The Ward – a Fictionalized True Story

It was 6:30 a.m. as I washed my face and heard a faint warble.  For the two weeks  leading to Halloween night my iphone had been beeping non-stop with requests from Spider-Man to Doctor Who.  In a Pavlovian response, I scanned the media for meaning.  One stood out.  No Caller ID arriving at 3:00 a.m.

I hate those calls, when all you can think is that somebody died.

The message was from my son.  He was incoherent.  Blubbering that he had fucked up.  I’d never heard him blubber before, but then he was calling from the psych ward at St. Joe’s Hospital.  I was thinking, hoping, maybe he’d finally hit rock bottom.   I know that sounds callous coming from a mother, but sometimes rock bottom can be the place from which your children can rise fully formed.

Driving my SmartCar with Lake Ontario’s bright sparkling water conflicting my day, I realized that I wasn’t panicked.  I could no longer remember, though, if that calm was part of my personality or whether I was like a triage nurse who’d seen it all.

There was a lot of comfort in the fact that my son had called and not the Hospital.  He was alive and I was grateful, but still I had that sour metallic taste in my mouth.  An emotional knee jerk reaction.  Not because he was in trouble, but because I’d been here before with another family member.

You might be thinking, oh maybe mental illness runs in her family, but neither of these ward members are genetically related to me.  After miscarriage and infertility, I’d hoped to give Darwin a good fight.  There was a time when my sisters and I laughed thinking my adoption of children would improve our family DNA, like replacing our flat Scottish bottoms with a real bouncy round derriere gene.

We stopped laughing so much after the deaths of our father, mother and sister.  Half of us were gone and there was no stopping the trajectory of  stomach Cancer in our family.   My goals had changed since the average lifespan in my family was now 57 years.   I just wanted to see my kids grown up and happy.

Emergency was quiet and orderly.  The occasional voice of a wailing child rose and fell with the opening of the pneumatic door into the Juvenile Room.   As I stood behind the yellow line I thought about getting a coffee, but did not want to miss my turn.  Finally with the mention of my son’s name the sliding glass doors opened from the waiting room into the treatment areas.  My reluctant feet knew their way past the thread bare curtained rooms where knees were stitched and bones were set to the heavy door separating the crazies from the almost crazy.

The door had a window.  I did not look in, but leaned against the wall, hand paused above the buzzer.  The last time I was here I made a choice to leave alone.  The memory of the small shocked face of my daughter getting smaller in that same window as I walked away, is difficult.   For seven years that face, that memory, had me chained to hopes and dreams shattered by alcohol and drugs and what comes with it.

What was I committing myself to by walking through this door again? I was alone physically and emotionally with the indecision of loving my son and potentially threatening my own well being.

I pressed the buzzer.  The staff and two beefy security barely glanced up.  Who would though, I’m the tiny WASP blonde grandma.  Not much of a threat.

The control room dominated this ward.  There were no privacy curtains only small locked treatment rooms, a bathroom and a bank of seats.  My 23 year old son was sitting on an orange chair fatigued to the pallor of a 40 year old Bay Street broker with too much credit and no self control.   I let him ramble through a bizarre tale of over-drinking with friends to the point of paranoia.  A mad run, through the neighbourhood he grew up in, from someone who was trying to “kill him”, ending up crouching inside the local convenience store.

He said he’d called out for help, but the store clerk had disappeared, increasing his paranoia that he was in danger.  The next thing he remembered was breaking through a plate glass window only to be faced with a squad of armed officers.   I’m thinking, what was he on to get that crazy and thank god the clerk hightailed it out to call the Police.

Toronto’s finest took him to the Hospital and not the Drunk Tank.  Miracle One.  After a series of tests, the Doctor let him call me, but he said he was terrified that I wouldn’t show.  His father thought we should leave him here to toughen him up.  I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted to do.

I sat back finally in the chair.  A small Asian woman walked the perimeter of the ward, I thought like a mouse retracing it’s steps, sure that they’ve missed an opening or a morsel of food.

I was sad.  Like my daughter, my son had narrowly escaped accidental death more than once.  What was the universal meaning in this?  I rubbed my face, thinking about what to say.

I wanted to understand what happened, so I queried like Agatha Christie.  Was someone angry at you?  How much did you drink?  Did you mix it with pot?  Who else was there?

I could see truths skirting around the edges of my son’s eyes, but impairment is subjective.  He could be mixing up days of drinking with fears rising like hallucinations.  One tiny piece of information could put the story together for me or break my heart.  I’m glad he doesn’t tell me everything.  Mothers shouldn’t know everything.

A young man with dark hair and dark eyes, who had been lying on a gurney, arm over his eyes, rises.   Boredom, curiosity, or maybe even hope drive him into the bathroom and then to sit beside us.  Shock still in a blue gown, listening to the murmurings of a Mother and son.  Where is his mother, I think.

A smell was now making it’s memory or rather demanding recognition from me.  Not like death, or illness or even hospital disinfectant which were all now in my 54 year old life’s repertoire.   I couldn’t put my finger on it, till I thought, it’s neither pleasant or unpleasant.  It’s just there, like something deciding.

The woman passed again, her competency and speed increasing as her hands stretched out, tracing the contours of the wall.  The kind of person who you would appreciate filling your 7:45 a.m. Timmy’s order.

Having made no progress with understanding my son’s story I went to the nurse’s desk.  I’m that typical Canadian.  Waiting politely to be acknowledged.  Sure that there is something more important than myself  that is keeping them.  The woman now stands beside me and says in no particular direction, “I’d like my toothbrush now.”

The nurse says, “The Doctor will be right with you. ”  I wonder how he knows that.  The phone didn’t ring.  Is it some magical telepathy developed by psych room staff only.  The woman’s voice says confidently,  “I’d like my toothbrush and a change of clothes.”  She is almost standing on my toes, like we could merge into one person to make us bigger, more impressive.  Almost an afterthought, she says, “I’m ready to go home now.”

As they negotiate her surrender, I retreat.  An orderly has offered a tray to my son and myself.  We both take one and I realize that I can’t, being celiac, eat anything on the tray.   My son’s tray of all beige food also stays untouched.  “Why do you take it if you don’t want it.”, I say knowing that we are both food snobs and it is my fault.

Dark Boy asks if he can have the food and says he and the woman are here voluntarily.   He is waiting for us to share the story.  My son is amiable and gentle as they chat.  With this incongruency, I have to stand and stretch.

A man, who looks like all the other staff except for a clipboard, crosses to us.  The Doctor.  After small talk about how my son got here he says,  like I should know, “So you see, he really shouldn’t be here at all.”  “He’s alright to go with you,” he continues as a question.

I am confused, but not really.  He’s asking if I have any concerns about my son’s mental health.  Anything that would necessitate a Doctor enacting the health act which states that my son could be kept if proven to be of danger to himself or others.

The forced practice of the staff to ignore unreasonable requests has the   woman now screaming at everyone and no one.  I shake my head, “No, he’s fine to come home.”  I am not lying, but with only the violent insanity of my daughter seven years ago to compare him to, he is fine.

I stand, but the Doctor has his hand on my arm.  “We found something”, he says.  I sit.

The woman flies by muttering, “I want my toothbrush.  I want to go.  I want …”, then the door to the bathroom slams and the screaming turns to wailing.  On the exact opposite side to the Juvenile ward where the toddler screams, the irony about the fragility of human beings is not lost on me.ColinDrMac

My son is now perfectly quiet, like a sharp intake of breath before you blow out a candle.  “We did an x-ray of his head and found a dark spot on his brain.”  I am thinking, why did they do an head x-ray of drunk boy-man?  Miracle Two.

“I think it’s a brain bleed, but I want to consult with St Michael’s.”,  he offers.  “Is this spot in his brain related to his strange behaviour?”,  I blurt.  I’m ashamed now, but for a nanosecond, part of me was desperate that my son isn’t an addict, spoiled or poorly raised.

I have too much fucking information, now thinking about my mother who survived skin cancer and a brain aneurysm only to die in her sleep from a heart attack at age 67.  Her best friend, Joan, was supposed to meet her for an early supper and she didn’t show.  Joan told us girls that she didn’t suffer.  That she was curled on her side in that way that she sleeps which is so familiar to me.  Was so familiar to us.

I didn’t wait for the Doctor to answer.  Instead, with my palm on my son’s back, I open that heavy steel door with the tempered glass and we walk out together.  Miracle Three.

 

Mothers

I live in a family with many different mothers.  Among us, inter-generationally and internationally, adoptees who are now mothers and mothers and through birth, death, divorce or adoption.

I could share the story about my long road to motherhood and my sense of meaning and purpose in being a mother.  If I did share this, however, it’s likely to trigger someone somewhere to feel bad about themselves and perhaps rage at me.

It seems that this is a standard occurrence for just about anything today.   A commercial about a mom and a dad negates two gays parenting.  An ad with an Asian on the left and a Black on the right of a White causes an self esteem issues.  The choice to sponsor a blogger with a hajib headscarf is called political pandering.  Witches stricken from Halloween so society doesn’t equate Wicca with evil women on brooms.  The term biological mother becomes birth mother becomes natural mother becomes first mother, still it means mother or does it?

Myself included, when did we all get so fucking sensitive?  About everything.   So politically correct, especially in Canada, that one can hardly turn without fear of using the wrong term or offending someone and where we are legislating ourselves into oblivion.

A practitioner who works with troubled teens, that included one of mine for a time, gave me Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankel was a doctor and holocaust survivor.  He questioned why some prisoners in the concentration camp he was in rose to the challenge of life while others, even once liberated, failed to thrive.  He observed, “…  There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that so effectively helps one to survive even the worse conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.”

The idea of finding meaning and purpose in life is daunting.  How does one finding meaning in life when we are so sure the even out basic rights are not in our control?  The step-parent with no child-raising experience is thrust into parenting rebellious teens.  The 15 year old who finds herself pregnant and her  mother making the decisions.  The 19 year old giving birth in a war torn country with no family and no social services.  The 30 year old who finds herself unable to maintain a pregnancy.  The boy, whose father remarries after being widowed, who can no longer remember his dead mother.  The father who feels himself alienated after divorce.  The 21 year old adoptee who finds his birth mother and doesn’t like her.  The adoptee who chooses not to search and gets flack from his adopted siblings.  The adoptee who thinks his life will turn around if he given his birth history, but even then finds he’s still angry and confused.

All want to label themselves as unique and call themselves down trodden.  If we are all down trodden on whose back shall we find true respite?

Frankl says, however, that while we have limited freedom with our circumstances, we do have ultimate freedom about how we react … how we take responsibility for ourselves.

He said that this choice [finding meaning] and action [finding purpose] for our suffering makes it an achievement rather than a tragedy.  How many people do you know like that, like Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama?

I  believe that suffering does not end whether we choose to parent, to place for adoption, to seek an abortion or remain childless.   Even under great duress we still make a choice and  all actions have consequences.

I am neither a sinner or a saint because I worked and eventually became a mother.  I learned that my role as mother is precarious and subjective.  You do not need to be a perfect mother, nor your children’s first mother, but I learned that you are only a mother when someone calls you mother.

Suffering is not something we can just get over or move past.  Suffering is the universal human circumstance which we must make part of our everyday lives.  It may shape us, but it cannot decide for us who we are and how we will act.

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Viktor Frankl

Making Stock or In Praise of my Brother-in-Law

The loss of my brother-in-law, Greg, was an unfortunate casualty of divorce. I miss him very much.  He is an intellectual, a patron the of the arts, an entrepreneur, a father, a honky-tonk piano player, a wine appreciator and a damn fine cook.

While the brood of children, my sisters, husbands and assorted friends gathered to socialize in their Calgary home, I preferred to pull up a stool in the kitchen.  Greg would pour me a glass of something special, always a cut above what was being served in the living room.  He would cook, now and then making a comment about politics or about the dish.  Mostly though, it was an easy silence and feast for the senses.

The first thing I learned from Greg was about Champagne, but the best thing I learned was about making stock.  That it is so easy to make and that nothing compares to making dishes with stock suited to your own taste.  Keep in mind that stock is not a formula.  Each batch will be unique depending on the ingredients, but all yummy.

Making stock is uber easy, but must be attended to in the first half hour and not forgotten on the stove.  A great time to make stock is when the kids are in bed and you can freeze frame True Detectives or your other favourite show to skim the foam.

Tip 1.  Don’t throw away cooked bones or carcasses, instead remove as much fat as you can and throw into large, separately labeled, zippered baggies in your freezer.  I have bags for turkey, chicken, lamb [including gnawed lamb chops] bones, and seafood including lobster and shrimp shells.

Tip 2.  Keep a couple of carrots and a celery rib/leaves on hand in the fridge.  You can wrap them very tightly in tinfoil to stay fresher.

Tip 3.  Do not add salt.  That addition is for what you are ultimately using the stock for.

Tip 4.  Invest in a skimming ladle from Pampered Chef.  I got one in 2013 and can’t remember how I stocked without it.

Instructions:  Put a medium to large sized stock pot beside your cutting board, compost pail and chopping knife.  With the fat/skin removed put the meat/bones you have chosen to stock into the pot.

Cover the meat/bones with cold water one to three inches above the bones.  Turn on to simmer.

Add two bay leaves, 10-12 peppercorns, two chopped carrots and half stalk of celery/leaves and a smidgeon of chili flakes.

Tip 5:  Sometimes you might try adding dried mushrooms or other starchy veggies like cabbage or turnips, but do so sparingly.  Experiment.

Tip 6:  If you are going to add other seasoning, stick with whole herbs.  For example, cumin seeds not ground cumin.

As it simmers, not boils, use a spoon to keep skimming the foam in the first half hour.  It’s annoying, but doing this during the initial stages of cooking is key to a good clear stock.

Keep simmering until the stock reaches the intensity you desire.  For example, I usually simmer it down till one to two thirds of the water has cooked off.  This intensity makes for varied uses in gravy, soup or stock for paella and risotto, for example.

Turn off the stove and let the stock cool till you can safely drain it into a large bowl through a sieve or cheesecloth.  You can further reduce the fat content by putting the stock overnight in the fridge and skim off the fat in the morning, or when completely cool you can bag and freeze it immediately.

Tip 7. Use a Sharpie to label the bag because once frozen it’s hard to tell the difference between different kinds of stock or leftover gravy.

Tip 8.  Sometimes it’s nice to have stock divided into small sized bags for quick interventions.  For example, your husband or child is sick and you want to make a small portion of chicken soup!

I made a pseudo-Bouillabaisse with frozen left over BBQ salmon fillets and ten cups of poultry stock.  It was amazing and likely never to be repeated.

Extreme Snowshoeing and my Ex-Husband

Several of my social media acquaintances recently posted about their experiences learning how to ski.  To strap boards to your feet at -12 degrees Celsius and hurtle yourself down an icy mountain at age four is one thing ~ you bounce well, but to attempt it at age forty plus is incredibly brave, if somewhat treacherous.  I’m pumped by their accomplishments, but I’m worried about what’s motivating them.

I’ve skied since I could walk, you know when they laced up boots, but that doesn’t make me a good skier.   I faced the fact that I will never ski with my family because as they’ve progressed to double blacks, I’ve stayed on the green runs.  In my early forties, skiing gave way to snow shoeing.  Being a tentative skier, it’s better cardio and it keeps me in the alpine environment I love without the fear of broken bones [you know that small white female malady called osteoporosis].

Giving up skiing was difficult and even more so because my then husband took it personally.  Maybe, he said, I need private lessons or perhaps boot heaters and better skis.  It arrived finally into accusations about why, with thirty plus years of skiing under my belt, why wouldn’t I want to ski with them.  Ouch!  It felt like the moment when you tell your child not to be silly and to get their ass out onto the ski hill, only to find out that they actually have frostbite.  Only I was the child and he the parent and he didn’t care about the frostbite.

As my skiing ended, so did the 22 year marriage.  It had put into sharp relief that I was doing things not because I wanted to, but because I bought into a romanticized bully’s version of what shows as a good relationship.  A family that skiis together …

This feeling came full circle again six years later when I frequented my new boyfriend’s hockey games.  To only person in the bleachers, me, one of his team members said, you must be a new wife or a new girlfriend.  Newly in love I didn’t pick up on this not-so-subtle hint of what was to come.  Packing hot cocoa and a blanket, my fella quietly said perhaps I could stay home that night.

Wet salmon smacked up side of the head.

I was totally crushed and moped around the house for weeks bemoaning love lost, honeymoon over, blah blah blah

before I saw how silly I was being.  I was too busy waxing poetic about my hot hockey playing “boyfriend” to realize that he really needed his guy time back.  Nothing personal.  I mean, do I want him at Book Club.  Nope.  Point taken.

What I want for our daughters and sons is a life where they count on themselves first for happiness.  Not to be assessed by how much time and doing what activities with their families, but to be defined by if they show up for each other when needed.

At the end of the day, them skiing and me snowshoeing, I can still meet up with my kids and significant other in the hot tub to regale each other with stories of snow snakes, near misses and getting lost on the hill.

Ladies, keep skiing as long as you feel pleasure and challenge and if and when you’re ready for some extreme snowshoeing, call me 🙂

Fathers and Daughters

My Dad died just after his sixtieth birthday.  We’d always been close, but in the five years after his diagnosis we worked at getting to know each other better.

At 6’4″ and 265 lbs, Bill was always a guy’s guy.  As a teenager he played Rugby and Football and was well liked in spite of his unmerciful penchant for teasing friends and  family.  He joined the RCAF, but was not a candidate for pilot – I think he just liked the uniform.  He repeated his final year of high school, graduating with his sweetheart, our mother.  He was the perfect salesman and later sales manager.  Not in a smarmy kind of way, but with a authentic kind of charm that you could not resist as a client or employee.

1957 Calgary, my father, 3rd from L, strolls with friends including his brother.

Dad had a yearning of a sort to explore.  I could tell by the kind of stories he would share about the few trips, like to Venezuela, that he and Mom were privileged to attend on the company nickle.  His peers would joke about the beautiful women while Dad would talk about the food and the drink ~ the Culture.

Now and then, Dad and I would drive down to China Town.  Nothing like the scope of Toronto or Vancouver, but for an eleven year old girl living in Calgary, China Town was incredibly exotic.  We would meander through every store quietly examining bamboo novelties, textiles and China teapots.  The last stop was the grocery store where he’d fill a small basket with produce or dried fungi.   Upon arrival with our treasures, my mother would roll her eyes at the items we gleefully shook at her and then placed in a mason jar like our own personal Curio Shop.

Eventually the purchases led to cooking.  Sunday Chinese dinner in our household became a legend amongst our friends and boyfriends, as we shopped, cooked and ate with our father grandly pronouncing his favourite dish as the evening’s winner.  One time a friend left our house briefly on the pretense of needing a final ingredient.  When his dish was announced the best, we learned, so desperate to win, that he’d gone to a Chinese restaurant and brought back a fully cooked dish.

Fathers, if your daughter ever shows any interest in going with you somewhere nonsensical, don’t question it, just take her.  It will become your secret world and a familial compass in her future.  In my case, it also led me to York University at age 40 to obtain a degree in something we both love, social cultural anthropology.

A Short Story about Book Club

shutterstock_127158032My husband jokingly refers to our Book Club as Chardonnay Club.  I could defend our Club by kicking him in the shins, but I let the joke lay between us unchained by my annoyance.

I wasn’t always a member of this group.  I knew they existed and many of my friends and neighbours were part of it.  It is a rather large group fluctuating between ten to twelve members, but always at least eight, all women, are in attendance.  We meet for nine presentations and a year-end social where the books are picked for the next year.  Each member is expected to present and to host at least once a year.  Books are selected from a myriad of genres with attention paid to styles we have not done before.  We throw coats, catch up, fill plates and pour drinks, but the main event is the author presentation and ensuing discussion.  It’s interesting to note that a high enjoyment rating of the book does not equal interesting or raucous conversation about the book.

I was ambivalent about book club.  I was busy with my parenting group that, as our children grew, became more social.  Also, this was not the kind of club you asked to join.  That would be considered rude.  Not because the women were snobs or because they were looking for “like” kind, you know the people who can’t stand dissension and gather around them people who nod ~ but because like many women’s groups, it was a place with a vibe and a rhythm, where you kept confidence, and where you could make outrageous statements and people would actually entertain them.

Yes, there was gossip and, yes, sometimes the din was unbelievable, so much at times that I felt I needed to, and did, raise my hand like a school girl to express a point.  Men are not built for this din, but then also my husband does not want me at his shinny game and I don’t want him at book club.  Win win.

At the time the invitation came for me to join, I was experiencing the death of my mother, a divorce, a change of homes and one of my children went insane.  I don’t mean clinically insane, but the kind of insanity that comes with being a hormonal teen with divorcing parents and ready access to drugs and alcohol.   It flummoxed me how a teen feigned helplessness at shopping and cooking supper, but proved able to obtain alcohol underage, to swipe cough syrup from the drugstore and mix it with crushed heart medication from seniors to make a potentially fatal cocktail.  Spoiler alert, we all survived.

I’m lucky that a friend down the street let me stay in her home on the rotating weeks when I was away from our family home and my children.  I stayed in their “t.v.” room for which all their children, also teens, should be given a medal.  It was she who got me in the club door and it was the promise of and being in this club that kept me buoyed to an afterlife.  Meaning a life after whatever I was in at that time.

Not because of their sympathy or sandwiches, that too, and not because they understood divorce, they were all married, but because individually they were brilliant, funny, open, and interested in what I had to say.

That’s really important.  The interested in what I had to say part.  For most people who are divorcing, men and women, it’s the disinterest of their former partners that hurts more than anything else.

At the time I began with Book Club, I was a wounded animal, incoherent, dizzy with grief.  When she was alive, my mother called this state of being, my state of being when sad, as the dying duck in a thunderstorm.  My mother also was part of something she called Group.

Group was started in Calgary by friends, including my mom and my Auntie Joan, meeting in a local church, being the only space available to them sans children, husbands and beckoning mangle machines.  They told the Minister that it was a sewing club.  Being the early 60’s they could find no words that would make the Minister sympathetic to housewives with young children who wanted to explore beyond domesticity and their own intellect.  The book they started with was The Feminine Mystique, written in 1963 by Betty Friedan, an American writer, activist and a leader in the feminist movement.  You should check her out.

My mother would be happy that I am part of a Group because together, these women, my Book Club, have woven a blanket of comfort around me and if there is Chardonnay involved, all the better.

Sunday with Grammie

I love playing with kids.  I’m the kind of grandmother who gets right down in the mud.  Some times at parties, other adults will shoot me a look while I break dance with a seven year old boy or play a clap game with little girl.  I don’t prefer kids to adults, but sometimes, especially at parties, I don’t like the games adults play.  The idle gossip, the bragging, the heated political conversations when I know the other person hasn’t even voted in several years, the surface stuff that can now be transmitted by Twitter.  With kids it’s basic and it’s authentic.

My daughter is finally working [ another story] in a job that she loves and is very good at.  She asked me to watch her three year old on Sunday while she worked.  I’ve said no for many reasons, but the one that mostly stops me is that my granddaughter has anxiety when separated from her mother.  The quivering lip, tears rolling down her face, the endless “Where is Mommy?” and the experience of my being unable to console her, to the point that she vomits, was good for none of us.

This time I said, yes.  Yes I will watch her for the day.  Half way to Grammie’s House from the bus stop, she stopped and both our lips quivered.  It was such a beautiful day.  Suddenly an epiphany.  I’d forgotten how to raise kids.  My job was not to convince her nor to console her, as consolation is a choice to let somebody comfort you.  Maybe she wasn’t ready for me to console her, maybe my job was to distract her.

With renewed enthusiasm, I pulled all the arrows from my parenting quiver and this is what we did.

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Walked the Dogs

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Let Her Take Pictures of Me

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So I Could Get a Picture of Her

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Made and Hugged François, the Snowman

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Made a Tent Under the Dining Table

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Played with a Flashlight

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Read Books

We also went to the park to swing.  We played a memory game.  She played in the bath.  We  made scrambled eggs and while she crushed the shells with relish, she refused to eat anything I made until late in the afternoon.

It was not the first and last quiver, tear or question about Mommy, but we finally had an entire day where she did not get hysterical.  During the last walk with the dogs, dusk approaching, we walked in silence, only the crunch of snow under our boots.  I looked down to see her eyes looking shyly up at me with the smallest of smiles curving her rosy cheeks.  You know the kind of face a child offers up unconditionally and open and your heart lurches with love and gratefulness.

Ya that.