Why did the turtle cross the road?

10478149_10203275277357115_8107860760990002975_N_cropI was driving to preschool, minding my own business, when I saw what looked like a big rock on the highway. I swerved to avoid it and when I got close, I realized that it wasn’t a rock. It was a turtle. An old, beautiful turtle the size of a shoe box. He was crossing the highway and had a few feet to go. If I picked him up and got him to the grass, he’d be safe.

The turtle was crossing at the exit for my son’s school – right down the road. I decided to drop my son off at school and go back for the turtle. It was risky and I worried about the turtle as I rushed out of the preschool. I got in the minivan, drove back to the spot and parked. I couldn’t see it too well, but the turtle looked different. As I got closer, I saw that he’d been hit. His shell was smashed and his guts hung out the side. He was dead. If I’d stopped when I saw him, he’d still be alive, but this magnificent creature, who had a chance just a minute ago, was dead. read more

How I Met My Mother

Today I met my mother. I last saw her on my birthday. My date of birth. She bore me at a hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, then returned to her home for unwed mothers. She held me and fed me for five days before they sent me to foster care, then to my parents. She named me Holiday.

She was 17 the day I was born, so she couldn’t take care of me the way she would have liked. She and my birth father were longtime sweethearts. They’d planned to marry even before I happened upon them, but when my mother told her parents she would have a child with a nice Cuban boy, they showed their blue and white. Nice Greek girls, even naughty Greek girls, don’t marry xeni (non-Greeks), especially Spagnoli. They locked her up and decided she’d give the baby up. Her best friend was blissfully adopted, so she imagined she could bestow the same charmed life on her accidental child.

But that’s not what happened. My parents had plenty of money and they were Greek. That was enough for the adoption agency. Nowadays adoptive parents must pass a battery of psychological tests. Back then the agencies matched babies by religion. Imagine the agency’s luck when it found a Greek Orthodox family waiting for this half-Greek baby! They told my parents the story – my mother was young and couldn’t care for me, and didn’t think her beau was father material.

I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, and my birth mother returned to Queens. For the first 22 years, we lived 90 minutes apart. A few years after graduating from USF, I moved from Florida to Queens, and we lived 20 blocks apart. Once, during a manic episode, I thought I saw her on the street. Oddly enough it’s entirely possible but I was completely crazy at the time. We’ll never know.

Growing up, I’d cry for my birth mom at night. She was my personal legend — a superhero who could come and shower me with love if only she could find me. If she wanted me. If she ever wanted me.

My parents did their best. I had a lot of material things and they gave what their hearts could offer, but I never got enough love. Maybe I needed too much, but I never stopped feeling abandoned. At 31, I began a search for my birth parents. I posted my information on the New York State Adoption Registry. No answer. I did get a “social history” that told some of my life’s secrets. My father was Cuban. Wow. My parents responded that they thought my birth father was “Spanish or something” but had told me I was 100 percent Greek. I was 50 percent Cuban. That was huge for a New York kid. The first question New Yorkers ask is your name. The second is “What are you?” – Italian or Irish or Jewish or what? For 31 years I didn’t know half of my identity.

The social history said that my birth parents had moved in the same social circles and hooked up, but my mom thought dad wasn’t father material. That was it. I figured that was all I’d ever get and convinced myself it was all I’d ever need.

Until now. I got the letter on a Saturday. The registry had produced a match. All weekend I wondered: Who was it? I called Monday morning. My birth mother. You know that gambit, “If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be?” For me, the answer was always my birth mother. And now I’d have to think of a different answer to that question because I really would meet her. Wow. The thoughts blew up in my head so quickly I thought it would pop.

After we both signed a consent, the social worker at the agency asked how I wanted to make the first contact. I chose email. It’s safe, I thought. I could think about what I’d say, and I wouldn’t cry in front of a stranger on the phone.

I crafted a long email. What would I want to know if I’d given Rose up? Just the thought brought me to tears. I couldn’t imagine not knowing her. Seeing the words through my tears, I shared my first word — kiri (candle), described the sound of my laugh, my academic experience, and the people and activities that I loved. I saved the file for editing and went to bed. I’d edit and polish it in the morning. I wanted it to be perfect.

The next morning birth mother showed up in my inbox. Again, I swooned. I clicked on the email. She’d thought about me every day of her life, she said. She’d wanted to keep me but couldn’t, and she’d always wanted to meet me, and she loved me.

She loved me. All those years I’d wondered if she thought about me, If she’d loved me. And she had. She did. And here she was.

I sent my email. I owed her an immediate response. She responded that afternoon and we emailed every day thereafter, then worked to arrange a phone call. We were on opposite coasts, so the time change made phone calls difficult. To top it off, I was six months pregnant so I needed to nap in the afternoon – prime time for East Coast phone calls. But we did arrange a call, and when we talked, the words flowed. She asked about my pregnancy and my family and I learned about hers. We talked for two hours.

Over the next several months we cultivated the long distance relationship . Inevitably, we’d have to meet in person. She promised to visit after my baby was born.

Yesterday I picked her up from the airport. I didn’t know what to feel. How was this skinny woman related to me? I know that I look like my birth father but the lack of resemblance was disconcerting. I wanted to see me in her face. But over the course of the day, we noticed that our eyes disappear when we smile and we have similar noses. She showed me some old pictures and she did look kind of like me when she was young.

All day I had this feeling of surreality that I’ve only experienced in mania. Here was the woman who gave birth to me. The only blood relative that I didn’t create, and she wasn’t just like me. Was she really my mother? She showed me her picture of me as a baby. My parents have the same one hanging in their hall. She’s carried it with her since I was born. I believe her. But despite our conversations and emails, we’re still essentially strangers.

My real mother died in October. We lost her eight years before, when the Alzheimer’s took over. Without the Alzheimer’s and a push from author Natalie Goldberg, I would never have started my memoir. It began as an essay about my real mother and it just kept going. Through those pages, I realized what a character my real mother really was. I got to see her more objectively, as the product of her relationships and experiences. While she was gone, I got to know her in my own words.

My real mother and I did know each other as intimately as she would allow. And growing up I experienced her as only family would. But it was never enough. I longed for someone who’d love me the way I needed to be loved. And six months after my real mother died, I got a second chance at daughterhood. I’m just getting to know my birth mother now and I’m discovering our similarities of spirit and heart. I anticipate her becoming more of a parental soul mate than a mother. I’m all grown up, but those holes, those empty places in my heart are just now starting to fill.

Only So Much

“What can I do for energy?” I asked my obstetrician at my last visit. She belted out a good, long belly laugh.

“There’s really nothing you can do when you’re pregnant,” she said, and went on to explain that women usually have less energy during a second pregnancy because by that time, they’re already running after a little kid.

Normally I wouldn’t ask such a ridiculous question, but after losing so much time to morning sickness, I held out hope that I’d be able to catch up with everything I wanted to do in my first trimester, but couldn’t. Right now, there aren’t enough hours in the day for me. There are plenty for everyone else, but I need to nap in the afternoon most days, it takes 2 hours to get 20 minutes sleep and I have go to bed by 9:30 at night. And I don’t get just a little tired – I suddenly lose the ability to function and I’m lucky if I can muster the energy to brush my teeth.

But I have so much stuff I need to do. Every afternoon, my Outlook sends me a reminder of what I’m supposed to be doing during nap time. “Freelance: Monday 1:30-3:30,” comes up as I sign off of work. Or “Tuesday: Book 1:30-3:30.” Or “Blog: Friday 1:30-3:30.” I read the reminders, dismiss all, sigh, and go to bed.

Sometimes I awaken from my nap while Rose is still asleep. On those days I fire up the computer and try to crank out a few tiny tasks before the inevitable “Mommy! I’m all done sleeping!” And I feel good about those days, but I still have this overwhelming sense that I’m behind, all the time.

And that’s just stuff I want to do. I don’t have energy for anything else, either. The other day, I finished work; dropped the car off for brake work; took Rose to the dentist in a cab; stopped for a few groceries; walked us home on the bike trail; got the call that the car was ready; played the pregnancy card so they’d pick us up; got the car; watched a chick flick to de-stress for an hour; considered cooking onion soup and dessert; decided against it; went to drop off food for a new mom; picked up my husband at class; stopped for food and bathroom and to switch drivers because I was an exhausted menace on the road; and finally made it home and straight to bed at 8:40 p.m. I was just grateful I got through that whole day.

The next day we had a friend visiting for the weekend. I had to work and then pick her up at the airport. As I made breakfast, I surveyed the kitchen. One counter was covered with dishes. I knew the dishwasher was full and clean and considered unloading and reloading, but I typically don’t, because dishes are Matt’s job or Eric’s, not mine. Eric was out of town so the dishes fell to Matt, who’d rushed out and left them that morning. While I didn’t want my guest to see the kitchen like that, I still had to pick up Rose’s mess in the living room, straighten the office, finish work, get Rose at the babysitter’s, then go to the airport. I gave up. It was a messy kitchen, not the end of the world. And five minutes of Rose would destroy the living room. We don’t spend any time in the office, either. You know what? I thought. There’s only so much I can do. I finished my work and headed out. By that time I was late, but I felt better.

That’s when “There’s only so much I can do” became my mantra. I just have to accept it. There’s so much more I want to do, but right now I just don’t have the energy for everything. And it’s ok, because things change. When I have the baby, I’ll have less time to fit everything in, but I can manage time. I can’t manage exhaustion.

I can’t remember a time when I’ve been satisfied with what I’ve accomplished. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I’d talk to them once a week. Once we hung up, I’d experience a “parental hangover” – the aftereffects of our conversation. I’d ruminate over something they’d said or I’d feel bad about myself in general and I’d try to fix that feeling by launching myself into projects or cleaning or other chores – anything to regain a sense of self-worth.

Although I got over the “hangovers,” that feeling of inadequacy never left me. I’ve got a wonderful home and family, great friends, a steady paycheck, a freelance writing business, a growing blog readership, and lots of experiences to draw upon, but I consistently berate myself because I should have accomplished more sooner. I expected to publish my first book in my twenties; get married and have children in my thirties; and sit back and collect royalties from my third book, at least, in my forties. Instead I married, divorced and began to pursue a writing career in my twenties, married again in my thirties and had my first child at 38 (came close there but I really meant mid-thirties), and am still writing that first book and gestating the second kid at 41.

Did I fail to live up to my expectations? Yes. Did my expectations fail me? Yes. But I’m beginning to look at the whole process differently. I once read that no one should use lack of time as an excuse because Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison had the same 24 hours in a day that we do. It’s a nice sentiment, but Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison were men back when men didn’t care for their homes or their children. I am a modern-day woman and my responsibilities are a little bit different. I may have a cushy government job like Einstein but in my “off” time, I care for a 2 ½-year-old, write a blog, magazine articles and a book, and run a household. And let’s not forget that I’m gestating a baby boy every day and night. As for Edison, he had two wives. I can only begin to imagine what I could accomplish if I had two wives. So maybe it’s ok to blame a lack of time for my lack of accomplishments. At the very least, I can blame my current lack of energy. And I can allow myself some amnesty, because my ambition always exceeds my time and/or energy.

Things change. Maybe someday I’ll have the time and energy to do everything I want to do. I bet if that happened, though, I’d just set my sights higher and want more. But right now I’ve got to accept that there’s only so much I can do. Maybe I can learn to forgive myself for my “shortcomings.” Maybe I can accept that sometimes good enough is good enough. And now is a good enough time to do that.

Wasted Time

Is it all just wasted time?
Can you live with yourself
When you think of what
You left behind?

Wasted Time — Sebastian Philip Bierk; David Michael Sabo; Rachel Bolan Southworth

I used to lose sleep for days or weeks. When it happened, I never felt safe; I couldn’t focus; and I’d always latch onto the idea that something really great or something really bad was imminent. Once I thought I’d win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes. Another time I thought I’d get myself a job writing for “Saturday Night Live.” It happened every nine to 18 months. Sometimes events would trigger it. Every time “Uncle Gus” came to visit (See Some Things You Can’t Forgive); right before my wedding; when my first marriage ended; the first time my grandmother got sick.

For weeks, I wouldn’t know what day or what time it was, I’d lose hours, days, classes, jobs and friends. It started when I was 17 and Yaya had to go to the hospital. I couldn’t sleep for a week. The episodes were mild at first. During that one, I went to school, shrieked at a tap on the shoulder, started my job at Baskin Robbins, cried when my boyfriend stood at the counter, insisting I quit, and then they fired me.

My parents didn’t take that episode seriously, or the next one or the next. Once, when I was 21, after 2 or 3 weeks of freaking out and telling my concerned friends I was ok, they did take me to the Crisis Center in Carmel, where two nice men listened to me and gave me some pills. I slept for three days, woke up fine, and that was that. Problem solved. I remember once having a psychiatrist appointment after an episode, and he prescribed something that made me feel stoned. I complained, stopped taking it, and never saw him again.

My first husband tried to help me. Shortly before our wedding, I freaked out and he took me to see doctors but they didn’t help. They thought I was anxious, or depressed, or just psychotic. When our marriage ended, I freaked out again. That was the time I thought I’d work for SNL. I went to a psychiatrist recommended by our marriage counselor and I told him what my problem was. “You’re bipolar,” he said. Just like that. He prescribed some medication. I’ve never had another episode and now you’d never know that I’m mentally ill. Even during the early years, my disease wasn’t new or exotic. Everyone knew about bipolar disorder. It was all over Oprah. I even taped that episode for my mother and told her that’s what I thought I had. She waved my theory away. I worked with several therapists over the years. But no one deduced the right diagnosis before my 29th year.

And that’s what kills me. The wasted time. How much living could I have done if I didn’t freak out all the time? If I hadn’t lost all those jobs, could I have had a real career? Would I have published a book by now? What happened to those days and weeks I lost? What about all those years that I wrote off my own sanity?

I’ll never know. Losing all that time is one of my biggest regrets. Why couldn’t I just admit to myself I was sick and go to the right doctors? Why couldn’t I accept that there was something really wrong with me? I honestly didn’t know how easy the solution would be. A few pills a day and I’m a normal person. I think if I had known that, I’d have done it sooner. But I was so scared. So scared to get labeled, so scared to hear the truth. And now I mourn the loss of all that time.

Was the time really wasted? When I was in a 12-Step program, they said, “Everything happens right on time.” It’s a perfectly reasonable statement except for regrets that tear us up inside, yet those regrets are the very issues that sentiment’s about.

Between the ages of 17 and 29, I managed to graduate high school, get my bachelor’s degree in Psychology (believe me, the irony isn’t lost), work in a psychiatric hospital (again, I get it), move to Florida, realize I wanted to write, place my first published article in a magazine, move back to New York, get a job at a newspaper, survive a horrific car accident, learn to live with the resulting brain damage, land and lose another newspaper job, get married, get divorced and get a national reporting job that moved me to Washington, D.C.

Also during that time I established my reputation as a slut in high school; attempted suicide; used drugs; quit drugs; dropped out of two colleges; lost at least five jobs; adopted a puppy; gave him up; showed up psychotic at work; moved without telling my roommate; lost several friends; and knowingly embarked upon a doomed marriage.

When I first learned about death as a kid, I used to lie in backseat of the car on the way home from Yaya’s in the city, and I’d think, In the next minute, I’ll be one minute closer to death. And the next minute, it’ll be closer. And closer! I’ve learned a little about the passage of time since then, but I’m no less alarmist when it comes to death. I was 38 when I had my first child. My first thought was, “I’ll be almost 50 when she’s 10!” My next thought: “When she’s 40, I’ll be 80. Oh, no just how much of her life will I live to see?”

It’s no surprise that a kid like that would grow up to obsess about wasted time. And maybe that is my lesson to learn, my cross to bear. Maybe that’s why I’ve wasted so much – fodder for this cosmic lesson. Maybe regret is my driving force. If I didn’t feel I was so behind, maybe I’d never push myself to accomplish anything. I try to live as if I’ll get hit by a bus tomorrow. For every activity I consider writing off, I think, Ok, so if I die tomorrow, will I be satisfied with what I’ve done? The answer’s always no, but thinking about it helps me prioritize. When I’m dead, will folded clothes really matter? Ok, no, but writing that chapter will. Will I care whether Rose’s toys are picked up? Shit, Matt can do that before the mourners come, but if I read her a story right now, she’ll have one more memory of Mommy.

It’s a morbid method, yes, but I don’t encounter a lot of buses, so the statistical probability’s in my favor. And it helps me decide what’s really important. When I worked at the newspaper, I wrote obituaries. Hundreds of them. During that time, I decided that when I died, I wanted a kick-ass obituary. One that would make readers say, “Wow, what a life!” Or “Wow, I didn’t know she did all that!” So I shifted my focus from trying to fulfill other people’s expectations to defining and fulfilling my own. I decided that the pursuit of happiness trumped the pursuit of money or approval or prestige. It’s not like the founding fathers wrote “money, prestige and social standing” into the Declaration of Independence. Those guys knew the deal. I guess you had to when no one lived past 40. Maybe they thought about death all the time too. It might be morbid, but my method works for me. I just wish I had learned it sooner.

You build your resume. I’ll build my obituary. — Maria Bellos Fisher