West Versus East: The Birthday Edition (#219)

In my childhood house of a thousand siblings, there was only one day more exciting than Christmas.

My birthday.

On my birthday, I got to sit at the head of the breakfast table and preside over a plate of powdered doughnuts with candles. Powdered doughnuts might not seem very exciting compared to the Krispy Kremes and Voodoo doughnut delicacies of today, but back then they were a huge treat. Especially to a kid in a big family on a budget.

I also got a pile of presents (i.e., three). If there was a birthday cake later (or brownies, in the leaner years), I got the first piece. And I got seconds.

I got the front seat in the car.

For an entire day, the overlooked middle child was seen.

And I was queen. And it was good.

This is how I thought all birthdays should be. But as Australian-Asian blogger Mabel recently pointed out, every culture and every person is a little different when it comes to birthdays.

My husband Andy came from a Chinese-American family. He was the oldest boy, which meant he got most of the attention and food. As his family actually practiced family planning, he had enough food, too.

But birthdays and holidays? Nope. Andy remembers exactly one shocking Christmas with a tree and a ton of presents. He was sure Santa had made a mistake until his mom told him to open his gifts. Andy’s family never wasted money on pumpkins, turkeys, or Easter Baskets, either.

And birthdays? Andy’s grandmother, Popo, who grew up in China before the Communists took over, told him that it was better not to celebrate birthdays. “If you celebrate your birthday,” she explained, “evil spirits will take notice, realize you are still alive. Then perhaps they will remedy that situation.”

The first year we were a couple, I asked Andy want he wanted to do on his birthday.

Andy shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”

I was aghast. “It matters! It’s your birthday! You get to pick everything we do!”

“Really? I pick sex.”

I rolled my eyes and explained, “No, I mean, do you want to go out for dinner? Do you want me to surprise you or pick your favorite place? And what kind of cake do you want?”

“Uh, any cake that’s not from a grocery store,” Andy said.

“Are you kidding? I would NEVER! Who does that?”

“My mom. For my eighteenth birthday, she called me at work and told me to grab any kind of cake at Foodland on my way home.”

“I didn’t even have YOUR NAME ON IT?!” I screeched.

“Nope.”

My horror was complete. That year, and every year after, I made Andy a cake. From scratch. I even bought a Wilton cake-decorating set so I could write “Happy Birthday Andy” on it in my own icing, rather than the bitter frosting tubes from the grocery store.

Leveling the layers of Devil’s food (about hour 3)

Andy’s favorite was the three-layer Devil’s food cake with poured ganache frosting. For short, we called it six-hour cake, because that’s how long it took to make the sucker. Every year, Andy would say, “No, no, you’re busy, it’s okay, you don’t have to!”

And every year, I’d think of his 18th birthday cake from Foodland and reply, “Oh yes I do.”

Post-crumb coat, mid-pour of ganache (about hour 5)

The first few years, I invited friends over to celebrate. Then I added his cousins and Aunt and Uncle. One year his brother was even in town, and he also joined us.

The following year, when I asked what he wanted to do, Andy asked, “Please can we have a party for just us?”

“You sure that doesn’t seem boring? You won’t get as many good presents.”

Andy snorted and said, “Their presents aren’t THAT good. And last year there was hardly any leftover cake!”

“Wait. It’s the cake? You just don’t want to share your cake?!”

Andy mumbled, “Well, it’s really good cake. And it’s not THEIR birthday. They don’t deserve that cake.”

Now we celebrate Andy’s birthday alone and Andy eats his cake for a week.

And he is king.

And it is good.

Wretch (#218)

My mother loved being pregnant. When I was 10 and she was pregnant with Baby Brother, she gave up alcohol and cigarettes without complaint. Same thing when I was 11 and she had Baby Singing Sister. She rarely threw up and was always cheerful.

My older sister, the Judgmental Genius Doctor, had miserable pregnancies. Her nausea was so bad she wore ice packs while operating. She gained 75 pounds because only Dove ice-cream bars were appealing and food had a fifty-fifty chance of preventing her from puking. Once the nausea ended, her cervix became problematic. She spent months on bed rest to avoid an early delivery.

When I told Dr. Sis I was pregnant, she immediately asked how I was feeling.

“Good,” I told her. “I mean, a little cramping where my innards are rearranging themselves, but I don’t feel sick at all.”

“How many weeks are you?”

“No more than five.”

“Hahahaha, enjoy not feeling like shit while you can,” she advised me. “Which will be one more week.”

“You don’t know that,” I argued. “Mom felt great during her pregnancies. Dad’s mom was the one who was sick and miserable when she was pregnant.” Gram had been so sick with her third pregnancy that she’d had an abortion – in the 1950s. Gram only managed this because her father was a doctor with connections. I only learned about this then illegal procedure when I spent the summer with my grandparents and experienced A Summer Night of Too Many Martinis.

“You’re gonna be sick, too,” Dr. Sister predicted. “It’s in the genes.”

“Not necessarily,” I countered. “You’re tiny and built like our little Welsh Grandma. Of course you take after her. But I’m built like Mom, from strapping Germanic peasant stock. I’ll be one of those women who finish threshing a row of wheat, push out a kid, and finish the next row.”

“You can tell yourself that all you want. Don’t you remember high school?” Dr. Sis asked.

“Are you talking about the genetics part of Biology? Of course I don’t remember that. Or Geometry. Never used them again, they were completely useless–“

“I’m not talking about Geometry,” Dr. Sis interrupted. “I’m talking about you. Every morning…” She made a retching noise.

“Oh,” I said, remembering. “Shit.”

*****

I’ve been a night owl since infancy. I was the kid that always snuck out of bed, unable to sleep. Then I’d overhear my parents fighting and have to sneak back into bed. Once I hit adolescence, I rarely slept before midnight.

Our high school started at 7:30 AM. It took almost an hour to get there, either by school bus or driving, thanks to northern Virginia traffic. To manage staggered morning showers with low water pressure, 6 siblings, and 2 working parents, I had to get up at 5:30 AM.

Almost every school day, I either threw up or felt like throwing up until at least 8 AM. Sometimes I threw up waiting for the bus. Sometimes my sister, or friend, or boyfriend had to pull over so I could vomit. I had multiple winter scarves; they were for face-wiping, not fashion. The good news was that on the mornings I did throw up, I only did it once. After that, while I didn’t feel great, I didn’t feel queasy.

The fall of my freshman year, I begged to stay home. My father had no sympathy. “You always feel like crap,” he told me. “Unless you have a fever, you’re going to school.”

So I perfected the art of predicting actual heaves, as opposed to just feeling like I might puke. I learned to immediately assess every venue and vehicle for places I could get to quickly and heave with minimal clean up. Bushes, for example.

I also learned how to chew gum without teachers noticing.

During a particularly nasty morning episode in the kitchen sink as a senior, I heard Dad grouse to my stepmother, “I don’t understand this. I mean, she can’t be pregnant. Not for four years!”

Once I got to college, where the earliest I ever got up was 7:15 AM, my nausea disappeared. Research appeared, showing that adolescents need more sleep, and they need to sleep as late as possible, thanks to the biology of puberty. My body decided that puking was the best way of  punishing me coping with sleep deprivation.

Northern Virginia high schools now start at 8:10 AM — or later. (Thanks for nothing, fuckers.) Like many high school districts, they’ve learned that later classes mean higher test scores and better grades.

And possibly schools that smell less like puke.

*****

“All that high school heaving means it’s your body’s go-to response for biological stress. And pregnancy is NOTHING but physical stressors,” Dr. Sis said.

“You don’t have to sound so damned gleeful,” I muttered.

“I am not being gleeful. I’m just preparing you for the fact that you’re gonna start puking soon. Just like I did. Get ready.”

“No way. I already spent 4 years puking, that’s enough! I did way more vomit time than you. You only had six months, you poseur!”

The conversation deteriorated after that.

But my appetite did not. I passed the 6 week mark.

“Ha!” I gloated to Andy between bites of an In-n-Out burger. “Six weeks and I still feel great! I was right and I got the good pregnancy genes!”

My high lasted 12 hours. I woke up queasy the next day. I ate little oatmeal. It didn’t help.

I gagged brushing my teeth.

When I walked the dogs, I threw up in a neighbor’s yard.

“Goddamn it,” I said to the dogs. Sitting nicely, they cocked their heads at me as I dabbed my mouth with the precautionary wipe I’d stuck in Fey’s pack. “Dr. Sis was right. And now I’m gonna feel like shit for the next three months.”

I tried to look on the bright side. I hadn’t puked on my shoes. I’d at least avoided puking in the yards of my close neighbors. In fact, I’d made it to the yard of the jerk who shot raccoons (and ate them, but that’s another post, this one has enough nausea in it already). The vomit had missed my shoes and landed in a nice, concealing bush.

The dogs needed a walk. We forged ahead. I ignored the nausea when it returned, but I was ready with one of the dog’s plastic bags when I did have to heave again.

I used five bags on that walk. Only two of them were for dog poop. But we made it several miles that day, and almost every other day of my first trimester.

Various girlfriends and family members told me to stop being masochistic and make my husband walk the dogs. Sometimes I did. But mostly I kept trudging along.

I may never have used Geometry or Chemistry again, but at least there was one high school skill that proved useful later in life:

How to keep functioning while puking.

 

Not Your Ordinary Magic Wand (#217)

Finding out I was pregnant was anticlimactic. Because here’s the rule: you can’t tell anyone until you know it’s a viable pregnancy.

Actually, you can tell people, sure, but since 1 out of every 3 pregnancies ends in miscarriage, you run the risk of having to un-tell them later. Possibly while sobbing incoherently.

So I was stuck in this no-man’s-land of being pregnant – maybe – for two weeks while I waited for my obstetrician to officially confirm that a) my pregnancy tests weren’t liars and b) the embryo had a heartbeat.

Normally the only people you’d tell that early are the girlfriends or family members you’d tell you miscarried. Like your mom. Except my mother was dead.

My BFF, M, had already had five heartbreaking miscarriages of her own. I was too chicken to tell her I’d gotten pregnant easily. Of course she’d be happy for me. And yet…how would I feel if I’d wanted a baby for years and someone who’d  been pretty ambivalent about having kids got pregnant right away? I’d be happy for my friend, but I’d also be bitter enough to flip off the universe. And maybe my fertile friend, too, while she was looking in the opposite direction.

It’s kind of how I feel about writers who get their first book or screenplay published or sold immediately. Happy for them while also screaming “why not me?!” at a smirking universe.

I stayed quiet, waiting. Waiting for the moment you see in all movies, TV shows, and commercials, where the doctor holds the ultrasound wand on a pregnant belly and announces, “There it is!”

Or, alternatively, turns white and runs out the room to get a specialist because something is very wrong. (Since I’m always imagining scenarios with my close friend catastrophe, I was sure we were headed for that second scenario.)

Only my husband Andy knew about my pregnancy.

I didn’t feel sick and I don’t drink alcohol. No one suspected a thing.

Six weeks after my last menstrual cycle, we visited the OB.

It’s not like TV. Turns out, when the embryo is barely 4 weeks old, it’s hard to pick them up on a regular abdominal ultrasound.

Enter the wand. Yes, the transvaginal wand, which goes exactly where you think. The transvaginal wand even gets covered in a condom and lubed up before insertion. Maybe someday it’ll vibrate, but until then, Mr. Wand feels about as good as you’d expect, which is to say, not good at all.

Though not as bad as the curling iron/ vise the OB uses for your annual pap smear and woman’s wellness exam, at least. (Yes, I know it’s technically called a speculum, but that’s not remotely descriptive enough for that particular instrument of torture.)

But back to the exam room where a paper sheet covers my lower half and allows Andy, me, and the OB to pretend there’s no wand up my vaginal canal as we stare at the ultrasound monitor.

Nothing.

“Relax,” the OB tells me, moving the wand.

I glare at her, because never in the history of women being penetrated by a foreign object has ANY WOMAN EVER managed to relax just because the twerp initiating penetration simply suggested it. I settle for taking a deep breath and imagining shoving a wand in some of her bodily orifices. And maybe Andy’s too, since I know this is just the first of hundreds of poking and prodding indignities that I will endure while being pregnant.

“Good,” she says.

Apparently, I find images of violence relaxing. I file that away for the next appointment. Then I stare at the screen, willing an image to appear.

It does.  A tiny blob, smaller than a pinto bean, vibrates on the screen.

“That’s it,” says the doctor. “There’s the heartbeat.”

At that age, the barely-an-embryo is nothing but a heartbeat, beating almost twice a second. It’s not as complex as an earthworm, let alone an ant.

“That’s it?” Andy asks the OB.

I take immediate offense, answering, “Of course that’s it! It’s not even a fetus yet! What did you expect, a wave? It doesn’t even have arms! Or a brain!”

Andy asks again, “I meant, there’s only one, right?”

The OB says, “Yes. Just one. Were you hoping for more?”

Andy and I respond together: “NO!”

The OB looks startled, and so I explain, “My mom’s second pregnancy was triplets, but she lost them.”

“Ah. No, just one here.”

“Dodged that bullet,” Andy murmurs.

“Seen enough?” asks the doctor.

Andy, entranced by the vibrating bean on the screen, doesn’t answer. I tell the doctor yes, and breathe a sigh of relief when the wand withdraws.

I scowl at the vaginal violator as the doctor strips off its condom and ask, “Are you going to be using that thing for the next ultrasound?”

The doctor laughs. “No, no, as long as there are no complications, next we’ll listen to the heartbeat, then regular abdominal ultrasounds.”

And eventually, there’d be a baby.

Maybe.

I am sure this image is upside-down and equally sure my Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister will explain why. At some point. At length.