Not for sale

My son Oliver has given me permission to write about the fact that he plans to keep forever two tiny clips that were once used to secure an orchid flower in its pot. These little clips must remain on display with his collection of toy dinosaurs, live amphibians in tanks and other sundry items that cover the horizontal surface atop of a chest of drawers in his room. The chest was procured second-hand by my husband Dan when the renters moved out of the tiny house in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, that we paid too much for 12 years ago and still haven’t sold. Know anyone who wants a cute house right outside the corporate limits of a cute town?

The other morning at 6 a.m. I found myself Googling Hoarding in children. After reading a few articles from bonafide psychiatric organizations, I came to the conclusion that Oliver’s collections do not, at the present time, warrant an intervention. Hoarding might be related to OCD and it might need to be addressed if it is having a negative impact on your life … and stuff like that.

I don’t know where he gets it, but I do know that he was born with it. He was one of those babies who didn’t want you to put him down, so we slept in shifts while someone held him. My husband was the same way when he was a baby. The theory back in his day was that it was because the nurses had held him too much in the nursery. My husband was such a cute baby, they couldn’t resist.

Oliver was a cute baby too. I had prepared myself for an ugly one. A few friends told me that babies are just ugly and you don’t feel the bond and it’s not like in the movies and you’ll cry a lot, so I was prepared for that.

But he wasn’t ugly, and I did sort of feel the bond when I could feel anything other than complete and total helpless anemic postpartum sleep deprivation.

I don’t know where he gets the OCD.

A psychiatrist once told me that my problems were really about feeling that I was not in control. Back then, I didn’t always have the dream about being unprepared on the first day of school. The reoccurring dream I had as a child was about riding in a car. One of my parents was driving and then they would disappear and it was all up to me, and I didn’t want it to be.

Later on, that dream evolved. Someone else, like a friend or a boyfriend was driving, but it was snowing and I knew we were going to have an accident. I just wanted to take the wheel. I knew that if I was driving, I could do a better job, but why couldn’t I just take the wheel?

When I teach Creative Writing, people sometimes write about their dreams. Sometimes they turn their dreams into fiction stories. I tried to do that once with a dream about schizophrenia. I had dreamed that I was living in this old apartment building and I made friends with a few other tenants. Then I found out that the other tenants didn’t really exist. So was the building haunted or was I was just nuts? I tried to make that into a fiction story, but I never finished it.

Years after I had that dream, I interviewed a high school student who had written a play about that very thing – being schizophrenic and terrified of going crazy. She asked me if her synopsis of the story made sense, and I nodded and said that it totally did.

Sometimes people write about their dreams as nonfiction and I wonder if they’re making these dreams up because I never have dreams like that myself. Once a girl wrote what she said was nonfiction about a reoccurring dream she had, and I had this feeling that she made it up just to have something to write about, which was fine, actually. The only part that bothered me was how much it would suck to have that particular reoccurring dream over and over again; no fantasy horror story can compete with a real one.

Those articles I read the other day about hoarding and OCD gave me comfort as well as some common sense suggestions, such as urging the child to donate an item before acquiring a new one. My children have been told that if they want new backpacks for school, they must donate an old backpack. Annabelle has complied with this requirement. We will see about Oliver.

While I was in his room scanning for safety hazards among his collections, I noticed a small pile of coins on his nightstand, and I got what I thought was a brilliant idea. Maybe I can somehow turn my son’s inclination to keep everything he ever encounters into some sort of get-rich-not-that-quickly scheme for me.

If he can hoard animals, plastic dinosaurs, and orchid clips, why can’t he hoard money until he saves enough for college? Then he can major in Finance and help other people hoard their money. Truly, as an English teacher, nothing would make me prouder than to raise two children whose full-time jobs have everything to do with financial gain and absolutely nothing to do with creativity.

I once interviewed this guy who had made his fortune in insurance. He had met many famous people and was a well-known, popular figure in his community. He told me that, when he went to college, his father had urged him to major in something practical like Economics, even though he was better at other things. So he listened to his father, made a lot of money, and had a good life.

The only sad part was that his wife had to quit college to raise their children, and then when she finally got her degree many, many years later, she left him. “Don’t put that part in your story,” he told me. So I didn’t.

He was well-known in town because he spent a lot of his time doing volunteer work. It was how he escaped the loneliness, the sadness … the nothing. He didn’t tell me that; I just knew.

Even with a successful career, he’d always been active in his community, with many friends and associates. He’d always had a full life with plenty of social interaction, intellectual stimulation, awards, accolades, and quotes in the newspaper, while his wife was at home clipping those stories from the newspaper and putting them in a scrapbook to leave for him when the time came.

He didn’t tell me that; I just knew.

I always wanted to turn him into a fictional character. He had the most beautiful home, decorated with many sparkling collectibles. When I looked around, I couldn’t believe that a single man lived there. But I never got around to making him a character, either. I didn’t make time for fiction, and that’s the one regret I have to justify all those years of poorly paid, small-circulation nonfiction. At least we had the truth, and that has to count for something. I would have liked to have made it something more, to really have shown people what it was like for that wealthy man whose wife had left him with a house full of trinkets, instead of just telling them about what a great volunteer he was, which people knew already.

I was just another byline in his scrapbook and he was just another page in my portfolio, wherever that is now, but he did write me a thank you note after the story was printed.

In fictional terms, that’s characterization.

Despite the fact that you can’t buy a fairy tale life, I am of the opinion that money helps a lot with easing the agony of reality.

I am working on my 7-year-old daughter Annabelle now. I am suggesting physical therapy and other practical job possibilities. She had the nerve to say to me that it would be unwise to pursue a line of work for which she has no passion because it would mean a lifetime of unhappiness. Instead of some clinical thing, she wants to be an art teacher or a veterinarian or something else that is meaningful to her, she had the nerve to say.

For now, we are rich in collectibles. If you know anyone who wants a cute house in a cute town, some antique tractor parts, a treadmill, used books, vintage handbags, broken Barbies, a cassette recorder, miniature Bibles, candle holders of various sizes, binders full of worksheets, colorful scarves …

We also have two tiny clips once used to hold an orchid upright in its pot, but those are not for sale.

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The noiseless patient spider

My husband was convinced there would be some kind of drama in the middle of the night when I drove my sister to the airport. He was certain we’d be pulled over by the police, get lost, find out her ticket was invalid, or there would be a security holdup that would cancel her trip.

But the scariest thing we encountered was a spider running across the inside of my windshield, tiny, brown and muscular against the backdrop of a crescent moon in the night sky.

I pulled off beside the highway.

“Don’t kill it,” she begged me, picking up a piece of paper as I looked for the hazard lights. Softly, she spoke to the spider, trying to coax it onto the paper so she could deport it safely from the car.

I watched for a few seconds as she struggled to get the spider to climb onto her sheet of paper, but the creature did not cooperate. It seemed likely to fall into my lap at any moment, so I took off my shoe, aimed and smashed at the windshield where the spider was.

In a violent split second, it was over. Or so we thought.

But we couldn’t find the dead spider.

It reminded me a little bit of the time, about 17 years ago, when we tore her then-boyfriend’s underground apartment apart saving a baby rabbit from his cat, whose name was Clover. We did save that rabbit, or so we thought, although when we placed him outside and waited for him to run back into the bushes, he was perfectly still, apparently petrified with fear. We hoped he would get away before another predator found him.

Sometime shortly after the rabbit-saving incident, my sister married the boyfriend with the cat named Clover. They had a daughter, and later, a son.

On our recent drive to the airport, one of the topics I wanted to broach with my sister was my new idea for her to pursue a career in hypnotherapy. You see, although my full-time job is being a high school English teacher, one of my hobbies is thinking of jobs and careers for other people.

When we were preteens, my sister confessed to me that she was a little bit psychic. Over the years, she proved it by accurately predicting a number of events within my own adolescent life that I could not have anticipated.

The other night during our drive, I said to my sister that hypnotherapists seem to have more credibility beyond the realm of new age spiritualists than self-proclaimed psychics. I once interviewed a woman who made a living hypnotizing people on cruise ships.

Hypnotherapy is a little spooky in the way that mysterious things are, but it seems to be a real and useful skill. If you can get a person to believe what they’re paying you to make them believe, then you have solved at least one of their problems.

One of my problems is that everyone in my family except me is an animal hoarder. They do it because it gives them a feeling of love and altruism and control in a world where all living things suffer. They do it because they think they can repay their karmic debts by caring for sick and homeless animals, and maybe they can.

But to me it’s misappropriated energy at best. At worst, it’s perpetuating the very suffering they seek to cure.

I think animals should live. Outside. In the wild.

And it’s not because I don’t like them. It’s because I don’t want to clean up after them and buy their food, and especially because I don’t want to cry when they get sick and die. It’s because I’ve got enough to worry about without feline leukemia.

My daughter has become attached to a sick kitten at her grandmother’s wild cat ranch. The kitten is adorable and tragic as she looks at you with big curious eyes, apparently unaware that she labors to breathe. She thinks she’s a normal kitten. She climbs up on counters and knocks over coffee cups, follows you around and tries to trip you, sits on your lap and stares at you, purring. She doesn’t know it isn’t normal for a cat to make so much noise breathing that you can hear her across the room. She doesn’t know that her days are probably numbered.

I did not ask for this. I did not ask for another thing to worry about, another tiny tragedy to distract me from my mission, which, this summer, is apparently to do five hours of homework every day for a couple of online grad school classes.

I remember the sick kittens of my childhood – the ones I cried over when they died and my mother told me it was OK because they would reincarnate.

On the drive to the airport in the middle of the night, I tell my sister about the wheezing kitten. Since she and her husband help run an animal shelter near their home, she has a lot more experience with chronically ill animals than I do.

If I take the cat to the vet, she tells me, I’m sure to come home with a diagnosis and hundreds in expenses.

I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes you get two choices and you don’t like either one, but you still have to choose. That’s what I was thinking when I tried to kill the spider on the windshield.

At the airport, there was still no drama when I left my sister at security. Then, in the parking lot, I thought for a minute I had lost my car. I lose my car in parking lots on a semi-regular basis.

When I found the car, I got inside and texted my husband to say that I was on my way home. His 4:32 a.m. reply was immediate. No teenager will outwit him in the middle of some dark night the way I endeavored to outwit my parents at the urging of some people I now regret spending time with.

I felt something crawl across my leg. It was the brown spider.

I opened the car door, brushed her off my leg, and wished her luck.

She’s alive.

On the drive home, I pulled up at a toll gate behind a car full of teenage boys. The driver looked at me helplessly and mouthed that he had no money.

I started to reach for my wallet. My first instinct was to think that as the adult in the situation, I might need to pay for myself and the children in front of me in order to move forward.

But then I reconsidered.

The situation was a bit like one in a fictional story I wrote a couple of weeks ago that didn’t end particularly well for the 14-year-old protagonist.

But I am not a 14-year-old girl now. I am a 38-year-old woman and I was alone in the dark about to get out my wallet to give money to a carload of teenage boys I didn’t know.

Instead, I backed up, pulled up to another booth, paid the toll, and drove home.

So much for my husband’s concern that my sister and I would do ourselves in on this unsupervised nocturnal journey.

I kept thinking about those boys and wondering what they must have thought of me. Was I just another unsympathetic old lady with a wallet full of cash and a heart of stone?

Maybe I am, but I am sure the boys survived the toll booth, and I don’t think I regret driving away.

Lately, I’ve been talking a lot to people my parents’ age – Baby Boomers – about their regrets. They don’t seem to mind sharing, and the overwhelming message is something along the lines of Do as I say, not as I did.

Basically, they regret being selfish. They regret ruining their marriages and hurting their kids. They regret the lies and cheating and the fact that they just couldn’t handle the suffocating drudgery of early midlife.

Late midlife, it seems, is something different entirely. It looks to me like the Baby Boomers are having more fun than we are. I have to wonder if regrets are really the same as personal growth, or if they are just food for thought, a lesson for someone else. I listen to the advice of the older generation. I try to do as I am told and stay married, keep working hard, keep taking out the trash and doing homework. I should work hard because I have to, and it builds character, they tell me.

I don’t know what I’ll regret in 20 years if I am still I alive. I know I don’t regret saving the baby rabbit 17 years ago or the spider at the airport.

The people I love help creatures great and small because it’s all the power they have in a world where it feels like every living thing has to struggle to survive, like every rattling breath that moves through our bodies is a labor, a sign of more hardship to come. Things will get worse before they get better.

I don’t think my heart is so big anymore, but I do understand.