Tag Archives: adolescence

Cutting the Cord: An Observation from The Way of Saint James

JanVallone2

Sean was not an easy child to raise. My husband and I became his parents through adoption and met his birthmother prior to his birth. Young, freckled, and sweet, Janet decided to have a C-section and asked me to be present although she’d be unconscious herself.

On the scheduled day, I stood in an operating room wearing surgical scrubs. Nurses buzzed around, readying forceps and scalpels. An anesthesiologist worked Janet’s IV and checked the electrocardiograph. Janet drifted off, breathing slowly and steadily, her bare belly bulging from a sea of deep blue cloth.

The obstetrician came into the room, holding out freshly scrubbed forearms and hands. He chose a scalpel from a tray as the nurses gathered around. Poising its tip below Janet’s navel, he nodded at his assistants.

A quick slash, a glint of steel. A swarm of elbows and hands like bees around a hive. A bloody eel slithered from the wound—the umbilical cord—and hung between the table and the doctor’s hands. I couldn’t see the baby, just the doctor’s back.

The doctor fussed a bit and looked at me. “Jan, I need your help.” He motioned to a tray with his elbow. “You’ll need the scissors and the clamp.”

Moving beside the doctor, I took the instruments from the tray, slipped the scissors on my fingers. I turned to my first glimpse of Sean—his slimy, bloody body, his writhing head and limbs. I spread the scissor blades apart, cut and clamped the cord, then stroked Sean’s tiny wrist, his eyes opening for a moment, flickering gray-green.

A nurse picked Sean up, weighed him, and showed me how to sponge-bathe him: “Pay special attention to creases under the arms, behind the ears, around the neck, in the diaper area, and to the spaces between the fingers and toes. Then clean the cord stump with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol.”

She also showed me how to swaddle him: “Place him face up on a blanket, pick up a corner, wrap the blanket around his body—snugly, but not too tightly, being careful of the cord—and tuck the blanket beneath him, leaving his head and neck exposed.”

I can’t begin to count the times I cleaned and swaddled Sean in the days and years that followed, even after his baby fat and folds gave way to the long, lean body he’s possessed since toddlerhood. From the moment Sean discovered that he had the power to propel himself, he had a penchant for risk, adventure, imprudence, the forbidden, and injuring himself.

One time, when he was four years old, I’d left him in his bedroom napping soundly—his eyes rolling in their sockets, his breaths even and deep. I took advantage of the moment to collect some laundry from the dryer and was busy folding clothes when I heard a crash and screams.

I ran to Sean’s bedroom. There I saw a toppled highboy dresser, its drawers half-sprung, their contents spilling out. A tiny arm and leg protruded from the rubble. Sean was shrieking, “Mommy, Mommy, hep!!!”

I righted the highboy dresser, a drawer unexpectedly sliding fully out and tumbling on my son, adding insult to injury. Heart pounding, eyes tearing, I pulled Sean from the wreckage: his bones seemed to be unbroken, but blood spurted from a deep laceration in his head.

Frantic, I picked up my son and carried him to the bathroom, where I laid him on the floor. Blood puddled on the tiles as I tried to stop the bleeding. I cleaned the gash and dressed it with gauze pads and fabric tape. Then I wrapped Sean in a towel, drove him to the ER, and held his swaddled, squirming body as the doctor sutured the wound.

Later, after the stiches, Sean told me he’d wanted to reach a stuffed “aminal” that I’d left on top of the dresser, but being short, he’d opened some drawers to use as a ladder up.

That was just one of many gashes I cleaned and bound as Sean went though his childhood and tween years and took up skiing, soccer, hiking, whittling, baseball, biking, climbing, and punching bullies who roughhoused kids at school. But while his early wounds were literal, those I tended later were metaphorical.

When Sean was a sophomore at college, he called right before Thanksgiving to confess he’d not been to classes since October when a close friend had drowned in a lake. Instead of doing any work, he’d holed up in his dorm room drinking beer, smoking weed, writing poems, and entertaining girls. His professors and advisors had informed him it was too late to make up his assignments, so he would fail all of his courses and be suspended for the academic year.

Hearing this, I jumped into the car and drove four hours through a blizzard to meet with Sean’s advisors. I argued Sean was suffering from depression and brokered a medical withdrawal: he’d receive no Fs, saving his GPA. The suspension would have to stand, though, so I helped Sean move out of his dorm room, piling clothes, books, and skis into car with the snow careening down.

At home, I gave Sean his orders: He would go to counseling until March, then begin a leadership program where he’d spend three months in the wild learning outdoor skills and studying ecology. In the fall, he’d return to school.

Right or wrong, I’d once again attempted to clean and swaddle my son. And I did it over and over for the next five years as Sean meandered towards adulthood: for every two steps right and forward, he took one step left and back, and for each misstep he took I stepped in to get him back on track.

Last summer Sean earned a BA in environmental education and a certificate to work as an emergency medical technician. Since the road had been arduous and long, we made plans to celebrate his milestones by walking a comparable path, The Way of Saint James in Spain. Nonetheless, despite Sean’s accomplishments, I harbored doubts that he’d actually matured.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year pilgrims from all around the world walk from points throughout Europe to visit the tomb of the Apostle James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Some pilgrims make the journey for sport, some to pray for miracles, others for contemplation. Heads swathed from blazing sun, blisters bursting in boots, backs bent under packs dangling emblematic scallop shells, many trek hundreds of miles, spending a month or more on the road, but most walk about sixty, taking less than a week.

Sean, my husband, Mark, and I would follow the rugged Primitivo route, hiking 200 miles in twelve days.

The Camino Primitivo is the original way to Santiago, although these days it’s been eclipsed by the much more travelled Camino Francés. It begins in Oviedo, Spain, a city northeast of destination with a cathedral called San Salvador that took eight centuries to build.

The cathedral’s Cámara Santa houses the sudarium, a bloodstained cloth claimed to have swathed Jesus’s head in death. Thus, pilgrims on the Primitivo like to scoff at those on the Francés: Why visit the servant and fail to call upon the Lord?

Outside the cathedral there’s a brass plaque embedded in the pavement that marks the Primitivo’s start. Sean, Mark, and I set out one August morning, first winding through city streets, then through suburban sprawl. After crossing a metal footbridge over railroad tracks, we passed through a hilly, grassy park, the sky a brilliant azure, the sun warm but not hot.

Soon we came to San Lázaro Paniceres, a tiny town where a hospital for pilgrims existed in the 1300s but which today is known for a wooden hórreo, a common Spanish granary raised on pillars to keep the rodents out. In Lampajúa we stopped at the Capilla del Carmen, one of many tiny chapels that pilgrims through the centuries have built along the way.

After that, the landscape changed frequently. We passed through rural towns of red, green, and yellow stucco houses. We strolled through meadows of poppies, heather, and angelica.

We mooed at curly-horned cows grazing in fields at the roadside. We wandered through eucalyptus forests, the sun speckling the ground.

We crossed footbridges over streams where dragonflies hovered in the mist. All the while a fresh breeze cooled us, carrying the scents of bay, fennel, and mint.

Often, as the hours passed, we switched configurations on the path: sometimes Sean and Mark hiked ahead to yammer about sports; other times Sean and I strolled behind to philosophize about life.

Sometimes we trudged in procession, each of us lost in private thoughts; other times Mark and I hung back to observe and gossip about Sean; and sometimes we walked three abreast to tell jokes or to play I Spy.

In the early evening we reached the turnoff to Grado, a busy commercial town where Mark and I would spend the night in a B&B room we’d reserved. Sean would hike three more miles to San Juan de Villapañada. There he planned to bunk at the albergue—a pilgrims’ hostel run by volunteers where beds were first come, first served.

At the fork, Sean stopped and looked at me. “Got to book it now, Mom, so I can get a bed. See you at the hostel in the morning.”

Of course, I didn’t want to let him go. He’d never toured alone in Europe and his Spanish was rudimentary. I imagined him getting lost, breaking a leg, losing his cash, not snagging a bunk, being bitten by bedbugs, running off with a girl, getting drunk on cerveza.

“Please be safe,” I said.

“I’ll be fine, Mom. Just don’t worry!” Then he hugged me and strode up the path, walking sticks clicking on gravel, knapsack bouncing on his back.

In the morning I was anxious to retrieve him. Shortly after breakfast, Mark and I set out. As we walked down the central street of Grado, local women waved from upstairs windows, calling out in dialect to direct us to the path. The asphalt gave way to cobbles, then dirt, and the trail, now edged by mauve hydrangeas, ascended steeply up a hill.

We climbed for almost two hours. I could feel my breathing falter and my legs begin to ache.

Where on earth was the albergue? Where the hell was Sean?

Suddenly, there he was, sitting on a bench beneath some trees around a bend. He stood and patted my shoulder: “Steep hill, Mom. How are your feet?”

He had good reason to ask. This wasn’t my first Camino. The year before Mark and I had walked the Francés and my feet had swollen badly; my boots had bruised my toes purple and caused bleeding blisters on my soles.

I’d brought different shoes for this Camino. “My feet are pretty good, Sean. There aren’t any hot spots, just the mildest rubbing on some toes.”

Sean motioned to the bench. “Sit. Let me take a look.”

“Hon, really, you don’t need to.”

He nodded: “Yes, I do.”

So I sat, and Sean plunked himself beside me, pulling my feet onto his lap. He slipped off my boots and socks and began to examine my feet. “Like I thought,” he said. “There’s chaffing on the big and pinky toes.”

He pulled a first-aid kit from his backpack, found some alcohol prep pads, and cleaned my feet methodically. Then he took out a roll of fabric tape, tore off custom-measured pieces, and snuggly wrapped each toe. When he was done, he slipped my socks and shoes back on my feet and tied the laces up.

At that moment, I looked at Sean and realized he’d become the man I hoped he’d be. We had come full circle. In the past, I had cleaned and swaddled him. Now he had cleaned and swaddled me.

The next day would be his twenty-fifth birthday—time to cut the cord again.

Originally published in Good Letters.

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Sleeping Beauty

ImageThe following is an excerpt from Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School

The classroom door blew open as I packed my briefcase to go home. A cold gust of air rushed in, blowing the papers from my desk, chasing red and gold leaves across the threshold so they swirled and settled at my feet.

Kalindah whirled in with the weather. With black-sweatshirted arms, she gave me my daily hug—nubby, slightly dank and fusty—then plopped on the top of a desk, pulling legs akimbo beneath her skirt. “Ms. Vallone, life’s so unfair. All my friends have boyfriends but me.”

Braces, Janis Joplin hair, Kalindah was a freshman when I first began teaching high school English. Another teacher had warned me about her: “Make sure you watch out for that one—she’s a time bomb waiting to explode, bipolar without her medication. You’ll see, one day she’ll draw a knife.”

During my first few weeks, Kalindah sat huddled at the back of the classroom, silent, impassive, gray-eyed. Was she sedated? Not till I scheduled a quiz did I see any sign of life. After class she came up to my desk: “I stink at tests.” Then she walked out.

Sure enough, her score was 47. When I lay the quiz on her desk, she glanced at the grade, hands stuffed in sweatshirt pouch. “Told you.” I studied the dandruff in her part. “Take it home and do it over. You can use your book and raise your grade.”

Metal smile trapping sandwich morsels. “Really? That’s awesome!”

Tests weren’t Kalindah’s only problem. For weeks I pumped and prodded: “I’m still waiting for your narrative. Are you planning to turn one in?”

Her response: a shoulder shrug. But one day she came to class early, dropped some rumpled sheets on my desk. “Ms. Vallone, I know it’s really late, but I wrote the story.”

In the story, the penguin Galápaga wants to cross a river, but she’s an orphan, so no one’s shown her how. She tries to use her wings as eagles do, but finds them too stubby for flying. She tries to hop across on river rocks, but her legs are too clumsy for leaping.

Galápaga uses a fallen tree trunk as bridge between the two banks. But the trunk is very narrow, mossy, and high above the water. Though penguins have good gripping toenails, midway across she slips.

Plummeting from her perch, Galápaga is desperate. She impromptu somersault tucks, plunges in the frigid water. Sinking to the bottom, she begins to pray: O God / Fear and trembling come upon me / Oh, that I had wings like a dove! /I would fly away and be at rest.

Then a strange thing happens. Panic-beating her wings, Galápaga rises through the water, discovering she can swim. So she breaststrokes across the river, climbs out, and waddles toward the woods.

I laughed reading Kalindah’s story, wrote A at the top, Great job! In Italian calinda means lark. So I hope you understand you can fly even though penguins can’t! Next day when she read my comments, Kalindah smiled and leaped at me, gave me the very first hug.

But what could I say about boys to a girl only sixteen? I gathered the papers from the floor, slipped them into my briefcase, sat on a desk facing Kalindah. “I know it stinks not to have a boyfriend, but someday you’ll have one, really. Remember when you thought you couldn’t write?”

“Yeah, but I’m not pretty. I wish I could be someone else!”

When I was an adolescent, I wished to be my cousin Angela, three years older than me. Angela, the Italian word for angel. Angela, who as a child wore the prettiest pinafores, dark hair thickly braided with ribbons. Angela, favored as beautiful, while I was anything but. Aunt Lina said my eyes were beady. Gramma told me I needed a perm. My father hinted I was chubby.

In high school, it was Debbie Schein I envied, a twin for Zeffirelli’s Juliet—chestnut hair tumbling to her waist, blue eyes, and dancer’s legs. If I were Debbie, every evening Michael Goldfarb would scale the lamppost on the corner. He’d peek inside my window as I braided my hair for bed, maybe even whisper to himself: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Jan is the sun.

But as long as Debbie was alive, Mike would never look at me. Nor would Gary, nor Mitchell, nor Jeff.

It’s not that I came from bad stock. My mother had curly hair, twinkling eyes, a heart-shaped face. And oh what a figure in the photo, bathing-suited at age eighteen, a Sophia Loren on a rock, sunning at Kaaterskill Falls. So it was for my Aunt Marie and my cousins Marianne and Celeste. Of all the females in my family, only I lacked the magic genes.

I remember when I was sixteen. Angela sat me on the pink counter of our grandmother’s tiny bathroom, my back towards the mirror, legs dangling. She pushed my hair behind my ears, perused my face with her kohled golden eyes. Bubbling in her Brooklyn brogue, she broke into a glossy smile, “I’ve got it!”

She unzipped her floral makeup bag with a flick of her bracelet-trimmed wrist. Out came a bottle of foundation muddying up my face. Out came a tin of eye-shadow blizzarding blue my lids. Out came a mascara spiral coating my lashes black. Out came a sparkling swivel-stick staining my lips cherry red.

When she was finished, Angela stepped back. She lifted my face with a finger, turned it right and left, called, “Gramma, come see!”

Pots clanging in the kitchen, pitter-patters up the hall. Gramma squeezed into the bathroom, squinted at my face. She nodded, “Much bedda.”

My heart bloomed a rose.

Then Angela stirred her fingers in her makeup bag, pulled out a rhinestone-trimmed mirror. “Okay—now you can see.”

She held the mirror before me. But Juliet wasn’t reflected there.

Instead, I saw a clown.

In my twenties, it was Holly Brown I longed to be. We two were medical lab techs then working at UNC. Every morning she’d sashay to her bench, flicking her Farrah Fawcett mane: “Good mornin’ y’all.”

As jasmine-gardenia perfume gusted from Holly’s curly halo, the male techs would look up from their microscopes, dropping jaws to gawk. In my corner, I’d reach for the radio, turn up the volume of Bruce Springsteen: Show a little faith there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright.

But I wasn’t all right. So I spent a few days’ salary to reinvent myself as Holly. As I sat before a salon mirror, Jean Paul pumped the swivel chair, raising the object of his art. He shampooed my hair in awapuhi—wafting ginger scent—parted it into sections, paper-wrapped each around a rod. He squeezed on glycerol monothioglycolate, plastic- capped my head. He helmeted me with a dryer and toggled on the heat.

My scalp prickled and crawled. My ears sizzled like bacon. But the dryer drone fired my fantasies as I flipped through an issue of Vogue: Maybe the lab crew will realize I’m a dove and Holly’s a crow.

Jean Paul rinsed my head to stop the process. He cut and blew dry my hair. Then he swiveled my chair towards the mirror—voilà: Christ, I have a fro.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in my thirties, my desire was to look like Princess Di—the ultra-toned body, bright smile.  The lash-brushing bangs and royal rose-petal skin. So I went to aerobics, tried Pearl Drops, scrubbed my face, cut my hair Diana-style.

But somehow I contracted the chickenpox, pox upon pox upon pox. They healed leaving scars on my chin, causing me to turn from every mirror. The marks seemed to shout from my jaw, “See how repulsive she is!”

What would Princess Di do about such horrid imperfections?

I made an appointment with Dr. Fleisch, a well-known dermatologist. He suggested dermabrasion. If I elected the surgery, he’d give me medication to relax. Then he’d cleanse my face with antiseptic, apply a spray to insta-freeze my skin. That done, he’d use a rotary tool to sand off several epidermal layers.

Post-op, the site would be raw, requiring pain relievers. My face would take three months to heal, need sun-shields for six to eight. Luckily, side effects were few—infections, fever blisters, scars, thickened skin, splotchy pigmentation.

I squirmed as Dr. Fleisch disclosed the details, asked if many patients chose the surgery.

“It’s a commoner procedure.”

So I knew that Di would never do it; I’d have to research something else.

Why should physical beauty be the object of lifelong yearning? Trigger decades of envy and grief? Prompt cosmetics, surgery, false hope? And why, even into my forties, did I still pine to be a dove among the crows?

How I fussed on a trip to Palermo, Sicily, before visiting my step-grandmother. The last time I’d seen Mimma, I was barely into my twenties. Now she was eighty-six and I a wife, the mother of two teens. Still, I slathered my wrinkles with creams, bleached my teeth, tinted my hair. I wore capris to mask my thighs, long sleeves to hide my arms.

And what did Mimma do when we showed her a Polaroid we’d taken after she’d scaled two flights like a jilly-goat to fetch her brother for lunch? After she served us a four-course meal she’d cooked and served herself? After she toured us around the apartment she still dusted, swept, and mopped? She shook her head at the photo and covered her image with her hand. “O Dio, I old.”

A short walk from Mimma’s apartment is the Convento dei Cappuccini. In 1599 the monks noticed something strange: their catacombs released mysterious vapors that mummified the dead. When the monks announced the discovery, they set off a public frenzy. People clamored to be buried there to preserve their beauty after death.

In the catacombs’ long dank corridors rest eight thousand corpses. Each is suspended by the neck like a lamb hanging at the butcher’s, each wearing Sunday’s best clothes. A monk hovers in a cassock, penance rope around his neck. A woman wafts hoop-skirted, wielding a parasol. A soldier sentries in uniform and a wide three-cornered hat.

There’s a special section for children. The last catacombed corpse was a girl who died of croup in 1920. Frocked flouncily in pink, ringlets gathered in a bow, she rests in a transparent casket.

The monks call the girl Sleeping Beauty, but there’s little beauty in the crypt. Sleeping Beauty’s skin is doll-waxy, her hair faded, dull, limp. And the flesh of the corpses around her is either mummified or gone. Many faces grimace, some mouthing Edvard Munch screams, the husks of their decaying bodies coated with decades of dust.

But I couldn’t tell Kalindah about the catacombs.

Or that Debbie went skating with her boyfriend on a lake near her college dorm and drowned falling through the ice.

Or that Angela discovered stage three cancer and lost her breasts and hair.

Or that my mother developed a neuroma that twisted and paralyzed her face.

Or that Prince Charles divorced Diana, who died in a car crash shortly after.

Or that when I thought about the women whose beauty I envied all my life, I closed my eyes and thanked God for my wrinkles.

Instead, I pulled a snapshot from my wallet—my family in the Sicilian sun. “Kalindah, you’re fine just as you are. Look, let me show you something. These are the people I love most in the world: My husband—we’ve been married twenty-three years. My daughter—she’s your age. My son, who’s two years younger. And Kalindah, when I was sixteen, I didn’t know a single one of them.”

Kalindah took the photo from my hands, studied it a moment, looked up. “Your daughter’s really pretty. She looks a lot like you.”