Friday, January 10, 2014

I Fell. Hard.

The gift of humility is usually a surprise. In my case, it was a pretty Christmas package that I tore into a few weeks ago. Under all that wrapping was a sweet little pair of new, white figure skates.

I was thrilled. I've been working on getting better acquainted with the Moira that's under all of these teacher/mother/wife labels, and time at the rink is a big part of the fun. I absolutely love ice skating, and while I'm no Dorothy Hamill, I'm a solid skater. Lately, too, I've been enjoying a lot of time on the ice with both of my boys who love lacing up their hockey skates and doing laps around the rink.

There is such freedom in skating. A letting go. A fluid rhythm and flow that can be compared to how it feels to ski, swim, do upward bow or break through that first mile running. Once I let myself tune out my surroundings and let my body--rather than my brain--lead the way, it's meditative. 

Certain conditions can get in the way of good ice time, though. Chief among them: crappy ice that needs to be Zamboni'd and a crowded rink. Last weekend, my son Sean glided up next to me and whispered over the pop music echoing throughout the pavilion, "This isn't a rink, it's an obstacle course!" Then he zipped away between little girls pushing milk crates to stabilize themselves on their skates. Grade school hockey players showed off their speed and skill by darting and cutting across the rink in front of novice skaters who wobbled and shook at the surprise. Teenagers held hands and stopped dead-center in the path of other skaters so they could kiss (awww...NOW MOVE!). The rest of us just tried our best to give each other a little space as we sliced our way around the ice. 

Now, I'm a strong skater, but I'm not immune to falling. I've fallen maybe twice in the past few years, each time landing on a knee as a I caught myself after being cut-off by some little half-pint with a hockey mullet. I haven't had a real fall, like fall-and-break-your-face fall, since I was a kid. And those falls don't count; they never really hurt anyway. Not like when you're, say, 40. 

Schools were closed Monday in New Haven for observance of Three Kings Day. So I expected the rink to be jammed, but it was quiet. Such a nice surprise. The boys and I laced up and headed onto the rink, saying hi to some friends and classmates we happily spied on the ice. The public skate is open for 90 minutes most days, and we were about 30 minutes in when the ice started to get a little choppy. It was still in pretty good shape since the rink wasn't that crowded, but I noticed it. My brand-new figure skates have some gnarly stoppers on the front, like little shark teeth, that easily catch onto any chunks in the ice if I am at all lazy or dragging my skates. And they work--they STOP me. More than once since Christmas I've done a little two-step trying to pick my skate out of a divot in the ice. I've remarked to the boys on more than one occasion that I almost took a digger from my stoppers catching and throwing me temporarily off balance. 

I'm sure you see where I'm going with this.

So Monday, roughly 30 minutes into our happy, carefree skating, I rounded a corner with more speed than usual. As I straightened out pushed off with my right skate, the stopper caught--and caught me by surprise. My body wanted to keep moving. As I pulled my skate free and stepped forward, my left stopper caught. With all the grace I've never had, I went down hard and fast. 

There's falling on the ice, and then there's feeling like you've been pulled down on the ice. This fall felt like the latter. I went down face first, slamming both knees into the ice, bracing with my forearms, and smacking my chin. My little head rattled. I had an instant, splitting headache. Fortunately, the scarf I was wearing cushioned my jaw, or it would have felt worse. Stunned, seeing stars, I got up and glided over to a bench. I could not jump right back out on the ice. I needed to catch my breath and regain my balance. And my head was really pounding. 

The boys sailed over and said hi. I told them I wiped out, but that I would hop out on the ice any minute--and I did. Within a few minutes, I was back out on the rink, gliding around and enjoying the relative quiet of the place. My head still hurt, though, and after 20 minutes without it feeling any better, we decided to go. The boys were ready to leave, anyway. 

I had planned to run two errands before going home, and as I did I felt progressively worse. My head hurt more and more, and then I started to feel queasy. As the boys and I wrapped up some deposits at the bank, a little anxiety kicked in: what if I was actually, like, injured? What if it got worse while I was out with the kids? I drove them home, sent up a few flares, and within minutes was on my way to urgent care with my dear friend and neighbor, Madelin. Me, one who rarely calls the doctor for anything unless something persists for weeks, was going to urgent care. Those who know me well know that this little thwack on the ice and its subsequent headache had to be of serious concern to me in order for me to go to urgent care. I. Can't. Stand. Urgent. Care. 

Once there, I waited. After a little while, Ian showed up and relieved Madelin.

And I waited. My head was swimming and my belly was tossing. 

And still I waited.

And after almost two hours, I was finally seen by a doctor. There were eye tests, arm tests, balance tests, and other tests. There were vitals and questions and answers and a lot of bad jokes made by me. After what felt like forever, the doctor gave me the prognosis: it was good I came in. No obvious evidence of brain bleed or concussion, but I was told to keep an eye on symptoms for 24-48 hours. No ibuprofen or aspirin for pain, as that will thin the blood--very bad if one has a brain bleed. "Oh, and don't skate or do anything else that could put you at risk for a head injury. At least for a week. We don't want you hitting your head again any time soon."

I wobbled out of the doctor's and went home. I was glad I had heeded my gut instinct and went to the doctor, but I was annoyed that I fell, that I had smacked my jaw, that it hurt--a lot, that my head felt like it had been knocked off a tee, and that I still felt woozy. I was annoyed I couldn't skate for a week, and most of all I was annoyed that I'm 40 and that a hard fall on the ice was, well, a bad fall. I'm not 20 anymore. My pride, maybe more than my head, was injured. I'm a strong skater! I can skate! Really, I can! And my balance is great! I do yoga! Are you listening? I'm not old and feeble! Don't you believe me? Still, I kept the knowledge of the fall mostly to myself. I didn't even call my mom and let her know, because she'd spend that 24-48 hours of "observation" very, very, very worried about my little noggin. In the wake of recent events in our family, I decided I would spare her that stress. 

The rest of the night was quiet, and I spent a lot of it on the couch preparing to finally go back to school on Tuesday after two weeks of Christmas vacation. My knees were sore, but the rest of my body didn't feel the effects of the fall until the next day, when I woke up feeling like I had been in a car accident. I cannot recall feeling that beat up by anything--not even three-day yoga intensives, which left me sore enough--in recent years. I went to school, taught and had a great day, all the while noticing that I was spacey, had a mild headache and was extremely sore. But, no ibuprofen for me, and I don't like acetaminophen. Just hot showers and a lot of gentle stretching got me through the week and back on track. 

Sometime in the next few days I'm either going to take my skates out to the driveway and beat the crap out of the stoppers on the asphalt, or I'm going to take them to our local skate shop and get them dulled more "professionally". Either way, I'm looking forward to getting back out on the ice. 


Sunday, January 5, 2014

I'm Back.

After a two-year hiatus, I've decided to blog again. I had never planned to stop. Instead, I had originally set my blog to private with the intention of keeping my thoughts available to a select few as I made my way toward a new career in the classroom. I had concerns about having a public blog while trying to score a job in public school. But once the blog was set to private, I stopped writing. I was consumed with my work as a teacher, and I didn't have the time or headspace to string together two thoughts beyond the classroom. 

But now, after successful student teaching at the high school level, a year as a middle school English teacher, and--finally!--a gig as a high school English teacher, I've decided to resurrect the blog. Besides, I know what to post and what not to post if I want to keep my job. Some thoughts...well, some thoughts you just gotta keep private, which is something our society tends to forget in the age of social media. 

For those who followed my blog prior to it being chloroformed, thank you. And please have patience, because I'm really rusty. Don't judge me even though I'm an English teacher. I'm also not bored at a dead-end desk job anymore either, so I cannot promise how regularly I will update this space. But I will update it. Writing is something I have to do. Like yoga. Like being outside. If I don't do it, I feel like I'll explode. So why not do it and share it again, right? 

A quick update, too, for my previous readers: I had blogged a lot about my grandmother, her battle with cancer and my feelings about that. In April 2012 she lost her battle and gracefully slipped to the other side. She died at home, with excellent palliative care and her entire family by her side throughout her final days. In one of our last conversations, I asked her if she was scared to die. She shook her head no, and then--in typical Nancy fashion--she changed the subject to something more pleasant. "How are the dogs?" she asked. What the---? I couldn't believe what I was hearing. She was literally on her deathbed, and her words were very few and far between. Yet, there she was asking about our three mutts. "They're fine, Grandma. Just fine." 

The day she died was beautiful. It was a glorious, warm and sunny April day. A few hours after her death, I sat in my backyard. I was emotionally and physically spent, having just lost one of the most important people in my life. My grandmother. My first teacher. My actual sixth grade English teacher. My biggest supporter in my decision to become a teacher. My biggest supporter, well, period. I sat in the yard, reclined in a chair, feeling the sun warm my tired skin, listening to the squeals and laughter of the schoolchildren at recess just a few yards away and the chirps of birds who seemed to be everywhere that morning. And then they appeared: butterflies. Monarchs. They flitted and fluttered and darted and hovered all through the yard. It was like something out of a Disney movie. I half expected rabbits and chipmunks to tiptoe out from the woods and start singing. It was surreal, healing and beautiful. The monarchs continued to keep me company that entire spring and summer. They were plentiful in 2012. 

I saw one in 2013. 

But that's not what I've come to write about today. 


It was a beautiful tree. And thank God it was a beautiful tree, because a big chunk of this Christmas season was ugly. It hadn't been, originally. Although Advent began on the heels of a late Thanksgiving, and we felt thrust into the "holiday" season, I was excited about this Christmas. It was the first Christmas in a few years that I felt really and truly excited about: I had little anxiety about our family get-togethers over the course of the month. I also think that I was happy with my job for the first time in a long time--since my years writing for the magazine. And because I am happier with my work, I am much happier in general. I love teaching high school, I love the school at which I teach, and I adore my students and colleagues. So I was feeling pretty good. Until Monday the 16th.

It was late. Almost 11 PM. I was jarred awake by a dreaded late-night phone call, followed by police at my door. A word of advice: even if you're expecting that midnight knock on the door, it is still the worst sound you can imagine. I can't get the damn banging of our brass claddagh knocker out of my head. It's a sound I wish on no one. It's like the grim reaper stopping by to say hello. "And by the way, your father's dead."


My dad was 62. Young, as far as I'm concerned. A smoker, so not in the best of health. But he was a guy who left the corporate world behind 10 years ago so that he could do what he really loved: carpentry and restoration. Joseph the carpenter, dead in the middle of the Christmas season. He died on the job while laying trim work at a new house  in Madison. Originally we had thought it was a heart attack, but an autopsy determined it was a brain aneurysm. Snap. Lights out for dad--and for the rest of us. What the hell kind of joke was this? I didn't believe it. My grief was one full of utter denial. And annoyance.

It was Christmas, for God's sake! People aren't supposed to DIE at Christmas! But there I was, in between tears, reviewing my to-do list of "wrap presents" and "bake cookies", and adding "iron clothes for funeral", "write obituary" and "write eulogy". I figured as long as I kept everything in check and organized, we could get through this grief thing and get on with the joy of the season. Dammit.

I focused on that to-do list more than anything else. I fretted everything for the funeral and Christmas wouldn't get done. There were moments in the long week between my father's death and the funeral in which all I wanted was for it to be over. I didn't want to grieve. I didn't want to deal with any of it. I felt as if I understood and accepted his sudden death, so why couldn't we all just move on? Eat cookies. Lots of cookies. I obsessed over the cookies and the wrapping. I obsessed over anything and everything that had nothing to do with what I did not want to think or feel. I was a taut wire stretched between the joy of the season and misery of grief.

The wake was the Sunday before Christmas. That morning I brought the ironing board up from the basement and propped it in the living room, in front of our pretty Christmas tree, to press the clothes my children would wear to their grandfather's funeral. As I stretched out the little size 10 shirt that my youngest would wear to bring up the gifts at the funeral mass the next day, I broke down. That taut wire snapped, and I threw up every ounce of Irish-Italian emotion all over our living room. I had officially entered the anger stage of grief. I swore and cried about how hard it was to balance this Christmas-and-funeral thing. That I was the only one trying to figure out when we were going to wrap presents in the middle of it all. That I was mad and sad that my dad died at Christmas. That I was mad and sad that my dad died. My dad died. My dad died. My dad died.

Now, for every yin there is a yang. My husband is all yin. Sometimes he is too much yin, but that messy Sunday morning he was right there deflecting, absorbing and consoling my emotions that rattled, bang and shook around our home like a pinball. He took nothing personally, even those things I made personal because I was mad at the world. Mad at my father. Mad at God. Mad at every man I had ever loved and who had failed me or, as if they could help it, died. My husband and all of his patience and love just hugged me tight and let me soak his shirt with my McTalian rage, because I had never needed a hug so badly.

Sudden death is very different from being able to say goodbye to someone. I couldn't say goodbye. It was not on my terms. And I was ready to burn down the world because of it.

But we made it through the wake, the funeral, the reception. My brother and sister, so much younger than me, needed me and I needed them. Together we stood at the wake, welcoming the hugs of so many friends, including the entire fire department in which my brother is a junior volunteer. We linked arms throughout the funeral and together delivered the eulogy, each taking turns to read a section about how much we loved and missed our father. We have each other. We have memories. We have love.

A few days later, our beautiful tree glowed early in the morning on Christmas Day while my dad's grandsons opened presents: flat brim hats, baseball gear, books, video games and Legos. We enjoyed a strange and beautiful Christmas with extended family and friends in and out of our house. We even ate lots of the cookies I ended up baking. In the days that followed, we enjoyed the peaceful quiet of our tree, which shone brightly as our fireplace crackled with light and the boys played games on the floor beside it. And some nights, when everyone else went to bed, I would sit in front of the tree--its glow the only light in the house--and just be. Be with my thoughts. Be with my feelings. Be with the waves that crashed and lapped inside me. In the surrealism of the season, sometimes the only touchstone of the holiday was our pretty little tree.

Yesterday, we took down the tree and tossed it into the woods behind our house. I am hoping birds will nest in it this spring.