Stanley and Me

Arguments around the dinner table are not this family's modus operandi. We're not even arguers; we're more akin to intense debaters who pore over details and minutiae, then realize we're preaching to the choir and have a good laugh. Arguing is mostly a scholarly endeavor. We leave the messy emotional disagreements for discussions. So when an argument takes place at all, it's a remarkable occasion. Tempers do not usually flare in so stereotypical an arena, either: the dinner table argument, the ridiculous conceit utilized by movies and novels about the failure of the suburban dream. Anyway, this is not us. Not unless you add one dose of Stanley.

Stanley. My love.

My first encounter with Stanley was in the classifieds on Craigslist, which seems an unlikely location to meet anyone you fall in love with. Looking for a "Friend with Benefits," maybe, an afternoon assignation while you're in town on business. But this was love.

He was not, as they say, classically handsome. Face like a rugby player, wide-set eyes, underbite. Muscles for days, but small. Bow-legged. Looked like he got hit with the ugly stick over and over again.

Except for his smile. That was pure gold. And the sad, thoughtful look in his eyes that spoke of great love and the desire to share his personal joys and sorrows with someone. Someone who would love him despite the ugly stick, despite the rugby-player build and his oafish manner.

I agreed to meet him. I had to drive several miles out of town to the cell where he was being held. Everyone else was cat-calling and howling when I walked in looking for Stanley. I was nervous, didn't know quite where to go. After all, I was new at this. I had never gone out of my way to meet anyone so unlike myself, from such a different background. Would he like me? Would he see my charms the way I saw his? Was I crazy? One photo does not indicate love, merely the potential for love. But like anything with potential, there is its opposite: the reality that it won't work, that there is not really any common ground.

But Stanley stood up silently to greet me when I walked in, a perfect gentleman. No howls and hoots, no rude brash hollers. His eyes met mine and betrayed a little of his nervousness, but also his calm acceptance of me. I met the potential, and he did too.

Our meeting was brief, but it was clear that we had something. Stanley and I had that spark of recognition that only happens once in a while, sometimes never.

But Stanley and I were not meant to be.

•   •   •

Stanley is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

He is one meaty dog. He's tan with a white blaze on his chest, golden eyes, little perked ears. He's a hamburger on legs. And when I walked into the kennels he stood up silently, placing his paws on the gate and waited for me. He didn't bark, didn't whine, didn't holler. All the dogs rose in their chorus of cacophony around him, but Stanley was like a brick wall, so still and calm was he. He's one solid muscle on squat legs, but he stood there delicately, posing for me like a dancer.


When I approached the pen, he wiggled and writhed in expectation. But for all that meatiness, he was pure gentle affection. There was a bucket of kibble up on the gate so that people like me could have a little meet-and-greet, a breaking of the proverbial bread. I grabbed a couple of nuggets and said, "Sit," and he sat. I held the kibble down toward the floor, and he hunched down, gazing at me with his funny, squinty golden eyes checking to make sure he doing what I was asking him to do. I gave him the kibble and he took it gently from me, barely using his teeth at all. Almost a kiss. He tried to squeeze his muzzle through the chain link to meet me more officially, though it was clear to both of us that we were each other's, and that he wanted to go home now, and what took me so long anyway?

I asked if I could meet Stanley more personally, and the woman at the counter looked up his paperwork. She asked me a couple basic questions about whether we owned or rented our house, did we have pets, did we have children. Stanley was a young boy, with no obedience lessons to speak of; classes were a requirement for taking Stanley home. Which was fine with me; any dog I wanted was going to a good dog, and we would learn how to be each other's allies in cooperation.

"How old is your child?" she asked.

"Six," I said.

"We can't let you adopt Stanley," she said. "We'll only let Stanley go home with someone ten or older."

I asked if this was ironclad, if there was any room for negotiation, but she was adamant. Rules were rules.

I went back through the dog kennels, and looked at all the dogs. There were around forty in their pens, more than half of them Pit Bulls. All of them looked sweet, if you could get past the image of bloodthirsty killing machines. I picked out a couple of other dogs to meet, one fat little miniature pinscher named Big Mac and a Pomeranian named Truman. Reasonable, small dogs, the kind that I told my husband I was looking for in the first place.

Truman the Pom was a hot mess. All fur and bad training, whining and crawling all over the place, desperate to be babied as soon as he was out of the kennel. Sweet, affectionate, and totally annoying. Big Mac had no interest in me at all, and truthfully I had no interest in him; I was just doing my best to keep an open mind after the disappointment of finding true love and having lost it before it had a chance to blossom.

I met the other dogs and went back to say goodbye to Stanley. I sat on the floor in front of his kennel feeding him kibble bits, him gently taking them from me, trying to impress me with his worthiness. He didn't need to try; I knew how amazing he was.

It took all my personal mastery to walk out of there without pitching a tantrum. I was sad, heartbroken, a love denied. I sat in the parking lot for a long time before I drove off without Stanley.

•  •  •

I had met another dog earlier in the day, a little beagle/dachshund mix named Kate, and I decided that maybe she would be a good dog for us. Affectionate, energetic. She was neither timid or overwhelming, just a nice dog. I had met her by myself, and then met Stanley at a different shelter. Now that Stanley had been removed from the list of possibilities, I told our son we should go meet Kate.

Kate was nice, perky, friendly. But she was completely non-selective about us in particular. She was as interested in the walls as she was in me. Our son liked her, I liked her, she was nice. A nice dog.

The last person that had to meet Kate was my husband, who couldn't come with us until the following day.

That's okay, I thought, since we have to go to dinner tonight at my mother's anyway.

•  •  •

Mom had pulled out all the stops for dinner. She had made a multi-course Chinese meal, soup, salads, two main dishes. It was, as it often is when she makes Chinese, difficult to maintain any discipline in not eating too much of one dish, because all the rest promised to be just as delicious. It was punctuated by our usual jocular conversation, bad puns peppering salty stories.

In recapping our lives over dinner, I mentioned our recent bizarre and unexpected quest for a dog. Mom was surprised, because she, like everyone else in my life, had no idea that I've been cruising dog websites for years now. But she agreed that dogs are great, especially for kids, and wondered what kinds we had been looking at.

I told her I had been looking for a ton of different dogs, almost all of them small. I told her I had met a great dog that afternoon, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but it hadn't worked out. Plus he was too big, and Lars would only tolerate a small one.

She leaned towards me and told me that under no circumstances would I get a Staffordshire. "I won't come to your house anymore, I promise you, not unless you chain him up and keep it far from me." No pit bulls! she admonished me, with a patronizing superiority that instantly enraged me.

"Why?" I asked. He isn't a pit bull, I told her, though he is a bull terrier. She didn't care what I said about the breed; she was convinced of my utter stupidity, and her wisdom. That I was willfully throwing my son and family into the jaws of a rabid and merciless weapon.

"Do you know how many people those dogs kill?" she asked. "Those dogs are a menace, and you should know better!" she snarled.

I was getting pretty hot under the collar as well. "These are not killing machines!" I insisted. "Any dog can be trained into violence; that's the fault of the shitty owners!" I retorted. "People who abuse their dogs, train them to be fighters, or starve them because they suck and don't deserve to have dogs themselves!"

"My father got me a vicious dog when I was a kid!" she insisted.

"You father was a complete psycho who reveled in cruelty!" I spat. It's true; everything he did was tainted by bitterness, sadism, cruel humor or just plain meanness. He was a real bastard.

The menfolk around the table were completely stunned. We had gone zero to sixty in a hair's breath over a dog I didn't have, and wasn't going to have.

"You have no idea what you're talking about," said my mother.

"You haven't had a dog in fifty years! What are you basing your knowledge on? Your shitty experience with a dog your insane father got you and archaic thinking about dog training?"

My husband was an interested party, and perhaps knew better than anyone that I was in no condition to be having this conversation. I had met my dream dog and had to leave him in the kennel, walk away from Stanley. I was pretty frayed. "I can promise you that Quenby would never put any of us in danger. She would never do that," he told everyone. Mom was staring at me with a grumpy half smile, and I was staring with fury at my plate. "And if she did, I would turn around and take that dog right back," he insisted.

Silence fell after a while. "It's irrelevant, since I can't have Stanley anyway," I said. "We're meeting a beagle named Kate."

"That's for the best," my mother said.

I was probably more dangerous than Stanley could ever be at that moment, so livid was I.

•   •   •

Bulldogs and Mastiffs are strong, tightly muscled dogs originally bred to bait bulls or bears, so it's no surprise that they're built like tanks. But that was hundreds of years ago, and several breeds have evolved out of the original bulldogs. Crossbreeding bulldogs with terriers produced a smaller fighting dog called the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and from them, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the notorious American Pit Bull were developed.

But Staffordshires (Staffie's or Staffs, or simply "the Nanny Dog") had long since left their fighting days behind after dogfighting as sport was banned in England, and Staffies became one of the most reliable family dogs, known for extreme loyalty, courage and love of children. The English don't call Staffy's "the Nanny Dog" for nothing.

In the meantime, Staff's were being bred to become the American Staffordshire and the American Pit Bull, where as usual bigger is better. And then the pit bulls became singularly famous for vicious attacks on children, strangers, owners, other dogs. Bad press was the only press that pit bulls managed to procure for themselves, and sadly the poor Staffie has been pulled down in the campaign.

But pit bulls are also just like any other dog: bred in conditions which train for killing, they will become a successful killer. Smaller dogs left in horrible conditions or trained to violence will become violent, or terrified, dysfunctional and broken. That they don't have the sheer force of the bull terriers doesn't make then any less susceptible to horrible treatment.

People forget that dogs are creatures created and honed by man. A vicious dog attack does not incriminate the breed, it incriminates the people who have trained it, abused it or raised it. Poor old Stanley looks like a thug, but he's just a big galoot. He just wants to go home. And I hope that if he can't come home with me that he goes home with someone who can see the heart of sheer warmth under the massive mug.

•   •   •

When we got home after the argument, my husband and I discussed my simmering anger. I was seething, and as I explained the reasons, all my sadness about Stanley welled up. He was this sweet ox, and people were going to assume, based on his face and sheer muscle mass that he was a weapon with fur, a ticking time bomb in a dog's body who was going to snap at any given time.

I hated people in general for creating a scenario in which this galumph, who was so delicate taking food from my fingers that I only felt his lips, was going to inspire fear. I hated it that even my mother assumed, based on name alone, that I was going to put my family at risk, that I was completely irresponsible in picking a pet who looks more like a mook that a little fluffy toy. That she didn't know the difference between Staffies and pit bulls only emphasized the injustice of the thing; she wasn't even hanging her accusations on the right breed.

Mostly I hated it that Stanley wasn't going to come home with me, because it was a fairy tale love at first sight, and I was brokenhearted that I had to leave him to the fates to find another good home.

•  •  •

I kept track of Stanley on the website by going back over and over again, to see if he'd been adopted yet. I planned subterfuges, manipulations of how to wiggle out of the shelter's requirements, clandestine operations which roped my hapless friends into getting Stanley from the shelter and then passing him off to me once he was out of their clutches. I thought of him waiting there for the right family and I cried because he found it and then I walked out on him.

In the end, I acquiesced to the greater wisdom of the shelter, who clearly has Stanley's best interests at heart and won't let Stanley go home with someone who wants him for his meaty muscles and his potential for fighting; they will find Stanley a home that loves him for his silly grin and tender, stout heart.

The Statute of Limitations

As Dad stepped into the car, he handed me an article from Atlantic Monthly called "Letting Go of My Father." "I've got nothing to say other than 'Don't let it get this bad,'" he said, as we pulled away from the curb and onto a journey to the clinic.  The oncologist had requested a second blood test in a week.

I haven't read the article yet because he only handed it to me a few hours ago, but the meaning is plain: here we are again. We need to get back to the business of cancer, which was suspended for a great, special, amazing while.

But the statute of limitations might be up.

Cells Gone Wild, Charles Moone, watercolor on paper, 2010

•   •   •

When we heard that Dad was riddled with cancer last June, now about nine months ago, we were taken down several pegs. Those first weeks were spent at crisis levels of management as we tried to make Dad more comfortable and to make sense of all the medical blah blah. There was a lot of it, as you can imagine, with the diagnosis of Stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer.

But eventually there was no more to say.  The hormone therapy tamped down Dad's testosterone which was fueling the cancer engine. His appetite returned. His arthritis/mysterious ailment/bum foot slowly improved and he began taking walks for pleasure again, even entertained getting on his bike once in a while. By the time Christmas rolled around he was positively hale. We all celebrated Christmas together, kissed farewell to the crappy old year, rang in the new one, and planned a trip to Mexico.

"I keep forgetting he's sick," said my husband over Christmas break. It was an easy mistake to make; his appetite came roaring back and he was eating food for both sustenance and pleasure again. He walked with his camera to take photos of the neighborhood so he could spend hours and hours in his studio painting what he found there. He was over the moon with his returned mobility and he maximized it.

He was just Dad again.

•   •   •

Mexico was the first vacation Dad ever took. When I planned the trip in the first place, I had considered Italy for our big adventure abroad because Dad has always entertained some profoundly irrational dislike for Italy based on his prejudice against Renaissance art. The fact that it was the birthplace of the Roman Empire and the seed for much of the development of the Western world never seemed to enter the equation. He was "Reg" in Monty Python's Life of Brian who asked, "But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

So, like, whatever Dad.

He seemed up for it. He kept an open mind because he knew that we were bonkers for it.  Plus, come on: the Sistine Chapel, the Forum, centuries worth of fountains littering the city in a blanket of cultural detritus. Ancient aqueducts. The Parthenon. Fried artichokes. Gelato.

But I took a step back and realized that because Dad is Dad and Rome is Rome, he would make it his mission, his duty, to see every last single artifact the city coughed up for him. He would visit Rome the way he's visited all the rest, which is to chase down art like a cultural bloodhound in every corner and hallway, and then move on to nearby cities if he had the time.

Rome began to seem like a lot of work. It seemed like it wasn't going to be very relaxing. It was exhaustion wrapped up in the glitter and pomp of history. I changed my tack and mentioned our second vacation love, Sayulita, Mexico.

He readily agreed, mostly because he thought I changed my location because of my son's needs. I was okay with that. Whatever it took to encourage him to take a load off.

•   •   •

We set down in Puerto Vallarta in February, and the air was so heavy and warm that he instantly fell into vacation mode. Our taxi driver Antonio, with whom we had arranged ahead of time, was waiting for us with a cooler of Tecate and a stream of interesting stories as we drove through the jungle en route to Sayulita. The region and landscape was so utterly "other" to Dad, who had always visited places to see something, somewhere, rather than just being in a new place, that he collapsed into the mood of mellow immediately.

He loved Sayulita. "Never in my life would I have imagined myself in a place like this!" he enthused. Our house was palatial to our standards, came with a dedicated housekeeper, had its own palapa with hammock and dining area, banana trees, coconut palms. A short walk to the idyllic beach. Eighty degree days, sixty-five degree nights. A small stroll into town where we could pick up the best ice cream outside of Italy that we've ever eaten. A restaurant which consisted of a family who spoke no English, six tables, and two hammocks in the jungle; they served the best fish tacos in town. Iguanas were the only traffic at certain points, wandering the roads looking for a new tree to fall out of.

And Dad didn't do a blessed thing. He never pulled out his sketchbook, didn't even contemplate trying to find an art gallery, though there are a few. He sat on the beach and watched the sea. He stared at the jungle hills. He drank Negro Modelo and ate coconut shrimp on three different occasions. He read books. He splurged by drinking coffee for the first time in ten years under our palapa with muffins from the Muffin Lady. That was it.

"I don't think I've ever had a real vacation in my whole life," he said. "This is great."

It was great.

•   •   •

Back in the bosom of Portland's winter, which is mild all things considering, Dad was feeling well after soaking up the heat and sun of Mexico. But about a week after our return he got a little crotchety again, mostly, he thought, because of the damp. He always feels better when he can read books in his chair by the window, catch a couple of z's there, and have southern exposure cook out the cranky.

I began to suspect that his foe was making its unwelcome return a few weeks ago. He was a little more lethargic. He looked more pale than I remembered. He was complaining of aches and stiffness more regularly and was cursing Portland for its cloudy days, though climate change seems to have eradicated most of them. At dinners he didn't seem pluck, his appetite not as enthusiastic as it was last month. I asked him about it and he was blasé, convinced that his arthritis was flaring up again, though he did entertain the notion that the cancer might be sending up flares. He's coming up on his next Lupron hormone shot, so we thought perhaps the hormones coursing through his system were a little thin and that was the corollary with the timing of his aches and pains.

So last week he went in for his PSA test in preparation for Hormone Shot Number 4. They called him with a request he get tested again because his numbers were elevated (59--they should be below 4) and they wanted to double check.

But I don't think either Dad or I doubt the results: too many inconvenient facts are lining up. All signs point to the Alien's Return. His PSA numbers are elevated enough that it seems the hormone therapy has lost its efficacy, and now we're into the next phase.

Some people last for ten years on the hormone therapy alone. Dad might not be one of them.

•   •   •

We sat in the car after I had taken him to have the second blood test. We had spoken of "Cancer" and "Illness" again, though it has been many months since we've mentioned it. We've had a reprieve of sorts, a suspension of wartime action, but I have a feeling the armistice has been called off.

"Here we are again," I said to Dad as he was getting out of the car.

"Here we are still," he reminded me.

Here we are. Still.

Idle Hands Do the Devil's Work

The whole house is laid out this week. My nagging virus has turned into a she-beast of laryngitis; my husband keeps getting more and more work as the rest of the house falls apart around him, splitting his loyalties neatly down the middle; and our son...well. We kept him home from school yesterday because he was barking like a seal all night, even though he seemed perfectly plucky once he was awake. The truth was, he was probably fine to go to school--a price we paid later in the day. But I was feeling so punk myself I couldn't fathom his remarkable liveliness with goopy lungs. So while he bopped around the house from one toy car and one computer to the next, I faded in and out of consciousness and coughing fits and occasional interjections from my curious, bored son.

It happened that my husband was taking a breather from work for a few minutes and we were talking on the sofa, about something now completely unremembered. Our idle son had figured out that if he jammed his hands completely down the sides of his stretchy jammie pants, he could become the great hopping no-armed wonder.

The problem with no arms is this: you don't have the same balance you have with arms. And if you're flinging yourself around on slick wood floors in your socks, chances improve dramatically that you will fall. You know how we know this?

One minute we're having an innocuous conversation on the sofa with our unrepentantly joyous monkey showing off for us, the next minute he pitches head first toward the floor, arms cruelly abandoning him in his moment of greatest need. No arms, no catching oneself. No catching oneself, a physics lesson presents itself:

A free-falling object is an object which is falling under the sole influence of gravity. Any object which is being acted upon only be the force of gravity is said to be in a state of free fall.

No amount of wind resistance was going to slow the mighty gravitational force that was our son in that second, and I'm pretty sure that because his hands were buried deep in the recesses of his pants his entire mass landed squarely on his collarbone.

How best to describe the battle? Jammies against son, collarbone against gravity, non-necessary school absence against boredom. I know that my son lost though, and he's now a little tiny invalid stuck in a sling, his usually irrepressible spirit sapped by pain and even more boredom.

Idle hands really did do the devil's work. And though it's probably not polite to joke about the circumstances of his injury so near to the insult, I imagine that describing the situation a few years from now will become a family comedy schtick:

"Do you remember breaking your collar bone?"

"Ah, yes, The great pajama incident of Ought-Nine."

"Everyone always says not to stick your hands down your pants; now we know why!"

"It's hazardous to your health..."

"Talk about a boner!"

Poor little boy.

A Lesson in Procrastination

It seems that we took matters into our own hands a little too late. The bun, who is really far less bun-like and more boy-like these days but closely resembles the gravity-defying high-flying squirrel monkey, is not really talking as of yet. It seems it's not a priority with him; instead he reserves his energies for learning how to climb onto the counter to play with the coffee maker, dismantling the safety gadgets employed to keep him from being electrocuted, and hauling the kitchen step stool from one verboten area to the next in search of new dastardly and daring feats to keep his parents on their toes. In this he is very effective.

But talking really hasn't been a pressing issue for him. He signs the important words: "cat" is well represented as he chases them through the house at top speed and they flee in terror. His few vocal utterances include a variety of words that sound the same: juice, shoes, keys, cheese, represent generally important parts of his world. He calls me "Imama" instead of "Mama," which is really my fault since I would always point to my chest and say "I'm mama!" His father is either "Papa" or, more mysteriously, "Arf" which we have to conclude is from a book in which Lars would read the concluding lines "I'm a dog! I'm a dog! I'm a dog!"

"Star" is very clear, although sounds a lot like "Stick" which seems to have been conflated in his mind; both are now "St-rck." Moon is "Nononono" which is confusing since I'm never sure whether he's talking about the moon or vociferously questioning the moon's existence. And of course he says "No" like a champion. If you're going to have a word, that's a good one to have.

But the rest of the English language doesn't seem too important to him. Occasionally he'll pop out a new word unbidden and we're thrilled, although he may retire it as quickly as it came. Other times an adopted word clings to him like a barnacle and he repeats it over and over, lulling himself to sleep with it, singing it like a mantra during car rides, showing it off for all admirers.

Take, for example, his newest word, "Fuck." Or more precisely, "Oh, fuck."

That one popped out in a car ride in which his papa, almost getting blind-sided or missing a turn or something said quite naturally, "Oh fuck!"

A clear, high note rang from the back seat: "Ofuck." We looked at each other. The prophesied early curse word had sprung from the lips of our darling boy, tolling the ribald words of a bawdy house in the dulcet tones of innocence. "Ofuck. Ofuck. Ofuck," he intoned in the back seat as his eyes gazed out the window at the passing landscape.

We realized we were too late. Just the week before we had been talking about the necessity of curbing our colorful language around the bun. But it's difficult to take an amorphous deadline seriously, when the guardian of the deadline hardly says anything at all. We had time, we thought.

We were wrong, apparently. Now we're scrambling to put the genie back in the bottle, and every time we hear him say, "Ofuck," we say, "Truck? Where's the truck?" or "Duck? What a nice duck!" but he's no dummy and our pathetically belated ministrations seem doomed. Even though we've more or less eradicated the ever-useful, always practical "Fuck" from our vocab, just yesterday "Oh, shit" propelled from my lips as a bottle of some viscous, sticky goo was administered to the floor through the diligence of our young scion. He hasn't mastered "O-shit," but he recognized enough similarity of experience to pull out that old chestnut, "Ofuck" from the small but mighty arsenal of words at his disposal.

Sometimes we hear him practicing to himself in his crib over the baby monitor, honing each syllable with razor-sharp precision. "Ofuck," he sings to himself. "Oooohfuck," he says more slowly, rolling the sounds around on his tongue. Of course the irony is not lost on us that he can barely say our names ("Imama" and "Arf") but can pronounce the one word we wish he wouldn't say with perfect clarity.

The Light at the End

Where does one begin? With the mortgage debacle, days to closing on the new house and learning that we may not be approved for one of our loans? Or maybe the movers dropping our furniture on the pavement? Perhaps the foundation problems that were discovered in our old house after putting it on the market, when we couldn't go ahead and fix it, but had to wait for all the inspectors to give estimates of the enormous sums of cash it was going to take to make the problem go away? How about carrying three mortgages while waiting for one house to sell after already moving into the other?Or maybe I should just begin at the end of all that. Maybe that's where the story resumes.

Because that was the day that we took the bun to the doctor for a routine appointment for his booster shots. It was an errand that was completely innocent after dealing with the minions of evil called loan officers trying to get our house taken care of. We had other fish to fry. A couple of shots? No big deal.

The nurse weighed him and measured him at the start, as she always does. And then she eyed him and his chart suspiciously. She weighed him again. She measured his head. She looked at the chart again. She chatted in that sing-songy way that belied the fact that there were concerns. She took the chart with her and left my husband and me to stew, the bun fidgeting like a greased pig in a diaper.

"I don't think I can take one more thing," I said. "I think I'm going to snap." Running from the office was preferable to anything I could learn from the doctor about the fate of my little boy because I was literally incapable of handling it; months of stress and virtually running on fumes, I was left with no reserves of sanity to deal with the possible ramifications of health problems.

And then the doc came in, usually so cheerful that he bordered on annoying, but now wearing his studied "Doctor bestowing news" expression. He grilled us about the bun's diet. He asked us if he ate meat, eggs, cheese, vegetables. How often did we feed him? How many snacks? What was he drinking? When were his naps? How much did he sleep at night? Poop color? Smell?

As he grilled us, I began to shut down. Words filtered through my head in bursts, but they attached to nothing concrete, no sensible diagnosis: "potential liver concerns," "tenth percentile," "could indicate heart problems." The words were alarming but made no sense: the bun was running us ragged, he was so strong he could burst free from our arms with hardly trying, he raced non-stop from dawn until dark when he finally dropped from complete fatigue every night. My husband was paying rapt attention to the doctor. I was staring at the industrial carpet.

"...failure to thrive..."

The phrase pulled me out of my wide-eyed coma. Failure to thrive? Where were we?

When one thinks of children cursed with the failure to thrive, you imagine the distended bellies of starving children in the Sudan. Maybe you picture preemies who were born two months too early. Chinese infant girls in orphanages, or post-Soviet bloc Slavic countries beleaguered by war for years. But this was our son. Taking a good hard look at him, you could hardly accuse him of not thriving.

He was smart and funny and mischievous. He wriggled and wiggled and ran and laughed and made mockeries of our own health every single day. He was engaged and engaging and curious and intense. He hardly seemed like he was "failing to thrive."

But this baby, our bun, had been so fat that he topped the percentiles for his first months. Now he had dropped into the tenth percentile for length and weight. He hadn't gained a single pound in six months.

They ran tests. Blood tests, urine tests. They taped a plastic bag to his tender little johnson so that they could get a urine sample, and then gave him his shots hoping that a good dose of pain would ramp up the pee response. Knowing an insult when he sees one, he simply shrieked. Determined to get the pee, they kept the baggie on when they drained him of his blood just like the vampires they are, but by his nature contrary just like his parents, he gave them nothing. Not a single yellow drop. I was very proud.

However, this left us with the task of catching a pee sample from a 15 month old. Cursed with the terror of having a baby with a "failure to thrive" we now had to chase him around the house with a tupperware container as he ran naked gleefully through the house, sprinkling as he went. The tiny target was too quick for us, and though we plotted the best possible course of action for trapping toddler pee, the upstairs was christened with a number of puddles and an unfortunate nugget before the night was through. Finally, as his papa showed him how the big boys do it, with me poised under the bun's nethers, I trapped a scant millimeter of pee. I put the lid on. It seemed an awful lot of work for such a little reward.

That night was another sleepless one. Most nights that I'm plagued with insomnia, I just pretend that eventually I'll fall asleep and toss and turn in bed. But that night I just got up, knowing that all I would think about was our baby. Was he dying? Were we starving him? Was he failing to thrive because we were terrible terrible parents? How was that possible? How could he be dying? I painted the entire kitchen that night.

When the tests came back, they were, as the doctor said, "as boring as boring could be." We assume this is a good thing. We know that we have to be concerned about his weight, and the doctor himself prescribed what for us weight-conscious adults can only regard as the "dream diet:" a high fat, high cholesterol dairy delight. Cheese, butter, eggs, fat. Ice cream. Sausage. Full cream yoghurt. It was possibly the finest prescription I had ever heard, and yet the bun would never fully appreciate the glory of eating pasta carbonara without a care in the world.

With the gift of time, I have begun to panic much less. I recognize that the doctor was being alarmist to some degree. There are concerns, but if you just take a good look at us, his parents, we're no giants. I'm five feet tall. What do they expect? Kareem Abdul Jabar? The fact that he was enormous as an infant might have as easily raised red flags as his small size now. Glandular problems? Could have been! I mean, he was a PORKER! He was enormous! He was downright bizarre!

It has been educational, as they say. The houses have been dealt with, I've been painting every waking moment that the bun isn't tugging on my pantleg (meaning, I only paint when he's sleeping), and I'm assuming that the bun, despite the doctor's misgivings, is doing just fine because he keeps me on my toes and I'm pretty sure I'm no slouch. He's adorable and funny and just started saying his first words "Buh-bye." He signs like a madman, dances like a champ, and loves hide and seek behind the new curtains. We chase him around with triple-cream French cheese and quiche, pasta with cream sauce and kefir. All he wants to eat is mango and raisins. But at least he likes fruit and vegetables; some kids think you're trying to murder them if you slip them a green bean. I figure we're ahead of the game.

Hope all is well with you. We've finally come out of the tunnel, I think. I hope. Cheers.

Love Letters

As predicted, moving with a bun is less than optimal, although I haven't decided to trade him in yet. Unfortunately, I also have the worst case of laryngitis I've ever had (not even a squeak could pass these lips until about an hour ago--and now I'm back to silence again) which renders loan discussions pretty much moot, and I had to use my husband as a translator with a contractor which was pretty much a comedy of errors. Trying to corral the bun when I can't holler a good "BUN!" at him for effect has forced me into creative discipline. Shiny things have their place; I can dangle them in front of him and hope they distract him enough that he doesn't yank the glassware that I just packed over on himself. It's worked so far.

So being sick and mute, while packing and chasing a tiny force of nature from room to room? I felt just about ready for a soak around 4:00 pm.

Leaving him in the exhausted arms of my husband, who has also been chasing him hither and yon, I drew a hot bath and tucked in with a Harper's. But the bun has, on top of being a "sprinter" and an "explorer" been a "whiner" and a "back archer" today, flinging himself to and fro like a petulant starlet dissatisfied with the service. And so my bath was punctuated by ear-pricking keening and the occasional fit of pique.

My poor husband kept trying to keep him from the door, but the bun knew where I was. He couldn't stand my being right there without access, and even with my husband dragging him away numerous times, he knew the route.

Finally, fed up with my near-away-so-far absence, he sent me a little message. Under the door like a spy he slid his secret sign, a yellow star from his shape-sorter. I saw his little fingers push it hopefully as far as he could through the crack. Would his signal receive a response or would there be radio silence?

Naked, sick, soaking in the tub wishing away the stress, and still I couldn't resist. I got out and shoved it back under in a different spot. Back and forth it went, me dripping on the floor, my bath steaming behind me, passing a plastic star back and forth with a very happy tot.

I have to admit, I was pretty moved.

Belated Birthday Musings for a Father

The bun began glaring today. Not whining, not fussing, not kibbitzing, actual honest-to-god glaring, fit to bring down the toughest he-man anywhere. At first I thought he was reserving his special ire for me after I insulted him by changing his diapers yet again, as he sat up, set his jaw, looked me square in the eye and crumpled his face in an expression which couldn't be confused for anything but "Back off, lady. I'm in a mood!" But when my husband brought a couple friends by to pay homage to the little master as he sat in his high chair, one of them leaned in to get a better look. The bun, apparently not trusting any man that isn't goateed and bald like Yul Brynner gave him a look that would melt steel. The man, sensing his extreme displeasure, took a quick step back so as to not get burned by the flaming daggers that shot from his eyes.

So the bun can now lodge official complaints.

We feel like cliches most of the time, as though we stepped from a Steve Martin family movie abomination. I walk through the kitchen, and every bun-accessible cabinet and drawer is exposed and empty, their contents lying like casualties on the ugly white vinyl floor. There are half-slobbered Cheerios hidden under the leg of his high chair, desiccated sweaty cheese next to the dishwasher, wipe-rags with crusted god-knows-what waiting to be tossed in the 87th load of laundry for the day. The house is a shambles, and sometimes I feel as though I'm going to go insane after looking at the dust-badgers who are threatening to organize and make demands if I don't keep them in check.

While it seems I'm barely keeping the house from falling into a heap of chaos most of the time, I went to my neighbors house today for a little Bun-to-Bun time and I noted that if I were given the choice between cleanliness but sterility or creative clutter but homeyness, I'm afraid the latter would win every time. We have too many tchotchkes by a long shot, and many crevices that yearn for cleaning, but our home is cozy and warm and cheering. It's a dinky little thing, but inviting. And that's not bad.

So the bun threatens to walk any time, and our house threatens to fall into disrepair, but we live out a pretty fantastic existence all things being equal. I've been cooking like a spaz, we've been eating fabulously well and we've been extremely adventurous in the food department. We have our health, and a sweet little boy who now threatens to melt us with his death-ray stare. But he toddles behind his little Radio Flyer push cart, and we can see the boy he's becoming. I thank my stars for having blindly stumbled into such tremendous good fortune.

Happy birthday, BBB

The Tao of Bun

A little known fact of buns is that in order to keep balance in the world, as soon as you, the caregiver, are given something of value, something else must be returned. One cannot behold the perfect bun lest one become complacent. Therefore, a delicate order of exchange is devised for the caregiver to experience the full cycle of bun, but at no time experience the one perfect bun. Such is the circle of bun.

For instance, when the bun at last learns to nap longer than half an hour, and the full bounty of the two-hour nap is achieved, the universe is in flux until some other disorder is realized.

In our case, we have had to exchange the pleasant sartorial and diapering of a poorly rested but very sweet and jolly bun for wrestling a rabid, angry but well-rested mongoose into his diaper. And apparently naps are worth so much on the cosmic scale that not only have we given up easy diapering and dressing, but food-flinging has been thrown in for good measure, when he decides to eat at all.

Parity is reached when chaos and order are realized in equal measure.

The Wine Merchant

A girlfriend and I went out this afternoon sans tots. It's possibly the first time I've been out on the town with neither The Bun nor my husband since the tot was a couple months old, and then only once, so it's been a long time. First we had lunch, which was fine and dandy but seemed anti-climactic, so she pointed out a wine store up the street having a free tasting. Two girls out in the afternoon without the babes? What better way to spend it than drinking free wine?

We tasted, we gabbed, and then she bought me a bottle of wine on the condition that we have a glass together before we went our separate ways. We sat in the corner sipping this glorious, moderately priced vino, and I was speculating how someone as young as the wine merchant got the swanky job of traipsing around Italy eating glorious food, drinking wine from dinky vineyards and then selling it. More to the point, I was wondering how he stole my dream job when he walked up to our table.

"Which wine did you buy?" he asked, not expecting that the wine she had purchased wasn't one of his.

She showed him the label.

"Zinfadel." There was a mild snort of derision. "I've sort of passed on Zin's since I really got into Tuscan wine," he exhaled.

"This one's really good," she replied. "It's the only Oregon Zin there is." They talked about its merits for a moment. I thought he was a blowhard. I more or less ignored him.

"Does it have white pepper?" he asked.

We were dumbstruck.

"Do you mind if I smell your bottle?" he asked.

"Why don't you grab a glass and have a taste?" I countered. Smelling a bottle is weird, no matter if your the world's best sommelier, and a tiny glass is cheap. Plus, smelling someone else's bottle, doubly weird.

He said some crap about the wine. I thought he was being pompous. "It goes down sort of blah blah blah," he said, " but it has a spectacular finish," he winded. "For a Zin it's not bad." It's also three times better than the smack you're selling, dude, but whatever. And by the way, how'd you get my job?

Eventually he left.

We continued sipping our wine and talking.

After we parted company I reflected on the conversation with the wine merchant. It dawned on me that he sounded like a pompous ass because he was hitting on us. He was trying to impress us with his knowledge and prowess in the wine aisle. It's been so long since I've been hit on (or near anyone who was being hit on) that I forgot what it was like.

And then it all came into view.

What he saw: Two young women out for the afternoon, perhaps shopping, perhaps just enjoying being singletons on the city, who popped into the wine store on a lark. Chatting exuberantly over a bottle of wine, as if this were a part of the lifestyle, a part of our everyday life.

What it was: Two harried and exhausted mothers making the most of their one afternoon by drinking for free and then living it up by buying wine that we couldn't afford. Talking boisterously about our husbands, whom we love dearly, and our babies, whom we love dearly but drove us to the edge of madness with fatigue. Deep discussions about feeding, diapers, drool, snot and how we can't afford nice things anymore.

I told my husband about it when I got home. He laughed. "I'm sure what he overheard was, "Look at him, what a nice butt on that guy," when what you really said was, 'Looking at baby butt day after day is no picnic.'

I said, "If he had had any idea what our conversation was, it was absolutely the least sexy conversation imaginable: two women talking about their husbands, fluids, and the babies that make them."

It could not have been a less aphrodisiac conversation. Somehow that's immensely satisfying.

Itty Bitty Kitty Committee

Our cats hate each other. Or, I should say, the older cat hates the younger cat and the younger cat loves to antagonize him. It's been this way ever since we betrayed him by adopting her, and he takes great pains to tell us that we're still on his shit list.

Once the bun was born, I think that it's safe to say that both cats felt the sting of betrayal. They became cranky older siblings pushed out of the way to make room for the grub-like pink ape, and they've both dealt with it in different ways, though neither gracefully.

And I understand. We've been slightly distracted since the bun showed up, and we've been negligent in our affections. The cats have wanted more attention than we've been able to give.

Change is in the air.

A fundamental paradigmatic shift is afoot, and they can sense the tectonic plates groan underneath them. Yesterday, I was doing laundry in the basement when I came upon what looks distinctly like a war room, with charts and diagrams and maps. There were hot spots of engagement highlighted in red, and neutral zones dotted in green. Special bunkers were listed according to impenetrability.

I suspect that after the bun chased the female cat around the coffee table in earnest for the first time yesterday, the cats realized that the only path to survival was to create a united front of distraction, feints, and contingency plans in order to maneuver successfully through the house unmolested. The maxim "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" might just prove to be meaningful for the two old arch rivals.

They are about to have so much attention they're not going to know what to do with it.

Here, kitty kitty kitty!

Life and death

In the last three years, my family has grown by a factor of ten or so, when my mother discovered that her long lost sister just happened to be living in the same town as us (with all of her daughters and all of their families). Since ours was more or less the epitome of the "nuclear family" before we discovered them, to realize that we were actually members of this gigantic clan that was hugger-mugger to the walls was a bit of a shock. But they're a fabulous bunch, and we're quite fond of them. But tragedy keeps visiting them. Last year a cousin's 18 year-old daughter was murdered by her boyfriend in a grisly crime which was all over the news. Three days ago another cousin lost her 24 year-old son in a Humvee accident in Iraq. A senseless death, made more senseless by the fact of his having finished his time in the Marines and was serving over there in a civilian capacity. The family is completely destroyed. A fresh scar being ripped open again, and they're all grieving to the extreme.

One expects the death of our parents; we don't like it, we don't wish it, but it is expected that they will die before us. But we aren't hard-wired to deal with the loss of a child--we are meant to pass the reins to them and our brains don't know how to process it when they die before us. When I heard the news about her grandson being killed from my aunt, I asked if there was anything I could do for them. She thought about it and said, "Take care of that little boy." I could feel the pain and anger in her voice, and the grief at having lost two grandchildren in a year. I can't imagine what it must feel like for her, to watch what has been her legacy, her own kin, dying prematurely. But looking at Milo, this amazing little person who I would love to take credit for but really can't because he's so perfectly unique, I can surmise a bit.

I've also uncovered what my greatest unspoken fears of parenthood were before we took the plunge. Last night Milo was a "panther in a tree," sleeping stomach down, draped over on my husband's arm, pudgy arms and legs slack with complete relaxation, and as usual we were gushing. "He breaks my heart," he said (or I said--we both say it so often that it's quite absurd). He looked down at Milo, this helpless trusting little person, and said, "I hope he doesn't really break our hearts." I knew what he meant. He was looking at the future, completely unknowable, and hoping that the sorts of terrible pain that has struck my aunt's family will be avoided by our little tot.

This, above all others, was my greatest fear of parenthood: that the joy of loving him would be so great that I couldn't handle it if something happened to him. It was the fear of having my heart broken irreparably, of taking that risk of having my heart broken completely and totally. A cowardly fear, but the most visceral one. And watching the fallout of two early deaths in my aunt's family, a tangible one.

And this is what parenthood is, I guess. The hopes that you can protect your little bun and save him from all hurt, but risking your heart in the process. We don't have much to give in this world but that, our most precious commodity. The biggest sacrifice.