I was still on maternity leave during the first few months of 1987. When I returned to work in February, I brought my son with me, setting up a space for him in the corner of my office behind my desk. For a full month I was able to extend that fleeting time when I could spend whole days with my baby, significantly more important to me at this point as I knew he was my last child. My co-workers were glad for the distraction as most of them had been through the experience of the working mom. When March rolled around, having a four month old was too distracting, so off he went to my parents’ home where he’d spend most of the next year. I was able to nurse him on my lunch hour while feeling relaxed about the care he’d receive from my mom and dad, a wholly different experience from my life with my daughter. For the most part, the only challenge during those early months was this determined little boy’s total refusal to drink from a bottle. We tried every type on the market before caving in and deciding he’d eat solid food earlier than recommended. Aside from that, he was an easygoing, genial baby whose company was a delight for his doting grandparents.
My memories of those spring months of 1987 are mostly about three main preoccupations. The first was working with Michael to meet the needs of our kids while trying to balance jobs, the reclamation project known as our home, and personal time just for us. Right before our son was born, and with the knowledge that my parents were leaving Chicago to live near my family, my brother, who was bipolar, and whose first marriage had ended in a sad divorce, was considering a move himself, either to join us or head to Las Vegas. His emotional state was always a challenge under the best of circumstances. Many times, while growing up with him, I’d witnessed his erratic behavior seriously affect my parents’ well-being. I’d also observed that my male cousins all seemed to have some degree of mental instability.
I’d already lost one of them, Dennis, about the same age as my brother, to suicide when he was only twenty-five. My brother Fred had also threatened suicide. Although I felt somewhat guilty, I knew that his constant presence would be seriously disruptive to all our lives. After talking things over with Michael, I used all my persuasive power convincing him to move to Nevada. I think I’d learned that despite good intentions, I could never really help my brother. So I put my little family, Michael and me, and my parents first.
The second focus was helping our daughter accept the fact that she was no longer the only child. Michael was the second child in his family and I was third out of four in mine. Neither of us ever felt the luxury of being the center of attention all the time. In addition, because we’d both hit our thirties before we had a kid, we were ready to be tuned into every need of our dominant little girl. Always a strong, opinionated person she’d recently seen a cheerleader demonstration on a trip to the local mall with my parents. She asked what they were doing and was told that their job was to cheer for athletes at their games. Her response has a prominent place in our family lore. She scowled, folded her arms across her chest and stated vehemently, “Well, when I grow up I’m going to be a sports girl and they’re all going to cheer for me.” Quite prescient, to be honest. However, when some of the cheering was directed toward the new baby brother, her plan was slightly upended. Working on that issue would take her awhile.
The third preoccupation of that early time as new parents of a little boy, was how to raise a male who’d be resistant to some of the pressures which influence boys as they evolve. When this baby entered the world, he might as well have had the word “sweet” stamped on his forehead. He literally oozed love. How could we help him keep that trait front and center, without letting expectations for male behavior affect his innocence? I was also concerned about the instability of the males in my generation. Would that affect him as well? So much to think about.
In early summer, we had a big party in our backyard. I think it was a combined birthday party for Michael and me whose birthdays were two weeks apart in early June and late May, respectively. E was having her own social life as she ended her kindergarten year. In my unflagging efforts to do whatever I could to constantly demonstrate that she was as important as always, sibling or not, I made her a detailed costume for a friend’s medieval-themed party. Despite my rudimentary seamstress skills, things worked out well.
I no longer remember the specific date in that summer when I got the dark news that my young cousin Eliot, who’d been a part of my life since his birth, had leapt to his death from a building in Chicago. He was only 27 while I was 36. Diagnosed as bipolar during his devolution from a successful student to a person who could barely manage school, his bookbag was still strapped on his back that awful day. His continued effort to resume his interrupted life trajectory finally got to be too much for him. I was devastated. He was the second child to die in my uncle’s family, the first being a toddler who didn’t see her second birthday after contracting a common, but lethal disease for her. My uncle and aunt had one surviving child, but had long since divorced as my aunt too had suffered from intractable mental illness. I hadn’t seen her in at least a dozen years. I drove north with my family for the funeral, my young baby with me as he was still nursing and couldn’t be left behind. Michael stayed behind with E.
The day was hot, my black dress making the temperature feel more oppressive. I went straight to my aunt to embrace her which was somewhat surprising to me. The almost two decades we’d spent together at countless family events were more powerful than the distance of our recent years. Looking at Eliot’s new grave next to that of his sister who’d died in 1964 was incredibly painful. As I held my baby boy, not even a year old, I grieved for my cousin while worrying that there might be a gene for depression and suicidal tendencies that could manifest in my son, years down the road from that moment. That thought was never far from my mind after Eliot’s death. But life goes on.
We packed up the kids and headed up to the Olympia resort in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin where we stayed for a few days before joining some old friends who lived in that town. We introduced our kids to each other, swam in their local lake and ate at the famous Kiltie Drive-In burger and shake joint.
E turned six and began first grade. Around the same time, my mom was feeling quite ill and ultimately was diagnosed at almost 65 years old with Type 1 diabetes. She was hospitalized for a few days which seriously interfered with our babysitting arrangements. For the first time in his life, my dad stayed home alone with a baby, his adored little grandson. He was valiant but I was determined to find a younger more reliable babysitter. Our office attorney recommended the person who took care of his child. So just like that, one day instead of going to my parents’ house, I dropped my 10 month old off at the home of a virtual stranger. That was a tough day. Mom and dad showed up at my office, announcing that they were moving away. They couldn’t get their minds around the idea that I was looking for dependable child care but rather were insulted, feeling rejected. I tried to calm them down so I could get back to work. But later that day, after I picked up my son, they pulled into my driveway, right behind me. When they saw his bedraggled condition, his bib crusted with spaghetti sauce, they started crying as did he, baffled by their disappearance and reappearance. I thought I’d lose my mind but in the end we decided to give them another try, fingers crossed that neither parent would get sick. What a nervous number of months until my kid got old enough to attend the same day care center as my daughter had, where we knew there would be younger caregivers in robust health.
Of course no one can anticipate what can happen on any given day, despite the best-laid plans. One weekend afternoon I went off to run a few quick errands, leaving Michael on the front porch with little H sitting in his rolling walker. When I got back a short while later, they’d disappeared. Poking around the house, I eventually found them in a locked bathroom. I insisted that Michael open the door to let me in. Our kid was in the bathtub, his face and head covered with bloody scrapes. Michael had hoped he’d have him cleaned up with little evidence of the fact that while he was reading the newspaper, our active baby had rolled himself down the front concrete steps. The wheels had locks but they only work when someone locks them. My wrath was boundless, at least for awhile.
Fortunately, little H made it to his first birthday. His always helpful and always partially jealous sister was happy to help him rip the paper off all his presents.
December arrived, the end of a tumultuous year. At age thirty-six I was beginning to realize that all years are filled with tumultuous events, punctuated by stretches of peaceful times, joyous times. I’d begun to develop some life philosophies, one of which was that in order to have a positive, effective life, a person needed to have a strong set of coping skills, the key to getting through whatever was being served up as the problem of the moment. I was definitely an adult, a state which had finally crept up on me while I was busy living. At the end of the month, we had a small family holiday celebration with our kids and my parents.
A definite bonus of having grandparents in town was that going out on NewYear’s Eve was no longer as interesting to them as having their grandchildren spend the night. Michael and I dressed up and went out to take care of ourselves for a bit. On to 1988.