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Chandra's Blog

 

Wednesday
May232018

In the Homestretch

Last month, I went with our oldest son to CHOP for one of several pre-op visits for his upcoming surgery--what will likely be the third-from-final in a laundry list of operations for the condition he was born with. 

 This will be one of the biggest--as Hayden's skull has grown, the bottom half of his face has not kept up and he is slowly losing his airway. As his surgeon was explaining the procedure--using interior metal bars to move everything forward and anchor his neck muscles to jaw/chin, his assistant was scrolling through sixteen-and-a-half years of clinical photos of our boy.

We all turned to the screen, momentarily mesmerized by the representation of time passing in the face of a bald, intubated baby, to a chubby-cheeked toddler, to a little boy with wild, blonde curls, a crooked, jack o'lantern of missing teeth, a shaved head, a mohawk, a scowl, pre-teen bravado, a smidge of sideburns and facial hair, to a grinning version of the handsome big kid beside me. Even the ever-serious Dr. Bartlett stopped talking and watched with a tiny smile.

These clinical photos against a uniform black background are for measuring symmetry and airway, for monitoring growth and the possibility of other complications developing, but somehow, they represent so much more. They reflect resilience and the tenacity of a baby who was once not supposed to make it to the end of the week, to a young man considering following in the footsteps of the doctors who have treated him. Here we are, spitting distance from the finish line, a handful of hurdles between us and graduating from the CHOP craniofacial program.

The thing that feels different this time? The journey on this is Hayden's. Before, his surgeries felt like ordeals for us, the parents, to endure. See us try to distract a baby writhing in pain with his beloved Lovey Tiger, to stop a toddler wigged from anesthesia from pulling out his IV, holding a little boy down for a catheter while he screams WHY ARE YOU LETTING THEM DO THIS TO ME?, sitting through the fifteenth viewing of Beethoven while a pulmonogist pounds his tiny back, standing with him in a crime-scene of a shower as we eke out two feet of bloody packing from his nose and sinuses. Now, as one of Hayden's more recent surgeons put it, J and I are relegated to the role of sherpas. It is our job to schlep his gear and cheer him on as he climbs the mountain of recovery, solo.

 

This time around, what can I do? I can sew symbols of strength and river stones into a weighted blanket for his recovery. I can brainstorm a month's worth of liquid recipes and make lists of distracting John Hughes/Quentin Tarantino movies to round out his pop culture education. We can coordinate, as we did today on another ride to the hospital for pre-op, about when he wants me and J with him afterwards, and when he wants his girlfriend and friends to come visit, and how he will communicate this.

 

Today, after his pre-op appointment, they called us in to look at computer renderings of the procedure, including a 3D model of what he will look like afterwards. I held it together until we were walking to another wing for bloodwork.

 

"Why are you teary?" he wanted to know. "I'm the one who has to go through this!"

"Honey, I wish I could do it for you."

"But why are you crying? I'm going to be fine."

"I know you are. It's just, that last face on the screen looked a little like someone else. And I love you."

I put my arm around him and squeeze. He's running a fever today, and a little achy so he shrugs me off.

"You looked all grown up. You looked like a... man."

"I'm ready, Mom. I've been ready for months."

I don't know if he means the surgery, or growing up.

Probably both.

Then he adds, smiling my favorite crooked smile and squeezing me back, "And I love you too, Mom."

* *** *

 

 

 

 

Sunday
Mar182018

It is time...

 

"It is time..."

The famous line from Rafiki to Simba, in The Lion King, when the young cub is ready to grow up, face challenges and take on responsibility. 

I feel this--I have been feeling it--for some time now.

It is time for something new, and I am excited to share that not unlike a birth announcement, I am revealing something precious and dear, the product of love, hard work and a tiny spark of magic. 

A friend described this event as the perfect Venn diagram overlap of all my passions and skills. 

Welcome to the Summer Writing Retreat at Bryn Athyn College

This 4 day/night immersion experience combines the most desirable elements of both writing conferences and retreats.

WRITING The writing instruction includes professional, workshop-style manuscript evaluation, multi-genre master classes with incredibly talented guest authors, guided writing sessions and an industry agent/editor/publicist Q&A panel and pitch session.

RETREAT With single room residences in one of four charming stone cottages, the retreat incorporates daily yoga for all levels, evening meditation, fresh fare, local wine and beer tastings, hiking excursions in the Pennypack Nature Preserve, tours of the local Glencairn Museum and gothic Bryn Athyn Cathedral, and an evening jazz outing.

To see the specifc agenda for the weekend, plus our fabulous instructor bios, click: SWR AGENDA

To learn more about how to be part of this, click: SWR APPLICATION

In the process of inviting authors to come teach master classes, I pitched it as my fantasy summer camp--combining writing, learning, publishing, nature, summer's bucolic long days and majestic nights, exercise, mindfulness, fresh food, music and wine. Most important was that there be an element of community and camarederie, of inspring ourselves to sharpen our craft's tools, together, while feeding the often-isolated writer's spirit. Every single author I asked to participate said, "I'm in--either this year or next or the one after that, I am in." 

Back to that Venn diagram overlap. I said the only thing that would make this complete for all my passions to exist together in the same place is if we could all ride up on horseback. We'll see what can be arranged. 

 

Thursday
Dec082016

Finding Another Voice

It has been a little quiet here in the writerland, but I am still constantly tinkering with words. I have been teaching literature and helping students find their passion and voices for the past few years.

In that capacity, I continue to read and edit and hopefully, sometimes, inspire. I am brimming with excitement over my postapocalyptic fiction class in Spring 2017, (#itstheendoftheworldasweknowit255) and excited to tinker with my syllabus for Writing 202--response to literature.

 

 

But what about the dawn chorus, and morning writing of my own?

What about creating my own characters, and watching them navigate a plot, and spout dialogue and spin theme and meaning, instead of just teaching it?

At the end of the last semester, one of the students questioned me on my recent publication history.

"Well..." I told him, "I had some foreign translations of my novel published in 2013."

He frowned and asked, "But, what are you working on?"

I listed three projects--a widow/widower love story for the book club set, a coming-of-age story about an elite tier one ten-year-old hockey goalie who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, and a YA novel in a flawed, health-based utopia that my agent insists needs a female narrator, instead of the high school senior boy in the original draft.

(Out of superstition, I don't mention my current work on submission--a twisted tale of two women on either side of the same man.)

"But, so you are saying, it has been since 2011 since you've had an actual book published in the US?" he countered bluntly.

I nodded. The conversation ended.

The truth is, though I am still writing fiction, quietly, I am shifting my focus to creative nonfiction. I am writing more about our dogs and rescue kitten, about horses and our flock of chickens. As they grow and develop their own online lives, I tend to visit the topic of my kids-in-specific less, but still spend plenty of time on the subject of parenting in this strange new age. I am trying my hand at Hoffman's Natural, a lifestyle blog that celebrates the suburban granola family, lessons learned from a simple life during our year on an island, and products that we create, use and love.

If you care to follow me there as I try out a new voice of my own, here is the link: HOFFMAN'S NATURAL

And when there is fiction writing news, I promise to come back here and shout it from the ever-loving rooftop.

* *** *

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday
Oct082016

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

In one of my writing classes, we study the literary device of reverse storytelling. I ask my students to think of a moment in their lives they regret, a situation when they wish they could turn back the clock, do things differently, change the outcome. Then I tell them to write the story, backwards. Of course when I sat down to write beside my students, I thought of Nic.

* *** *

 

A FRIENDSHIP, IN REVERSE

 

In Memory of Nicole Rhoads Peppelman*

 

It was standing room only at her funeral, a service that brought none of the hundreds who stumbled out of the Cathedral into the cold, early spring afternoon any closer to closure. The air smelled like daffodils dripping rain, and our whispers tumbled similarly from our lips, asking, “How did this happen? How did we let this happen?”

 

Before that, I sent a text to her son, telling him we loved him, begging him to hold on. I could not fathom what he was going through.

 

Before that, my son, his friend, clung to a conspiracy theory with a tenacity far too naïve for 13. “Someone broke in and killed them both, Mom, someone killed his parents. A robber. A stranger.” Even after my son had watched the news and read the autopsy report some asshole posted on social media. Even after the boys’ friends had written words of strength on their arms in Sharpie, he crawled into our bed at night insisting, “The police need to find who did this.”

Before that, I threw up chai tea under a gunmetal sky and the chaotic slap of the news helicopters circling overhead. I accused our mutual friend of lying. I had been planting lillies when he told me. “You’re wrong!” I  told him, throwing my shovel down so it clanged against the driveway. “I’m sure it was a gun. He shot her and then shot himself. What you just said,” I swallowed bile, the warnings of the coming tea, “that’s a disgusting lie!”

“I’m sorry,” our friend backed away, hands up in apology—none of us needed any more  violence. “I shouldn’t have said anything. But my cousin is a first responder, he was there just now. It wasn’t a gun—it was a chainsaw.”

 

Before that, her ex-husband choked her, stabbed her and murdered her, before killing himself, orphaning their three boys. Their oldest son came in from playing basketball to find them.

 

Before that, she and I were holding our littlest ones on laps at an end-of-season game, cheering for our boys on the ice, bundled in Flyers fleece blankets and sipping powdered hot cocoa gone cold. She half-joked that she was going to smuggle her youngest home with her, even though it was HIS weekend to have the kids. Farther down the stands, he overheard her. The last time I saw his face it was twisted; an ugly, angry snarl.

 

Before that, he came to Sunday pond skating on a custody weekend, patiently tying their youngest’s skates, carrying a generous stack of boxes--steaming pizza--and though his skin was painted with the familiar ruddy tinge of rage and hard drinking, his eyes lit up watching everyone skate under the bare birch trees, chased by the dogs. We all drank a beer, leaning against the side of his truck, basking in the late winter sunshine that promised spring, and I remember I thought, he seems to be making peace with the divorce.

 

Before that, I wish-wish-wished I had grabbed her arm with my mittened hand and asked, under my frosty breath, “ARE YOU SAFE?”

 

Different rink, same kids on laps, he started a fight. Custody stuff. Coparenting stuff. Money stuff. He played to the crowd. It got ugly fast. Foul language, mud slinging. I wished for more than a wool hat for my daughter – earmuffs, noise canceling headphones even. I wanted to leave, for Piper’s sake, but stayed, thigh to thigh with her under our shared fleece blanket, trying to drown out his accusations by cheering loudly for our boys. Squeezing her hand. I am here. SOLIDARITY.

 

Before that, a Christmas party in someone’s basement, too much eggnog and red wine, and she made a not-funny joke about the state of their marriage—“Why do you think it looks like I have two black eyes?” And I thought, squinting in the twinkling holiday lights, “But it does look like you have two black eyes.” I said nothing.

 

Before that, I heard there were problems. That she was trying to leave him. Rumors, like fall leaves, swirling on the soccer field where we cheered on our boys from the sidelines. I didn’t ask. We talked about the game. I thought I was respecting her privacy.

 

Before that, they stood side by side at our Labor Day party, him in ridiculous lobster print shorts, her hair in a casual ponytail. We ate burgers and drank hard cider and swapped medical war stories about our boys while the husbands chatted about the upcoming sports' seasons, and the kids played tag in the wildflower field.

 

Before that, I picked our boys up at their house after summer roller hockey. Happy chaos. She apologized—she had served them Mountain Dew and Doritos. He had taken the furniture out of their carpeted living room, and they were playing knee hockey with all of our kids and more, one parent in each goal. Laughing.

 

Before that, we got babysitters and drank too many margaritas at a tropical themed swim team fundraiser. We broke into the school gym and played couples’ badminton, husbands and wives on opposite sides of the net. I asked him the story of how they met.

“All these years of us being friends, of our kids being friends, playing sports and I never knew your love story?” His eyes shone when he talked about a pick-up basketball game, how she caught his attention by dunking on him. And I remember I thought, Oh, he loves her so.

 

Before that, years and years before, we met on the field hockey field, when our boys were just babies on sideline blankets. She strode across the green grass with confidence.

“Hi, I’m Nic,” she introduced herself, smiling, swigging from a water bottle, gum snapping as she pulled her hair into a shiny ponytail. She drove a ball effortlessly down the field to me like it was a late spring dandelion fluff, like it was nothing, like she would do a hundred times in our games, a gifted, generous athlete. I liked her immediately.

And I remember I thought, smiling,  “We are going to be friends for a long, long time."

 

* *** *

 

This essay is posted with permission from Nicole's family to raise awareness of domestic violence. Donations may be made in Nicole's name to the Laurel House Shelter 5k. 


Thursday
Jul072016

Learning to Fall

For the third summer in a row, in the first week of July, Piper has fallen from something and broken bone(s). First, when she was 7, she fell off a pony on a trail ride. He caught her jaw/neck with his front hoof on the way down, and when she hit the ground, though he tried desparately not to, he stepped on her chest, breaking ribs, her collarbone and puncturing her lung. Two ambulance rides, two days in ICU, and eight months for her bones to mend.

 

Back on the horse literally and figuratively a year later, she was jumping a palomino at a friend's barn, and came off over the handlebars, breaking two bones in her right elbow and upper arm. Six weeks in a cast and six months of PT to regain her range of motion.

This summer, her first day of rock climbing camp, she was bouldering (climbing without ropes) a tricky V2, and at the top, 9 feet up, missed a hold and unfortunately, missed the landing mat as well. Sprained wrist and elbow fracture, left arm.

Another sweltery summer with a cast.

 

Piper and Mercy, July 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let me back up. This started last winter, with gymnastics. After two tough tumbles off a horse (my sport), J and I agreed to her pleading to try a season of gymnastics. 

 

 

Though we both had reservations about the culture of the sport, the inherent wear and tear on developing bodies, and it being a good fit for her, we thought it might help her learn to fall. 

We bought the leotards and basement tumbling mats, learned a whole new vocabulary--brannies and Bratayleys. When the Quiet Room at the gym where I usually graded papers was closed and I had to sit in the general waiting area, I suffered through disparaging stage mom monologues that made hockey parents sound like Dr. Sears.

"Mine's that one with the big butt who still can't get her pull over. Do you see her? Pathetic. She's never going to get her goddamn ass over the bar! I told her she has no hope of ever advancing if she can't pull this off. I make her practice at home, an hour each night, but, it's useless. Ugh, I can't watch." [pound pound pound on the glass] "Get your fat butt over that bar!"

This hopeless kid? She was five, maybe six.

Piper enjoyed the class, but complained that there was a lot of waiting in line. And then, one night in February, I said the wrong thing. She was watching floor routines on the computer, musing about competing and I told her we weren't on board with that, that to us, gymnastics was about learning body control and balance, having fun and tumbling, but she was probably too tall for the sport, long term. Though we don't have a crystal ball, she is already 4'6", and in the 90th% for height.

"What?" Piper narrowed her eyes. She paused YouTube and googled, "world's tallest Olympic gmynast." For the next ninety minutes, she railed at me, sobbing. "Why would you let me do a sport where I have no chance of winning in the Olympics?!"

After the storm subsided, she came back out of her room with the laptop, wiping her eyes a little sheepishly. 

"Here," she turned the screen to me. "Watch this. This is what I want to do." It was a video of Brooke Raboutou, the Colorado-based world-record setting rock climbing phenom. Later, when I dug back in the search engine history, I saw that Piper found this because she had googled, "best sport for tall girls with long arms and legs."


the tree from which our apple fell, New Mexico 1994

Perfect. For years, in college at Arizona State University, J's whole identity was as a climber. He traveled all over, Hueco Tanks, Joshua Tree, Smith Rocks--hiking in, sleeping on cliff faces, pushing himself. Plus, though we ride horses together, all three kids golf and play hockey, Piper has been hungry for something to do with her dad, just the two of them.

 

 

 

They joined the local rock gym. On her second day, she was conquering routes where I had maxed out, back in the pre-kid days when J and I used to climb. She asks to go to the gym nightly, begging to do one more route when her body is clearly maxed, hanging by her fingertips off the lip of our stairs to increase her grip strength. 

 

 

 

Piper and J take on a challenging 5'10

We agreed she may have found her sport. Solitary, independent, constant opportunity to reach farther, try harder, climb higher. She has this quiet, jutting chin determination, a steely, silent core that is just waiting to be challenged.

And then on Tuesday morning, her third route of the long awaited rock climbing camp, she fell.

The thing is, the staff didn't realize it, didn't even write an incident report, because she kept climbing. The rest of the day, she ate snack and lunch, tie-dyed her camp shirt, played team building games and continued to quietly top rope and boulder, with a broken arm.

When I asked her why she didn't have them call me when it happened, she said simply, "Because I wanted to keep climbing."

We talked about it last night while we went on evening walk with Sampson. I told her the coach had called to find out how she was, and was astounded to learn her arm was broken.

"Did you ask him if I can finish camp later in the summer, when my cast comes off? Will it be too late to try out for the team?" she worried, and I promised we would talk, thinking one positive from the fall is that at least now the coaches know this about her. One of the biggest challenges in coaching Piper will be teaching her to respect her limits, and how to fall.

"I'm stubborn, aren't I, mom?" Piper mused.

"Pip," I told her, "you're tenacious."

"Isn't that the same as stubborn?"

I thought about this.

"Well, to me, stubborn has a negative undertone. Listen to the word--stubborn, synonym: obstinant. I picture a grouchy, hard, face, someone who has dug in their heels, maybe to their own detriment. But tenacious feels like ferocious. Like a tiger. Like someone who will not give up, even when things are hard."

"Like someone who keeps climbing," Piper said, swinging her cast hand in mine, "even if they fall."

* *** *

Waiting for the cast room, CHOP, July 2016