Comfort Zone
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Comfort Zone

When life is coming apart at the seams, even grown-ups need their blankies.

I bought myself a golden chenille blanket at a time when I needed some pampering. While strolling through a mall, I took an impromptu detour into Pottery Barn, shushing the voice inside my head that piped up to remind me of all the money I owed for violin and tennis lessons for my two growing sons.

The blanket hung over a gleaming oak bedpost. I handed over my credit card to a girl who scarcely looked old enough to be legally employed. She wrapped my purchase in tissue paper and tied it with a gold ribbon.

That was just four months before I was slated for brain surgery. A siege of migraines had led to the scan that revealed a tumor the size of a Ping-Pong ball, which my doctor deemed benign. This was good news, but the tumor still had to be removed. Fortunately, I could put off the operation for a year while I struggled to finish a book I was writing (ironically titled The Mommy Brain). Not so fortunately, the delay gave me 365 extra sleepless nights to prowl the Internet and obsess over every possible mishap that might occur, up to and including a major earthquake and power outage in the middle of surgery, from which, needless to say, I would never recover.

After roughly the first hundred nights I discovered that focusing on breathing helped me calm down enough to sleep. The hard part was keeping still long enough to do it, since I'm fidgety and impatient by nature. Bought on impulse, the blanket soon became my prop: From the first time I draped it over my head and shoulders to sit on my bed in silence before lying down, it felt like trying on serenity -- a soft and warm, if unfamiliar, costume.

Why unfamiliar? In addition to my natural restlessness, I have two unusually high-spirited sons, who at the time were 11 and 8. The activities they liked best, judging from how often they did them, were fighting with each other, playing video games until I pulled out the TV cord, and nagging me for the very things I couldn't give them -- a family trip to Fiji, a Karelian bear dog (a breed that not only needs large areas to roam but also sheds a lot and is famous for being aggressive toward other dogs), and my undivided attention.

As with most kids, my boys' little empathy muscles were still in development. One afternoon, when my headache was bad enough to send me to bed, my 11-year-old kept popping in to ask me to play a game with him. He first suggested Monopoly, then Uno. Even murmuring my regrets seemed to tighten the claw inside my head.

"You can just sit there with the cards in your hand," he pleaded, as I struggled to focus an eye on him. Finally his tone turned stern. "Mom, I'm really disappointed in you," he said as he stomped out. I braced for the slam of the door and buried my face in the forgiving chenille.

Learning to Cope

As time went on, and as my sons came to realize how much I loved that blanket, it became one more thing they had to have. It began innocently enough. I'd walk into my bedroom and see my younger son huddled beneath its golden fabric. "I'm meditating!" he'd say. What kind of mother, faced with this adorable tableau, would snatch the cover from him? Not me, despite the superhuman effort it took to resist.

Then they discovered the blanket's more mundane powers to console. When one of them had a cold, it was the golden chenille he craved. What kind of mother -- especially one who loves her children beyond reason and is pondering mortality and striving for spiritual progress (never mind that she just saw someone wipe his nose on it) -- would lunge for that blanket, whisk it away and stash it in back of her closet for the rest of the day?

Well, that would be me.

Serenity aside, I wanted just one damn thing in that house to stay pristine. A mother's work, after all, often boils down to an endless war against entropy: the moldy carrot in the vegetable bin, a leaky toilet, the wasps' nest by the kitchen door. Without constant vigilance and labor, that other mother, nature, will demolish or diminish all she holds dear. Even her own brain.

But the more ferociously I fought for my blanket, the more avidly my boys tried to claim it. On a few occasions I found myself in a literal tug-of-war.

While it seems embarrassingly obvious to me now, it took a long time before I fully appreciated that my children needed Pottery Barn-grade comfort at least as much as I did. While my husband and I were careful not to talk about my impending surgery in front of them, they of course absorbed my anxiety, as I tried, and often failed, to stay focused on their needs. I still wince at the memory of one interminable rainy afternoon (during which they squabbled for hours) when, channeling Richard Nixon, I muttered darkly that they might not have their mother to kick around much longer.

And through all those weeks, as I split my time between work, car pools, shopping, and lurking in brain-tumor support-group chat rooms, there remained my weirdly passionate attachment to my, um, blankie. It was as enthralling to me as the quiet solitude I constantly craved.

What children are rarely told, and cruelly end up finding out on their own, is that even a mother's love isn't infinite. Like every other life force, it ebbs and flows. And this is what sends them, like jealous lovers, searching through their mothers' jewelry boxes and tugging at blankets that hide her face and grasping at talismans of her affection.

One such object sits on my bathroom counter: a small glass vial I've owned for 40 years. It's still about one-fifth full of Joy perfume. I close my eyes and smell jasmine and roses, my fingertips recalling the silk lining of my mother's mink stole, which she wore on the Saturday nights she left me with a sitter. Vivid as that memory is, however, I can't recollect whether she gave me her little perfume bottle or I filched it.

While visiting the hospital the night before my surgery, my husband and I were introduced to the husband of a young woman who'd had a tumor just like mine and whom my surgeon had operated on. The man insisted on our meeting his wife. "Do I know them?" she asked him as my husband and I tried to disguise our alarm.

When I got home I wrote passionate good-bye letters to my husband and boys, just in case I lost my life, or my memory. But the surgery went well, with nary a power outage, and these days I'm back to taking my health for granted.

The golden blanket now lies at the foot of my bed. Less than pristine, it's still as soft as a mother's caress. Now that our crisis has passed, my sons have lost interest in it. I'm fully there for them again, and for the moment neither they nor I require surrogate mothering.

shim