Children, Love, Parenting

Happy 100 Days: 26

In the two and a half years since my husband and I split, sleep has eluded me. A night or two of peace might pop by for a brief visit before fractured restlessness moves in for an extended stay. It is relentless. Anyone who suffers from insomnia knows the agony of half-functioning (if even half) for days on end. Usually the affliction doesn’t strike someone whose life is straightforward, so the difficulty of everyday tasks is compounded by the strained cognitive and physical function of sleep deprivation.
In the past year, I can remember one deep, delicious night where slumber was down in the lowest cave, safe and silent, exactly as it should be. I still remember the stunned feeling of waking the next morning, fogged and groggy and perfectly thrilled that the sun was halfway up in the sky. A single June night over six months ago. It was that good.
The night came to me as a surprise gift on a Pennsylvania hillside after a long day on the road. Bug, Giovanni and I had packed up the Jeep and headed out in the direction of Lake Erie. We tried to make our way into Baltimore to see the ships and found ourselves foiled by crowds. To quiet Bug’s disappointed sobs, we stopped at a McDonalds instead. He was still young enough that two Happy Meals were a fair trade for tall ships.
We found a state park with a lake and a playground and a gazillion kids. It was summer. We swam and warmed in the sun, Giovanni and I taking turns keeping an eye on Bug in the brown water teeming with humans with no lifeguard on duty. It was like vacationing on the Ganges. Bug loved every second of it. We drove on, following the map to another state park with the small triangular icon. We called ahead, found out sites were available, and pulled in a little before dark.
Bug was tired and testy, I was ready to stretch, and Giovanni was focused with laser precision on putting the tent up before dark. We all tripped and sniped over each other. Bug and I fussed and eventually made our way to the bath house as much to give Giovanni room to finish as for us to clean up. When we stumbled back, the tent was up, the fire was blazing, and the camp chairs were warming in the amber glow. Giovanni’s fingers were already striking the steel strings. Wagon Wheel lifted up to the topmost branches.
Somewhere in that deepening dusk, I hear the first whipporwill of my life. We all stopped together and listened to the call, another, back again. Whip-POOR-will. The cry was as unique as my son’s sigh.
Bug and I crawled into the tent first. We read and sang by lantern light and he fell asleep pushed up against me. Giovanni came in soon after and tucked himself around me from the back. We three, a row of spoons cast on a rocky Pennsylvania hilltop, died out long before the embers from the fire.
Even though the clearing was on a slight incline covered in sharp stones, even though Giovanni and Bug both let their jaws fall open and their snores rattle the tent flaps, even though the whipporwill called well into the wee hours, sleep came and ferried me away. Nothing remained to be fixed. Nothing needed my attention. Finally, my weary mind could surrender to night.
Wrapped up between my two boys, I was home.
Tonight, I lay down next to my boy and sing him under as I do every night he is here. He is charging me for kisses, droopy-eyed and giggly. “Kiss me again, Mommy,” he says, pressing his soft cheek to my lips. I do as directed. “Now you own me $300,” he grins. Then he turns his lips to me and presses them on my temple, my head, wherever they land.
“How much do I get?” I ask as he breathes and snorts into my skin, drawing out the long moment.
“Nothing! It’s free! Now kiss me again!”
I plant one on his ear.
“Hah! Now you owe me $600!” And by 300s, we make it up to a debt of $1200 before he takes a last breath and drifts off. His mouth falls open against my neck as I sing the final verses of Big Rock Candy Mountain. His snores tickle the song as it rises from my throat.
I’m bound to stay where you sleep all day
I let myself drift off next to him for a few delicious moments. Oh, sweet surrender. What freedom it is to believe there is nothing left to do!  In this place right here, maybe it’s possible that everything is as it should be.
Now, it’s just Bug and me. My boy. No one slipping his arms around me from behind. The cocoon into which I can tuck my love and my wishes was just a husk, after all. As such things do, it fell away when it was time to hatch. Still. I remember that night. I remember when I slept because everything was in its place. My man, my boy, me.
Now, I get to learn to create that quiet place just for the two of us. On my own, I will tackle what is perhaps the third of my twelve labors. I kiss my sleeping boy (he can’t charge me for this one) and decide to believe I am capable of small miracles. I can make us a home. I can give us our sweet rest.


Barton Cabin 22

The fire is coals now, gray
stone cooling. At the edge
of dusk, a dog yips
and moans, its echo against the wall
of hemlock boughs
brings down the night.
Everyone here had a mother
once, even the moth dying
with the embers. Even the yelping hound,
but would he recognize his
if she crept into camp sniffing
for scraps?
We are all orphans of one
sort or another. The ghosts
of the fathers we should have had lay
cool fingers on our necks and guide us
into the missing embrace. Murmurs
in a foreign tongue ride
the low howl and snag
on branch, needle, ash.
It is not the dog after all. It is something else
slipping away
before we even turn our heads.
Out beyond the dark,
some small curtain



Giovanni and I keep our cameras handy. We want to capture the cool Allegany waters and the dripping tamarack boughs. He turns the lens on me. I cringe. In those frozen moments, I can see how tired my eyes looked. How stained my shirt, how disheveled the campsite, how absent my son. Giovanni laughs and just shakes his head. “You’re beautiful, baby.” He glances at the photo in the camera then grins up me. “That is a good looking woman.”
In the archive of forever ago live photographs of the first weeks Bug was home, nursing at my breast. Wedding photos. Christmas pictures with Tee and Bug and me in the Colorado forest, cutting our own scraggly pine. Tired eyes there, too, and bright and distant and everything in between.
I ask Giovanni to keep taking photos. I know better than to let vanity scrub history of its texture. Still, it is hard to look at the images of this north country camping trip without feeling a bit of remorse. Where is the open face of a girl with no bitter seed tucked inside her cheek?

Every time you raise a camera to your eye you’re composing a picture – the very act of deciding where to point it is based on a conscious or sub-conscious decision about what you want to include in the picture. – Lee Frost

Begin again. Turn the head. Unhitch, release the remains of the gift freely given but poorly maintained. Gone, the days playing in the mountain creek with the tiny minnows flitting past my little boy’s ankles. Gone, too, the tulips curled deep in their bulbs beneath December frost along the hand-made fence. Gone is everything before.
Giovanni and I walk on.
The residue of a recent conversation with Tee still dusts my skin. We were chatting about their father-son adventures: fishing trips, air show excursions, visiting the tall ships in the Baltimore harbor. Tee is a fun daddy. “I can’t give him the childhood I had,” Tee explained. “So I have to make the best of what is here.” Resignation. A touch of martyrdom. I could almost hear the quiet, cresting cheers at Tee’s strength. The truth is, I listen for them myself when I speak of settling for less in order to provide stability for my son. This is the attitude of survivors.
Is that what we are doing? Surviving? If we start with the premise that we are handicapped, then our fortitude is certainly a strength. I hear the father of my son hint at disadvantage, and I think (quietly, because I am learning to hold my tongue), This pulsing place? The nation’s capital? The diversity of experience and background in every neighborhood? The colleges and museums and historic battlefields? The curry and pho? The political stage? The assembled masses? All of this is a shortage?
Bug’s childhood is not deficient. He is missing nothing at all. Nevertheless, it won’t be long before Bug believes he lacks the golden ticket if we believe he does. The kid is sharp, but it does not take a sixth sense to sniff out the secret Tee and I both carry: we have fallen short. We have not provided our boy with what he should rightfully have. The odor of failure clings to us both. We do not believe we have done enough, that we give him enough. Something is “supposed” to be better, or more, or different.
In another context, Giovanni once suggested that a shift away from wanting and towards appreciating might help us see each other a little better. When we pause to notice the composition of the object before zeroing in on its flaws, something good has room to grow.
Where I aim my gaze determines more than a single point of view. Bug will learn to orient his attention by watching the grownups in his life. Do I want to apprentice my son to a taxonomist of shortcomings? It seems a wiser course to teach him to identify the call of a whip-poor-will from its perch on a cedar’s low shoulder.

. . . by using different lenses, choosing your viewpoint carefully and thinking about which part of the scene you want to capture on film, it’s possible to create successful compositions every time. – Lee Frost

In the snapshot of Bug’s life today, here is what I choose to see:

  • Two homes.
  • A mom and a dad.
  • A lop-eared dog.
  • Woods near his house with pricker bushes and a creek and all kinds of ways to get lost.
  • Public parks, public libraries, and some of the best public schools in the country.
  • Books splitting the frames of shelves in his rooms.
  • Parents who read to him every night.
  • Road trips and campfires.
  • Healthy food in abundance.
  • Quiet time.
  • Neighbor kids who ride bikes up and down the cul-de-sac.
  • Three sets of grandparents who make room for him.
  • A cozy bed.
  • Songs in his repertoire.
  • Questions galore.
  • A floor onto which he can pour his tired body when he wants the world to stop.
  • Dreams about pirate ships.
  • Climber’s legs.
  • Dancer’s feet.
  • Paper and markers, glitter and glue.
  • Wonder.
  • Grit.
  • Anger and sadness and sweet, tender kisses.
  • One bad joke about a duck.

Tee says he cannot give Bug the childhood he had. He is more right than he knows. A childhood is not ours to give. In fact, Bug does not have a “childhood” at all. He has a life. His own. This very one.
As long as I am living with wishes that things could be more X and less Y, and as long as I carry the burden of loss, then I model for my child the fine art of holding off on joy until real happiness comes along.
Begin again. Turn the head.
All we need is right here.
Circumstances will change, of course. We will seek new doors down corridors we have not yet explored due to blindness, fear, or simple chance. But a belief in adaptation and expansion does not require us to disparage the now. We can love possibility while also wrapping our arms around this very whole moment, draw it close to our hearts, and shiver in awe at the perfect fit. So complete, this day, this configuration of things, this this.

The fact is you’ll rarely get the best picture from the first viewpoint you find, but unless you make the effort to explore your subject from different angles you’ll never know the alternatives. Sometimes all it takes is a slight change of viewpoint to completely transform the composition. – Lee Frost

As Giovanni and I walk the trail through the northern woods, I make a promise out loud. When I see a photo, I will find something in it to like. It is a simple act. The practice, I have learned, has a way of revealing the path. In every snapshot, seek something that opens the eyes. Appreciate the image as evidence of riches. Find the pulse. Land the gaze there and call forth the living yes.

Lee Frost Photography.