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A mashup of ho-ho-ho and hyperemesis gravidarum
Last night in my Monday writers’ group, I began a writing exercise by asking my students to make a list of Christmas-related1 memories. I told them to write down anything and everything that came to mind, no matter how small, incomplete, or tangential. Usually when students do a writing exercise in class, I don’t write with them. Instead I read my teaching notes, or sit there and think and smile a smile that I hope looks encouraging. When I teach, I’m teaching-me, and she lives in a different quadrant of my head from writer-me. But last night, almost as soon as I’d pronounced the words “Christmas-related memories,” fragments of memory started to surface, one at a time and then a whole raft, so I decided to join in.
It had begun to snow earlier in the evening, and maybe because of that, my first remembering was of snow. I thought of a Christmas in Towson, Maryland, my mother’s hometown, when we stayed, or house-sat maybe, in the home of some family friends who lived a few streets behind my grandparents, and how, after dinner each night, we’d walk back to that house by flashlight through ankle-deep snow. I remembered another Christmas in Towson, too, maybe a decade later, when one of my later-estranged-from-the-family uncles — I had two of those — was still a part of the festivities. He gave his young daughter a Furby2 — all the rage that year, basically a battery-operated gremlin emitting nonstop beeps and boops and baby-talk — and my other older cousins and I were real assholes about it, full of scorn and shameless. That was the same Christmas that we had a feast of Chesapeake Bay blue crab at my grandparents’ dining-room table, and because there weren’t enough crab mallets in the house, my grandmother bashed hers with an ice cream scoop.
I could leap all day like that, from memory fragment to fragment, following not chronology but something more instinctive, associative. I remembered the period of childhood when I looked forward to opening the gifts from my grandmother more than anyone else’s. It was a brief period, but while it lasted, she had a real knack. I can still see the hot-pink knit gloves she gave me once, how doll-tiny they looked when I opened the package and then how they stretched to accommodate my hand, like some enchanted thing from a fairytale. I fell asleep wearing them on Christmas afternoon, lying in a rhombus of sunlight on the shag carpet of the living room.
I remembered caroling, too, one of the years around then — caroling over multiple Christmases, when I thought about it, and with at least two different sets of families. There were songbooks for each of us to carry, and the adults were in a good mood, and we roamed the streets like a multigenerational pack of vandals out for figgy pudding. If we were lucky, there was hot cider waiting for us kids afterward, back at the house of whoever was hosting. If we were at one house in particular, I’d make sure at some point in the evening to crawl behind the Christmas tree, where there was always, year after year, a child-sized triangle of space between the tree and the corner in which it sat. It was nice back there, and quiet. That tree always wore a pastel plastic garland made to look like a chain of Froot Loops cereal. For a sort-of half-Jewish kid raised with no religion, I loved Christmas, still do.
Last Friday we hosted a caroling party of our own — us and two other families, a crowd of fourteen in all. We caroled with these same families in 2019 but had to sit out 2020 and 2021. Now that we’re back at it, I hope we keep it up. I made my favorite mulled wine recipe — the only one I’ve ever liked, really — and served sausages and two pans of baked pasta à la ye olde blog. Our friends brought salad, more wine, stapled packets of Christmas-song lyrics, and sleeves of pepperkaker from the neighborhood Danish bakery. John played the guitar, and Joe brought a recorder that he bought a month ago at Goodwill and taught himself to play, and Alexis wore a snowsuit that was her mother’s in another era. Gilbert the dog found a ball of June’s embroidery floss, AGAIN, I really don’t know where he keeps getting this stuff, and laid beneath the Christmas tree to chew it, a very wholesome scene, until I pried it from his jaws. I felt like a true Christmas adult, the kind of holiday grown-up I knew as a child, which is to say a lady who enjoys a mug of hot alcohol and ‘entertaining.’ For the first time in years, I found joy in making a guest feel welcome. We had to kick everyone out at ten so that we could put June, by that point well and glassy-eyed, to bed.
Adulthood has been a theme of this month in other ways, too — ways that are less fun, less boozy. For the past seven weeks, my spouse has been grappling with something called hyperemesis gravidarum, or extreme morning sickness. If you have never heard of it, you’re in the majority. It is relatively rare. If you’ve heard of it, it might be because Kate Middleton had it, and so did Amy Schumer. For Ash, HG didn’t develop until the start of their third trimester. Ash had had a normal amount of nausea and vomiting in their first trimester and then a relatively good second trimester, so when the nausea came back around week 28, we thought it was a fluke. It was not. It was real, and it is real, and it is an illness. The baby is doing fine, which is a consolation, but most days, Ash is unable to keep anything down, food or drink, and is incapacitated for at least a portion of the day. Resting helps, as do IV fluids, but nothing has alleviated the nausea entirely.3
Sometime earlier this year, in other circumstances, Ash wrote WE’RE ALL DOING THE BEST WE CAN! on a sheet of 8.5-by-11-inch paper, and we taped it to the fridge, having no idea that we’d need the reminder even more, and more often, as the year went on. Ash’s resilience in the face of constant puking is astounding. More days than not, they manage to remain some semblance of themself, which, in their place, is better than I think I could manage. I don’t know how they’re doing it. Seven weeks in, we take turns melting down. We try to be Michelle-Obama-y about it: when they go low, I go high; when I go low, they go high. Last Thursday, a day when we seemed to take turns feeling hopeless every few hours, Ash went out on an errand and came back with a box of pastries from Saint Bread, a good bakery across town; I sat at the table and cried into a slice of streusel-topped apple and honey cake while Ash retched in the other room. The end is in sight, but what I’m saying is, the impulse to catastrophize is strong.
In the meantime, we are getting better at asking for help, both amongst ourselves and within our community. Even June is turning out to be a natural Florence Nightingale. Last week I read a galvanizing essay about this very topic, about asking for and offering help, and much more than that, by the writer (and mother of young twins) Mandy Len Catron. You should read it, too:
It’s this part in particular that I keep thinking about:
I used to believe that to be a writer, one must minimize obligation. But it occurred to me recently that this is an idea created and celebrated by men whose work I do not read.
The thing about a life of obligation, about needing and being needed, is that, contrary to what I imagined, it is also a life of abundance. My unsmooth life is abundant with warmth and vibrance and good company—even as it is short on time and decidedly not abundant with sleep. And it is full of the kind of friction that makes art.
December comes with obligation for all of us, even without babies or an ill spouse, and no matter how much you love this season, which I do. Right now I mostly feel the friction of it, which feels as much like warmth as it does like burning. I know that’ll be the case for a while, because the same thing that will relieve Ash — delivering the baby — will also usher our family into a whole new era of ups and downs. I cannot wait for this baby! And I cannot wait for this baby to go to kindergarten! I cannot wait for it to begin, and I cannot wait for it to end, and I know you know. I look forward to looking back on this time.
I didn’t get to take paid parental leave when June was born, because I was (and still am) self-employed, and in 2012, Washington State didn’t yet have a paid family and medical leave program. But it now does — along with only ten other states in the US. Because of that, I am able to take time away from work now to care for my spouse, as well as time to care for our new baby. I had intended to keep working until his birth, probably in mid- to late-January. But with Ash being so ill4, I have decided to take leave earlier than planned. I will be on leave from December 21, 2022, until late March, 2023
February 28, 20235. If you’re currently a paying subscriber to this newsletter, thank you very, very much — and until I return, your billing cycle will be frozen. You don’t have to do a thing, and you won’t be charged.
If you would like to support my writing while I am on leave, please know how much I appreciate you. You can support my work by registering for one of my workshops in 2023: in Santa Fe in late April, online in May, and on a ranch in Colorado in June. Teaching writing is my favorite thing to do, aside from writing itself and hanging out with my people and highway driving with Led Zeppelin’s “Hey Hey, What Can I Do” cranked up until I get shooting pains in my ears. You can also support my work with a donation.
Happy holidays — past, present, and future. I miss you already. See you soon.
Or Hanukkah, or the winter holiday of their choice
Thank you, but we do not want advice on how to cope with HG. I know it’s tempting to offer it, and that offering advice can feel like kindness, but I’d like to ask that this remain an advice-free space. Ash has tried everything. We have excellent prenatal care from midwives and OBs both, plus medications and supplements and books and articles and therapy. Empathy is what helps most.
They were napping while I wrote this, and when they woke up, I asked how they were feeling. “I feel like a hundred bucks,” they said.
“You mean, like, out of a possible million?” I asked.
They paused, considering. “Yeah. No. I feel like forty bucks.”
Turns out, I was overly optimistic when I said February 28! Our new family of four needs a little more time to get its footing.