Category: Essays (page 2 of 2)

Essays by Ava Love Hanna

Saints and Starbucks

So the other night I had this dream that I was somehow entangled with religious fundamentalists and I was told to gather a few things that were really important to me before we all climbed onto a big tour bus. So there I was, crying and clutching my wedding ring, a manila folder full of papers… and a coffee maker…  That sounds about right, I *do* love coffee (and manila folders).

But I feel bad talking about my love of coffee; I’m not supposed to like it. While it might be a normal part of your day and there’s a Starbucks on every corner, I was raised Mormon and coffee was strictly off limits. It’s a part of the Word of Wisdom, a dietary code for Mormons that forbids coffee, tea, alcohol, and drugs. You know, all the fun stuff.

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Riding the Carousel

He wanted to ride the carousel at the mall. He’s five now, so I got on with him intending only to help him find an animal and climb up. The carousel was old and small, and wobbled as everyone climbed aboard. I put him on top of a brown horse with a flowing mane and wild eyes — It was a good fit.

He grabbed onto the pole with both hands, leaned into it, trembled a bit and looked at me with worried eyes as he surveyed how high he was and felt the wobbling of the ride before it had even begun. He looked up and noticed that the pole was at its low point and asked me if it would go even higher.

He is awake now, this little boy. Aware. He struggles with the lankiness of his legs, tries to understand his changing body as he faces growth spurt after growth spurt in an unrelenting parade. He is no longer an over confident toddler who charges into battle, he sees the world around him and senses danger, feels overwhelmed by noises, is trying to find his place.

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Contemplative Ennui at the Blanton Museum of Art

I am standing in a museum surrounded by marble statues of people from worlds long gone; they are echoes of some other unreal time. History is like that to me, it never feels real.

I pick a bench in a sunny, windowed corner to sit and write. I’ve come here to try to dispel the dark clouds that have been chasing me this week… to try to numb the swollen ache in my heart. I thought the art might help, that it would give me something to look at so I could get out of my head for a little while. Maybe, it would ease some of this ridiculous pain. Instead, I feel every piece. It’s like they’re all playing on the same vibration as this depression; each one feels like a thumb pushing on a deep bruise.

The Blanton Museum of Art - Austin

I am mourning an inexplicable loss, something that doesn’t exist, has no resolution, and I am powerless to make myself feel whole. I’m a control freak, so this kind of thing sucks. All I can do is wait it out.

Is it her? Is that what they like? I compare myself to every woman who walks by and every piece of art. Notice how imperfect I am. I have a thing for perfection, or rather for being perfect.

Recently, I started to people-watch and noticed for the first time in my life how men will stare at certain women. Grown men will slow their cars to watch a young woman in shorts cross the street, a woman in a dress walking past the entrance to West Elm causes a conversation to halt while the three men crane their necks to watch her walk by. It is creepy, this level of unabashed focus that I’m seeing men devote to a woman who is merely crossing their path. I’ve never paid attention to it before, and now I can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere and I feel like I’m losing a competition. I’m pretty enough, but my strong suits have always been humor and intelligence… not the kind of things that random men notice when I walk down the street.

The modern art made me sadder. I can’t really explain why. I stared at the replicated cardboard box, sleeping bag, pack of cigarettes, marble sculpted trash bag. A marble trash bag… that’s what I feel like sometimes… a waste of materials and talent.

I can’t let go. The sky is divided – filled partially with angry sun and heavy, dark clouds. They tease rain, but won’t let it go. It is both sunny and potentially stormy, I’m caught in the tension.

The statue in front of me has no head or arms, and is missing its legs from the knees down. Incomplete or damaged, I don’t know. It’s only a replica, so I feel nothing when I look at it; none of the artistic energy of the real one is there.

I whisper to the universe, If you ever loved me, let the rain fall.

What about that statue, the topless one. I wonder if they prefer the curve of her breasts; if she meets the standard. I wonder how many would turn to look at her in a crowded restaurant or bar.  Even minerals are my competition. I stare at her breasts and feel a sense of loathing for her – for her perfect breasts, their shape and lift, for her look of contentment. I feel an alliance with the male statue across from her: poorly endowed, exposed, and forced to stare forever at her ample perfect chest.

I am not enjoying marble today.

I leave and enter the calm quiet solemnity of the masters – perfect imperfection – ample bodies and vacant empty stares. I stand for a long time in front of a Flemish portrait of a man with a curved mustache. His look is so sad; he’s pale, anemic. He stares at me while I examine his facial hair. It’s so realistic; I can’t even see the strokes. I want to climb into the painting and touch his mustache.

It’s cool and dark in here which matches my mood. All around me are paintings of saints and sinners. I’m stuck, standing still in front of The Visitation. I think it’s about the Virgin Mary but all I can focus on is the donkey in the corner staring at me, upstaging everyone else. He’s looking at me as if to say, “Pfft, I know, right?” I nod. I like this room, everyone in the paintings looks like they’re rolling their eyes.

I walk a few steps, but I’m stuck again, this time in front of another portrait of a man with sad eyes and a mustache. Maybe I stop here because he’s looking at me, while everyone else is looking off to one side – like they know they’re in the painting, but want to act casual. This guy though, he looks right at me, and I can feel his hurt or maybe he feels mine… or maybe his collar is too tight.

I leave the dark cool space and find myself in the hallway, assaulted by sunlight. The clouds look like they are giving up and the sun is claiming the sky. I feel heartbroken by the brightness, I turn and give one last look at the donkey who still gets me, scoff warily at the giant reproduction of a milk carton near the entrance, and head towards my car to find that despite the sun, one cloud – one persistent cloud – waited for me, and gives rain to blanket my path.

Video – The Vagina-Mommy Incident – LTYM 2013

Earlier this year, I was chosen to read an essay about motherhood as a member of the 2013 cast of the Listen to Your Mother Show.

It was an amazing night full of wonderful stories by talented writers all celebrating motherhood. I was so honored to be a member of the cast this year.

Here is the video of me reading my essay, The Vagina-Mommy Incident. It’s about the time I thought it would be a good idea to tell Kai the proper name for our genitals and how great that went…

Thank you so much Ann Imig for creating this wonderful event! And, thank you to Wendi Aarons, Liz Mcguire, and Blythe Jewell for producing the Austin show so that I could get up and say the word vagina over and over in front of a room full of people. It is an experience I will always cherish.

The 2013 Cast of Listen to Your Mother Austin

First Day of Summer – Pale Girl Edition

Seeing as how today is the first day of summer, I feel it would be appropriate to celebrate this day by saying, omg, I can’t stand summer.

I’m not a fan of summer for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I get SAD in the summer.

Summer SAD Homer

Seasonal Affective Disorder (or its cutesy acronym SAD) is depression that occurs during certain times of the year.

Most people who have the disorder get it in the winter because it gets dark and they get mopey and are all,

Maaaaaan, I miss summer,

and I’m like,

Whatever losers! Woo Hoo! Dark and cold rocks! Let’s run naked through the woods!  – right in their sad faces.

Now, however, it’s summer and I’m sad and moody and the rest of the world is like,

Yay summer! A million degrees! Sweating! Pools! BBQ’s! Mosquitoes trying to eat off our faces! or whatever. (Also, I am very sorry about getting all up in your faces last winter.)

So yes, most people who get SAD get it in the winter, but there is a summer version and it is the more rare form of an already rare disorder:  “About 5 percent of adult Americans are thought to have winter seasonal affective disorder; researchers estimate that fewer than 1 percent have its summer variant.”  Or so says the New York Times.

I’m one of those less than 1 percenters…  because I’m all pale and mysterious so I get cool disorders that make me hide away in my dark house most of the day… and when I do venture out I’m withdrawn and moody, wear big black sunglasses and sigh dramatically.

Researchers are still unsure if it’s the heat or the light or a combination of both, For me, it’s not so much the heat (though omg it sucks), it’s the light… more specifically the WAY the light is shining. It’s too bright, it’s coming in at a weird angle. I feel out of sync with the rhythm of the planet at this time of year. My circadian rhythms are off, I feel out of sorts. My pockets hurt.

It’s like my brain is now cued for sunset instead of sunrise. I feel “weird” all day and fight off melancholy, and then as the day wanes and the light shifts, I feel okay again. Usually around 8 pm every night I start to feel the depression lift and I am suddenly and inexplicably myself again.

Off and on for the next few months I will battle this depression, and it sucks.

On the one hand, at least I know what it is. On the other hand, I hate knowing that it is a real thing and not just my imagination. Honestly, I think that this disorder affects more than one percent of the population. My facebook, twitter, and blog feed are filled with friends talking about feeling down for no reason right now. It almost seems that as a society we’ve become so desensitized to the seasons and nature that maybe we aren’t aware that as the planet moves, as the seasons change, that we, too, are affected.

Unlike the winter variant which involves staring at a lightbulb (or something), there is not a lot to help with summer SAD.

Summer Sane Homer

So, I fake it and make myself shower and work and all those normal human things even though I am totally not feeling it. I try to avoid pacing. I try to make myself sleep like a normal human. I watch Doctor Who. We pick our Halloween costumes and start working on them. We begin planning our big fall vacation. And when I feel like I can’t breathe, when I feel like this will never end … I will stop and breathe and try to remember that this will pass. It will take a few months, but it will pass.

Needless to say, our family will be hiding inside most of the summer, at least during the day. And when you invite us to your “It’s a million degrees – Let’s sit in direct sunlight and get sweaty – We love summer extravaganza!” parties… and you will… I will smile politely, thank you enthusiastically, and then silently count the days until fall. Oh, and next winter, when the tables are turned, I promise not to get all up in your sad face again.

 

The Vagina-Mommy Incident

The Vagina-Mommy Incident

** Update: The video of me reading this essay in the Listen to Your Mother Show – Austin is available here: http://avalovehanna.com/vagina-mommy-ltym/ **

Today, I went to use the restroom and through the cracked door I heard my 4 year old saying, “Hey, you’re going potty, but you don’t have a weenie.”

I froze, partially because of my son’s obvious lack of bathroom etiquette, and partially because I could sense there was something serious about this moment. My son was aware that we were different in a fundamental way and that was probably a big deal.

“Yes, you’re right,” I said slowly, trying to decide what to say next. I could hear the mixture of confusion and curiosity in his voice as he pondered the situation and I wanted to help him understand. So, in some delusional moment of over-confidence I decided:

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Why is My Fetus Trying to Ride a Bike?

His first word was mama.

Actually, it was probably something more like mmm mmm mmm,  but I totally knew what he meant.  Soon, it became a clear ma  ma  with a cute little pause between the syllables. I loved hearing it.

I remember one time when he was six months old, his grandfather tried to hold him and carry him into another room to watch a football game. This decision was met with screams and tears. I took my baby back into my arms, and then, his little body filled with all the infant indignation he could muster, he looked right at his grandpa and shouted, “MA MA”  as though to say, How dare you take me out of sight of my mommy, you crazy man? He put his head on my shoulder, patted my back with his tiny hand, and whispered ma ma” to me next, reminding both he and I that this is where he belonged.

Ma ma soon turned into Mommy, which is my favorite word in the entire world… and that’s probably a good thing considering I hear it about a million times a day starting at 6:30 am.

It feels so good to be needed, to be loved so completely, to be honored with the title Mommy.

I remember watching the movie Father of the Bride and seeing Steve Martin see his daughter as a literal little girl. I’d heard older adults speak of their adult children and say things like, she’ll always be my baby. Before I became a parent, those things meant nothing to me. I thought, oh I can’t wait. I can’t wait to run and play and ride bikes together. I can’t wait to grow with him, to honor his stages of development.

And now, here we are and the stages are coming so fast… too fast; they are stacked on top of each other.  It seems like every time I close my eyes, I open them to a different child.

It feels like yesterday when he was only our “two-bite baby” (we used to track his growth as a fetus by how many bites we thought it would take to eat him, like how they sell brownies…) He was just a gray and white swirl in an ultrasound picture, and now he’s running, talking about kindergarten, and trying to ride a bike with no training wheels.

I’m breathless from trying so hard to catch each moment, to see each new thing… Yes, I tell him, a hundred times a day, Mommy’s watching – and I am, I really really am –

and then… and then… this fetus, this newborn… calls for me from the backseat and says, “hey, mom.”

MOM.

It went like this:

Kai: Hey, Mom
Me: What did you just call me?
Kai: Mom, it’s the first part of Mommy, I call you Mom sometimes now.

aaaaand that’s all I could hear because the rest was drowned out by the sound of my heart SHATTERING INTO A MILLION PIECES.

I know I’m technically his mother, even his mom. But, I’m his Mommy… there’s so much weight in that word, Mommy. He’s the only person in the world who can call me that. It’s his name for me; it’s who I see myself as now. Five years ago, I was Ava, just Ava. Now, I’m Ava+: I’m Kai’s mommy.

Moms make you dinner, buy you clothes, and drop you off at school.

Mommies are holders and kissers, boo boo healers, adventurers, puppet makers, night-night time story tellers, hand holders, and first loves.

I’m raising him to be independent. I’m raising him to be strong. I’m raising him to not need me so much, and that is harder than I could have ever imagined. It’s so hard to know that if I’ve done this job right that he will call me mom… I just didn’t think it would be so soon.

Inside I’m still ma ma, still mommy whispered in his sweet baby voice as he falls asleep holding my hand. But now, though I’m not ready, he is, and so I’m also his mom as he experiments with being a big boy, as he toys with independence.

Every night after he’s asleep I stare at the boy he has become: I see how tall and strong he is, how defined his chin looks, how big his hands are. And then, I do what I will do every single night that he lives with us, I lean in to kiss his forehead, stroke his hair… and then his mom whispers to him: my sweet baby, mommy loves you.

Optimus Prime vs the English Major

It was 6:30 am. 6:30 in. the. morning. It was dark outside. Birds were sleeping. I should have been sleeping… instead I was sitting in bed trying to shake off the delirium from having been awoken suddenly in the middle of a dream and trying to comprehend why I was holding a half transformed Optimus Prime toy. A few inches from my face were the big bright wide awake eyes of my four year old.
“Do it mommy! Transform him back into a truck!”

“Huh? What?”

“I need him to be a truck again. I made him a robot, but now he wants to be a truck.”

“Okay. Yeah.”

Optimus Prime waiting to be turned back into a truck at 6 am

I’d been parenting for five years – I wasn’t fazed. Of course my four year old was awake and in my face. Of course I needed to transform this toy right now before the sun came up.

I turned the toy over in my hands. I remember Transformers, I love robots, I can totally do this. I looked Optimus over with my bleary sleep deprived eyes. Hmm. I moved limbs, twisted pieces different directions. He was definitely transforming into something… but he looked less like a truck and more like an unfortunate robot that had had a run-in with a truck.

Oh crap. This was freaking hard. Kai was watching my every move and I could tell he was beginning to suspect the obvious. I could not transform this toy.

For those of you who are unaware: transformers are hard… like ridiculously hard. They are a 3” child’s toy that comes with a full page of instructions. A FULL PAGE. When we bought Optimus the day before, Paul was home. I saw him and Kai playing with it without issue and so I made a terrible mistake, I didn’t read the instructions.

Now, it was Monday and Paul had gone into work early. I was on my own with Kai and Optimus-the mangled truck bot-Prime. I was starting to panic a little. Then, in a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life, Kai looked up at me and said encouragingly, “Come on. Daddy can do it.”

What he was actually saying is: Daddy can do it. Why can’t you?

It was then that I realized that my vast amounts of education and advanced degrees from prestigious universities meant nothing. Kai was unimpressed. Knowledge is relative it seems. I may have studied the Didascalicon, and the works of Rousseau and Woolf. I may have written papers on the importance of Mozart’s operas, or wowed literary scholars when I compared Voltaire’s Candide to the plot structure found in a work of Russian literature. It didn’t matter; I now lacked the one skill that my son found valuable: transforming Japanese auto-bots.

I sent Paul a quick text message: “Omg. I can’t transform Optimus. Kai thinks I’m stupid. Please help me” and waited for inevitable “What’s really happening?” response text. I then set out to find the instructions for Optimus’ transformation. If there’s one thing my degrees DID teach me, it was how to look up weird obscure stuff on the internet.

Parenting is teaching me that the world that I thought I knew pre-child, and the skills I had developed based on that idea are vastly different from the ones that are of actual value to me now. Maybe one day I will again spend my time with academics who care about my opinions on which translation of Beowulf is the best, but for now, I need to learn to integrate my education with my actual knowledge. Education is most valuable when it transforms us into something that helps us to advance ourselves and those around us.

Maybe I should have studied the Didascalicon a little more closely. Hugh of St Victor felt that it is the integration of the different areas of knowledge that leads to human perfection. This is where children are the perfect teachers. Everything is one. For Kai, transforming a robot is as important of a skill as feeding him, reading, or writing. He hasn’t applied preconceived values to knowledge. The knowledge that will help him in the present is the most valuable.

And that’s another thing I’m learning from Kai. He is always present. Right here, in this moment, nowhere else. He worries little about the past or the future, but what his feelings and needs are right now. And right now, he needed me to transform his robot.

With a little help from obsessive Transformer fan forums, phone coaching from Paul, and some patient encouragement from my son, I eventually transformed Optimus back into a truck. I won’t lie, when I slid that last piece into place and saw the tiny truck in my hand… it felt freaking awesome.

My son, whom I am tasked with teaching, is teaching me. I’m learning what’s really important, I’m learning to be present, and more importantly I’m learning how to transform myself into what he needs.

**UPDATE: This essay was featured in the family section on BlogHer.com!  http://www.blogher.com/optimus-prime-vs-english-major

Save the Limes!

Yesterday I was sitting in the living room eating a protein bar. Kai was eyeing it so I asked him if he would like one too. He’s five now, so of course his answer wasn’t just “yes,” instead he told me to wait there and he would go to the kitchen by himself and get his own snack.

Of course.

Because being five means that you do everything yourself even the things you shouldn’t attempt and of course all of the things that make his father and I think, oh my god why is he trying to do that himself doesn’t he know he’s only five??  Independence is awesome. Bull headed independence with no experience or wisdom to back it up is terrifying. Five might give me a heart attack.

Kai went into the kitchen without turning on the light and headed towards what I thought was the pantry. Instead, I heard him moving along the counter and then a rustling near the bread basket, followed by the sound of shattering glass.

Paul and I had the millisecond look of shared terror before we both instinctively screamed “don’t move! don’t move!” into the dark kitchen while leaping up because we heard movement and gave each other the even more terrified oh my god he’s totally moving isn’t he?  face.

Already my mother brain was imagining all of the worst possible scenarios: a shoe-less five year old covered in broken glass, a trip to the ER, stitches, etc. What I didn’t expect to see was my five year old racing out of the dark kitchen… clutching two limes.

Huh?

He was visibly freaked out and panting, clutching these two limes as those his life depended on it. As we neared him he said, “I saved the limes! I knew this would happen and so I saved the limes!!”

What. the… huh?

I checked him over and fortunately he was wearing shoes. Shoes! Hurray for shoes! I don’t know why he was still wearing them. We had been home for nearly 30 minutes, and normally his clothes explode off of him the second we walk in the door. It’s kind of amazing really. I will be just setting down my keys and somehow he’s in his underwear. For some reason, he was still fully dressed. No cuts, no glass on him, he was okay… but the deal with the limes? I don’t know.

I hugged him to me (still clutching those limes), calmed him down, and told him we didn’t care about the glass, only his safety. He looked into my eyes with all the sincerity in the world and in his proudest voice told me, “I’m so happy I saved those limes.”

I nodded knowingly.

Paul asked him, “why did you get the limes, did you want to eat a lime?”

“No,” he said very matter-of-factly, “I wanted a protein bar, I just saved the limes.”

Right. Yes. The limes needed saving and he saved them.

I hugged him again and reminded him that when a glass breaks he should stand still and never run over it. Then I got him his protein bar (out of the pantry, not the bread basket) and sat him out of the way while we cleaned up.

Paul was sweeping and caught my eye, “limes?” he whispered.

I shrugged and we laughed hysterically.

I still don’t know what the deal is or was with the limes, but they now have a place on honor on the kitchen counter. These aren’t just any limes, these limes were saved.

Five, it seems, is going to be full of over confidence, near misses, and downright weirdness. It feels like when Kai first learned to walk: he charged forward and I scrambled around him clearing the path. He got to do the walking, I got to race around him making sure he didn’t fall and keep him safe. This is five: a big giant baby charging forward and me scrambling just out of sight letting him think he’s doing it all by himself.

I’m still learning about the insanity that is five. In the meantime there is something I do know for sure: in this house, the limes will always be safe.

The Bathroom Cheerleader

I was packing for a family trip back to Houston. The commencement ceremony for my Master’s degree was the next morning and I had decided to participate. I was torn between feelings of both pride at my accomplishment and dread at wearing the regalia when I heard a faint cry from my son’s bathroom.

“Mommy…. Mommy, I need you.”

I dropped the gown and hood and ran into his bathroom to find him sitting on the toilet looking pale.

“What’s wrong baby? Are you ok?”

“No,” he replied breathily like a solider just off the front line, “I can’t get the poo poo to come out; I need you to cheer for me.”

What?? He wanted me to cheer for him… to poop??

I stood stunned for a second. I was upset that my son was in obvious physical distress, but I was also beginning to feel the creeping dread that every parent knows quite well: my child is going to ask me to do something weird and uncomfortable that I wouldn’t want my friends to know about…and because I’m a good parent, I’m gonna do it.

I stood there silently for a moment and then asked him in a weak voice, “cheer? For you to poo poo?”

“Yes,” he whispered, “you know, the potty cheer,” and he started to sing it.

The dread sharpened. I now knew exactly what he was asking of me… and it was not awesome.

The Potty Cheer

Potty training didn’t come easy in our house. There was no “training” per se. Kai simply refused to use the toilet. Refused.

The whole “let children advance at their own rate” thing that Paul and I had practiced rapidly became, “oh my god what If we screwed up, why didn’t we teach him how to use a toilet, we are the worst parents ever and will be changing diapers on a grown man.”

Kai was always a bright and articulate child, the kid who flew past milestones months early: crawling at 5 months, walking at 9 months, and running away from us by his 1st birthday.  So, as a sort of cosmic balance, he refused to use the toilet at all until he was 3.5 years old. There was no “potty training.” He wouldn’t use the potty, and then one day he used it perfectly.

During those last few non-toilet weeks, Paul and I went a little crazy. We are not bathroom people, we don’t like potty humor, but having a kid who won’t use the toilet will break down the best of us. We became simply ecstatic about the bathroom, going on and on about how great it was to use the toilet, and how fun it would be to use the restroom in public. See? Crazy people.

One day, we were watching a cartoon called “The Mighty Bee” which has a super-fast intro song that repeats the words, “Bee, Bee, Bee, Bee.”  Later that day, when Paul had somehow convinced Kai to actually sit on the toilet, he started singing, “Kai’s gonna use the potty, he’s gonna Pee, Pee, Pee, Pee.” And that, it seems, made a huge impact on Kai. He didn’t use the potty that day, but apparently held onto that song, and labeled it, The Potty Cheer.

So, here he was months later, requesting me to sing The Potty Cheer to help him. I was confused.

“Baby, isn’t that song about pee?”

“Yes,” he said, “but, I need you to sing it with poo.”

Right. Yes. Of Course. I need to sing about poo.

I sat down on the edge of the bathtub, ran my fingers through his hair, and gently sang to him, “Kai’s gonna use the potty, he’s gonna… poo, poo, poo, poo,” over and again until he felt better.

Nothing else mattered in that moment. I was about to have a Master’s degree conferred upon me the next day, I was being asked to submit applications for PhD programs, some of my work was being published… none of that mattered. Those things didn’t matter to Kai and they no longer mattered to me.

I was sitting on the edge of the bathtub singing to my little boy, cheering for him. He trusted me. He believed in me. He knew that I would help him feel better, that just the sound of my voice could fix his body. He knew it.

He didn’t think it or hope it, but he knew it –and that is powerful stuff – powerful, transformative stuff.

My son may have made me sing to him while he was on the toilet, but in return he makes me a better person. He makes me stronger, braver, more gentle, and yet, more fierce. When I am his mommy, I am not the awkward 30-something woman still trying to figure out adult life. I am not the scared and lost little girl I accuse myself of being all the time. I don’t need degrees or accolades to feel whole in his presence. He makes me whole through his trust and love… even when that trust equals bathroom singing.

I am his mommy, and I will sing at the top of my lungs in every bathroom in the world if he needs me to. I will sing songs about things that I would have sworn 5 years ago I would never sing about. I may feel silly or awkward later when I retell the story, but in that moment when he cries out, “Mommy, Mommy, I need you,” I will come running and I will cheer for him.

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