Month: February 2011

Joyce Carol Oates, Miss Holmes Sends Her Regrets

Since February 4th when Julia Tayech and I arrived home from Ethiopia, all my friends, pals, acquaintances, and even strangers have asked the same question: “What’s the biggest change to the life of a single woman into a single baby mama?

The shift, in some ways was astounding, in others, minuscule. My arrival in the land of motherhood was in many ways natural and smooth. I’d visualized crossing the terra firma of baby formula and honey for so long, nourishing the vision in my mind into the metaphysical food needed to survive for eight years. To finally see my baby wriggling in my arms seemed the most natural thing in the world.

During our quiet times, amid the soft, silent, seductive connection we formed out of warmth, wanting and will, the sensation just slayed me. That’s where the astounding parts came in. Sure, I’d read how the mother+ baby bond formed in books and blogs. It was quite another thing to feel your irises expand in a shared wide-eyed connection with a fresh, new spirit sprawled across your lap.

The second astounding thing, was, well, the poops.

Sure I changed and cared for babies in my pre-parented time. I knew poos came in all manner of shapes, sizes and smells. But as my brother Jeffrey claimed in his parenting motto, much like the Boy Scouts: “Be prepared, especially for the unexpected.”

“You have to watch out for the blow outs,” the father of a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl said across the phone line months ago. “ Just when you least expect it, you get blow out, a diaper with poop running up their back and down their legs.”

Next, Jeffrey going to help President Obama boost the nation’s economy.

Monday morning I awoke with a plan to attend a reading by Joyce Carol Oates at the 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue. I adore Oates’s work. The way many women glom over People Magazine, In Style and Gawker for celebrity news, well that’s me with the work of Joyce Carol Oates. I have worshiped at the altar of her complex sentence structure. Her use of commas has sent me over the moon and back. So a week ago when a mailer arrived at my home that announced Oates would read from a new work on February 21st, I went all giddy and dopey. I still mourned missing her at the New Yorker Festival back in October.

“After I give the baby dinner ,I’m going to the Y for a reading,” I said to my mom.

She nodded from across the dinning room table and said nothing. In the body language of Annie Holmes that minute move translated to: “I don’ t want you to go out but I can’t stop you.”

Ten days into her month-long stay to bond with her newest grand baby ,I knew my mom viewed my going out after dark as a threat to my very existence, as if a mugger or a rapist lurked just beyond the doorman’s desk of my Upper West Side building. (Such was the worldview from a 74 year-old woman whose big excitement was hitting the local Wal-Mart in Redford, Michigan just as the staff put out the fresh, made rotisserie chickens.)

Throughout my PBJ life (Pre-Baby Julia) I regular pimped out my Unlimited MetroCard, taking the subway at all hours of the day and night. An 8PM reading? For a single baby mama with a ready sitter? A walk in the park.

I left my mom to doll out the last of the cereal, and headed down the hall and made a left into my bedroom. I changed out of my sweats and walked over to the closet near the door. I selected an outfit for the evening: a soft, caramel colored sweater, knee-high matching suede boots and slim-cut black jeans, the perfect look for a writer returning to the land of scribes, no longer just a reader of Dr. Sessus and Eric Carle books.

As I slipped into my clothes, I reviewed my plan: after cereal, I’d give the baby her fruit course, take her out of the Bumbo seat, then head down the hall to her bedroom. I’d read Julia a story then settle her into the crib with a lullaby or two. Then I’d be off to hang with one of my literary gods.

I gathered the baby up from her molded, lime-colored plastic seat. A surprising bit of dampness touched me back. I’d changed her nappy an hour ago, I thought, a low-grade, uneventful event.

I carried the baby back down the hall into the first bedroom. As we crossed the plush, olive and pink flowered rug, I detected the pungent, tangy odor of fresh poo. I was not alarmed. This was Julia’s usual early evening move I thought as placed her on the pad of the blond wood changing table. I unzipped her onesie, extracted her legs then peeled back the twin bits of tape that secured the diaper.

For those of you who might be reading this post over breakfast, lunch, dinner, a snack or even chewing gum, I’ll refrain from noting too many details. I’ll just say it was bad. And it was, well, nearly, everywhere. I stared at the creeping dark-green swamp that moved to conquer the lower half of the pink and white striped onesie. In my astounded state, a bolt of fear radiated off my body, jolting Julia. Out wailed an unfamiliar cry from her heart-shaped mouth— a long, pitched high note—full of fear, fear that I’d created. Shame-filled nausea oozed in my stomach.

I sucked in a cool, deep—albeit stinky—breath and pealed Julia’s soaked undershirt and sleeper from her tiny body.

“It’s okay Julia Bell, it’s okay bella,” I cooed striping the sticky clothes away from her caramel-colored skin, waddled them into a ball then shoved them toward the end of the changing table. I kept Julia in place with my left hand, kneeled down opened the middle drawer with my right, and pulled out a clean towel.

“Ba, ba, ba,” Julia said as I swaddled her in clean warmth—her standard all is well salute.

I gathered her up into my left arm, clutched the clothes, soiled and damp, with my right and headed out of the bedroom. I found my mother still sitting at the head of the dinning room table. I presented the wet wand to her.

“What’s that?”

“What do you think it is?” I said. “She had a runny blow out.”

My mother turned and smiled at Julia then said, “Mommy thought she was going out but you had other plans.”

I turned on my heels, entered the kitchen and plopped the mess into the washer, then headed to the bathroom to give Julia a much-needed bath.

“Mom, can you help me?” I yelled over my shoulder as I started the stream of warm water in the sink.
My mother headed into the bathroom and retrieved the Puj, from the shower, the milky-white, molded, origami shaped baby bathtub and placed it into the sink. Followed by a pink, baby-sized hand towel and soap. Together we washed Julia clean.

Ten minutes later, as I rocked Julia asleep, glances at my watch. It read 7:45. I mind rolled from the bedroom, out the window, across Central Park blanketed in darkness and speckled light blue lamp lights strung like pearls, over to the Y on Lexington Avenue. Joyce Carol Oates was probably slipping herbal peach tea from her favorite mug, the one that she traveled with, as she prepared backstage for her reading I thought. I imagined a multi-culti crowd dotting  the hall, the typical fans that assembled to hear Oates’s latest bit of brilliance. In my pre BJ life I would’ve sprinted from my apartment, and jumped into a cab and directed the driver to floor it to 92nd Street and Lex.  At less than ten minutes away, I could make the reading, just on the other side of the park. In my pre Baby Julia life, I would have. And I would have been proud to do so.

Instead, as I swayed my daughter to sleep in my arms, the words of a panhandler that regularly camped at the East 53rd street station came to mind. The  butterball, middle-aged, dark-skinned, Caribbean woman issued the same edict to all those who sprinted down the stairs of the moving escalator to the subway platform.

“Take time, take time,” she said as commuters ran for the coming train then she’d announce whether an E or an F train was storming into the station. Sometimes people tossed a few coins into her well-placed basket, thankful to know whether they needed to pick up the pace to make the arriving train, or stand aside and clear the way for other commuters. Back then, sometimes, I didn’t listen to the woman. I ran down the swiftly, moving metal stairs regardless whether the arriving train’s destination matched mine. Years later, across the echo of memory, I finally listened to her.

Finally. At long last. Hallelujah.

When you’re in a raging storm, the first thing you must do is secure your home. You check and lock the windows. You move the lawn furniture, the yard ornaments, and potted plants—anything that could become an airborne missile—inside away from the blast of wind. You “batten down the hatches” and yourself, and you wait it out.

I’ve lived in such a state, closed-in, sealed-in, for so long, when the storm of international adoption began to lift, I didn’t take it completely as fact.

“Everything’s cleared,” Jan said from Minneapolis. “The DNA test came back negative. Can you be in Addis for a court on the 1st?”

The call came into my cell on a snowy day in New York City, a little less than two weeks ago.  The weather forecast that Thursday had called for flurries. The flurries assembled themselves into a blizzard, a wall of snow that rose to 19 inches. It was a day of surprise for every New Yorker, for me, even more so. I clicked off my cell, sitting on the edge of a black velvet chair in my living room, alone, taking in the idea that soon I’d hear a tiny, insistent wail of a baby within the walls of my Upper Westside apartment.

The flight to Addis Ababa was different the second time around. I knew the experience of the airline, Ethiopian Air. I knew the good meals and the nice wine served. I knew the feel of the route. But I never believed I’d travel alone, again, the second time. The final time.

With a new job on the horizon, my brother Jeffrey couldn’t work in travel in his schedule. Neither could my high school friend, and Julia’s God Mother-to-Be, Kim. Or my good friend Eddie (a nurse and fellow writer) or Carla, (a talented musician that I’d asked to accompany me, at the last minute. Carla had said yes. But the winter wonderland that became the Big Apple that Thursday put the kibosh on her traveling to Ethiopia with me. With most businesses shut down because of the weather, I couldn’t secure an appointment at a travel clinic for her required shots by the Saturday departure. So if ever there was a time to woman up, as they say, this was it.

So I mentally prepared myself while I tossed my summer clothes that were lying in wait, neatly folded on my bedroom chair, freshly laundered since October, into my suitcase.
“You’ll make friends,” Jan said, during our last phone chat before my departure. ” You made friends before,” she said like a camp councilor trying to get a kid out of a bunk and into the bright sun and a peewee softball game.

“Yes, I know,” I answered.

But what I didn’t say was that I felt put upon to have to make the connection happen yet again. I wanted to have security, rather than make myself feel secure. But that was not my single baby mama reality.

Of course Jan was right. I made friends, right in the airport. Heather and Jeffrey who hailed from Arlington, Virginia, were all smiles right off as Mr. Tefera gathered his new parent flock in the sun soaked entrance of the Addis Ababa International Airport.

A few days later, their daughter Sedona would take a shine to my daughter, partially out of her six-year-old fascination with Julia Tayech’s sweet baby disposition and her bright eyes that Sedona described as luminous as “black diamonds.” And partially out of Sedona’s realization that getting a younger brother—the four and a half-year-old Dereje—may not be the gift her parents had claimed him to be for a formally only child.

Even with my new friends, I missed the pals I’d made back in October. I looked for Greg and Kim to bound across the patio of the guesthouse, all smiles and jokes. I sat at the large dinning room table looking for Eric and Jess to saddle up into their preferred seats, beside me, just as before to tell me yet again they were from Iowa, and required a steady diet of McDonald’s and Burger King, not spicy curries and the sour bread that Ethiopians consider a mainstay.

No one gets what they want every time. But, if you’re lucky, you get the key things. And on this trip, the last and final trip, I would get Miss Julia Tayech. After a getting reacquainted on a double visit on Monday, followed by the good-bye ceremony at the orphanage on Tuesday, and a date at the US Embassy Thursday morning, on Friday, finally, at last, my daughter and I headed for home.

We entered the airport, thorough the glass revolving doors, to the first security checkpoint. Ethiopia, as a country, doesn’t play. Airport security X-rays all bags before you enter the airport. If anyone was determined to blow up something, or someone inside, their options were limited.

With all the metal on my person—from a underwire bra, to the jewelry on my wrists and neck, and a belt—I set off the metal detector.

“Are you wearing belt? Or a watch?” the female security officer asked.

I nodded.

“Please remove them.”

Some how in my mind, I thought security people gave you a pass when you where hauling a kid. Now off came my jacket, my belt, and my watch. After seeing the silver Mexican rosary looping my left wrist, the security officer let me slide on shoe removal.

Once the baby and I passed through X-ray machine, I took the security guard’s suggestion of help, and allowed a brown- skinned, middle-aged porter to help me with the suitcases. He loaded them on a silver cart with a speed I couldn’t manage and directed the baby and me to the check in. After speaking to the airline greeter in whispered tones, the porter led us to the empty cue at the business check-in, rather than long, snaking line for economy class, where we belonged. My luck was not only holding, a good vibe was building.

After Julia T and I breezed through the upscale check-in, I tested my theory of luck by saying to the reservationist, “my friends are traveling with me,” and nodded to Jeff and Heather and the kids, fifteen feet away. “Can you check them in too?” I asked her finishing off with a broad, open toothy grin, the kind of smile, I rarely issued unless I was supremely happy. Or want to put a fine point on a request. She nodded yes. Jeff and family bounded forward to the desk.

Within minutes Jeff, Heather, Dejere, Sedona, Julia T and I were on our way to passport control passed the massive crowd at the economy check-in. Once our passports received the stamp, our merry band walked through and over to the escalator that led to the upper level to the departure gates with such a speed and effortlessness, it made my body go slack with happiness.

What was I so worried about, I thought as the adults merrily reviewed menus of restaurants along the long corridor of the right side of the hall, seeking out a snack before we boarded our 10:15PM flight for home.

“How much time do we have before we board?” Jeff asked.

I looked at my wrist and saw only brown skin. I’d left my watch at the first checkpoint. The shock wave that ran through me propelled me back toward the staircase, without a word. In the distance behind me I heard Heather yell, “Is it stainless steel? I saw a male security guard with it.”

I hurdled back through passport control, pass the hordes at the economy check-in, across the light gray marble floor doing a wonky, nervous speed walk over to the second of the three security check points wondering if the universe was exacting a pound of flesh, or a small bit of prized metal, for my good fortune, for finally getting my daughter. It was only a watch I told myself.

“Yeah, but it’s your watch,” the voice in my head answered, as I suppressed the urge to break into a jog. Running with a baby strapped to you, I decided, was only necessary during a house fire.

I came to a hard stop in front of  a small, dark-skinned man with smooth skin, his hands sat relaxed in the pockets of his navy uniform.

“Hiya,” I said with a tight smile stretched under my wired, flashing eyes. “Do you have my watch?” I asked and broadened my grin. He smiled and glanced down at the left pocket of trousers and pulled out a clump of stainless steel links.

“How much you pay for this watch?”

I stared at my silvery Rolex curled in the palm of a stranger, wanting to snatch it away, gather it into the soft of my hand. I worked my face into a calm-looking portal of truth. “Oh it’s not real,” I said, trying to make the lie real. “It’s a really good knock-off,” I said as I eased the puddle of light gray metal from the flat of the guard’s hand.” Thanks again,” I said and turned on my heels and jetted away, the metal links still warm from the heat of a stranger’s body.

In some metaphysical circles there’s a standard belief that some good comes from even the worst events. And the only blessing that was born out of nearly losing my prized Tudor watch was that it took my mind of the terror of flying with an eight month-old-baby. For 17 hours. In coach.

All my life I’ve feared being the bearer of a screaming baby on a flight, not that anyone, whether they wanted to or not, could do much about it. I couldn’t even use the trick many parented friends had told me about, giving the baby a bottle during take off and landing. The sucking motion would help relieve ear pressure they’d all claimed. Problem was Miss Julia Tayech was never fed from a bottle. Ever. With limited time, funds and opportunity to sterilize bottles, the nannies fed the babies from small cups, stainless steel shot glass size drinking vessels I discovered with horror as I watched my baby being feed in a Hosanna orphanage back in October.

So all I had left was prayer. And I used a big dose. As the 777 lifted off from the black tarmac into the heated air of Addis Ababa, all around us, the echo of distant babies whaled and whimpered. Julia Tayech sat silent on my lap. Her  head pressed deeper into my chest. Again, my luck held.

I’d held on to a small sadness about traveling alone to Ethiopia, remorseful that I didn’t have mate.  Remorseful that Jeffrey who so wanted to come and display his love for his new niece from the start, was absent. All I carried was the heavy sadness that was extracted by my needless difficult road to motherhood.

It wasn’t until the aircraft leveled off and I glazed at my sleeping daughter I did realize that I had left the United States of America alone. But I was returning as a part of a family.  Now I carried the certainty that Julia Tayech and I could now start to use all the time God had measured out for us.