Monday, January 23, 2017

Invisible Illness

I talk and write about illness often, so I'm hesitant to say--with the lingo--that I have an "invisible" illness. And frankly, I'm not one to hide my illness. I lance my finger in front of friends and colleagues. I jab a needle into my gut wherever: a restaurant, a crowded street.

What I do hide is my day-to-day symptoms. At any hour, on any day, I might feel vertigo, bewildering fatigue, pain. I often have a headache. I rarely feel balanced. My symptoms stand opposed to the person I want to be, so I try to appear healthy, for hours each day, until I return home, when Karen, just home herself after a long day, suffers the burden of my efforts. I can be silent, mean. She's receptive, but not sympathetic. After all, she too suffers an "invisible" illness.

So we have an implicit understanding. We move on, ignoring our symptoms for days, weeks, months. We attend all the events. We host countless dinners. We welcome the world to our home. We do this, we tell ourselves, for life, for our children. We go on and on—until life makes us stop.

Two weeks ago, I woke with a pain in my chest. I thought of Uncle Dean, whose own heart troubles began in a similar way: one morning, a pain in the chest. The feeling, and the thought, were impossible to ignore. I could not take a deep breath. I tried, but some mechanism blocked me.

Already anxious, it was impossible for me to respond reasonably. I plunged into the woes: frustration, sadness, worry. For a few hours on a Tuesday, I was dying. I now admit I was suffering an “anxiety attack,” as my doctor called it—a diagnosis I had, at first, denied. I was certain I was experiencing Dean’s illness. Over fifteen years, I had learned to manage my chronic illnesses, yet these symptoms felt acute, and somehow the opposite of “invisible.” As I went about my life, I thought everyone could see—or worse, feel—my anxiety.

Oh, I thought, this is not the person I want to be. But since everyone could see, I thought, I might as well speak. So I started talking to people—at the grocery store; at the Y. One morning, some self-interested impulse made me confess my anxiety on Twitter. Friends responded with encouraging words. One friend wrote in a message: “Seth, I have suffered anxiety for years. My suggestion: find a picture of Owen and Ella. Look at it until the darkness passes.” And so I did exactly that. Whenever I felt anxious, I looked at this picture of Owen and Ella.

What I learned from talking and sharing, I think, is that many people suffer from “invisible” woes—and many, like me, do not share for fear of seeming vulnerable or self-interested. Oh, but how sharing healed! Even the simplest of words helped me feel less desolate, less afraid. Since then, the pain has subsided, my breathing has calmed. The darkness has passed. Be well, friends. If you feel a need to share, I'm here with open ears.

Originally posted on Facebook

Thursday, November 17, 2016

This Too Shall Pass

Around the time Ella was born, I heard a similar sentiment from many older parents--parents of teens, twenty-somethings, even grandparents: "Enjoy it now. Before you know, she'll be thirteen."

I enjoyed Ella, when I could, but really I just lived life. Day after day: writing, working, cooking. Each morning, I stepped outside to the same world of air and sun and sky, all the old things. Each evening, I drove home under the same stars and moon, so ancient and familiar--and consequently, so unremarkable. When I was away from home, my longing for Ella and Karen drove me to tears. At home, though, thrust into my duties, I balked. Changing diapers. Washing dishes. On my hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. I was filled, at the worst possible moments, with resentment.

This is not my life, I thought. I longed to be writing. Of course, we filled our lives with friends and family, the routine of love and food that sustains me. And yes, I was stunned by the speedy pace. Days, months, and years lapsed without my consent. We moved into our first house. Owen was born. Ella became a little girl. Karen and I learned to forgive--and so, to love--in new ways.

When something terrible happens, we comfort ourselves by saying, "This too shall pass." To be honest with ourselves, though, we know the same applies to the best of life. The birth of a son. The elated, drunken spree. The summer's first ocean plunge. Each fall, Thanksgiving. The winter pleasure of a merino wool sweater. Each spring, the poppies. This, too. This, too.

So I try. At my best, I enjoy it now. I let my children's reverence for the moment, for simple old things, sweep me up into that joyful realm of irresponsibility and glee. "Look, Daddy," Ella says. "A rock! A leaf!" "It's just a rock," I say. "It's just a leaf." But when I pick her up from daycare, I notice her cubbie crammed with rocks, with leaves of different colors: orange, red, brown. There's something going on here, I think. Something important. So I help her gather her treasures in a bag.

Now, as I sit writing, the bag is next to me, at once a pile of refuse and my child's miracle. Friends, Thanksgiving is a week away. I hope you find the time--and space--to slow down. I've never been the type to extol wisdom, but to echo the old ones: "Enjoy it now." I know I'm going to try my hardest. I also know: This too shall pass. All of it.

Originally posted on Facebook.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

How to Parent in a Way That Feels Honest and Humane?

Stepping out today, I grabbed the only available umbrella: Ella's beloved Hello Kitty "brella." Candies and fruits! Gum drops and donuts! Swirled ice cream! French macarons! Looking up, into Hello Kitty's deceptively innocuous face, I felt the sheer, saccharine horror of "cuteness," at least as it's peddled to little girls these days--I felt the cuteness, and embraced it, as my life.

Ella's Hello Kitty Umbrella
Have you ever seen a Magiclip doll? Ella has thirty or more, and on any given evening, long after the wine's gone, I've been called to play the part of Prince Charming or Flynn Rider, to ask Ella's Cinderella or Rapunzel, "Will you marry me?"

Last week's shootings derailed me. I felt pointless and privileged; angry and sad. Mostly I felt anesthetized by a shame that stopped me in my tracks. "What can I do?" I asked myself, again and again.

Writing felt frivolous. I wanted to reach out to my black friends, to say, "I'm with you." But as Roxane Gay wrote in Marie Claire: "Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance."

I've been thinking about this. I've been thinking about Roxane's call for white people to "speak up when you hear people making racist jokes. Speak up when you see injustice in action." And of course, I think about how to talk to Ella about all this--how to teach her to "speak up", sincerely, without guilt or a sense of duty--to just do it. It might be too early for that conversation, but recently the sentiment has influenced our conversations.

How to parent in a way that feels honest and humane?

This challenge, like Roxane's, lifts me from my moping, demands something from me. And so I try to take Ella's world seriously. I try to play Magiclips with a sincerity of purpose that matches her own.

Playing, I hope to nurture her voice now, to give her the confidence, now and later, to "speak up" in her way. When called upon, years from now, what will Ella say?

I don't pretend to understand what is required of me as a person, a parent. What I do hope to teach my daughter, though, is to challenge the easy stereotypes, to fight the sort of thinking that denies the experience of difference, and yet, at the same time, to make her life a testament--a celebration--of difference.

Be whoever the fuck you want to be, I hope to teach her. And fight for the rights of others who do not have that privilege.

Originally posted on Facebook

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Four years ago to the day (more or less; the photo was taken May 26, 2012). Ella was not even three-months-old. I was thirty-five. I'm not sure who has aged more--Ella or me. She's writing letters now, whole names: ELLA, OWEN. She quotes chunks of JAWS. She nails "this shark, swallow you whole." She worries when people call her "beautiful." She doesn't want to be beautiful, not yet. She wants to be "cute." She dresses in clashing patterns. She refuses to tie her hair up. She's "only four," she reminds me.

I'm still wearing a short swimsuit, though not this short. My beard is 50% grey. My prominent nose looks a bit uneven, somehow more flattened and large. And there’s this line, this new line that runs down my left cheek. My skinny man's paunch, I've accepted, is here to stay. It's the wine, I know, two or three glasses a night, sometimes more.

I've just finished writing my memoir--three years in the making. I'm feeling retrospective, elegiac even. I'm remembering life before Ella and Owen. I'm imagining waking in a bright hotel room, wood floors gleaming in the light, wearing a short swimsuit, Karen asleep next to me—both of us free, for one daydream, of the omnipotent hold of our children.

I thought three years of writing about my life might teach me something about life. Perhaps. I've learned I need to love and feel loved by family and friends--that love is all that matters to me. I'm not sure this is a lesson. It feels like narcissism. Maybe saying that is narcissism. Perhaps I should own it.

I'm not especially ambitious, I've learned. I just want to be a good friend, a good son, a good brother, a good nephew, a good uncle, a good dad.

I want my wife, who turns thirty-eight tomorrow, to feel I love her a bit more than anything. I want to be a fabulous husband, though I often fail.

I hope to send my memoir out to the world, though I feel doubtful, just now, after three years of work. You see what I mean? I need people to love; to love me. For three years, I took as my working title a line suggested by my longtime mentor, friend, and boss, Mary Beth: "What is Wrong With Me." After finishing, though, I'm feeling a bit different. "Lucky" feels right to me, now. I suppose that's something I learned, too. However selfish the lesson, I've learned I'm lucky. I try to remember that. I try.

Originally posted on Facebook.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Owen's First Birthday

Tomorrow we will celebrate Owen's first birthday. I post this picture of him (with Ella, on Easter Sunday) because it so perfectly reveals his rowdy spirit. He loves to throw. He loves to shout. What Ella builds--strange installations--he destroys.

Most of all, he loves to eat--by the greedy handful. Bananas. Chicken thighs. Guacamole. Dirt. Ella's horrible Magic Clip Dolls. And just this Saturday, birthday cake, which he devoured angrily, his little mind figuring it out: "They've been holding out on me!"

My favorite part of the day: Halfway through dinner, Owen balls his fists, smirks at me, and growls. I growl back. Ella shouts. Owen shouts, smashing his fists on his tray. The meal devolves to outright savagery--notwithstanding Karen, of course.

Anyone who has ever dined with me will attest to this fact: I've always wanted for the perfectly savage dinner companion. (Ella, God bless her, eats like a bird).

My son. I love the sound of that phrase. I love his bulk, the smell of his head. I love the sister he has made of Ella, my darling. I love the feeling he conjures in our home--the sensation of purpose, a family unified by a sole, implicit duty: to take care of each other. One year after the fact, I have to admit: I love the little guy.

Originally posted on Facebook.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Daddy, Owen, and Ella Day

Ella and Owen, December, 2015
Since the school year started (back in September), I've spent each Friday--from 6:30 AM to 6 PM--with the kids: "Daddy, Owen, and Ella Day," as Ella calls it. I understand plenty of parents--heroic mothers, mostly--spend every weekday alone with the kids. What for me is a weekly "event" is for many stay-at-home parents (heroic mothers, mostly) just another day with the kids.

I also understand that Daddy, Owen, and Ella Day is a breeze compared to Mommy, Owen, and Ella Day. Together with the kids, I take a free agent approach: Let's just all hang together in close proximity: Ella imagining with her Magic Clip dolls; Owen swiftly crawling, stuffing things in his mouth; Daddy cooking.

With Mommy, though, a free agent approach is impossible. Owen cannot be around Karen without NEEDING to be held. He is, after eleven months, still a part of her anatomy: nursing, cuddling, sleeping on and with her. Seeing this, Ella--a week shy of four--demands nothing short of Karen's total attentiveness. "Mommy, play with me." Ella has been known to say this hundreds of times per day. Even when Karen is playing, Ella, noting the slightest lapse, repeats, "Mommy, play with me."

So I'm nothing special. I get that. My anger at the end of the day when Karen is, say, ten minutes late. My tales of poop and sorrow. The hour I spend in our parked, idling car, the kids sleeping in peace. Nothing special.

It's just unfathomable how hard it can be. Monday to Thursday,working and writing, I seem to forget what Friday has in store for me. Then the day arrives, Owen waking early, seeing me and not Mommy, fighting the disappointment, crying, desirous of everything: food, love, hugs, attention. Then Ella, up at seven, not at all fighting disappointment: "I don't want it to be Daddy, Owen, and Ella Day!"

By nine, when we leave to go the Y, I feel the rest of the day collapsing upon me. But somehow, we survive. There's laughter. Owen, the bruiser, smashing his head into something seemingly dangerous, yet giggling. There's reconciliation. Ella eating Daddy's cooking, saying, I swear, "I wish we could go back and do everything over, and I'd never cry, and never get angry, and we could have this great sandwich over and over."

There's love, too, of course, the love I'm taking my time to learn, the selfless love one is urged to embody. There's the selfish love I much prefer, too, the love I'll never give up, my love for Ella and Owen bound in my love for myself, for who they make me: "Daddy," as I say, hundreds of times per day. So nothing special. In the context of my life, though--6 months out from forty--an identity-altering occasion.

Originally posted on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Confession

This feels like a confession so I’ll just say it plainly: I am not yet in love with Owen. I could lie. I could say I fell in love when I saw him emerge with his vernix sheen. And I swear (with my hand on my heart) I believe in love at first sight. It happened to me before—twenty-three years ago, to be precise, on the first day of my sophomore year at Wissahickon, when I turned a corner and glimpsed for the first time my future wife, Karen Magowan.

But I did not fall in love with Owen—or Ella, for that matter—at first sight. Perhaps a mother’s love is immediate. Perhaps a father falls in love in fits and starts. When Karen wakes at three in the morning to nurse Owen, I wake too, but not with her sense of serenity. Nursing in the middle of the night, she smiles with a radiance not unlike the happily drugged. She likes the night light. I hate it. So a bit dazed, a bit annoyed, I throw my t-shirt over my face, try to ignore Owen’s glugging, Karen’s wakefulness: her iPhone glow, her feet rubbing together.

Thankfully, I’ve been through this before. Looking at Ella now, I can scarcely fathom a time when the mere thought of her did not mobilize my senses.

Everything for her, I think and feel. And her mother. Karen—who I miss now in my selfish way. Karen—the women I’d share a bed with, alone if not for Owen.

 And everything for Ella's brother, Owen, I suppose I should say.

Fits and starts. At least this is my experience.

Or perhaps this is my own preposterous flaw. I’m hesitant to Google it. I’d hate to discover I’m a monster.

In my defense, I can pinpoint my most recent fit. This morning I put Owen in the nook of my arm and whispered in his ear, “Relax, son.” It was the first time I had addressed him so: son. He was crying, as he does, with his breathtaking lip quiver. Or so it felt to me: breathtaking. So I whispered again (with my hand on my heart), “Relax, son. Daddy loves you.” And who knows, perhaps I was telling the truth—in a way I do not yet understand.

Originally posted on Facebook.