99 Problems Coyote in profile on a street

Published on April 2nd, 2024 | by Cheryl Klein

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Spice Up Your Life

A few days ago, your friend asked if she could list you as a reference on a job application, and you peppered a form with superlatives and specific, relevant examples of her wonderfulness. Talking up other people is one of your true joys and strengths.

Like many women of a certain age, you are not so good at talking up your own joys and strengths. Case in point: After your youngest son’s daycare teacher suggested looking into early interventions for some “tiny, ant-sized” issues your son was dealing with, you texted multiple friends versions of the following.

I was JUST finally getting to a point where I wasn’t catastrophizing about every little thing, and now I’m catastrophizing again. I am so scared of a Big Diagnosis. I am mad at myself for not wanting him to have a Big Diagnosis because how ableist is that?? I’m scared that a life of interventions will mean no time for myself, no creativity, just battles and institutions. What if evaluators don’t see the smart and engaging kid I know he is? What if he’s NOT smart and engaging, and that’s just my bias? 

But somehow I’m also biased AGAINST him. Like, why are my expectations for him so low? Why do I hear “Joey could use a little help with body control” as “He will be that kid who throws chairs in third grade and disrupts the entire class and eventually gets stuck in the prison pipeline and then, if he’s lucky, is released to a decent halfway house.” I don’t know if I’m scared of how racist and ableist the world is, or if I’m being racist and ableist myself, or both. 

How can I be the mom a kid who might be EXTRA, when I can’t even get everyone to eat dinner at the same time? And isn’t this concern just a mask for a more selfish thought: What if he makes my life less fun?

As you retype these words, your heart rate spikes again as you throw yourself off an imagined cliff and and into the Valley of the Worst* Case Scenario. One of your strengths is tearing yourself down. From a literary standpoint, you lean toward memoirs and first-person essays in which writers interrogate their choices and their privilege. Memoirs that describe only the injustices enacted by others seem a bit sus, to borrow your older son’s favorite word. Especially if the writers are white and economically comfortable. 

Wile E. Coyote hangs from a cliff while the Roadrunner watches
From Wikipedia

But inhabiting a running first-person narrative about how much you suck is not, as it turns out, a particularly productive way to live. 

So I am taking a hiatus from the first person today to write you this letter of recommendation, that pep talk you are always craving. 

Your friends reply to your downloads with generosity.

You are exactly the mom he needs.

He’s doing great. He is so happy and loved, and developing all the time.

But the fear soothers need a break, so I’m stepping in. I know you better than anyone, and I know this: Once upon a time, you wanted adventure.

*

You’ve never been a backpack-across-Siberia type, but remember the first time you saw Rent? You and your college roommate drove from UCLA to the La Jolla Playhouse. You felt your relentlessly stable, rule-following suburban upbringing (bless your parents’ hearts) fading with every mile of the 405 freeway. You saw those drama kids onstage pretending to be Alphabet City drama kids in 1980s New York, making art and dying of AIDS. It was so romantic. And of course it could be so because no one you loved had died yet, because you yourself had never been diagnosed with anything worse than an ear infection. But the queerness! The creaking floorboards of imagined apartments. The blaze of Christmas lights and the twinkle of stage snow. The promise of chosen family.

Toddler with tiger pants and light brown skin sits on bouncy blue dog

The singing art queers (and, to be fair, the financial and emotional safety net of your relentlessly stable, rule-following suburban parents) gave you permission not to take the road most traveled. You studied creative writing. You came out. You did things that scared you, which was a lot of things.

Remember when you mentored queer kids in foster care? You met your mentee every week for years, first at her group home, then outside her apartment building. At Coffee Bean, you wrote letters to President Obama, telling him to pass the Dream Act, but mostly you just talked. You gave her dumb, trite advice, but you showed up and you asked questions, and that was the point. You showed up after the night she took too many pills, when she could barely lift her head from the formica table at McDonald’s. You showed up when she didn’t; but eventually she did again. You visited her in the hospital when she had her baby, when you were constantly mad at the world because you didn’t have a baby. You visited her when she moved deep into the Antelope Valley, among red rocks and trailers, where the buses didn’t run.

Remember that time you had breast cancer? (Ha. Of course you do.) You sat down and wrote yourself a memoir in real time, because if you had stuck to journal entries and emails and texts to friends, they would have sounded like the stuff you’ve been writing about Joey. What-ifs whipped up into tornadoes of intrusive thoughts. You needed a different kind of story, one in which you lived and became a mother, one narrated by a person who could laugh at the absurdities of cancer life and who understood that while early-stage breast cancer was shitty and scary and unfair, it wasn’t the worst.

You, the person who created and half became that narrator, are brave. Hashtag you can do hard things. Hashtag hard things are not inherently terrible things, though they usually throw in a little post-traumatic stress, for flavor. You did cancer and then you and your partner adopted a baby. And then you tried for another one, and had four big fat failures, each a different flavor. 

You’d just drafted another narrative in your mind—one of relative ease and long writing weekends with a beloved only child—when Joey came along. A NICU baby with a storied past, even though his story was just beginning. You didn’t want to, but you got on a plane and brought him home and made him part of your family. And when the four failed adoptions haunted your ability to love him, you knew it was on you to work through your shit and not dump it all on him. You went to therapy and cried a lot and wrote a lot, and while it wasn’t easy on your family, you kept caring for yourself and for them.

A 9-year-old and a toddler on a playground

You fed and clothed and cuddled and shuttled and listened to your kids. Your marriage sometimes felt like the thing you never quite got to, like the last load of laundry, but on Valentine’s Day—when the kids were cranky and you had a call scheduled with your oncologist and C.C.’s workday seemed interminable—she wrote, Even the bad days are good days because we have each other. Look at this. This life. 

Look at this life. You did not make it alone, but you have never been just a bystander, either. You made this. You made Joey’s social security card arrive in the mail after multiple letters to the Virginia Hall of Records and multiple trips to the Social Security office, where you went through a metal detector and promised you weren’t carrying any weapons. You made fish tacos and a bubble bath, just last night.

*

Your friend J probably did not invent the word “neurospicy,” but it’s been useful to you both. For her, to describe her kindergartner—the one who pretends to be a vampire and stalks around the kitchen saying, “Boooo, this doesn’t taste like blood!” and sometimes needs help transitioning between activities at school.

For you, it feels like a way in. A reminder that the best life is not necessarily the most uneventful one. A reminder that a kid can be a little extra and still be fine. A reminder that intelligence is measured on so many different axes that it is almost immeasurable. To be clear: Your son hasn’t received any diagnoses worse than an ear infection at this point. Rather, he is revealing himself to be a full person with idiosyncrasies and strengths and struggles. He is not a reward for what you have been through. He is also not bound for the scrapyard because of what he and his first mother have been through. 

He is a person who imitates the stretches you do against the kitchen counter, who invites you to tickle his tummy, who pronounces “[Miss] Rachel” as “Yellow.” He is a person who does not like being confined to his car seat. He is a light sleeper and a lover of “Baby Shark.”

The savior complex is a scourge in the adoption world, and the rightful pushback is so strong that you forget, sometimes, that you aren’t a bad person just for adopting two children whose mothers asked you to adopt them. You are no Great White Hope, but you are the kind of person who can endure paperwork and loss upon loss, and who can—this is the part that you have forgotten, lately—do more than endure. Because life—your life, this life—has more to offer than intakes and job interviews and teacher conferences.

You want to wear neurospicy—and you are definitely a bit neurospicy yourself—like a kind of glittering armor in the world, something a drag queen would wear. It is what keeps things interesting. 

Curly-haired toddler plays with toy trains while watching Miss Rachel

You just finished reading a biography of editor Judith Jones, a woman who felt the pull of a conventional life but sought spice (literally; she transformed the cookbook world in her work with writers like Julia Child and Edna Lewis). She wanted children and couldn’t conceive them. Then, with a busy career and a New York apartment, she took in the adolescent children of an ailing family friend. Her new son told her, “We’re going to ruin your life.” They did and they didn’t.

The past few years have thrown you some curveballs: the adoption fails, COVID with a newborn, a layoff, not to mention the terrors beyond your personal horizon. The events that whisper: The worst does happen. Uvalde. Gaza. Trump lurking in the wings like a vaudeville villain. No wonder you want to turn your bed into a kind of sensory deprivation chamber. No wonder you finally understand why people like Upworthy. 

But remember taking your older son to school this morning? It was the usual flurry of frozen waffles, missing water bottle caps, and last-minute requests. Based on his most recent report card, you were wondering if he was a little neurospicy too. You were running late. Again.  

But—just as you were reminding him to please turn in the homework he worked so hard on—you saw the coyotes.

Right there on the sidewalk, between a row of small houses and the high school’s baseball field. They looked healthy, with thick brown coats and bushy tails, giving off that dog-but-not vibe, their paws moving quick as daylight. One turned its head and you caught a glittering black glance. 

Coyote in profile on a street
Photo by Ben Mater on Unsplash

Later, when you get the robo-call from the school office about Unexcused Tardies, remember the coyotes. If you’d been doing what you were supposed to do, when you were supposed to do it, you wouldn’t have seen them. If they’d kept to the hillsides and parklands like they were supposed to, they might not have eaten today. Here you all are, in a space not quite designed for you, adapting. 

Maybe they found a rabbit or squirrel or someone’s pet to eat. Maybe they feasted on castoffs from the dumpster behind the supermarket. Maybe they are fine.

*Not the worst. There is always worse.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her MUTHA column “Onesie, Never Worn” was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2022. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.



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