“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”Gilda Radner

Monday, December 15, 2014

Moments I Fell In Love With My Husband All Over Again

Most people know that I've loved my husband Joe since the moment I first saw him twenty years ago, and there are some terrific constants that make him easy to keep on loving. He's honest and loving and over-the-top ridiculous about a lot things, which include shutting off light switches while I'm still in the room, but also include making a big deal out of loving me. I really enjoy people who make a big deal out of me because, well, I'm kind of a big deal.

But aside from all of that, my favorite thing about being married to Joe is that over time, there are little moments that make me fall in love with him all over again, right then and there, and the fluttery feeling in my chest, the one that makes me giggle and cover my face like I did when I was fourteen, strikes me almost unexpectedly. In honor of the fact that one of those moments occurred recently, I decided to share a few here.

1. A few anniversaries ago, he bought a leather-bound journal. In it, he will periodically write me love letters and then leave the journal on my nightstand or pillow to read. He doesn't do it all the time, but here and there so that down the road I will have a book filled with all the reasons he loves me.

2. I love to psychoanalyze. One of my favorite questions to consider lately is, "What is your favorite font and why?" I asked Joe. "Oh," he said, thinking. "I'm not sure what it's called. It starts with a G. Garamond." I almost fell over. "That's my favorite!" I exclaimed. His face filled with teasing as he winked and said, "And that's why we're so in love." (*giggle*)

3. He once caught my vomit in his hands. I was seven months pregnant with Joey and in the hospital with kidney stones. Overwhelmed by the pain and the fear that something was wrong with Joey (I didn't know at first what was wrong), I shouted, "I'm going to be sick!" We'd been left waiting too long and there was nothing in the room for me to use and I couldn't get up. Joe dove in front of me, fingers laced together and said, "Just do it. I've got you."

4. We were at JC Penney's buying lamps. The ones I wanted--really beautiful ones with Victorian shades and wrought iron roses up the bases--were labeled as buy one, get one for a dollar. At the register, the cashier tried to tell us the sale had ended the day before. Joe leaned one elbow on the counter, looked her square in the eye and said very calmly and with not a little bit of charisma, "Now, I used to work in retail. So I know you have to honor that sign that's still posted over there." The woman all but melted, and so did I. In that moment I wished I worked in retail, too, so I could tell him something was on sale.

5. The time Joey asked him to read out loud to the class instead of me, and he did it with voices and expression and every little face in the classroom was open-mouthed and awestruck with the magic of my husband the storyteller.

6. The day he taught Noah to read. Noah was two.

7. When Max was a newborn and I found out I couldn't breastfeed, I lay in bed in hours and cried. And not a lovely, delicate, "Oh, my, boo-hoo," but a gross-nasty, snot-covered, choking orchestra of sobs. Joe finally came into the room and pressed his forehead to mine, put his arms around me, snot and all, and said nothing. It didn't erase the pain, but it made me able to breathe again. It made the crying stop.

8. When he wears the Dr. Seuss pajama pants that Noah picked out.

9. When, after a parent-teacher conference, I was all set to talk shop, and I began with, "I didn't like that at all!" and he responded with, "I know! Why are her teeth so small?!"

10. Once, I was in a terrible mood in the middle of a date night, which I realize is a bad time to be in a terrible mood, and so Joe began echoing all my negativity by expressing hatred over everything we passed. "Look at that stop light! Why is it so red? That's stupid," and "What's up with that building? It's too ugly to exist," and concluding with, "What's with that guy walking? Get a car, moron!" These are not things he'd typically say; his goal was to make me laugh, and he succeeded.

11. When he didn't like a new rule at our sons' school which really was a bit of nonsense, he turned to me and said firmly, "I reject that policy." 

12. When I bought Divergent to watch with my nieces, Joe downloaded it to his tablet and read the whole series. He also read Twilight, just so we could talk about it.

13. He has a firm belief that pajama pants should not be worn in public, not even to Wegmans.

14. Once he came home from work, and where his dress shirt was open at the neck, I spied writing on his undershirt. I realized he'd worn a Metallica t-shirt to work under his dress clothes.

15. The first time I bought him clothes, they included a few shirts of a brand I noticed he wore a lot. "Brandini." When he opened them up, he smiled, held them up the shoulders and said, "I love them! They're my favorite 'brandini.'"

16. When he folds my clothes while doing laundry, he handles them like they're all super delicate. "I don't know what to do with them," he said once. "They're so small, like doll clothes!"

17. Every once in awhile, I turn around to find myself looking at a small, foiled wrapped grape jelly. And it's still just as exciting as it ever was.

Nobody's perfect. I'm not perfect, and I can tell you that my husband is not perfect. But life isn't about perfection. It's about perfect moments and how much they count. I love you, Joe.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Tribute To My Child's Eyes

The twenty-mile ride to the school where I work usually takes me thirteen minutes, which I think is impressive. It's mostly Thruway driving, but just the same, I go ahead and rock that drive every day. I have reasons for having perfected it, not least of which is that every single day I'm in a big hurry to get home and see my annoying, stinky, yucky boys. They are my everything.

This morning my twenty-mile ride took me forty-five minutes. Fifty-five if you count the ten minutes I needed to pump gas. They've been predicting snow all week ("they" being the weather experts), down to the hour it would begin. This blows my mind, because you'd think the snow plows would be prepared. You'd think that with us being Buffalo, the snow plows would be prepared. You'd think with us being Buffalo, and having missing two consecutive weeks of school due to a massive snow storm, the snow plows would be prepared.

As of seven o'clock this morning, nothing had been plowed.

This made for a glorious drive for school, in which I muttered over and over to myself in the deafening silence that can only be created by snow, "I don't want my children to live without their mother." I kept my hands at ten and two and said a lot of prayers as the wheels of my four-wheel-drive SUV caught in the two ruts over the highway, dragging me this way and that way through wind and walls of snow. Tractor trailers blew boldly past me, only to be seen jack-knifed in ravines along the side of the road miles later. My windshield wipers kept clogging up with clumpy snow and then freezing, dragging smears of slush across my windshield. Off the Thruway, I had to pray hard as I approached green lights. "Please don't change, please don't change, I can't stop, I can't stop." This is winter driving in Western New York. Basically, a wing and a prayer.

I thought I was through the worst part of my day by lunch, and that things had cleared up by the time I was ready to head home after work. It had stopped snowing, and while the roads weren't totally clear they were drivable, patches of pavement visible here and there. I waited for my windshield to thaw out and began my twenty-mile trek.

Halfway there, my cell phone rang. This is usually a fluke. No one, I mean no one, ever calls my cell phone. Anyone who knows me well is aware I never answer it (I rarely know where it is except at work, where I can't answer it), and anyone else has dialed the wrong number. My dashboard lit up with alerts, the car began speaking to me (this is a design flaw, I think), and the number on my radio flashed to the number of my children's school bus garage.

Alerting me of a snow day to come, I could only assume.

"Hello?" I asked, ready for good news. I was expecting a robot voice, signature of the automatic call system that alerts us to emergency days off and other such nonsense. Once, to let us know the school district's phone systems were down. (Then how are you calling me, creepy robo-caller??)

"Mrs. Bielecki?" a very non-robotic voice said back. 

My heart dropped to my stomach. "Yes?"

"I'm the head of transportation in your children's school district. Your son Noah was injured on the bus. It seems he fell and hit his head on glass. He has a bad enough gash and is bleeding badly enough that we needed to alert emergency services and have them check him out."

Breathing has stopped. Heart is frozen. Knees are gone.

"I'm sorry. You called 911?"

"Yes, ma'am. The police are on their way, as well as an ambulance. Are you...can you get to him?" And he went on to tell me the specific location of the bus, just miles from where I was on the Thruway, but in that snow, in that moment, it felt like the other side of the world.

"I'm on the Thruway," I said helplessly, though I may have been yelling. Not at the transportation guy, but from sheer lack of control. And yet I knew, the driving was bad enough that if I didn't maintain control I'd get in an accident and be even further from reaching Noah.

"How far?"

"Ten minutes."

"Okay, ma'am, I'll have them wait. Can I give the police this phone number to reach you?"

After hanging up, I immediately called my mother. When your world turns upside down, who else is there? I swallowed, realizing that this was what Noah was thinking, as I scrambled through the "easy to use" touch screen to find my mom's number. 

"Stop yelling at me," she said, confirming my earlier suspicions.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm sorry."

"No, don't be sorry. I'll go right now."

By the time I arrived, I saw I had been preceded by two police cars, an ambulance, the fire department, the school principal, and my mother, all parked surrounding the confused-looking school bus, parked askew in a department store parking lot. I flew out of the car, trying not to slip on the slush-coated ice, and was halted by a fireman.

"I don't want you to be startled," he said without preamble. "We did our best, but there was so much blood, we had to bandage him up pretty good. We had to cover the eye that was cut, and we're calling him a pirate. I think he likes that." I began to walk on, but the guy stopped me. "Ma'am? He's a really great kid there. He's been real brave and hasn't cried once."

I moved to the bus door, from which my mom was emerging. She reached out and grabbed my arm. "He's fine," she said. "He's really fine. He needs to go to the ER, but he's fine. Probably just stitches." I nodded, and sort of felt myself passed along between the police officers, propelled up the bus steps. The driver stood to one side, looking like this might be the most surprising thing that had ever happened to him, and a policeman was kneeling in front of a heavily bandaged little boy, an EMT beside him. 

The little boy turned his head so his one eye could see me. The visible part of his face was coated in splotches of now crusty blood.

"Mommy?" His little voice. Small. Tiny. 

I was aware of the police and the EMT continuing to talk to me, of a clipboard being thrust in front of me and papers I needed to sign. But the only thing I really could see or understand was my little boy's one good eye.

Noah's eyes are so beautiful. They are my favorite part of his face. I love his eyes.

It was decided we did not need an ambulance, my mom took Joey in her car with the plan to meet me after our visit to the emergency room. "Everything will be okay," she kept saying. I only believed it because it was her saying it. Anyone else and I might have lost it.

Once in the car, Noah kind of perked up. "They asked me all kinds of questions! My name--they asked me that like a hundred times--and your name, and Joey's name, and where I live, and what my school is....isn't that silly? I mean, we all go to the same school!"

His newly adopted cheer prompted me to ask the really key question in all of this. "Honey, how did this happen?"

"Well, I don't know. The police wanted to know that, too. I was just sitting on the bus, when suddenly it went over a bump--or something--and it shook me so I fell into the wall and bumped my head on the window."

"Just the window?" I asked. "Was it cracked or something?"

"No, the metal part at the edge."

Rather than the hospital or one of the local hospital satellites, I opted for an Immediate Care as it was closest. I drove into an empty lot, and peered into the windows as I unbuckled Noah and helped him out of the car. No one was in the waiting room either. The receptionist leapt from her chair as we approached the doors and greeted us as they glided open.

"Oh, my," she said, eyes widening at Noah's horrific appearance.

We had a zero second wait. The nurses and doctor were wonderful. The gauze bandage that encircled Noah's head was removed to reveal his forehead totally coated in blood, but a completely clotted gash above his eyelash line. I swallowed hard when I saw it. Already clotted. Lucky. Right above his eyelash line. Lucky. Very, very close to his eye, but not his actual eye. Lucky, lucky, lucky. I had to remind myself what it meant to let air into my lungs.

And my little boy? So brave. Impressive, even. Not once did he cry. They tried continuing with the pirate theme. "I don't like pirates," he finally announced. "But I am brave." Yes, Noah. Very, very brave.

As if we weren't already praying our thanks, it was determined that he wouldn't even need stitches. The cut, big and deep as it was, could be glued. Just like that. Like this was Madam Pomfrey and we were at Hogwarts, not Immediate Care, and any second Dumbledore would enter with lemon drops. 

Just as the doctor was finishing up, my mother burst into the exam room. "Joey's at home with the sitter," she said. She glided to the bed upon which Noah lay and rubbed his leg. His uniform had blood all over it and he was wearing his big winter boots. He looked so small and silly.

"When I saw you there, Grandma, I knew everything would be okay."

And I knew exactly what he meant as my mother squeezed my arm, leaned in, and said, "You want to scream, don't you."

I did, Mom, until you came.

I am thankful that Noah is okay. I hope I never have to live through that--the not knowing, the scary phone call, all those emergency vehicles, that powerlessness. I am thankful that, in the end, it was a cut. A cut. My God. It's Christmas, and people suffer all over the world, and my kid has a cut. Thankful is not enough of a word.

But there's more. A feeling just as huge. I am hopeful that Noah will know I love him the way my mother loves me, and trust that I will be there the way my mom is always there. No matter what. No matter what.

And now, a few of the better pictures of my son's beautiful eyes.

 I love you, Noah Michael.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Is Old-Fashioned Research Valuable At All Anymore?

In the wake of a newsworthy snowstorm, I spent the last two weeks re-learning the ropes of Stay-At-Home Mom-dom. It was kind of crazy, readjusting to every waking minute with my three boys, trying to find that mental control in every particular moment and every particular situation that comes more from practice than any natural instincts.

I think I had the knack down by yesterday.

It was not easy, then, to have to return to my teacher self and put on the dress pants and shirt that may or may not make me look fat (and the only ones who care are me and the middle schoolers who examine me instead of paying attention to the life of Poe and how to effectively annotate his biography). But I did it. I woke up, I put the makeup on, put the dress pants on, and somehow made it out the door on time.

The walk up the stairs to my classroom was very hard. Many, many stairs. The halls smelled like school cleaner and I was greeted by the custodians repairing the radiator in my classroom, which had caused a small flood along the back wall while we were off last week. I realized I hadn't finished my coffee at home and my eyelids felt like they weighed a hundred pounds.

That's when I had my terrific brainstorm.

I would turn the timeline of Poe's life into a BOARD game! Who wouldn't want to play that game? Man! Almost as fun as Pin-the-Apostrophe-on-IT S, I knew, and I got started straight away. The playing cards would each be a year from Poe's life, detailing significant events that would have influenced his life as a writer. Or would they? I'm so tricky, I began throwing in other odd facts, too, like the birth of Florence Nightingale and the invention of Heinz ketchup (which didn't even occur until twenty years after Poe died! Bwahaha! You wish you had my job!). Pull those cards, and your game piece would be moving back one space, oh yeah!

So, clearly I was excited about the new development of the day's lesson. I decided that the class would be broken into teams, and within each team, every student would be assigned a job. Because I'm weird, some students were the dice rollers and some were the card readers, but one job I was pretty psyched about was the Fact Checker. I loved this because it would allow the teachable moment of, "Hey, this is actually a job in real life!" and "Isn't research fun?" The only problem I foresaw was that there was no computer for the kids to go to for quick searches, and I couldn't bring myself to invite their smartphones into the classroom. I'm just not there yet. So, instead, I brilliantly assured myself, "No problem, I have that old set of encyclopedias in the back. Since this was all during the life of Poe, all these events should totes be in the encyclopedias." Totes. And they were. No problem, right?


My first clue that something wasn't quite right was when the birth of Florence Nightingale card was pulled during my third class of the day. The group was huddled up, feverishly discussing how old Flo may have affected the life of my good friend Edgar, but their brows were furrowed. Their hissy hushed voices took on accusing and indignant tones. Finally, the Fact Checker was shoved out of his chair and he headed to the back of the room, where, during prior Rule Explaining, I had directed them to go for encyclopedia use.

The Fact Checker stood helplessly in front of the shelves (and might I add, they are very pretty, well-stocked shelves). He first reached for a textbook, but his hand was slapped away by a student in another group. "That is not an encyclopedia!" she scolded. (Middle schoolers are a helpful people.) Finally, the Fact Checker seemed to spot the correct books. Randomly, he grabbed one and flipped it open in confusion. It was the 'G' volume. Because everyone knows 'G' is for Florence Nightingale.

At this point, the group's time had run out.

The class turned to me, looking bewildered. "Uh, do they get to move ahead?" someone asked.

"Well, no," I said. "They can't tell me who Florence Nightingale is, so they definitely can't explain whether she influenced the life or works of Poe." (The answer was NO, no she probably didn't, as he was nine when she was born in Italy and their paths never crossed in any way worth mentioning.)

At this point, however, the class ended and the packing up commenced and the next class spilled into the room.

The card that spurred the job of Fact Checker in this class was the one that included the names "Dostoyevsky" and "Baudelaire." I began to feel evil as the Card Reader stumbled over the difficult spellings and then tossed it at the completely daunted Fact Checker. I waited with interest as he (oddly, it was always boys who were assigned this job by the groups) made his way to the back of the room and stared blankly at the bookshelves. After another painful turn, the Florence Nightingale card was pulled by the next team, and the poor Fact Checking boy from that group stood forlornly by the green bound books.

What the?

As the group scrambled to prepare some sort of answer, I moved to the back of the room myself.

"Do you know what an encyclopedia is?" I asked the class in general. Imagine my shock when thirty heads shook. No. The boy stepped away in relief.

I sighed. "Have you ever heard of Wikipedia?"

Further relief flooded their faces, like Yay! She's speaking our language now.

"We know what that is, but we aren't allowed to use it."

"It's all fake and made up!" shouted a helpful Hermione type.

"Yes, well." I picked up the encyclopedia volume labeled 'N.' "Wikipedia is a similar idea to an encyclopedia. You type a keyword into a search box, like--" I paused emphatically, "FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE, and then a whole bunch of information comes up, all about...Florence Nightingale."

"Yeah, but it's totally fake," interrupted another charming student.

"But it is helpful if you're looking for a quick gist," I pointed out. "If you're just wondering really quick, 'Who is this person?' Wikipedia is a good starting point for you to start figuring it out." I flipped open the 'N' volume and started fluttering through the pages. "Back in the olden days, after we climbed out of horse and buggy outside the ol' library, we used encyclopedias to do that same job. Only we didn't have a computer and we didn't have a search box. Instead, we asked ourselves, 'What is the first letter of the thing I want information about? I know! N for Nightingale! Then we found the 'N' volume of the encyclopedia. Do you hear how it kind of even sounds like 'Wikipedia?' Then we had to flip the pages to find the topic. The 'N' volume is filled with all the topics that start with 'N'. See how they're all in bold? And helpfully, they're all in alphabetical order, too. So I know 'Nightingale' starts with 'Ni-' so I'm just going to skip past the beginning here and...."

And then something sort of clicked in my head. This was absurd. These children were watching me like I was a lunatic. The Internet literally does all of what I was demonstrating for them. Why was I even bothering? But the book in my hand, tattered and faded and shredded along its binding, felt so solid. I looked down at it, remembering countless trips to the library in high school and college, using the card catalogue, returning to a glass top table and my arms laden with heavy books, which may or may not contain any useful information. My God. Research is a totally different thing now. And my students had absolutely no idea what went into it, because ninety percent of the steps have been taken out of the whole process. To them, it's "I just want to know real quick," and the idea of taking any time at all to lift a book was blowing their minds. And I'm not going to lie. It was kind of blowing mine, too.

So in the end, I guess the question is, was I asking my students to do something ridiculous, or is there still some value in knowing how to use reference books the old-fashioned way? I have no idea, but I do know that for now, all I have is those encyclopedias, and tomorrow, all those Fact Checkers have their work cut out for them.

Poor guys.