoboth and we’d have to skip that, but I said it would be worth it to me to go if all we did was hang out at the house, have Thanksgiving dinner, order takeout the other nights, and take walks on the beach. That was what our first pandemic Thanksgiving trip to the beach was like anyway. (On our very first pandemic beach trip North was paralyzed, and we didn’t cancel then either. We are hardy travelers.)

There were risks, of course. Driving there would mean several hours of close contact with North and if Beth got sick in Rehoboth, then the drive home would be difficult or we could even get stuck there, but if you know how we feel as a family about the beach (me most of all), you’re probably not surprised that we went.

So many of you have shared your covid experiences on your blogs or on Facebook that we’ve had a range of models for whether or how to isolate infected family members from non-infected ones. We didn’t even discuss isolating from North. Given their current situation, it didn’t seem like a good course of action. We began masking when we were in the same room with them, but we weren’t avoiding them, and most of the time we even ate together inside, so that made the decision to spend a few hours in a car together slightly more rational.

After that was decided and after we’d filled out some pre-interview forms to scan and send to the hospital, I made Beth’s birthday cake, a chocolate cake with coffee frosting I’ve made many, many times. You’d think I’d remember the recipe well enough that I wouldn’t almost forget to add the egg, actually forget the vanilla, and accidentally turn the frosting into a glaze by halving all the ingredients except the coffee, but you’d be wrong. What can I say? I haven’t been sleeping well and I’ve had a lot on my mind. It was comforting to make it anyway, because it smelled good baking and there were batter and frosting bowls to lick, and it made the stressful day seem more festive.

Wednesday: Happy Birthday, Dear Beth

The next morning while we were packing for the trip prior to the interview, Beth got a call from the hospital informing us it was cancelled because that health care visits can’t happen over Zoom across state lines. The hospital is in Virginia and we’re in Maryland. Later I remembered we’ve run up against this rule before while travelling. I guess there’s some sort of exception for D.C. because we’ve had a lot of virtual meetings with providers in the District. This was quite frustrating. We couldn’t get a new appointment until the second week of December, and we won’t even be on the wait list until we have the interview. But there was nothing we could do about it.

We hit the road around eleven and arrived in Rehoboth around three-thirty, with a stop for a lunch of  drive-through Taco Bell and Dairy Queen eaten at the tables outside the DQ near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. We masked in the car and kept the windows partially down. It was a warm day—it got up to sixty degrees—so that wasn’t a hardship.

Near the end of the drive, Beth got a call from another partial hospitalization program where we’d been waiting for an intake interview since North got out of the psychiatric unit almost two weeks earlier. It’s in Annapolis, but they are opening a new location in Prince George’s County, which is closer to us than Annapolis, and they wanted to know if we’d like to interview for that location. Beth said yes. They’re supposed to call back by Monday to arrange it. So, on that front, it was one step back, one step forward. Because the facility is new, we’re hoping there will be less of a wait there.

We got to the house, a two-story yellow frame cottage with pale blue shutters, a living room and kitchen on the first floor and three small bedrooms on the upper floor, a narrow staircase between them, and a screened porch in front. We settled in, unpacking food and clothes, making up the beds, and deciding on our order of Japanese takeout for dinner. I was on the beach by five to see the sunset. When I got back Beth left to get the food and we ate her birthday dinner around the kitchen table.

After dinner, she opened presents. There was imported Spanish drinking chocolate powder from North, three fancy chocolate bars from Noah (one from Colombia, one from India, and one from Tanzania), and a bottle of French olive oil from me. It was all very international. Beth’s a fan of good chocolate and olive oil, so she was happy. Next, we ate cake and ice cream, and watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and The Mayflower Voyagers.

Before bed, we took a walk down to the beach to see the stars. We could see Orion’s belt and one of the dippers– we weren’t sure which one. Beth stayed on the boardwalk while North and I went down to the sand. While we were separated, my sister’s family called Beth on her cell and sang “Happy Birthday” to her and let her know her present was on the way.

As we were going to bed, I asked Beth how her birthday had been, and she said it was “a wild ride,” but that it ended well. In my card I’d written (before North came down with covid), “I hope it’s better than getting deloused, or getting your gallbladder out, or getting a flat tire.” I suppose this one will go down as one of Beth’s many memorable birthdays.

Thursday: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving started for me at 4:49. Remember how I said I’m not sleeping well? I stayed in bed until six, trying to get back to sleep, and then I relocated to the living room couch so the light from my cell and laptop where I was reading Facebook and blogs wouldn’t wake Beth. Around 6:45, I decided that as long as I was up, I might as well see the sunrise on the beach, which was only a five-minute walk away.

I used to watch the sun rise on the beach more often, when the kids were younger, and we all used wake at ungodly earlier hours. Well, I can’t exactly say I’m thankful for my recent insomnia, even on a day dedicated to gratitude, but… I was genuinely grateful that morning to see the orange ball of the sun rising over the ocean, touching the beach grass with faint light, putting touches of pink in the sky, painting the wet sand silver with streaks of gold, and making a big, ruffly, clear jellyfish I found at the waterline seem to glow from within.

I walked on the beach until the dawn colors had all drained away from the sky and the sand, went back to the house, ate breakfast, and made a batch of low-sugar cranberry sauce before anyone else was up. Everyone cooked a little throughout the day. Beth made the mushroom gravy and finished the broccoli-cheese casserole that North started. (North felt well enough to cook at first and then got dizzy and had to go lie down.) I made the basting sauce for the tofu roast and Beth made mashed potatoes. We’ve pared down our traditional feast a little over the past couple years since I got diagnosed with diabetes. I stopped making the brandied sweet potatoes because I was the only one who liked them, and we longer make breadcrumb stuffing because the roast comes stuffed with wild rice and Noah was the one who liked the original stuffing best.

Late in the morning, we all made our traditional turkey table decorations from apples, toothpicks, raisins, dried cranberries, and olives. “Will you make these with your kids?” I asked North.

“Yes,” they said. “Will you make them with them?”

“Yes,” I said. It was a cheering vision of the future.

Beth and I had lunch out on the screened porch—leftover Japanese, crackers, cheese, nuts, and fruit. Then we all had overlapping naps. I didn’t manage to fall asleep, but I came close, and it was nice to rest. North slept most of the afternoon. We’d hoped to take our Christmas card photos on the beach that afternoon, but they weren’t up for it. After my nap, I put the roast in the oven and went for another walk on the beach and boardwalk.  When I came back to baste it again, Beth went for a walk of her own.

We ate a little after six and everything was delicious. Before we ate, we offered thanks for North being out of the hospital, for being together, for the fact that though we wished Noah was with us that the reason he wasn’t was that he was studying in Australia, something he’d wanted to do for years, and for the vaccines and boosters that kept North’s case of covid mild and that had protected me and Beth so far.

Speaking of Noah, at seven we had a Zoom call with him. It’s only the third time we’ve done it since he’s been abroad. The first time, with me and Beth, was to let him know North had been hospitalized and the second, with all four of us, was the last night North was in the hospital. He’d been trying to call them at the hospital and between the fifteen-hour time difference, difficulties with his changing between domestic and international SIM cards, and the fact that all the kids on the unit shared one phone and it was usually in use, he had not managed it until we linked him into one of our pre-scheduled Zoom calls.

We asked him if he’d done anything for Thanksgiving and he said no. It reminded me of studying in Spain the fall of my junior year of college and how it’s strange to be abroad on this very American holiday. My celebration that year consisted of a sweet potato boiled on a hot plate in a dorm room. We also found out his last school assignment is due the first week of December and he has two whole weeks of free time before he comes home. Beth and I both urged him to travel. He’s already planning a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, but he hasn’t explored much outside the town where he’s living, so it seems like a good opportunity to see more of the country where he’s been living since September. He mentioned in a puzzled way that a lot of the international students have been taking trips to New Zealand and Bali and missing class to do it.

It was good to talk to him. It was the first time I’ve been to Rehoboth without him since before he was born—in fact I think the last time we went without him might have been the trip when we brought printouts of sperm donor profiles to pick out his. It was also the first time we haven’t been together on Thanksgiving, so I was missing him a lot.

After the call, we watched an episode of Gilmore Girls, and then North and I walked to the beach again to look at the stars. There were seabirds resting on the waves, visible only as white spots bobbing up and down in the distance or occasionally taking flight and streaking across the dark sky.

(Not So) Black Friday

I managed to sleep until 5:30 the next morning, a slight improvement.  Because my daybreak walk at the beach had been so rewarding the previous morning, I decided to do it again. It was cloudy and drizzling so there really was no sunrise to watch, but I never regret a walk on the beach.

I came home, made myself breakfast, and then left again to go pick up a few books I’d pre-ordered from Browse-About before North got sick. I double-masked and was in and out in a few minutes, resisting the temptation to stay and shop a little. On the way home, I detoured to the beach. It was high tide and an extensive network of little pools and channels of water had formed all over the sand. It was very cool, but I had to wend my way carefully to avoid getting stranded somewhere that would soon be covered by an incoming wave.

There was a family on the beach with preschool-aged twins running around, one in a ladybug rain slicker and one in a bee slicker. The hoods of their jackets had antennae. They were adorable and made me miss my little ones, who are not so little now.

When I got back home, Beth drove out to Route 1 in Black Friday traffic to get Grandpa Mac takeout for North. They’d slept all morning, so it was their first meal of the day. (Then Beth drove back when the order was wrong to get a replacement. This is a testament to Beth’s love for North.) I blogged and read and did laundry so we could bring home mostly clean clothes. It felt odd, not to be busy on the day I usually either start or get serious about my Christmas shopping.

In the late afternoon we had our Christmas card photo shoot on the beach. North and left ahead of Beth and went to the boardwalk where we purchased a frozen custard for North. We all met up and took pictures on the sand and jetties. While Beth and I had our backs to the ocean a rogue wave caught us by surprise and we both got our feet soaked. North took a series of photos of us running out of the ocean. I am considering using one of them on the card. After all, we haven’t had a picture-perfect year.

Beth and North went back to the house while I went to Grotto’s and ordered a pizza and mozzarella sticks for pickup. While they cooked, I went back to the beach to watch the sunset turn a bank of clouds in the northern part of the sky vivid pink and color the water and sand with swirls of pink, gold, and blue. I brought the pizza back home and after an hour or so, I heated it up and we had an early dinner before heading back to the boardwalk for the holiday sing-along and Christmas tree lighting.

When we reached downtown, Beth went to get soft pretzel bites for North while North and I found a place to sit away from the crowds near the bandstand. We found a bench on the boardwalk where we could hear the singing and see the tree but without standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of celebrants. We noticed someone was flying a drone near the tree, presumably to get an overhead view when the lights came on.

Although the other people sitting on boardwalk benches and passing by weren’t singing, we did. The first song was “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and for a half an hour, there was a series of mainly secular Christmas songs like “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” At seven sharp, the lights on the tree flashed on, just as they always do. The sameness of this event is deeply satisfying.

On the way home, Beth confirmed that the orange light North and I had been seeing in the sky over the ocean the past two nights was in fact a planet—Mars. We marveled that you could see its color from so very far away.

That night before bed, because I’d had a sore throat all day and I was getting stuffy, I took a covid test. To my surprise, it was negative.

Saturday: Goodbye, Beach

Another morning, another early waking, this time around 5:40, another lovely sunrise on the beach, which I enjoyed along with parents with kids, people with dogs, walkers, runners, and people camped out on the sand wrapped in blankets watching the fiery sun hover at the horizon over the ocean. It’s quite the perq if you have to be up before dawn.

I came home and had breakfast and we packed up the house. Even though he’s busy with end-of-semester projects, Noah texted me the pictures of himself wearing a green t-shirt and standing on an Australian beach that I’d requested. We’ll juxtapose one with our beach photos on the Christmas card.

We stayed in Rehoboth for about an hour after we vacated the house. Beth took her daily walk and North and I had a slower ramble along the beach and boardwalk, with a long rest on a boardwalk bench. It was a wild ride getting to the beach, but once we got there it was actually a sedate couple of days, with more naps and less bustling about in shops than we usually have on Thanksgiving weekend, but I’m glad we went, and I hope it will prove restorative.

Note: Beth and I both tested positive for covid on Sunday morning.

Where They Are, Part 2

To cut to the chase, home is where North is now.  After thirteen days on the adolescent psychiatric ward at Children’s, North came home a week ago today. We are trying to get them into a partial hospitalization program. This means a day program with psychiatric treatment that would last anywhere from two to six weeks. They’d be home evenings and weekends. We’re in various stages of the application process at three different facilities. They all have waitlists, but we’ve gotten as far as a phone screening completed at one and a phone screening completed, plus an in-person interview scheduled at another.

In the meanwhile, North’s not going to school. Beth and I are both working reduced hours to spend time with them. We’ve been playing Sleeping Queens and Clue and watching television and North and I continue to make our way through The Iliad. We’re up to Book 17. When we get through it, we’re going to start The Inferno. North is helping with housework and the still-in-progress project of taking Halloween decorations down. Plus, they’re working on a complicated paint-by-number mandala. Beth and/or I go on outings with them most days, either errands like grocery shopping or more recreational excursions.

Leaving the Hospital: Thursday

We found out North was being discharged Thursday afternoon and picked them up around six, after we’d finished one of the aforementioned phone screenings. I quit working and made dinner, a mushroom-white bean soup, early so it would be ready when we got home. North was appreciative of home cooking after two weeks of hospital food. That evening we watched Frankenweenie because in the hospital they’d been shown the first half hour of it as a group activity, and they wanted to know how it ended. It was deeply comforting to eat dinner around the same table and then eat white chocolate fangs leftover from Halloween and watch a movie.

Settling in at Home: Friday

Friday afternoon Beth and North dropped me off at Walgreens to get my flu vaccine and covid booster while they browsed at a nearby Asian market, where North got the kind of noodles they like. Back at home, after we finished a book of the Iliad, I read the last act of The Doll’s House to North. They’d read The Glass Menagerie and most of The Doll’s House in the hospital. North seemed to enjoy the play and cheered Nora in her decisions not to kill herself and to leave her awful husband. Fridays are usually movie nights, so after a dinner of homemade olive and mushroom pizza, we watched Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was North’s first time seeing it and I have to say they seemed a little skeptical of it. “So, the horror is gay people?” was their comment when it was over.

Faux Halloween: Saturday

North will be seeing their therapist, Andrew, twice a week until they get into a day program and Saturday morning was the first appointment since getting out of the hospital. That one was in person. Then we all had a virtual meeting with their psychiatrist, Dr. W, on Tuesday and North had a second (virtual) meeting with Andrew today. We’ll have an in-person family meeting with him on Saturday.

Saturday was also the day North designated as Faux Halloween. We watched The Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting in the afternoon, and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in the early evening, while eating Chipotle and more Halloween candy.

Then Zoë came over and we all left for North’s school, to see the closing night performance of Clue. It was a fun production, and as North was the co-costumes manager, we all admired the color-coded costumes and a reversable cummerbund that a character flipped over to indicate he’d been shot—the reverse side was bloodstained. Speaking of costumes, toward the end the play the same actor experienced a costume malfunction. His pants ripped and he had to use one hand to hold them up for the remainder of the play. He was such a pro, though, I really wasn’t sure if it was part of the play or not. He made it look like it was, but North says it wasn’t. After the play was over, Ranvita (who was on crew) found North and they had time for a hug, but North didn’t want to linger and talk to people. The actress who played Mrs. Peacock did stop them to say, “I missed you!” as we were on our way out. (North later said Mrs. Peacock’s costume was their favorite.)

Zoë came home with us and slept over. She and North watched Ma after Beth and I had gone to bed.

Starbucks Outing: Monday

“I know you’ve already been to Starbucks twice since you got home…” I started on Monday morning.

“But I want to go again,” North finished for me.

So, we walked to the Starbucks closest to our house. It’s about a fifteen-minute walk. North seemed happy to be outside and pointed out a lot of animals including a cat in the street who did not wish to socialize with us and a lot of birds. They noticed a blue jay in a tree, the iridescent colors of the starlings’ feathers in the shopping center parking lot, and the flock of pigeons taking off from telephone wires, swooping through the sky and returning to the same wire. I reminded them that they were four and we were outside the very same Starbucks watching birds swoop across the sky in formation and they told me: “Birds know what they’re doing, and people don’t.”

“I stand by that,” they said.

Cat-Related Outings: Wednesday and Thursday

On Wednesday Beth and North went to the county animal shelter to donate Xander’s food and treats and they got to visit with some cats. Beth said it was a little sad, but mostly nice. North said it was sad to leave without one young and vocal black cat in particular because they’d taken a fancy to him. The next day Beth and North had an even longer visit with the residents of a cat café in Annapolis. I didn’t go on either outing, partly so I could get some work done, but mostly because I’m just not ready. I don’t want to pet or play with cats who aren’t Xander yet.

That’s basically where we are. North has a chart on their door they use to keep us appraised of their mood. It’s nice to see it in green sometimes, but it’s okay that isn’t always. We’re in a kind of a limbo, doing the best we can, taking one day at a time.

Where They Are

Wednesday evening Beth and I were on a Zoom call with North and North had just asked if I’d been writing about them on Facebook or my blog this week. I said no. They said not to post anything on Facebook, but as for the blog, “You can say where I am but not why.” So that’s what I will tell you.

Admission: 21 Hours

North is in an adolescent psychiatric ward and has been for eight days. On Thursday of last week during a routine quarterly visit with their psychiatrist, they said some things that caused Dr. W to recommend we go to the emergency room. She called ahead, approving North to be admitted, thinking this way we wouldn’t be waiting all night in the ER. We did get out of the ER in a relatively swift hour and a half, but instead of spending the night there, we spent it, and most of the next day, in the psychiatric screening area where patients wait to be admitted to the children’s or adolescent psych unit of the hospital or discharged home. We’ve actually been to this screening area before, about three years ago—I never blogged about it. That time, we decided to take North home in the middle of the night.

This time around, once we arrived in the ER, North stopped speaking, though they would communicate through gestures and writing. If you’ve been reading this blog a while you might remember when North stopped talking for six weeks in third grade. That time, they felt physically unable to speak above a whisper, though there was no organic cause and when it got better, there was no clear reason. This time is a little different as North can speak under some circumstances, but I’ll get back to that later.

It wasn’t clear why the admissions process took so long, as North had been pre-approved and there were beds available, but if you’ve spent much time in hospitals—and I hope you haven’t— you know how mysterious and excruciatingly slow everything can be.

The screening area, which we started to call the bardo, consisted of a hallway with a desk and chairs for staff and more chairs for patients and parents who were waiting, and five exam rooms and one restroom branching off the sides. Each exam room had one bed, some chairs, and a tv. There was a cutout in the door so staff in the hall could see inside. If you turned off the lights, the room was dim but not dark. North got an exam room right away and didn’t have to wait in the hall. After they changed into a hospital gown and we were briefly interviewed and a nurse had taken blood and they’d provided a urine sample and taken a covid test, North was able to sleep, but Beth and I sat in plastic chairs all night. You aren’t allowed to bring anything into the area, so we didn’t have our phones, or books, or anything to occupy ourselves and once North was asleep, we couldn’t even talk to each other because we didn’t want to wake them. It was a long night.

At one point after a shift change one of the staff who didn’t know that North is using catheters—yes, that’s still going on—saw them go to the bathroom holding one and asked me if we’d gotten it from a nurse, and I said yes. I wasn’t intentionally lying—I was exhausted and misremembered, but we’d brought them from home, and soon no fewer than four hospital staff were swarming around North and their illicit medical device. So, now we know how to get people’s attention in the hospital.

Kids were arriving and leaving all night and the next day, sometimes sent up to the inpatient unit, sometimes sent home. I left the screening area a few times, either to go the locker with our belongings so I could use my phone to scan the glucose monitor on my arm or in search of food, because while they feed the kids, they don’t feed the parents. When you leave and re-enter you must be screened, and it can take a while for security to arrive to do it, so I tried to keep my excursions to a minimum. By Friday afternoon I was starting to wonder if Beth or I should go home and get some sleep and then come back and relieve the other in case it was going to be another night, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave, and Beth wouldn’t either. As far as I could tell, North was the only kid there with two parents in attendance and at least half of them had no parents accompanying them.

For much of Friday we watched a lot of truly dreadful daytime television—one of those shows in which people are suing each other (not Judge Judy, but similar) a crime drama with bad writing and acting, and The Young and the Restless.  I paced the length of the little room for over an hour and a half, which made Beth so nervous she went out into the hallway, but I kept at it for a while after she left because it was having the opposite effect on me. Finally, we found a channel that was playing nothing but consecutive episodes of Friends, Beth came back to the room, I promised not to pace anymore and climbed into North’s bed with them, and we all watched several episodes. I haven’t seen Friends since it was on the air, and I’m sure there must be some episodes that haven’t aged well (that’s certainly true of Buffy) but from the ones we saw it seems to have held up. It was just what we needed, distracting and funny and North seemed to like it. It even made them laugh a few times.

Finally, at four o’clock Friday afternoon, almost twenty-one hours after we’d arrived at the hospital, North was taken up to the inpatient unit. Beth and I went with them but weren’t allowed past the lobby. We stayed there for another hour and a half, mostly waiting for someone to come talk to us and filling out paperwork. And then we left our baby there, went home, ate, showered, and fell into bed at seven. I slept for eleven and a half hours.

The Home Front: Weekend Plus Halloween

The next day was Saturday, the day of the Halloween parade. North hadn’t been planning to attend anyway because it was the first day of tech week for the school play and if they’d been home, they would have been at rehearsal. Last year Beth and I went to the parade without North (who had the same conflict) just to watch because we love it. We hadn’t decided if we were going this year and I’d completely forgotten what day it was until Beth asked me, tentatively that morning if I wanted to go. I didn’t. It seemed impossibly sad.  I went out on some errands that afternoon and I ended up near downtown Takoma shortly after the parade must have ended because there were a lot of kids in costume, including an unusual number of skeletons, wandering around. In the Co-op, a small Buzz Lightyear was in line in front of me and told me he got his balloon sword at the parade.

Halloween proper was sad, too. We did our civic duty—put out the rest of our massive stock of decorations, lit our jack-o-lanterns (which we’d finished the night before we took North to the hospital, all cats this year in Xander’s honor), and gave out candy. I found seeing the costumed kids at the door alternately cheering and unbearable. To distract myself, I started awarding them prizes, (unbeknownst to them) on Facebook. Here’s what it looked like:

6:08 p.m.

Steph thinks the best trick-or-treater in the 5:00 to 6:00 hour was the “unicorn witch,” even though she wouldn’t have known that’s what the tot was without the voluntarily offered clarification. But it made sense—she wore a unicorn headband and a long black dress.

7:22 p.m.

Best costume in the 6:00 to 7:00 hour: Flower in flowerpot. Second place, hot dog.

8:10 p.m.

7:00 to 8:00 hour. Elaborate homemade piñata costume. Second place, witch with cauldron for candy and stuffed cat familiar, for attention to detail and impressive use of the word “familiar.”

9:00 p.m.

8:00 to 9:00 hour: Marshmallow. And that’s a wrap. Blowing out the pumpkins and turning out all the lights.

When it was all over, I told Beth this year was sadder than the year North missed trick-or-treating because of the sixth-grade Outdoor Ed field trip. “Way sadder,” she agreed.

Hospitalization: Eight Days and Counting

Earlier in the day on Halloween I delivered some homework to North, copies of The Glass Menagerie and The Doll’s House and questions to answer about the plays. (They will have to do this in crayon, as no other writing implements are allowed.) We’ve been going to the hospital frequently to deliver clean clothes and other items, though frustratingly, sometimes it takes days for the items to make their way to North. It was a week before they had a hairbrush, even though they were allowed one. We even brought a second one, thinking maybe the first one got lost. The same day they got to brush their hair, they got Muffin, their stuffed monkey. This required special permission, so it made a little more sense.

When one or both of us go to the hospital, usually Beth drives, but when I brought the plays on Monday, I took public transportation and the hospital shuttle so she could get some work done and so I could see North through the glass of the lobby. Whenever you come into the unit, they bring your kid out to wave at you.

On Wednesday afternoon I got to visit with them for an hour in the classroom. I delivered some art homework and a note from Zoë and a crocheted bee she made for North, a Zobëë, she called it. At North’s request I brought the cards and tokens for Love Letter so we could play (they beat me 7-0) and the Iliad. I read the beginning of book 12 out loud. This isn’t even homework. North got interested in it after they read the Odyssey last year and they’ve been reading it on and off since last summer. Somewhere around book 7, I started reading it to them because they thought it might go faster that way. (After room inspection that night both the card game and the bee were confiscated.)

We’ve also had at least one phone or Zoom call every day they’ve been there. At first it was kind of ad hoc and it was hard to get through but once we got on the schedule for every weekday evening at seven, it’s been easier. It’s good to see them once a day. We can see their room, which has a view of the Capitol, the Howard university bell tower, and the reservoir, and a dark blue wall with white silhouettes of whales and sharks. They’ve been doing a lot of adult coloring book pages with the ever-present crayons, and they are taped to the wall, along with Zoë’s note. We can have these calls because North will speak to us when no one else is around.

We get a call from Dr. D, the main psychiatrist who is working with North, every weekday except Wednesdays, and one day we had a family meeting, which was a Zoom call with North, Dr. D, and a coordinator. In this call North communicated by writing and holding the paper up to the camera. This is what they’ve been doing in group and individual therapy as well, though they have been working on saying a couple words per session.

We’ll have another family meeting on Monday, which if Dr. D is right, might be near the end of North’s stay. No promises, but she says she’s cautiously hoping it will be “early next week.”

At Home: Five More Days

Meanwhile, Beth and I have been working in the day and watching A League of Their Own or Abbott Elementary at night, plus Licorice Pizza on Friday night. I was writing postcards to voters in Kentucky and Georgia until the mailing deadline passed and on Friday, independently of each other, Beth and I took our ballots to the drop-off box near the community center. Beth also took North’s because in Takoma Park, you are allowed to vote for municipal offices at age sixteen. It seemed a little sad they couldn’t have the satisfaction of dropping their very first ballot into the box themselves, but it was good they’d already completed, signed, and sealed it.

On Tuesday I had lunch with my friend Megan. We’ve been good friends since North and Megan’s daughter were in preschool together, so she knows pretty much all of North’s long backstory. It was nice to talk to someone who didn’t need a lot of explanation. In other self-care, Beth went kayaking this morning and we went to Brookside Gardens for a walk this afternoon.

We very much hope North will be coming home soon. They’ve asked us to leave up the Halloween decorations, so we have. I’ve even left the Halloween cats dish towel hanging from the oven door and my black cat, bat, and vampire-festooned pencils and Mummy eraser out on my desk. We’re planning a little Halloween do-over for our reunion. We’ll watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and eat Halloween candy we saved. I am looking forward to that.

October Outings

Note: this blog post was already mostly written when Xander got sick, so the bulk of it of it takes place before the last one. Think of it as an artsy flashback…

We’re a family prone to traditions and sometimes that gives the years and months and weeks a pleasing, predictable rhythm. That’s why I was disappointed when a couple of the things we usually do in October either didn’t happen or we couldn’t attend, but despite this, we’ve had several nice outings recently.

Where We Didn’t/Won’t Go

  1. Visitation Day

Most MCPS schools have a parent visitation day on Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day when you can come observe your kids’ classes. (It’s that day because the schools are in session and many parents have it off work as it’s a federal holiday.) We’ve gone at both elementary schools the kids attended, both middle schools, and Noah’s high school. Before this year, I would have said all MCPS schools host this event, but it turns out North’s school doesn’t. You’d think I’d know this as North is a junior, but their ninth-grade year was nearly all remote and last year there weren’t many events parents were invited to in the building, especially early in the year, so I wasn’t surprised when the date passed with no invitation.

But this year, since Back to School Night was in person again, I thought Visitation Day would be on as well, but there we no announcements, so we started to wonder. Trying to find out anything about it from the school was surprisingly difficult. When I called the main office the person who answered the phone didn’t know and transferred me to someone else’s voicemail, where I left a message that was never returned. When Beth emailed the principal, he never answered. When I asked North to ask their teachers, they forgot, although they seemed open to us coming, especially to their painting class. When I called the main office again, a different person who answered the phone didn’t seem to know what I was talking about but said there was nothing on the school calendar for that day. This seemed like a good indication the event wasn’t happening, but I’d posted something to the school’s Facebook page, just in case, and then in response, the mother of a senior told a story about how the last year before covid she’d gone to see just one class and her daughter’s teacher who was a veteran at the school had no idea why she was there. That made me think, okay, maybe this school has never done this, and it wasn’t a casualty of covid until another senior parent posted, no, visitation day did happen the last year before covid, so now I don’t know what to think about the past or the future, but it didn’t happen this year.  I really liked getting a glimpse of my kids’ school lives, as you can probably guess from the fact that I pursued this so doggedly, but even so, I wasn’t going to show up uninvited.

  1. Halloween Parade

The other thing that’s probably off the table for us, though we don’t know for sure yet, is the Halloween parade and costume contest. It’s happening, two days before Halloween, but North thinks it conflicts with tech week for the school play, so they won’t be able to compete, which is sad because over the years my kids have been enthusiastic participants in the parade and contest, which they have each won at least once. The same conflict stopped North from going last year, so I’m guessing it will also conflict next year which means North’s probably done with the costume contest, which is sad because we didn’t even know the last year was the last year. Beth and I have thought about volunteering to be judges, but I think I want to wait until North has graduated and there’s no chance that we’d be judging any of their peers, not that too many of them are still participating.

Where We Did Go

  1. Gingerbread Sundae (Date #1)

This wasn’t an October outing per se, as we went the last day of September, but it was autumnal, so I’m including it. Around this time of year, I always get a craving for the gingerbread sundae at Mark’s, a restaurant in downtown Takoma. I like to have it just as it’s getting a little cool, but warm enough that ice cream still seems appealing. Last year I was newly diagnosed with diabetes and skipped it, but I have a better idea of what I can eat now, and ice cream is rich enough that the fat slows down the sugar and it usually doesn’t cause as big a spike as other desserts. I invited Beth to go on a mini date with me on a Friday afternoon and split a sundae and that’s what we did. The day was cooler than had been predicted when we’d arranged it, but she’d cleared her schedule, so we went anyway. We asked for a table outside, because we’re not eating inside restaurants, and we had the little alley next to Mark’s all to ourselves (as the day was not only cool but it looked like rain, though it held off long enough), so it was kind of romantic. They were out of the gingerbread syrup, but the combination of warm gingerbread and cold ice cream was still pleasing.

  1. Family Movie Outing

Later that weekend, all three of us saw Don’t Worry, Darling. I enjoyed it, even though it’s the kind of movie that when you think about it later, it makes less sense than it seemed to while you were watching it. I can say Florence Pugh is quite good in it, the cinematography is striking, and it has an excellent soundtrack.

  1. Mother and Child Pupusa Excursion

At the end of summer, I realized that North and I never went to the Langley Park farmers’ market for pupusas, which is something we usually do at least once in the summer, so I checked the school calendar for half days or days off on Wednesdays before the market closes for the season in late November. There was a half day in September, but North had to stay after school for the play. However, Yom Kippur fell on a Wednesday and there was no school that day, so we got pupusas for lunch and coffee and pumpkin pastries (a muffin for North and a slice of pumpkin loaf for me that I saved for later). North says the farmers’ market pupusas are better than restaurant ones and I speculated it’s because food often tastes better outside. North thinks it’s because they get the ratio of filling to dough just right.

  1. White House Garden Tour (Date #2)

There’s a garden tour at the White House every spring and fall and Beth was offered tickets through her office. We’ve done this tour before, but not for eleven years, and I thought it would be fun, so Beth and I went. (North declined.) It’s a self-guided tour. There were framed photos of presidents and first ladies from the Carters to the Trumps planting trees in front of the trees themselves and you can see how they’ve grown. (President Carter’s Cedar of Lebanon is quite impressive now.)

There was a bottleneck at the kitchen garden so a staffer was hurrying people past it, which was too bad, because I would have liked to get a better look, but I saw herbs, peppers of different colors, sunflowers, and a bank of surprisingly tall marigolds. We’ve been to the White House to see the Christmas decorations (once in the Clinton administration), to tour the East Wing, take the Garden Tour, and attend the Easter Egg Roll (all in the Obama years), but this was the first time we’d been there during the Biden administration. It made me think I’d like to do the Christmas tour again sometime. On the way back to the Metro, we got coffee (me) and hot chocolate (Beth) and then we went to Value Village to get an orange shirt for North to wear at our annual pumpkin patch photo shoot later in the month.

  1. Lunch (Date #3)

The other thing we usually do on Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day, besides visit the kids’ schools, is to go out to lunch. The upside was that we didn’t have to squeeze it between one school and the other as we often did in years past. We went to Busboys and Poets. Beth got a salad with vegan tuna, and I had cauliflower with aioli and vegan barbequed chicken. It was a pretty day, sunny and in the sixties so it was pleasant to eat outside, and we spent some time hanging out when we got home before I decided to get some housework and paying work done.

If you’re wondering if it’s normal for us to have three dates in a week and half, the answer is no, but we were on a roll. Sometimes that happens.

  1. Play

This year North is participating in Cappies, an organization of student theater critics that sends students to review plays at area high schools and then grants awards at the end of the year. On Friday they attended their first show. A high school in McLean, Virginia was putting on The Man Who Came to Dinner. Beth was going, too, because it’s a long drive to McLean and it made more sense to stay than to go home and come back, and I thought if everyone else was going, I’d get in on the fun, too. We’d purchased the tickets before Xander got sick and once he did, I was leaning toward staying home with him, but then he deteriorated more quickly than we thought he would, and we had him euthanized the morning of the play. So, we were all heartsore, and I almost didn’t go, but I wanted to be together on such a sad night—although North would be seated with the other Cappies—so I went.

The host school feeds the Cappies dinner beforehand, but Beth and I needed dinner, so I heated up some leftover frozen pizza and wrapped it up in foil before we left in hopes that it would stay warm and it did, faintly. On the way we stopped at a Starbucks where North and I got Dragon Drinks while Beth went to a nearby grocery store to get marinated mushrooms, a salad, and Babybel cheese to supplement the pizza. We ate in the car in the school parking lot and Beth said we were tailgating. Meanwhile, North was dining inside the school. They’d expected something like pizza on paper plates, but they were served roasted chicken and Caesar salad on china, which would have been nice, except North doesn’t eat meat, so all they had for dinner was salad and mints.

The play is a madcap 1930s comedy about an imperious literary critic who breaks his hip while at dinner at a factory owner’s house and is bedridden there for weeks, and proceeds to take over the house, receive many colorful guests, and irritate his host, while befriending his children, older sister, and servants (and in some cases turning them against him). The main plot involves the critic’s scheming interference in his secretary’s love life. Beth missed part of the second act because she had to go watch a vote count for an Apple store in Oklahoma City that was voting to unionize—happily, the union won. When she came back all I was able to tell her about what she missed was, “There were shenanigans and machinations.” It’s that kind of play.

The production was well done. The set was gorgeous, and the actors did a great job. (As a costumes manager, North noted there were some impressively quick costume changes.)

It was over by ten, and because I didn’t realize there was a Cappies meeting after the show for the purpose of debriefing, I thought we’d be getting home at a reasonable time, but we had to wait in the school lobby until 11:15, when North was finally released. I was exhausted from the long, draining day and when we got home and Beth and I fell into bed, it was midnight. But North stayed up to write their review.

  1. Pumpkin Patch Expedition

We took our annual pilgrimage to Northern Virginia to get pumpkins the next day. We had to do it when we’d scheduled it, because it’s a long outing and Beth’s going to be out of town this weekend, plus North had invited Ranvita. I wasn’t reluctant, though. I was still heavy-hearted—we all were—but in my experience, getting outside when I’m sad never hurts and sometimes helps.

We left mid-afternoon, picked up Ranvita, and drove to Potomac Vegetable Farms, where we’ve been getting our jack-o-lantern pumpkins since before the kids were born. The reason is the farm is owned by the family of a friend from college. As the suburbs encroach on it, though, it gets smaller and smaller. There used to be a cider press where you could watch cider made and farm animals to visit. They do still have live chickens for sale. Because they’re widening the highway in front of the farm, there’s less land between the road and the stand and the area where the pallets piled with pumpkins have been in previous years is gone. The pumpkins were right in front of the stand, but there were enough for us to peruse, make our selections, and pose for the traditional photos. Usually it’s just the kids, but this year we had North take one of us, too. We also bought decorative gourds, apples, cider, salsa, and a baking mix for North.

We texted some of the pictures we took (of piles of pumpkins and gourds) to Noah and asked him to guess where we were. It’s a game we play sometimes. This wasn’t a hard one, though, as he’d been to this farm almost every October from birth until he left for college (and once after that during his pandemic online school year). It was nice to include him a little, as I’ve found in the six days since Xander died that I miss Noah more, and Matthew, too. Even though it’s natural for kids to grow up and leave and cats to grow old and die—and with the kids it’s a good thing—part of me stubbornly wants it to be the six of us together again as it was for so long.

We got back in the car and resumed listening to and critiquing an Apple Music Halloween playlist. There were standards like “Thriller,” “I Put a Spell on You” (Nina Simone version), and “Season of the Witch,” but North objected to Justin Bieber’s “Ghost” because they say it’s about ghosting someone, not ghosts, and no one thought Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” belonged on a Halloween playlist because it’s not really about blood.

There’s a vegetarian Chinese restaurant we like near the farm stand and because there’s a bit of a gap between the time the stand closes and when we want to eat dinner, we’ve gotten into the habit of taking a walk in Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. As always, since we’re there in mid-October, there were a lot of kids taking Homecoming pictures. While North and Ranvita (whose foot was in a boot from an accident at play rehearsal) were resting in a pagoda and Beth and I were walking down separate paths (as I had taken longer to decide on my food order and she left first), Beth saw a young lesbian couple hanging out and taking pictures with their straight friends and she said it warmed her heart that in many places at least these days, queer kids “get to be regular kids.” It’s one of the good things about our kids’ generation.

We picked up the food and took it to another park where we ate at a picnic table. We were there because of the community gardens there that North wanted to show Ranvita, so after we ate our sweet potato and avocado sushi, spring rolls, miso soup, seaweed salad, noodles, and seitan-snow pea stir-fry, we wandered through the different plots, admiring the fall vegetables and flowers.

North said they wished they were a plant person because it would fit their vibe, but they really weren’t. I asked what they’d do after the apocalypse if they couldn’t grow food, and they said they’d cook the food someone else grew. Then we all chose our post-apocalyptic jobs, and North decided in addition to cooking, they’d watch children. “I’m very domestic in the apocalypse,” they observed. For my part, I thought I could teach and if it was a vampire apocalypse, I’d have some useful knowledge because I used to teach horror fiction and I know more than the average person about vampires. I was imagining myself in a Van Helsing/Rupert Giles type role. It didn’t occur to me until later that given that I write a lot about herbs, I could be an herbalist and that might be useful in the absence of vampires.

Our next stop was frozen yogurt. We’ve developed this whole pumpkin-gathering trip agenda over the years and while it does change (as when we had to start dining outside and when our favorite dessert place went out of business), it keeps growing and growing. “The problem with our family,” Beth started at one point, explaining to Ranvita how once we do something more than once everyone wants to keep doing it, but North interrupted, saying firmly, “There is no problem with our family.”

Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t, but it was good to hear them say that. And the familiarity of the routine was comforting on a day when sadness ran just under the surface of our pleasures.

All The Very Best Cat Things

On Wednesday morning I was leaving for a walk, and I texted Beth: “Xander came out with me and seems happy in the sun so I’m not putting him back inside. Could you check on him in a half hour or so? He’s currently in the front yard sidewalk.”

We’d been having a warm, sunny week after a long stretch of rain earlier in the month and I was thinking since it might be too chilly for sunbathing soon, I wanted him to enjoy this opportunity. I’m glad I left him out there because as it turned out, it would be his last time soaking up the sun.

That afternoon I was at my desk working and Beth was on a call when I heard him make loud and distressed noise. I went to see what was wrong and he was vomiting in the hall, which was nothing unusual. But when he was done, his breathing was labored. We’d noticed he’d been breathing more heavily recently, but this was different. Beth called our regular vet practice to see if they could see him that day and they said no, so we called the animal hospital and they said to bring him.

We drove to the hospital and sat in the waiting room for a while he was examined. A vet took us into an office to talk. She said he had a mass in his throat, probably cancer, that was making it hard for him to breathe. She speculated that when he vomited, it caused it to shift into a more obstructive position. We opted against surgery because of his age (nineteen and a half) and frailty. Xander used to be a very big cat, big in all the ways possible for a cat to be—big boned, muscular, plump, and fluffy. He was once capable of staring down small dogs. But he was down to less than half his peak weight and he’d lost three pounds in the past year alone.

The vet wanted to keep him on oxygen overnight and see if steroids would reduce inflammation enough so that he could breathe unassisted. She asked if we’d like to give a DNR order for him, which was startling, but we said yes. I couldn’t imagine someone doing CPR on his fragile body. I also learned in this visit that CPR rarely works on cats anyway.

By Thursday morning the steroids had worked well enough that he was breathing better, enough to come home for however much time he had left. He spent most of the day resting more or less comfortably, though we did notice he didn’t seem to want to put his head down and he’d doze half lying down, half sitting up. We suspected he couldn’t breathe well enough when his head was down. He drank and peed in the litterbox, but he didn’t eat all day, not even the cat treats he loved, and he hadn’t eaten for most of the day before either. We all spent a lot of time petting him and telling him what a good cat he was.

We let him sleep in our bed that night, between us. It was kind of like co-sleeping with a toddler because he couldn’t get comfortable and was quite restless. He was also behaving strangely. He kept going into the bathroom, hopping up a stool, and putting his paws in the toilet, which he’d never done before. If he was thirsty, his water dish in the kitchen was more accessible than that, but I wondered if he was getting confused and had forgotten where it was.

On Friday morning, we decided it was time. The vet from the animal hospital had referred us to a company that will come to your house and euthanize your pet. A vet came soon after we called. We all sat on the living room couch with Xander between me and North. We’d given North the choice to say their goodbyes and leave the room or stay and they chose to stay.

When Xander’s brother Matthew was paralyzed by advanced heart disease three months into the pandemic, he was euthanized in the parking garage of the animal hospital and only one of us was allowed to be with him. This was much nicer and more peaceful. We were all petting Xander and talking to him, and he wasn’t scared. The vet was gentle and respectful. It’s some small comfort that his end was quick enough that he didn’t suffer much but not so sudden we didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye.

On Saturday a bouquet of roses and other flowers arrived. It was from some of Beth’s colleagues, who had often seen Xander in the background of Beth’s Zoom calls over the past two and a half years. He was a friendly cat who charmed anyone he encountered—North’s friends all loved him—and this was proof his charm extended to online appearances.

RIP Alexander Fionn
Circa February 14, 2003-October 14, 2022

Xander was a beautiful, good-natured cat who lived a long, happy life. In his later years, he went partially deaf and, in his determination to be heard, he just meowed louder and louder. When I posted an album of pictures of him on Facebook, mostly of him snuggling with various members of the family or sitting on diverse perches (a pile of clean, folded towels, my open laptop, an air conditioner), one of my friends commented that it looked like he’d done “all the very best cat things.” He really did. We all miss him terribly.

p.s. If you weren’t reading this blog in 2013, I recommend this post about the time Xander went missing for several days and where we found him. There’s a good twist at the end.