“Crap it is not,” Master Adoy replied. “A sign it is.”
“Of what?” I asked.
The tiny sensei shrugged.
“Where did you find this card?” I took it and turned it around in my hand.
“On a dead body.”
“Wishes she does. Murder it was.”
“Cut down in her prime she was. Literally. With an ax.”
“That’s ghastly,” I said.
“Then drowned in a river she was.”
“Then skinned alive.”
“Alive? I thought she had already drowned?”
“Then chopped into pieces of equal length, width, and height.”
“This keeps going,” I said to myself.
“Then nailed together into the shape of a table the pieces of her were.”
“Wait, was this ‘body’ a tree?”
“Rightly you have guessed.”
“Oh, because you made it sound like…”
“Tragic it was.”
“Understand this symbol do you?” he asked then and pointed to the card again.
I gave him my initial impression that it looked like the combination of a penguin, a Greek Φ (PHI), and a chocolate chip cookie.
“Not a cookie. The emotional state upon eating said cookie that produced is.”
“The feeling of the cookie it is.”
“But what does it all add up to?” I asked and handed the card back to him.
“The marking of The Divine Proportion, an ancient mathematical society, the Φ (PHI) signifies. Their hidden observatory in Antarctica the penguin suggests. The cookie-feeling a mystery is.”
“That once solved all the world’s questions does answer.”
Just then, I saw behind the sensei a man in a sharkskin suit, the very same man who had been following me earlier that morning. He slid his hand into his suit jacket and withdrew a tree ax.
“Adoy!” I shouted and pointed at the ax.
“Run you must!” He pressed the card into my hands. “The Divine Proportion you must find–and the mystery answer!”
I took off full speed in the opposite direction, sprinting until my legs were fire and my lungs were magma and my heart was the surface of the sun and my mind was the center of a thousand stars melding together inside one of those waffle irons that keeps getting hotter if you forget to unplug it and then when you do go to unplug it your forearm grazes against the side and gives you the worst arm burn you’ve ever had.
Then I stopped running because no one was chasing me. I stood perfectly still. The only thing racing was my mind. What did it all mean? And how was I going to get to Antarctica?
No sooner had the thought entered my mind than I saw it: my answer and my salvation.
One place South Vietnamese citizens immigrated to after the war was France, and nowhere were they as concentrated as the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris. Within the final years of the 1970s, treizième was transformed from a banal business district into the thriving Quartier Asiatique, brimming with Vietnamese and then Chinese, Cambodian, and other exotic and aromatic restaurants, markets, and bookstores. It also became home to kitschy shops, alternative doctors and, of course, a variety of dojos. It was to this corner of the city that I made my way.
The dojo was abuzz that morning. A children’s class was just dismissing and waist-high judokas filed past me in their white judogi and blue and green belts. The children were every color: some were Vietnamese, others French, and then Algerian and I knew not what nationalities were thrown in for good measure. It filled me with a kind of hope seeing them all separate and unique but in one uniform, moving as one organism out of the dojo.
A stunningly beautiful woman approached me.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
I wondered if this was a genuine offer or if she was assessing my purpose there.
“What’s your name?” I asked. While I knew who my target was, I didn’t have anything other than a name to work from and, for all I knew, it was a surname.
“I’m Hoa. It means ‘like a flower’,” she said.
“How apt,” I said. This made both of us blush. “Is Adoy in?”
“You just missed him.” Then she whispered something in French as if to make it a secret: “Mais ce n’est pas son vrai nom.”
Not his real name? I wondered. That did sound like a secret. Then I wondered: Why would she whisper a secret French? We’re in France!
Hoa led me past the judokas and out the glass doors and pointed to an empty space between the dojo and a nearby high-rise apartment complex. Then I noticed something I’d never seen in that corner of Paris: an archaic swamp untouched by man. Crouching behind a wizened old tree was Master Adoy.
He was short (exceptionally short) with long pointed ears and, in the light of the swamp, his skin looked almost green.
“Find me you have,” he said without preamble.
“Someone told you I was coming? The nondescript businessman who has been following me earlier morning maybe?”
“Told me has no one. Felt it I have.”
“I was told you had answers,” I said.
“Wrong you were told. Only more questions have I. Questions about the scheme.”
“The scheme. From the bottom to the top it goes.”
“The top being Prime Minister Rocard?” I surmised.
“The bottom being…a newborn baby?”
“Figuratively speaking about the bottom I was. Merely less important people I meant.”
“So what other questions could you possibly have?” I asked.
The sensei held out what looked like a playing card, but instead of featuring a king or a jack or a 7 of hearts, it held a symbol that looked like a combination of a penguin, a Greek letter phi, and the feeling one gets from eating a chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven.
I had the distinct and eerie sensation of being followed as I made my way down the Boulevard Saint-Michel. I moved instinctively away from my dorm room on the campus of the Sorbonne and toward the Île de la Cité, that tiny island which contains both the Cathédrale Notre-Dame and the smaller but more ancient Sainte-Chapelle.
I took this very same route along Saint-Michel regardless of where I was traveling in Paris as it gave me the chance to pass in between those two historic churches and to pass twice over the river Seine. Filling my eyes with glorious architecture and my nostrils with fresh flowing water was a great way to start the day.
Today’s journey was not leisurely, however. I looked behind me and saw my pursuer again: a man in a sharkskin suit, black sunglasses even though it was overcast, and a black cap pulled down.
Once on the island, I spotted a small group of professionals waiting for a bus. I joined them.
“Can you believe this fog?” I asked a woman in a skirt suit. “You must be chilled to the bone.”
She smiled politely but otherwise ignored me. Everyone at the stop was white. In fact, everyone on the little island that morning was white. A scholarship student from Côte d’Ivoire, I had about as much chance of blending into this crowd of white professionals as a black bean in a bowl of rice.
The bus arrived and, as the others boarded, I looked around for my tail. He was gone. The Paris Judoka Federation dojo was a long way off, but I decided to walk. It was vital that I make it that morning, otherwise, I would certainly miss my target.
Little did I know, my target already knew I was coming.
It’s that time again. Time to heat up that turkey or ham or—can I dream?—prime rib roast. Time to cool the pies and chill the eggnog. Time to wrap the presents and find the perfect book to read on Christmas Eve (a new tradition in our house). And time to reflect on the past year—in letter form.
March blessed us with a new addition to our family: Margot Renee. Life with three is more than we were expecting, both in joy and work, but when we do finally collapse into bed at the end of the day, it’s with a smile. Most days. Margot is a tiny ball of joy, smiling and laughing from her very first days and teaching us to appreciate the circus of our daily life. She is a blessing and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to adore her properly.
By adding a week to either end of Spring Break, Susan and I were able to spend most of March marveling at Margot. Then Susan took the next month plus change with her, while I finished up the school year. Come summer, I took over.
Monday through Thursday, it was just us: Baby eating while Dad read. Dad writing while Baby napped. Sometimes we even traded off. I would eat and she would look at one of her many picture books. I would nap, and she would plot out the next chapter of her debut novel: Life in Diapers. On Fridays, I kept all three kids home and played the Stay-at-Home-Dad, at least until Susan came home at noon.
Another addition this year was French Breakfast. On Friday, when I had all three kids, I’d have them don tiny black berets and serve them something extravagant. I spent those summer weeks looking up recipes and writing food labels en français. While the children may not have been able to read the words I placed diligently beside each bowl of strawberries or raspberries, the cards certainly helped dad remember to say pain perdu and fraises and framboises. I originally imagined the kids asking for each breakfast item in fluent French. While this didn’t materialize, by the end of the summer they were adding s’il vous plaît to their English requests—even if Charlie’s came out more like “Silly Play.”After breakfast, we would read a French book and then watch a short cartoon. The kids didn’t learn beaucoup de français, but they did learn a love of crème fouettée and that’s a start.
Shortly before Margot turned zero, Charlie turned two. Two has brought not just babbling, but real talking: questions, demands, and cordialities. For an entire month, he walked around shaking everyone’s hand and saying, “Nice to meet you.” I do mean everyone: Mom, Dad, Sissy, people in church, stuffed animals, lamps. It has been a wonder watching him become a person this year. This time last year, he had a handful of words at his disposal. Now he speaks in complete sentences, has genuine insights about the world around us, and says “please” and “thank you” and, Susan’s favorite, “I love you, Mama.”
This year, Bonnie turned four and moved into a big girl bed. Also, Charlie’s crib was converted into a daybed and brought into Bonnie’s room. No sooner did Charlie move in than the Babar Wars began. Like fools, we got Charlie a stuffed Babar for Christmas and so, naturally, Bonnie stole it out of his bed every night. After much debate, she finally agreed to wait until he was asleep to steal it. This led to Charlie pretending to be asleep and then screaming when Bonnie came to collect. By Valentine’s Day, we surrendered to the tyrants and got her a stuffed Celeste doll. By March, Charlie had abandoned Babar completely, but Celeste remains Bonnie’s go-to girl.
A week into their new sleeping arrangement, we had a veritable constitution of new bedtime rules. Currently, Bonnie must stay in our bed until Charlie goes to sleep and then go to her bed and stay there until morning. This works so well that, as I finish this letter at midnight, Bonnie is across the table from me coloring a triceratops and singing, “All I eat is pizza, na na na na na na.”
One upside to Bonnie’s insomnia has been story time. After we read a book or two and sing some songs, Bonnie will request a story. “Not one with pages.” These range from tales of lost toys and kidnapped elephants to parables and myths about bunnies and dragons. Bonnie chimes in with characters, locales, and things they find on their journeys. As each story nears its end, she will throw in a new conflict just to make it last a minute more.
Me: And they all arrived safely to their home.
Bonnie: But it was full of carrots!
For a four year old, she has a terrific knack for introducing conflict—not to mention humor.
Workwise, things are on the up and up. During Susan’s maternity leave, they promoted her to Director of Admissions, proving once and for all that absence makes the heart grow fonder. As for me, I started my third year at Holcomb High School and am more involved than ever: two clubs, a new committee, and I’ve taken over the newspaper. It’s all very busy but good.
I leave a lot out when I write, but the salient points are there: the children are growing—and we are too. We wish you a warm winter full of pie and presents, savory meals for the days and good books for the nights. More important, though, we wish you time for the things that matter: Time for loved ones and friends; time to chat and read and reflect. 2019 has been the best year yet for the Millers and we all expect great things from the 20s!
All our Christmas-Love,
Steven, Susan, Bonnie (4), Charlie (2), Margot (9 months)
Margot’s due date was Sunday, March 3rd. With Bonnie, my labor started at 3am on her due date, and Charlie was a week early, so I’ve never had the uncomfortable privilege of being “late”. At my 39 week appointment, my doctor casually mentioned that he was going out of town the following weekend, so we tentatively scheduled an induction for March 6th. I was a little annoyed, but tried not to worry about it, since I’ve never gone that long. I ate spicy food, cleaned the house, ran around after Bonnie and Charlie, and mentally prepared to have a baby sometime that week. So when my 40 week appointment rolled around on Monday, March 4th, and there was still no baby, I was a little bit frustrated and a whole lot tired. My doctor kindly stripped my membranes and agreed to bump my induction date back one day to Thursday, March 7th. I still really wanted to avoid an induction, but had faith that if we gave her one more day, Margot would come on her own.
I worked Monday and Tuesday and then had enough – mentally and physically. Steven and I both took Ash Wednesday off work and got to go to mass together that afternoon. We picked up the kids from daycare, finally took the cars to the fire station to get the car seats checked, and then took one last trip to Traditions as a family of four. Matthew picked the kids up that evening to take them out to the farm and Steven and I settled in to try and sleep before we were due at the hospital at 5 the next morning for the induction.
As luck would have it, I started having contractions off and on after we got back from Traditions. I thought they were mostly wishful thinking, as I had been having Braxton Hicks contractions for the last couple of months. I’d had some worth timing over the last week or so, but they always tapered off after a couple of hours and some rest. I finally got brave enough to start timing them around 10 that night and talked Steven into staying up and watching a movie with me instead of trying to sleep. I tested positive for the Group B strep again this time, so I knew we needed to get to the hospital with plenty of time to get a couple rounds of antibiotics going. Rather than waiting until contractions were 5 minutes apart, my lovely doctor told me that if they were getting stronger after an hour, I could go ahead and come in. Where was he when I was in back labor at home for 24 hours with Bonnie waiting for contractions that never, ever got closer together? So after 3 hours of contractions that were 5-10 minutes apart and getting stronger, I decided it was time to go to the hospital.
With Charlie, I was convinced that they were going to send me home, because he was so early, and the contractions weren’t nearly as painful (back labor is SO AWFUL), that I think I was in denial for all of the labor process. With Margot, since we had the induction scheduled 4 hours later, and I was already overdue, I felt much more confident about going to the hospital. I did feel a little silly coming in 4 hours early to my appointment, and the lady who checked us in at the ER didn’t make me feel much better when she called to labor and delivery and said, “Yes, she says she’s in labor.”
The contractions were still very manageable, but when they asked if I was ready for an epidural, I surprised myself by saying no. They checked me and I was a 4.5, so we agreed to give it an hour and see if I made any progress. After an hour, I was about a 6, and in much more pain, so I was thankful that we had come in early. Of course, by then, the anesthesiologist was in surgery, so I agreed to the IV pain meds while we waited for him to finish. I’ve never had IV pain meds before, but was mostly just desperate to get some sleep. They didn’t really help much with the pain, but they did make me very loopy, to the point that I had to keep my eyes closed and couldn’t really talk. So I suppose it was helpful? If I had to do it over again, I would probably just take the epidural first thing. I got the epidural around 5 and everything went smoothly, thank the Lord. The epidural is always the scariest part, but it’s such a wonderful feeling of relief once it kicks in.
My favorite doctor came in sometime that morning and complimented me on my decision to move the induction back one day (Margot is so cooperative). He broke my water and I went back to sleep, sure that we were on track for a baby sometime that morning. When the nurse came to check me around 10, I was at a 9.5, so I woke Steven up and we got ready to meet Margot. I noticed that I was starting to feel the contractions again, but only on one side. I tried pushing the button, but it just made my other leg even more numb. I didn’t worry too much about it, since we were clearly so close to the end.
Except that we weren’t.
I stayed at a 9.5 for 4 hours, and 10% of my cervix was still stubbornly hanging around. Finally, around 2 that afternoon, they decided to start some pitocin after all. At this point, I was tipped over on one side, trying to get gravity to kick the epidural into gear on the other side. Sadly, that didn’t work, and after 20 minutes of pitocin contractions, we were finally ready to start pushing.
With Bonnie, I pushed for almost an hour before the doctor decided that we all needed a little help and used the vacuum to get Bonnie free. With Charlie, the nurse let me do a couple of “practice pushes” before calling the doctor and he barely made it into the room to catch Charlie. So when the nurse started loading me up in the stirrups before calling the doctor, I was a little nervous. I should’ve learned this by now, but I always forget how intensely vulnerable and stressful the end stage of labor is. There are always a million things I want to say or ask, but I can’t bring myself to say anything, so I just look around like a trapped animal and hope that Steven will read my mind.
Is this why they recommend having a written birth plan? How on earth are first-time mamas supposed to know what to put on a birth plan? I’ve had three babies now, and am just now starting to realize what I would put on mine:
Give me the epidural first. No matter what I say.
Peanut ball before pitocin!
Do not let me push before the doctor arrives.
We got all loaded up and ready to push and then waited, for at least 5 minutes, for the next contraction. I could feel Margot’s feet in my rib cage, and I did not enjoy being in the stirrups. The previous 2 labors, Steven and I just held my legs on the bed. It was much more comfortable, but I have to say, I think it did help make the process go even faster. After the interminable wait for a contraction was over, I pushed twice, stopped, and immediately felt an enormous amount of pressure. At that point I was in a complete panic because 1. I had never felt pressure before and was convinced that the epidural was no longer working at all and I was about to experience the “ring of fire” that I had only read about in other birth stories. Also, 2. The doctor was definitely not going to make it in time. I started crying and begged Steven to push the epidural button again and tried to brace myself for whatever was coming. A few seconds later, without another push, I felt Margot enter the world and the nurse called out, “It’s a girl!”
Luckily, I heard her cry right away, and there were a flurry of other nurses in the room and I remember them asking Steven if he wanted to cut the cord and me answering for him that he definitely did not want to cut the cord. Funny that I can find my voice for him, but not for myself. They took her away to clean her up and she looked enormous – a whopping 3 oz bigger than Bonnie and 8 oz bigger than Charlie, but still 6 lbs. The doctor finally arrived and finished things and checked out Margot and seemed concerned about the hysterical, crying woman with the healthy baby, but assured me again that she was fine. She had some fluid in her lungs from being born so quickly, so we cut skin to skin time short so that they could suck her out, but after that, she was much happier and latched right away, and all was right in the world.
Steven had fasted the day before because it was Ash Wednesday, and I had accidentally fasted because he wasn’t eating and everything either made me nauseous or gave me heartburn at that point, so we were both starving. The nurse brought us sandwiches and apple juice and graham crackers and it was the most amazing food I have ever had in my entire life.
So after all that fuss about an induction, we ended up with 20 minutes of pitocin contractions. After scheduling an induction to make sure I had my doctor there, Margot decided she couldn’t wait for him after all. And after feverishly crocheting a boy blanket in the last month of pregnancy “just in case”, she was a girl after all, just like I thought from the beginning. Precious Margot, already blazing her own path, in her own time, in her own way.