Thursday, October 21, 2010

Notes on Living and Dying

Several things have happened in the past week or so, and I’d like to catch them before they slip away. They each could probably be extended into a full post, but the nature of things is such that I fear they will get lost or forgotten or buried by the next event that comes along. So, this week’s post consists of a couple of vignettes that provide a collage of where our family is right now. It will serve to time-stamp some thoughts that I may want to come back to later on.

- Pip has hit a growth spurt. A month ago he was comfortably wearing 3T pants. This past week we had to clean them all out because they are now too small. In addition, he is reaching light switches he couldn’t before. He is washing his hands at the bathroom sink without standing on a stool. He is able to easily see now into the highest drawers in the kitchen.

All of these things seem to have given him a sense of power. It is the power of feeling more in control of himself. He is more capable of helping Ava and me with various tasks. He is less recalcitrant when required to do something he doesn’t really want to do. He is more confident in a broader variety of new situations. He is not just growing bigger, he is growing older.

- In the past three weeks, Polly has entered the zone during which she will shed the ‘toddler’ label for good. We know this because she has crossed the threshold with two big development milestones: the true start of toilet training and a sudden explosion in her experimentation with words.

First, the toilet. Polly has benefited in many ways from being the second child in our family, and the process of learning to use a toilet will be no different. We struggled mightily in training Pip to use the toilet. He handled peeing okay, but we could not get him to poop in the toilet. He would hold it and hold it until his body literally could not take any more. Then he would drop it all in his underwear. At the time we thought he just was having trouble figuring out how to get his muscles to do what they needed to do. Later we came to realize that this was probably our fault.

Pip never had a child’s toilet. He learned using a trainer seat that fit over the seat on an adult toilet. It turns out that because his feet were not touching anything when he first started using this seat, his body was never in a position to correctly use his muscles for pooping. Basically, every time we sat him down to poop, his muscles were positioned such that they could not push anything out. It wasn’t until he grew a bit more and his feet could reach a stool while sitting on the training seat that suddenly he ‘figured out’ how to poop.

Now we almost made the same mistake with Polly. About six weeks ago she started showing interest in the toilet. So, we put her on Pip’s trainer seat. As luck would have it, the second time we did this she pooped into the toilet. Over the next several days we tried to replicate this pooping with little success. Instead, she got all out of whack and seemed to be headed down the same road that Pip had traveled. Fortunately, we were in no hurry and had the presence of mind to just stop trying to use the toilet for a while. Within a week Polly was back to her normal schedule.

Last week Polly showed interest in using the toilet again. This time we got her a child’s size toilet that allows her to put her feet on the ground. Hopefully this will make the whole process easier on us all.

And now for words. Polly has been adding new words to her repertoire each day for almost two weeks now. Today she said ‘crocodile’ and ‘raspberry’ for the first time. Sometimes these words come out so clearly on the first try that it feels like magic. Other words require work. When Polly is working on one of the harder words, she sometimes kicks her head back and stretches her mouth out into different shapes. It appears that she is physically working out what configuration her mouth needs to be in to make the sounds necessary for a given word. I don’t remember Pip doing this kind of work in such a visible way. Its really fun to watch.

- On top of all of these developments, we decided it was finally time to eliminate Polly’s nighttime feedings with Ava. Polly doesn’t need to eat with Ava at night, but she was in the habit of coming to check in and suck a couple of times each night. We were waiting over the last couple of months for her to give this up on or at least drop down to one visit a night. Unfortunately, Polly showed no signs of changing her patterns on her own. So, its my job to coax her into it.

As a result, it’s been a rough week or so for me in the sleep department. Polly will go back to sleep with me, but it has taken several nights to figure out the best arrangement for doing this. I spent the first couple of nights walking for multiple hours with her half-asleep in my arms. She did not really like this and frequently called out for me to take her to Ava. The combination of physical labor and the stress of trying to keep her quiet enough for Pip and Ava to sleep left me exhausted and frustrated. It turned me into a miserable person and a very short-tempered parent.

We have since tried a couple of different configurations. The one that seems to work best is for me to suit her up in the baby carrier. This is how I put her down at naptime and bedtime, so it makes sense that she would be most comfortable falling back asleep in this way. I didn’t do this initially because it is slightly cumbersome to get into the baby carrier while half-asleep. But Polly is more patient with me in this respect than I had expected. She doesn’t cry out for Ava if I am coming to put her in the baby carrier. Kids (and people more generally) are creatures of habit. I’m not sure why I tried to do anything else.

- Finally, we have been facing some questions of life and death over the past couple of weeks. Two of my dad’s siblings, his brother and sister, recently died within two weeks of each other. Their deaths were not tragic. Both had lived fully for more than 80 years and when the time came for them to pass away, they both seemed to be at peace. As such, their deaths felt like an appropriate conclusion to lives well spent. I can only hope that my own life follows a similar course.

Unfortunately, this sense of rightness was missing from two other situations that we learned about this week.

First, a cousin of Ava’s recently found out that she has an advanced case of breast cancer. She had visited a doctor over a year ago complaining that something did not feel right. The doctor did not find anything immediately wrong with her and decided not to order any tests. Last month, one of her vertebrae ruptured, an unusual injury for a 33-year-old woman. In looking for a cause, doctors discovered her cancer. Her prognosis is not good.

There is a historical pattern whereby patient intuition is regularly downplayed or even ignored by professional medical personnel. This is particularly true when the doctor is male and the patient is female, as was the case for Ava’s cousin. Now I don’t know the details or any of the people involved so I am not pointing this out as an accusation of negligence or malpractice by the doctor. But, this pattern does exist. It generally does not operate at a level within the cognition or immediate control of individual people. Instead, it emerges in a cumulative way from the collection of unthought inclinations to do some things and not do others that is part of being human. It is a pattern of culture working largely at the subconscious level.

And so, I want to take this tragic opportunity to bring this pattern into consciousness in hopes that it might make a difference for someone else down the line.

Second, a co-worker and casual friend of Ava’s from her time working as a domestic violence advocate died this past week. I’ll call her Denise. While suicide was identified as the official cause of death, Denise was a victim of domestic violence. Ava and others here believe Denise’s ex-husband was responsible for her passing. Ava has felt Denise’s death with particular intensity because she admired the intensity and the intelligence Denise brought to her work. She also feels that Denise’s death is being discussed in completely erroneous ways. Most cases of violence are not an individual matter. They are not merely the result of bad decisions. They spring instead from the inability of a society to provide the kind of support needed for people who find themselves in desperate situations. Denise was a highly educated social worker with experience as a domestic violence advocate. Despite this, she became a victim of domestic violence. While I do not know the circumstances of her victimization and I don’t know any details regarding her relationship with her ex-husband, I do know that she did not “bring this upon herself.” She did not die because of some ‘flaw’ in her character that brought her together with her abuser. To think this is to excuse the abuser and to disclaim any broader social responsibility for a phenomenon that is neither random nor unpredictable.

1 comment:

  1. Toilet training and weaning are always issues. I had problems with both of my daughters. In the end they trained themselves. You keep going in circles until the child decides that they want to. I kept a stool in the bathroom for years. I strongly recommend it. Even when the kids are to big for the "potty" they are often still to small for the regular toilet. The stool helps a lot. And face it, if you get bound up it will help you too. As for weaning I basically did the same thing you are doing. The PCG (Primary care giver) doesn't get to sleep like a normal working person. We wind up adjusting our schedule to whom ever we are caring for.

    I'm sorry to hear about your loses. My father passed a few years back, and everything about it was bungled. Sad, very sad.

    My degree is in anthropology with a focus on archaeology. I kept wondering how things like domestic violence would show up in the archaeological record. I never worked out an answer that was even close to satisfactory. Violence in any form is hard to explain. I just feel sad whenever I hear stories like yours. Sad and a little helpless.