“Merit Badges”

I recently wrote an essay for a competition that I did not win, and so I will not get to go to Oakland, California to meet Anne Lamott and Kelly Corrigan next month after all. Nor will I receive a call from a senior editor at Random House/Ballantine. Or from the Executive Editor at O Magazine. Or from a top literary agent at ICM. Oh well, I didn’t know what ICM stood for anyway! And I still thoroughly enjoyed the writing process and  honing my essay down to less than 800 words (799!).

I followed the guidelines: “Notes & Words is looking for the next great memoirist. We’re calling for short personal essays about the challenges of caring for a child (age 18 or younger), including medical issues (e.g., an accident, illness or diagnosis) or emotional crises (e.g., a death, divorce, breakdown) or one of any one of the more common parenting dramas (e.g., academic, social, athletic, epicurean).

I thought my life situation fit the subject matter perfectly, and so I wrote to the contest theme. Since my essay wasn’t chosen, I’ve decided to “publish” it myself here on my blog. Let me know what you think – could I possibly become a great memoirist if I keep plugging away? Thanks for reading!

Merit Badges

“This year’s winner of the Trentini Scholarship, worth $24,000, is  …. Caroline Craft!”

Without thinking, I gasped as my beautiful daughter made her way to the podium, holding up the shiny gold taffeta of her long prom dress so she wouldn’t trip. How on earth had I forgotten to check to see if it needed hemming?

Brushing away tears, I watched Caroline deliver an unrehearsed acceptance speech with poise, grace and humility. I glanced over at my ex while I squeezed my husband’s hand, marveling that the committee had presented the prestigious community award to a child from a broken home. I thanked God she had managed to thrive despite the divorce and my chronic illness.

Hallie was eighteen months old and Caroline four and a half on November 25, 1990, the day I awoke with what would later be diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. One week I was a full-time mom juggling my own part-time marketing and PR business, exercising with Jane Fonda and bopping to Jazzercise music. The next week I was flat in bed with a low-grade fever and pounding headache, my throat swollen, my legs hardly able to carry me to the bathroom. Little did we know how long this bizarre, unpredictable disease would last or how distressing it would be for our family.

Brain fog distorted my short-term memory. I struggled to recall that grapes, not raisins, were what the girls had ordered only moments before with their sandwiches cut in “triangles, not squares, Mama!” With the blue ice pack on my head, a heating pad on my legs, I wrote sad poetry through tears while, outside, a babysitter answered “Yes, you may” to “Mother, may I?”.

Out of desperation I created a “treat kettle” for when I simply had to have a two-hour nap, long past the time the girls had outgrown theirs. I filled my Grandma Ginny’s old copper kettle with strips of paper on which words described fun, but sedentary, activities we could do together if I got my nap. I prayed Social Services wouldn’t find out I slept while my young children played, unattended, in their rooms. When the big and little hands of the clock showed the appointed hour, they could wake me up. We’d draw a treat from the kettle: “color with crayons in bed with Mama,” “read library books in bed with Mama,” “watch old Caroline videos together,” activities I could do, even on pretty bad days.

I made merit badges from construction paper – yellow circles with blue paper ribbons taped at angles, the words “MERIT BADGE” printed in black Sharpie. Awarded spontaneously when the girls had gotten along particularly well, these paper prizes encouraged behavior that allowed me to get a much-needed respite from the typical harried life of a mother. Merit badges could only be cashed in when Mama was having a “good day” and able to drive, but they were prized carrots dangling in the background of our lives. They offered trips to The Corner for strawberry, lemon or bubblegum-flavored ice cream; to Delectable Delights for gummy bears and fresh squeezed orangeades. Usually, we’d stop by the library to get new books – Berenstain Bears, Curious Georges, Amelia Bedelias.

As months turned into years, the illness took its toll on my marriage. I tried my best to shield my daughters from the increasing anger their father felt at the illness, but directed toward me.

“Why do you stay married to Daddy? He yells at you all the time,” Hallie questioned at age eight. A year later we split, all four of us sad.

As I heard Caroline acknowledge the other finalists so graciously, tears of elation mixed with grief slid down my cheeks. I recalled how many years I’d been repeating the same excuses to teachers and room mothers: “Maybe next semester I’ll be able to volunteer more or bake some cookies, but now I can only send in paper products or snacks I can buy ahead of time.”

Yet we must have done something right. Both our daughters were happy, healthy and successful, despite their challenging childhoods.

While Caroline thanked her parents, I recalled the many weekends we had sent the girls away to visit their grandparents to give us a break. I’d felt guilty imposing on my parents, despair at losing time with my kids. I remembered cheerfully singing Wee Sing songs with a splitting headache on the 45-minute drive to our rendezvous exit, blowing goodbye kisses in the air, then popping pain pills, releasing guttural sobs on the weary drive home.

Tonight my tears were different, my heart somehow even more intensely full than when I’d given birth. Caroline had won the Trentini, but I felt I’d won the ultimate Merit Badge.

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