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Boughs of Folly

tree - old

Isn’t that picture magical? It’s an old one – and one of my favorites.

We just got this year’s Christmas tree which looked like this for three days:

IMG_0940

It’s big. And it terrified me. Finally, last night I sucked it up and got some lights on it.

And it’s looking like I’m going to have to suck it up again and let the kids help me decorate it tonight. After nine and a half years of motherhood and never letting anyone (even my husband) help me decorate the tree, I think my time is officially up. Unless of course I want to ruin my daughter’s life and hear about it years from now in family therapy.

SO. A new chapter of my tree mania begins. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I actually combined several years’ worth of tree stories (all blog posts on TBPOC) in one essay that should at some point run in a holiday anthology (currently on hold). In the meantime, I thought I’d post it here to catch everyone up.

A little snippet of last night’s conversation to give you a taste of where this is going…

Chris: You are a psycho about the lights.

Me [lights wrapped around my neck like a Christmas version of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s…without the up do and cigarette]: No…I’m a psycho about the ornaments.

Happy holidays!

*****

Just so you know? I can decorate the hell out of a Christmas tree.

It’s one of my great talents in life, and every year my home is graced by yet another Christmas tree triumph. You are probably thinking that my family is very lucky to have this kind of genius on their side. But it’s unlikely that they would agree.

I take my tree very seriously. Maybe a little too seriously. Okay – maybe a lot too seriously. But you know how it is when someone has a problem…they need to want to get better before you can help them. And I have no interest in getting better. All I want is a perfect tree.

I have definite ideas about where the ornaments should be placed and how the various colors and styles should be distributed. I like things to be symmetrical. The only way to achieve the level of perfection I demand is to be very rigid and controlling, and even strategic about the tree decorating process. And believe me – I’ve got this covered.

Our family tree decorating tradition does not include the sound of laughter, storytelling and favorite Christmas carols. There are no childish squeals of delight when someone finds the perfect spot for that favorite ornament (okay – maybe a few, but only if I’m really excited). And there is no closing ceremony of a tiny hand placing our angel at the top.

Instead, there are two to three hours of lights detail with meticulous care taken to make the tree appear to glow from within. Unlimited time is devoted to the actual ornaments, though I do prefer to limit this to a 24 hour window. By then, I am ready for a final editing process, which if all goes well, takes less than an afternoon.

This is a strictly solo mission. Even my husband, Chris isn’t allowed to help. The first year we had a tree together, I had to linger behind him rearranging his bizarre ornament “clumps.” He may as well be one of the kids.

In our first few years as a family, it was easy enough to put babies in pack n’ plays and toss goldfish crackers at them as I pondered the finer points of mingling new ornaments with the antiques. But soon enough, I had talkers who watched holiday movies, and I was getting requests for tinsel and popcorn to string – neither of which would work with my own holiday aesthetic.

Finally, I just bought a fake tree from Target to suffer their enthusiastic pawing.

One complication to my new two-tree system was that my husband, Chris has a tradition of taking one child with him to the Christmas tree lot. And once they were old enough to want in on the decorating action, this practice began to cloud the whole “ownership issue.” Even after I thought I had appeased them with their very own “kids’ tree,” they’d saw mine come through the door and assumed they were on round two. Luckily, they have very short attention spans and after 10 minutes of watching me drape lights, everyone tends to get bored and wander off.

We live in a small townhouse, and typically get a six foot tree. But one year, our oldest son, Oliver imprinted on an ENORMOUS tree. The six-year old had found his tree soul mate and was adamant that no other tree would do. So I ended up with two extra feet of branches to decorate.

This may not sound like a lot, but that was one beast of a tree trimming project. I swear it kept getting bigger as I circled around it arranging lights. Then several strands blew out and I had to search for connections to remove them. And full of joyous holiday spirit, I alternated between internally swearing like a sailor and glaring at an infuriatingly jocular Chris, who was puttering around the kitchen, singing Santa Baby.

The minute I decided that the lights done, the children sensed my hand moving toward the ornament box and came at me like a pack of Christmas-obsessed velociraptors. I was able to fend them off with some candy canes, but it was a close call. Clearly, I had to wait until they were in bed before I continued.

So I finished the tree later, listening to holiday music and sipping wine with Chris. For a second he forgot that he had met me before and tried to help. But I put an end to that. I mean – that random ceramic chili pepper on the front of the tree? Do you see what I’m dealing with here?

The following year, it was my daughter, Eleanor’s turn to accompany Chris. As soon as her tree of choice was set up, we could see that it was undeniably crooked. This of course, is an ever-present risk since I have no control over what is selected (just a long list of requirements and deal breakers). But I had such high hopes for Eleanor! My color-within-the-lines girl was the perfect candidate to find a “perfect” tree. At first glance, it seemed she did. But no matter how many times we tried to fix the obvious leaning, there was always something off.

Once the lights were on and the kids were in bed, I decided there must be a way to make it appear straighter. I assumed Chris would be 100% on board with this additional adjusting, but he announced that it was “good enough” and turned in for the night.

Whatever. He was holding me back anyway. I stayed up to fight the good fight.

That tree almost fell on top of me at least three times, and it’s a miracle that my children didn’t find me trapped underneath it the next morning. But a few hours (and several emptied prescription bottles wedged in the tree stand) later, it looked marginally better. I decided that I had reached my own “good enough.” Before tidying up, I went into the kitchen to wash my hands of sap (and the entire fiasco), and when I returned, I found that half the lights had blown out.

Then I dragged the damn thing outside and beat it to death with a snow shovel.

Of course I didn’t do that! For one thing, we didn’t own a snow shovel. But more importantly, I had put way too much time into that tree to give up. Instead, I took a deep breath and set about checking each strand. Luckily, there were only two that had to be replaced; and 30 minutes later, we had a very lovely, slightly crooked tree.

This new system of decorating trees in dark of night was exhausting. You would think I’d just give up and let my perfect Christmas trees devolve into chaos like the rest of my house. Not so much.

Last year, it was Eleanor’s twin brother, George who picked out the tree. He surprised us all by selecting a rather small one. Well – not exactly small…but much smaller than the six to eight foot trees his siblings had brought home. Apparently, he told the guy at the tree lot that “size doesn’t matter as long as it’s fat.” Oh George…

So small and fat arrived, and most decidedly did not fit into our tree stand. The trunk was too short, so I sent Chris out to buy a smaller stand. And starting right there, the smallest tree we’ve ever had became the biggest pain in the ass.

It was next to impossible to get it to stand straight and it was never really secure, regardless of how much we tightened the screws. This should have been the first sign of impending calamity. But Chris declared it “good enough,” and I decided I could at least tilt it in such a way that it looked straight…

It was midnight by the time I was done stringing lights, and I had to give up any hope of finishing. Unsurprisingly, the following morning was flooded with high pitched offers of help and ornament retrieval assembly lines. I have never been so happy to see the school bus.

After a busy day of running errands, I didn’t have much time before the children were due home. Luckily, with minutes to spare, I was able to tie the last ribbon and bask in the glory of the sweetest little Christmas tree I had ever seen. George chose well – it was possibly my favorite tree yet. Absolutely perfect. Perfect and…moving? Just like that, everything switched to slow motion as I watched the stand sliiiiide forward and the angel drop back out of sight. CRASH! The entire thing hit the floor in a crunch of breakable ornaments (my favorite kind!)

If I were a more emotive person, I would have screamed. Instead, I stood frozen in horror. Was this some kind of punishment for extreme Christmas tree hubris? No time for self-flagellation – I had children to collect from the bus and a play date to host. So I propped my now disheveled little tree up against the wall and resigned myself to figuring it out later.

“Later” ended up being close to 9:00 p.m. when the kids were sleeping soundly. I came downstairs with the intention of getting Chris to help me fix my injured baby. But before I had a chance to ask, he informed me that, “the tree fell again.” I must have blacked out, as I have no memory of the next 20 minutes.

Eventually, I rallied since failure is not an option. And just as I started collecting prescription pill bottles to wedge around the trunk, Chris decided that the top heavy tree really did need a sturdier stand. The solution was to saw off the lower branches and make it fit into our original, bigger stand.

After an hour of sawing, lifting, near misses with pine needle-blindings and just a little bit of swearing, we stepped back to see a very straight, very secure, slightly smaller Christmas tree. We could also see that the branch removal effectively made what I decorated as “the front” of the tree a better candidate for “the back.”

I employed some deep breathing exercises and big picture priority checks to get myself to as serene a state of mind as I could possibly manage…then I removed all of the ornaments and redid the WHOLE EFFING TREE! Done! Finished! No more lesson-learned moments thank-you-very-much! That was it. I had officially exceeded my limit for Christmas tree decorating mania.

Of course Christmas is only once a year… And I have every expectation that we will embark on systematically re-enacting the entire process as soon as our Thanksgiving table is cleared.

But next year, we’re going as a family to pick out our tree. It’s time for a new tradition. The kids are now old enough to work as a team and compromise on something they all like. And to know that from now on, we’re getting the tree that I want.

*****

Epilogue: Chris and Eleanor picked out the tree. George didn’t want to leave a friend’s house, I was baking 2,000 cookies and Oliver wouldn’t go without me. So I couldn’t complain too much (out loud) about size. As soon as it’s decorated, I’ll post visuals. Of course.

LTYM 2014 Videos Are Now Online!

The 2014 LTYM videos are finally here! This year’s DC show was fantastic and we couldn’t be more excited to share it with everyone who couldn’t be in the audience on May 4.

I would LOVE for you to watch our show (and the other LTYM shows held across the country) – which can be found on the LTYM YouTube Channel. But in the meantime, here is my reading, “The Care and Keeping of Magic.”


Already starting to think about 2015…hope to see you there!

The Care and Keeping of Magic

While my blog has been broken forever (or at least since February) some headway seems to have been made on fixing the font issues. Still can’t see images (hence no “They Coulda’ Been Great” monthly posts – expect a monster one as soon as everything is back to normal) – but that’s not required for this post!

As all of my Facebook friends know (to the point of muting me, I’m sure), the 2014 Listen to Your Mother DC took place on Sunday. It was our THIRD show and I couldn’t be more proud of our amazing cast. As usual, Stephanie and I joined them on stage (you’ll have to pry that microphone from my cold dead hands…) and I thought I’d share the essay I read this year.

While I did write it specifically for the show, it ended up being the closing piece, so I had to re-write a bit (to give it more of a “show ending” end). But this is the original essay – you’ll have to wait for the videos (sometime this summer!) to see what I changed.

THE CARE AND KEEPING OF MAGIC

One evening last December, my seven year old daughter, Eleanor lost a tooth. And as she triumphantly brandished the small white prize for my inspection, I had to feign enthusiasm.

It’s not that I begrudge my children these Tooth Fairy years. I LOVE that they are still so pure of heart and willing to believe in magic… But I’m just so disorganized. And sometimes I forget to perform my Tooth Fairy duties.

That evening last December was one of those nights. We were trying to get the house ready for the holidays. I had mountains of laundry to fold and a closet full of presents to wrap… I had teacher gifts to assemble… I had to MOVE THE ELF.

I had a lot on my “to do” list that night. And I got a lot of it done. But I forgot to be the Tooth Fairy.

Just before dawn, a very disappointed Eleanor came into my room. I told her she got up too early and tucked her back into my bed. Then I made up an excuse to run downstairs and find SOMETHING to put under her pillow. No time to search for shiny quarters… I would have to use whatever was in my wallet. Which ended up being a five dollar bill.

FIVE DOLLARS for ONE TOOTH.

Later, her brothers joined us for the big reveal. And three sets of eyes widened at the large sum. Before the boys could start decrying the unfairness of it all, I mentioned that it was mid-December… “maybe it’s like a Christmas bonus.” Then I cringed, as I saw the look on George’s face. He was undoubtedly plotting how to best rip out one of his own teeth before Santa arrived.

Being the Tooth Fairy exhausts me.

The next month at the dentist, we were told that Eleanor needed to have two teeth pulled. It was an awful, bloody business. She was brave but couldn’t hold back the tears that streamed down her face. Neither tooth was even close to being loose, and no matter how much Novocain they pumped into her, she could feel each excruciatingly slow extraction. Everyone assured her that the Tooth Fairy would be very good to her that night.

Call the Tooth Fairy Mommy…tell her she’d better hit the ATM…

When it was over, I carried my sobbing child to the car and promised ice cream, a small toy from Target, a day of television!…shhhhhhh…it’s all over now.

The rest of our busy day flew by, and as the evening light dimmed, Eleanor asked me, “will you – I mean, will SHE really bring something special tonight?” Two things occurred to me in this moment. The first was that she said “you” before correcting herself.

So. This is where it begins.  She knows – but she doesn’t want to know. She’s at that precarious moment of childhood where she has to actively CHOOSE to believe in the impossible. I remember when a friend told me the truth about Santa, but suggested that I could still believe if I wanted to. I said I thought I’d believe just a little bit longer.

Eleanor wants to believe just a little bit longer.

The second thing I thought was SHIT! I totally forgot to go to the ATM.

I grabbed my purse, but all could find was yet another five dollar bill. The same amount she received for just ONE tooth that didn’t cause her one second of pain or terror.

Moments later my husband, Chris arrived home from work, and I demanded, “how much money do you have in your wallet!?” He was only able to produce two crumpled singles.

I explained our predicament, but Chris was a bit more practical. “Look, seven dollars is a lot of money for a little girl. Don’t obsess over this.”

So I tried not to. But once the kids were asleep, I started obsessing. I rifled through junk drawers and change jars, trying to find more money. Again, Chris tried to reassure me. “Stop freaking out. Seven dollars is FINE.”

I assured him that he didn’t understand. “This morning was AWFUL. It was painful and scary. I had to help hold her down! She was promised something really special from the Tooth Fairy tonight and she is THISCLOSE to not believing anymore.”

He just sighed, “well…she’s going to have to figure it out at some point…”

As the grim truth of this statement washed over me, I thought, “but…TODAY? After that horrendous morning of blood and tears…after all of the promises I made just to get her through it…after she actually let slip that she IS starting to figure things out, but wants to believe in magic just a little bit longer? Today?? No. NOT TODAY.

Continuing my search, I found more wadded up bills and handfuls of tarnished coins. I placed them in an old marbleized paper box – now it was a treasure box. Then I dug through my jewelry and found a tiny amethyst charm – one that looked like it came from Fairyland. Finally, I wrapped everything in an emerald silk jewelry pouch that my Aunt sent me from one of her trips to Europe.

I tried to make something special out of old, dirty money and forgotten mementoes.

I did this because I am her mother, and I KNEW she needed it. I did it because she is so special and deserves to believe in magic as long as she wants to. I did it because it’s MY JOB.

I am the keeper of magic in my house.

I am a fairy with a tooth fetish and a willingness to trade in cold, hard cash. I am a fat, old man in a red suit who delivers toys you can buy at Target to homes all over the world in one night. I am a mythical bunny who fills baskets with candy and hides colorful hard boiled eggs that nobody ends up eating.

I will give my children as much time as they need to chase rainbows and pretend that shiny quarters come from pots of gold. Because they only get that kind of magic for a few short years.

Someday they will have to dig deep and believe in themselves against all odds. If they don’t believe in magic now? How will they do it then?

Right now they are little and anything seems possible. Someday they will have to grow up. Someday they won’t be so full of wonder. Someday they’ll have to make their own magic without my intervention.

Someday.

But not today.

****

No idea what this Listen to Your Mother DC stuff is all about? Check out the videos!

Listen to Your Mother DC 2012

Listen to Your Mother DC 2013

Listen to Your Mother DC 2014

Coming soon…

 

Turn Signals

*I read this at DC’s Listen to Your Mother Show, Sunday, April 28. Thought I’d post it here for friends and family who couldn’t come. Since I wrote it for the performance, it may not translate as well on the (virtual) page…but the videos will be online later this summer!

My mother once told me that when she was a new driver, my grandmother plotted out directions for everywhere her daughter could possibly need to go. The purpose of this was to ensure that the recently licensed teenager NEVER had to make a left turn.

Probably not the most realistic of long term plans.

When I was learning to drive in my Capitol Hill neighborhood, right turn only routes were a near impossibility. But I doubt Mom would have repeated this same tactic anyway. While she did her best to shelter us from the harsher realities of life, my brother and I were also given a great deal of freedom to make our own decisions. At the very least, we were allowed to turn left.

At the time, I didn’t acknowledge this leniency. Instead, I rolled my eyes as I caught the peripheral movement of her foot pushing down on the passenger side brake that all mothers have. I huffed in exasperation each time I stopped just a liiiittle bit short, and she flung her arm across my body like a back-up seat belt. I stared at her with incredulity when she instructed me to put on my left turn signal as we waited in a left turn lane.

“Mom, don’t you think people know I’m turning left? I mean, the big arrows painted on the road kind of give it away.”

“Well,” she said, “use the signal anyway. Just in case.”

My mother knew we needed to chart our own course in life, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t worry about us.

Over the past 15 years, Mom has had several recurrences of cancer. And it was our turn to worry about her. Each time, she said she would be FINE. She just knew it. And she was. We’ve been very lucky in that. But nothing is ever simple, and she’s had her fair share of left turns to navigate.

One summer, when my children were still toddlers and preschool age, things got a little weird. It seemed like Mom worried about EVERYTHING.

At the time, she was on a round chemo that was particularly rough and was taking various medications to help with the pain. Through previous treatments, she maintained a positive attitude and was relentless in her insistence that we share it. But now, she was filled with anxiety.

“Kate. I want you to make sure that your new stove is anchored to the wall. Is it anchored to the wall?”

“I don’t think so Mom. They just slid it in…but it’s pretty solid. I can’t imagine how it would tip over.”

“Can you check? Just in case. I’m worried about the children pulling down. You know how they like to climb.”

I looked at my very heavy, very square stove; and the teenager I once was rolllled her eyes and sighed in exasperation.

“Okay Mom. I’ll check.”

I tugged on the edges where it seemed my monkeys might find a hand hold.

“Yeah…I just don’t see how they could tip this thing. It’s pretty wide…”

“What about the top? If they climbed on top of it, could they pull it over that way?”

As my mother waited in anticipation of my answer, I wondered how it had come to this. Exactly how many wrong turns had we made to end up in Crazy Town. Well, I thought, since we’re already here…

I put the phone down.

“Mom. I’m putting you on speaker.”

I then reached over the top of the stove and pulled on the far edge of it. Nothing happened. I bent my knees and really leaned into the pull. Again, nothing. I braced my feet against the bottom of the stove, bowed my back and gritted my teeth, willing that behemoth to fall on top of me!

I broke a sweat, trying to severely injure myself with a kitchen appliance.

And as I held that ridiculous pose I called over to the phone on the counter, “Mom. I am trying to pull this thing down with every scrap of strength I have and it is NOT HAPPENING.”

“Well okay. I guess it’s safe. Thanks for checking.”

As it turned out, there was a reason for my mother’s extreme anxiety that summer. With all of her different medications and dosages, things were a bit confused. And her doctors inadvertently got her addicted to Oxycontin.

So she wasn’t just acting a little crazy. She WAS a little crazy.

Thankfully, this was something that could be fixed, and as my brother so eloquently put it, “we got Mom off the junk.” She went back to being her normal, power-of-positive-thinking self.

But we can’t blame drugs for all of our worries, can we?

I myself, once spent months living with the fear that I might accidentally drop my infant son down our apartment building’s trash chute.

I was too afraid to leave him alone while I walked five doors down to take out the garbage. So I’d bring him with me, and clutch him tightly to my chest the entire time. And yes – I do realize now that there were other options…like putting him the stroller. Or – I don’t know – telling MY HUSBAND to take out the trash!

All mothers visit Crazy Town every once in a while.

But in the end it all comes from the same place – this worry.

We just want to know that it’s going to be okay. And it’s so hard, not knowing.

We all live uncertain lives full of risk. Full of left turns.

So we make maps. And try to pull heavy appliances on top of ourselves. We tell our children that everything will be FINE, even though we know full well that there are no guarantees.  We tell cautionary tales, and laugh and cry and learn. And just live. Live for the moment and assume that all will be well.

But no matter what, we’ll always send our children those exasperating – often ridiculous – sometimes CRAZY signals of our love and hopes for them.

Just in case.

TAP2

The Good in Goodbye

I went to a funeral last Friday.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about it over the past week. About all funerals, really.

What is it that they say about funerals? That they’re for the living? It makes sense. Only the living would really need a funeral. Because it offers a means of saying goodbye.

This public acknowledgement of – this bearing witness to – an ending is sometimes the only thing that allows us to move on. Forward. Possibly, to even see that as an option. A funeral honors this ending/beginning, and gives us permission to grieve, hope and continue to live.

At age 40, I’ve been to many funerals. And as far as religious rituals and rites go, I wouldn’t say that I personally need them. I don’t need a ceremony to say goodbye. I don’t need to commune with black garbed strangers I’ll probably never see again. I don’t need a gathering.

But I could never say that I don’t need people.

Which is an ironic statement coming from me since I love having time to myself. I actually like being alone. I could spend an entire week without seeing another person and never feel lonely. But this is exactly why I need people. Because for me, being alone is easy. And there is nothing to be learned from an easy life.

I need to feel the press of humanity around me. To bump into their sharp edges and feel a little uncomfortable. I need to be jostled and forced to participate. To stay awake. And alive.

Funerals are taxing for an introvert. All of those people…

And ultimately – I think that’s all a funeral is. Just people bumping into each other. Taking what they need and giving what they can. From family and friends supporting each other to strangers sharing a moment of companionship. It’s just a bunch of people standing around, feeling.

We are surrounded by people every day. On the bus…standing in line at the grocery store…sitting in a movie theater. So many experiences we remember are actually moments in time shared with strangers. But how often do we acknowledge that? That indirect togetherness?

Ceremony aside, a funeral is an ideal occasion to recognize how connected we all are. Saying goodbye is a terrible thing to have in common – but it makes us actually look at each other.

The blond woman who puts her head on the shoulder of the man next to her. So tender. They must be close. I wonder if they are part of the family…maybe work friends.

The two women walking down the aisle. Mother and daughter? The older one looks very sad. The younger one holds her elbow. The small smiles they give me as they pass don’t reach their eyes.

A toddler in the front row wails and is quickly whisked to the back of the church. Her boots are spangled with sequins. A granddaughter?

As far as people watching goes, it’s not all that different from an afternoon at Whole Foods. Everyone has a story. Most of us are here alone. Alone in a crowd that’s only different in its singular purpose of saying goodbye.

But the goodbyes that truly bring us all together come from the people in the front row. Especially those who stand up to tell stories about the loved one who died. They are not just sharing anecdotes that we may or may not already know – they’re handing us pieces of themselves.

What a rare and extraordinary experience. To be alone yet together in a crowd of friends and strangers, seeing a unique individual through the eyes the people who love them.

The first time I ever witnessed something like this was in high school. A new classmate (who would later in life become a dear friend) stood in front of hundreds of people to tell us about her twelve year old brother. She did this by reading a letter his friends wrote about him.

In college, I listened to my mother’s sister and cousin tell stories about their “Nana” who never married or had children, but instead poured all of her love into four little nieces. She let them try on her jewelry and made an event of watching the Miss America pageant.

When a good friend’s father died, I listened to her sister tell a hilarious story about his dedication to snapping great photos at the many weddings he attended. His scrappy hustle and willingness to elbow any professional photographer out of the way inspired his six children to call him, “Matty Kane, cub reporter.”

A few years later, I listened to that same sister’s husband talk about her valiant battle with breast cancer. When she received this diagnosis, her immediate response was, “thank god it’s not one of my babies.”

And in the fall of 2011, I sat in complete awe as one of my closest friends described the too short but incredibly full life of her twelve year old son. He had a sweet nature and a talent for making people feel special.

I think that two funerals for twelve year old boys has been entirely enough for me. I can only hope that there will never be a third.

But the funeral last week was not for a boy. It was for a man with thirteen grandchildren. A man who lived both a long and full life. One full of stories.

Some of these stories were told by his children who each took a turn to talk about the father they knew. It was especially moving for me to witness this since I practically lived in their house when I was a little girl.

Madeline was like the sister I never had, which made her siblings my extended network of big sisters and younger brothers. So the stories they told about what a character their father was…his irreverence…his tendency to bring home random “new friends” as if they were long lost family members…his constant supply of Lucky Strikes…they all brought back so many memories of that big family with their larger than life patriarch. But I was especially touched by their more serious, poignant insights.

Marjorie spoke first, explaining that she and her sister Gigi were tiny girls when their father came into their life. He fell in love with their mother and without hesitation, claimed them as his own. It takes quite a man to do something like that.

Oldest sister was followed by youngest brother, Reilly. Who is inexplicably no longer a ten year old boy. When did he become this man with SIX children of his own? But man he is, and so much like his father. He talked about the man who taught him how to be a man, starting with the value of a strong handshake. A lesson he’s passed down to his own sons.

My Madeline (I always think of her as “My Madeline”) went next. She was a Daddy’s Girl and never one to wear her heart anywhere BUT on her sleeve for the world to see (dry eyes beware). She shared her earliest memory of being at the beach, where her father would carry her out into the waves. She thought it was scary…and also exciting. But she always felt safe.

Gigi was the last to speak, and she said that she found herself at a loss for words. She has endured what could only be described as a mother’s nightmare over the past year. And the presence of supportive parents has contributed largely to her survival. She didn’t share memories, as no story or quote was required to express the depth of her love and grief. Instead she told us how much this support meant to her – just the simple act of “spending time with him.” Knowing that he was there.

One brother was not able to talk about the father he knew, but his presence filled the room. John died young, just barely a man himself. His Down Syndrome was never perceived as a disability in their house, but the health complications that so often accompany the condition were a constant worry. The loss of this much loved son and brother was a terrible blow to the family. And while this wasn’t John’s funeral, it did feel like a continuation of grief and gratitude for the time they all had together.

While I do not have a son with Down Syndrome, I do have one with special needs. And I think that I owe much to my friend and her family for my perception of him as being just perfect the way he is. This isn’t an easy thing to do. No one finds out they’re pregnant and wishes for a child with special needs. No one wants their son to struggle with the things that come so easily to others. But I grew up watching a family find the exceptional in a boy with special needs because of his differences. And I am so incredibly grateful for that.

I didn’t go to John’s funeral. I was in college, in another state and young enough to believe that my presence wouldn’t have been important. But 20 years later, I know this is far from true. There are no extraneous people when it comes to saying goodbye.

Whether we are there alone or in the front row, we are all part of something bigger than a rite or ritual. A funeral isn’t just a miscellaneous assortment of people in pews. It’s a shared moment of grief in loss, gratitude for life and the acknowledgement that that everyone – even an introvert like me – needs people.

Alone in a crowd or together around a family table, we are just people bumping into each other’s sharp edges, reminding each other to participate in life – to actually look at each other. We take what we need and give what we can. And we tell stories to help us remember.

And as long as there are stories, then we never really have to say goodbye.

Why I Would Be The First to Die in a Horror Movie

Do you ever wonder how you’d fare if a serial killer, back from the dead showed up in your living room one evening? What if your camping trip became less “peaceful night under the stars” and more “race for your life through the woods?” Would you be more likely to run or hide?

Do you have a plan for the zombie apocalypse?

Well I can tell you right now, that in any of those scenarios, I would be of no use to you. Because, me? I would already be dead.

I can predict monsters hiding behind closet doors with the best of them when the story is unfolding on my television; but without the benefit of an eerie musical score to hint at bad things to come, I am a lost cause.

I was thinking about this the other day, and came up with six specific reasons why I would be the first clueless character in a horror movie to meet their grisly end. Surely there are more, but being able to come up with six without even pausing presents a strong case for my lack of survival skills.

Reason number one: I’m slow. I mean really slow. Like old people pass me on the track slow. And it has nothing to do with sports injuries or bad knees – I’ve just always been a slow runner. This realization hit when I was in elementary school and an impromptu race from one side of the playground to the other took place (as they so often do). I was in front of the crowd when the group think command got our legs going, but by the end of the sprint I was dead last.

Even as a six-year-old, I knew that if you run as fast as you can and still come in last, then something must be wrong. Either way, it was clear that I wasn’t joining the track team. Nor was I ever going to outrun an ax murderer chasing me down a deserted road. There is a reason why I prefer busy city streets.

This speed deficiency may or may not be related to reason number two: slow reaction time. This serves me well in shocking, but not life threatening emergency situations (“Oh dear, is that YOUR severed finger on the ground? Why don’t you sit down while I call 911 and grab a zip lock bag of ice“) – But it wouldn’t be particularly useful if all of my daughter’s dolls turned their demonically possessed heads my way and said “mama” in unison.

Oh sure…I’m right there with you as you scream, “run! get out of the house! don’t just stand there like a gibbering idiot!” But the sad truth is that I don’t walk (or run) the talk. I know this because back in my twenties, my best friend Nancy and I actually shared a “run for your life” moment one night. We were sitting on our living room couch watching TV when a loud “BOOM” made the house shake. After a tense pause, I said, “well I guess we should go check that out.” She countered, “do we have to?” I decided that yes, we did. So armed with a steak knife, I took the lead as we headed upstairs to find the source of the noise.

The first two bedrooms showed no signs of disruption, and neither did the third. But that last one had a door to a patio above the side porch; and the moment that we looked in that direction, the screen door started banging violently in the frame – as if someone was trying to force their way in.

You know those movie scenes where someone holding a gun sees something so terrifying that the weapon rattles noisily in their shaking hands? That was me with my steak knife. I was rooted to the spot. People watching my movie would be screaming “run! get out of the house! don’t just stand there like a gibbering idiot!” Yes – it’s true. There was gibbering. After several frozen seconds, I managed to look to my left and see that Nancy was gone.  When I finally made it back to the top of the staircase, I saw her quickly disappearing out the front door. I don’t know if she’d be the last man standing in the horror movie, but it’s obvious that she wouldn’t be the first to go down.

In case you were wondering, there was not in fact, an intruder trying to break into that bedroom. Nothing was there, so we had to assume it was the wind. Then days afterward, we heard the boom again. This time we felt like it came from below, and it turned out to be the furnace. Something about gas building up until it exploded. So it really was a serious danger in our home that if left un-repaired could result in larger explosions – possibly start fires – maybe even kill us! I was so relieved that it wasn’t a Poltergeist.

It was that night of the first boom when I became aware of reason number three: I always go “check it out.”

Reason number four is just straight up dumbassery. I won’t tell you what it is immediately. Instead I’ll give you a perfect example of this stupid, stupid thing I do all the time. First, you should know that I have always felt most safe when surrounded by people. I’m also afraid of the dark. So when Chris goes out of town for work, I become hyper-vigilant about our security.

Every once in a while we forget to close the downstairs windows on a cool summer night. And more than once, I’ve discovered that no one locked the sliding door to the back deck before bedtime. But when Chris isn’t in the house, I make the rounds. It can be as early as 5:00 p.m., but if I know we’re not going outside again, our house goes into lock down mode.

One of those nights on my own, I checked the back gate, made sure the locks on the doors to the deck and all windows were clicked into place. I triple locked the front door AND set the security alarm (something we never do when Chris is around). Yet after all of that I still went outside the next morning and found my keys in the front lock.

I wouldn’t survive five minutes on The Walking Dead.

Like I said – this was not an isolated incident. I leave my keys in the front door regularly. And it’s not completely unrelated to reason number five: I can never find my keys.

It’s annoying enough when it happens at home, as I’m inevitably late for some important appointment. But my inability to locate my keys in public parking lots makes me a walking “DON’T” example for self-defense classes nationwide.

We’ve all seen that movie scene where the college girl runs for her 1978 Beetle as a rotting pursuer lunges just feet behind. Keys jangling in her hand, she fumbles to locate the one she needs. Then OH NO she drops them on the ground, losing precious seconds. But THANK GOD she does finally make it in with enough time to lock the doors…and then watch in horror as a hunting knife rips through the convertible top while she discovers that the car won’t start.

The difference between that co-ed and me? She didn’t have to search for her keys.

I have had to literally dump my purse out on the hood of my car…sort through old lip gloss tubes and loose change…search the same compartments over and over… Meanwhile, my soon to be abductor has had time to send a few texts, look up the weather and work on a sketch for the girl suit he plans to make with my skin.

An image that leads me to the final reason – number six – that I would never survive the horror movie: I’m a pleaser. He promised that if I was quiet and did everything he said, he would let me go. Sure I’ll put the lotion in the basket when I’m done – just don’t hurt me, okay?

On the upside, I do like to just get unpleasant things over with… So I have that going for me.

And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe in a real life or death situation, endorphins would kick in and I’d run faster – have quicker reflexes. Maybe luck would be on my side and I would find the key I needed the first time I reached into my purse. Maybe this unusual speed and luck would help me escape when the opportunity presented itself. Maybe…

But I doubt it. And if I’m right – if I really don’t have what it takes to make it out alive – there is one thing I can predict with absolute certainty. Later, when my body arrives at the morgue and they search my personal effects to figure out my identity, the coroner will undoubtedly find those missing car keys in my jacket pocket.

Good Omens

The other day, I burst into tears while apologizing to another mother at the pool.

This was as much of a surprise for me as it was for her. While I do cry on occasion, it’s generally the result of frustration or hurt feelings – and almost exclusively reserved for my husband in the privacy of our own home. And I’ve never been one to wear my heart on my sleeve, let alone bleed all over the floor of the ladies changing room.

But in that one moment, every shred of anger, sadness and anxiety that I’ve ever stuffed into my bursting closet of repressed feelings poured directly out of my eyes. It seems the act of summoning words and speaking them aloud redirected just enough attention away from my tightly guarded heart. This breach in security didn’t incite an actual riot of emotions, but a few of the sly ones slipped through the cracks and joined forces. They must have been watching – waiting patiently for an opportunity to break out. And it took only seconds to assemble their weapons of destruction – heat seeing missiles aimed at the frontal lobe of my brain.

Or at least that’s how it felt. Like a sneak attack. And a traitorous one at that.

I don’t cry in front of strangers. I just wanted to tell her that she didn’t do anything wrong. Because at the end of the day, she really didn’t.

No – she shouldn’t have gone out of her way to tell the lifeguard Oliver was swimming in front of the diving board. And yes – she should have talked to me about it since I was right there, actively instructing him to move over, make room for the other kids waiting to jump. Especially since the lifeguard was watching it all from a nearby chair, letting me handle it.

She overstepped. She called my parenting into question. She insinuated that my child was a problem. But none of that was her intention. She was concerned about safety. They were only there for a half hour and she wanted her own kids to have more time jumping off the diving board than waiting in line. And the minute I said, “excuse me, I’m talking to him about that and the lifeguard is watching – my son has special needs – it’s complicated – we’re doing the best we can,” she realized that regardless of her not-bad intentions, she was out of line.

It was the typical non-confrontational confrontation. She did what she did, I said what I said, and then we both tried to make nice by talking to each other through our children. I told Oliver that another mother asked if he could swim away from the diving board – we had to give her kids a turn – and if he couldn’t listen to the grownups, then he would have to take a break from the pool. She told her kids that the pool was crowded today – they couldn’t take over the diving area – they could all have one more jump, but it was just about time to go. We both informed our children that in a few minutes it would be “break” and that we would be going home.

I hadn’t thought to apologize at first. Our indirect communication was enough to let each other know there were no hard feelings. But I just had to say that thing about special needs… Way to make someone feel a bad person – implying that they were picking on your special needs child! How was she supposed to know? She may have felt terrible about what happened. And I would hate for that to be the case since I am queen of obsessing over my own bad behavior dating back to preschool. It’s not fun feeling like shit over transgressions long since forgotten by the other party.

So as we packed up our pool bag and made our way to the changing rooms, I decided to look for that family. To tell that woman I was sorry for snapping and that she didn’t do anything wrong. Technically, she did – but what did that matter in the face of intentions. Just like Oliver and I are doing the best we can at the pool – in life – she’s doing the best she can as a parent. We all are. And I thought she should know I understand that.

I caught up with her at the entrance of the changing area and before she could say anything to me, I cut her off with my own olive branch.

If only I could have stopped talking right after that. I could have swallowed back the lump rising in my throat. I could have taken a deep breath, squared my shoulders and moved forward…made it through that moment of vulnerability unscathed. I could have made it out the door without crying.

But she felt the need to apologize too. This is when she explained herself to me – how she was thinking about her own family’s tight schedule and regretted her complaint the minute she made it. She was sincere. Embarrassed. Sorry.

So I had to respond. I said I understood – that I overreacted, but sometimes it was just really hard. And while this statement explained nothing at all to her, to anyone in my position, those few words actually do say it all. Sometimes it’s really hard. It’s hard to have the “different child.” The son who looks “normal” and is even big for his age, but acts like he’s much younger. To have to explain him to others so they don’t judge him so harshly. To be so proud of how much he has accomplished but so frustrated by how far he has to go. To not know what the future holds.

It’s hard. Really hard. And like a key in a lock, that last word opened the floodgates.

So much for not making her feel bad.

But I did blubber through a new rendition of “you didn’t do anything wrong,” that better described this unusual and unexpected turn of events. “I really never cry about this kind of thing…it’s just been a long day…I’m fine…seriously, it’s not a big deal…nothing to do with you.” At least I pulled it together at the end and was able to clearly restate that I just wanted to apologize and make sure she understood that I didn’t think she did anything wrong. Because that was all I wanted to say. Hopefully she believed me.

And to be completely honest, this wasn’t the first time my words were swallowed by a sneak attack sob that day. Several hours earlier, I had a follow up call with Oliver’s auditory processing therapist. He had just finished one of his bi-annual two-week “loops,” so we were discussing how it went and what I was now observing at home. As usual, the conversation was very positive. Progress had been made and the time he spent with them was productive.

I asked my standard questions about what we should be doing at home – what we should be working on when school starts. Then we lapsed into telling “Oliver stories.” Because he really is a character, and his delays, emerging language and exposure to television make for some pretty fantastic ESL moments.

My recent favorite is an exchange we had regarding the movie, Cars 2. He was telling me an involved story about bad guy, Professor Z and his evil doings. But he lost me at one unintelligible word:

Oliver: …and then Professor Z told his fugs…

Me: Fugs?

Oliver: Yeah – fugs.

Me: What are fugs?

Oliver: [perplexed by my ignorance] They’re trouble making villains.

Thugs. I love that.

And it would have been so easy to just end our phone call right there. But I never can.

I have to ask the unanswerable question. I can’t help myself. The inconvenient lack of mass produced crystal balls can’t stop me from asking. It’s pathological. Or maybe just a little desperate.

After a perfunctory disclaimer about the impossibility of predicting the future when so much can change…I always ask what right now, this very minute, she sees as a possibility for my son. What does the future hold for him? Even if it’s just a guess. Have we hit any hard limits? Have once-distant maybe-somedays receded further into improbability? Or have they moved closer within reach – come into sharper focus? When can I actually touch them or should I just stop trying?

And of course, there aren’t any real answers. This is the curse of having a special needs child who doesn’t fit into an existing box. No trail has been blazed for him. So his potential is unknowable, and therefore unlimited until proven otherwise. Of course this is a good thing, but it leaves the parents in a constant state of anticipation. Waiting for something to happen. The best case scenario or the worst – and every day you get a little bit of both. Just to keep you on your toes.

I always default to hope. Even before becoming a mother, I’ve survived life on planet earth by assuming everything will work out. That it will all be okay. And I’m usually right.

So I do the same thing when it comes to my babies. I love who they are now, and I expect only good things for their future. I know the dark flip side of the coin but I’ll always go for two out of three…three out of five. Until you tell me the worst, I’ll hope for the best.

During each pregnancy, I would lie in bed dreaming of everything I wanted for these children. They would be artistic, interesting, charismatic…the list was far too long for me to remember. But later, as they grew and their personalities and challenges began to surface, I turned to the practical.

Of course I want EVERYTHING for all three of my children, but if I’m going to play the Magical Thinking game, I have to keep it simple. Be specific.

I want Oliver to be intelligent, kind and funny. I want people to like being around him, not just because they like him, but because they like how they feel about themselves when they’re with him.

I want George to be successful, but also compassionate. I have no worries about his ability to make people laugh – but I also want him to take the feelings of others into consideration. I hope that he can hold onto his lighthearted side and not take himself too seriously.

I want Eleanor to be strong and confident – to embrace her talents and believe in herself. I don’t want her to feel intimidated by the accomplishments of others, but to instead be happy for them as she focuses on her own goals and achievements.

There’s more. Of course. But these particular qualities are in the current rotation of my hopes and dreams because they’re based on what I see in each child today. And they seem realistic – attainable.

So as I discussed Oliver’s possible – unknowable – future with his therapist, I drifted to this line of thinking. And I wanted to be perfectly clear – explain that I’m asking for very little, here. I’m starting with the basics – things that every parent wants for their child. “In my hopes and dreams for his future? I want him to have friends…” And that’s as far as I got.

Apparently, this audacious act of speaking the words aloud put too much pressure on my egg shell composure. Magical Thinking is one thing, but verbal incantations will break me.

Then the tears came. Just as they would later in the ladies changing room. Two uncharacteristic moments of weakness in one day.

But this time I had invisibility on my side. I could squeeze my eyes shut and clasp a hand over my mouth…physically pull myself together in semi-privacy. And the irrational shame I felt was lessened by the knowledge that this was nothing new for the person waiting patiently on the other side of the phone line. I’ve seen the tissue box in her office.

A few seconds later, the power of speech returned and calendars were consulted for future appointments. The soothing act of scheduling conjured up a necessary illusion of control. I could manage my emotions as I decided when and where I would find help for my son. This is the one element of the future that is completely under my control.

Going to the pool seemed like a good idea after that episode. Get outside – let the kids entertain themselves for a while without any electronic aids. Little did I know…

But I’m still glad we went. Because you can’t live in a bubble. And nine times out of ten (two out of three…three out of five…) we have a fabulous time without any unpleasant incidents. The pool is our happy place. It’s never crowded – only residents of our neighborhood can use it. We always see friendly faces and most of the regulars know enough about us to cut us some slack.

We can walk there too. And when the kids were younger this was actually a highlight of the outing. My toddlers would sit up in their stroller and point chubby fingers, tree! bird! car! But their favorite stop (oh yes, we had to make stops) was the house with garden gnomes. Every neighborhood has one of those.

Four year old Oliver could walk over and pat them on the head, trace their smiling faces. Not much of a conversationalist at that age, he would speak to them in his own language of DVD dialogue and gibberish. The twins would ask, “whaddat?” And day after day I would tell them. But George could never get it right. He insisted on calling them “omens.”

This still makes us laugh – even though the kids don’t really remember those walks. And as we pass that house carrying our pool gear – eight feet on the pavement now that strollers are a thing of the past – I’ll point and say, “look omens!” I like to think of them that way too. Their impish grins hint at the fun to be had – happy times on the horizon.

I have good memories from those walks and summers at the pool. Even our last afternoon there with its tense moments and tearful exit has a place and a purpose. I’m pretty sure that the woman who didn’t do anything wrong will now be a smiling face to greet us. She’ll be another neighbor who understands and doesn’t judge too harshly.

This is the kind of thing that validates my hope that everything will be okay. That people mean well. That the odds will continue to be in our favor. That Oliver will always have friends.

I can’t predict the future, but I don’t think I need a crystal ball. I’ll always fight tears, but they have no power over my hopes and dreams. I know this now and I’ll hold that truth close to my heart when things get hard.

A hard day came and went, and I’m still here believing in possibility. That must count for something. In fact, I think I’ll take it as a sign. An omen.

And a good omen at that.


Linking up to Just Right today! I should really do this more often…

You Still Have Me

The other day, my friend confirmed a recent suspicion of mine: the fireflies I remember so vividly from my childhood are gone.

I close my eyes and think back to summer nights that started after 8:00 p.m. The flashes would begin at dusk – just intermittent winks of light. I’d catch the tail end of one in my peripheral vision and then begin to search in earnest. By full dark, trees and bushes would glow with the seemingly never-ending sparks.

At what time of night did the light displays end? Do you remember? I was always tucked into bed long before that discovery was possible. But not too early to miss catching several in my own cupped hands. They would tickle my palms as I peeked through finger cracks, eagerly waiting for the glow.

Some kids liked to imprison their prey in jars. Glass cells where the poor things inevitably perished if not set free after bedtime by thoughtful parents. But I preferred to slowly unclasp fingers and then track the progress of my firefly’s escape back into the night – counting flashes until they blended with the rest.

For me, it was better than wishing on stars. More tangible. Of this earth – this world that was mine to roam until called inside.

But at some point between then and now, I stopped looking for the fireflies. And in my absence, they disappeared.

Apparently pesticides have slowly killed them off over the years. Where there were once hundreds – maybe thousands – there are now just a handful. The few pin pricks of light in the dark are a mere echo of their once brilliant past. And this makes me sad.

I loved fireflies.

It was my children who instigated this realization. I wanted them to see fireflies and catch them on summer evenings with me. Years passed, and I assumed that we just went inside too early or that I got busy and forgot to look. I guess not.

Happy childhood memories have always evoked feelings of security for me. I assume for all of us, really. And I think that this is what I find most disturbing about the loss of firefly nights. It’s such a clear reflection of how insecure I feel in the world right now.

I’m not saying that life was perfect when I was little. In fact, there were some very dark and scary times that I’m lucky enough to not quite remember. But the world can be as beautiful as it is terrible, and children are adept at finding light in the darkness. For them, the future is full of potential and hope is a given.

Then we leave childhood behind. And the arduous process of growing up is all consuming. Moments of wonder are lost in the shuffle of expected achievement and increasing responsibility. At least, this is what happened to me.

But now I’m old enough to slow down a bit. And here I am, remembering childhood through my own children. Looking for lost fireflies.

What I’ve discovered is that the future doesn’t stretch are far as it used to. And beauty is more easily made than found. And when you’re surrounded by soul crushing sadness and disappointment, it’s hard to find the motivation for beauty-making.

The truth is, as fortunate as I am to have wonderful people in my life – people I can call both friends and family – so many of them are suffering. Horrible, unthinkable things are happening to these people I love. Addiction, mental illness, unemployment, infirmity, financial ruin, death… And there is nothing I can do to help them.

I don’t have money or connections. I don’t have power or influence. I’m not even that much of a hugger. My heart bleeds for all that I cannot give.

And I’m not exempt. Who is? We all harbor our share of worries and heartbreak.  I have of yet to meet anyone who leads a life untouched by shadows. Dusk comes earlier for some than others, but it’s impossible to live an entire life without some very dark nights.

Someone I love is suffering more than I can possibly imagine. I’ve known her my whole life and shared terrible secrets with her. We considered ourselves to be survivors, and at one time thought acknowledging the ugly past would earn us a better future.

This has not proved true for her. She has to face several of the awful problems listed above. And she deserves none of it. I’ve never known anyone work harder to make life better – to do the right thing. And I am reeling from the injustice of her current reality.

The worst of it for me is the helplessness I feel. I literally cannot help. I can’t cure addiction or mental illness. I can’t heal people. I have no money to pay for…anything. I have nothing to offer.

Except maybe one thing. I have an unparalleled talent for dissociation. I can actually ignore the worst that this terrible-beautiful world throws at me. I look through it. Past it. I don’t accept it.

I have hope.

I know. That sounds like complete crap in the face of an impossible situation. But I also know that this irrational assumption that things will get better – that things have to get better – is what has carried me through some of the worst times of my life.

I was born in late April, and I am true to my birth sign. I am a child of the earth. I may not burn bright; but I am sure and steadfast. I don’t fly free; but I dig in my heels and I hold my ground. I don’t flow effortlessly into emotional relationships; but once planted, I am not easily uprooted.

You can count on me. I stay put. And if necessary, I can will good things to happen. At the very least, I’ll try.

I still believe in that. Call it faith, call it the power of positive thinking or call it magic – but I will do it. I will make this world better for the people I love, even if all I can give them is myself.

And maybe that can be enough. Maybe it just has to be.

I brought children into this life, and I’d be damned if I let it fail them. They deserve better than hard work for no pay. They deserve delusions of invincibility and gentle reality checks. They deserve frivolity and irreverence. They deserve long summer nights full of twinkling insect magic. And I will do everything in my power to give this to them.

I will give them firefly nights.

And tonight I did. We walked home from a friend’s house and found a stretch of grass where several sparks lit the darkening shadows. It may not have been the hundreds or thousands of fairy lights from my own childhood, but three new, shiny souls exclaimed in wonder and giggled and capered. They chased and captured and marveled. They held a glow between their palms and set it free.

It was nothing like what I remember, but it was enough. And where I might lament the diminished brilliance, they will only remember the intoxicating magic.

I miss the innocence of youth. The expectation of better things to come in the future. The belief that anything is possible. I miss summer nights when sparkling constellations of firefly lights challenged the stars in the sky.

But I understand that this happens to everyone. It’s part of growing up – growing old. We have to let go of the past and embrace the future. We have to accept that life isn’t fair. We have to be there for the people we love and offer whatever we have to give, no matter how meager.

All we can do is remember the brilliant past and let it inspire us to hope.

Each one of us has our share of demons to battle. And we all have loved ones to champion. We fight the good fight, and we fight to win. There is beauty in that. And I, for one am honored to do my part for the people I love. For my own children. For myself.

So that is what I have to offer. It can never be enough, but it will have to be enough – simply because it is all I have to give.

The fireflies may be harder to find these days, but I’m still here.

I will always be right here.

No matter what you have lost. You still have me.

I’m Shy Every Day

There is a little girl in the twins’ preschool class who takes my breath away with her familiarity. A solemn eyed four year old who simultaneously charms me and breaks my heart. Because she reminds me so much of myself.

Amy is very quiet. And when I’m working there, manning a craft table, it seems there are never enough friendly questions to elicit more than five words in response from her. I know this because I’ve tried.

I always try. And how can I not? When I can look into her brown eyes, I see the world in there. She takes everything in through those eyes, and I would love to hear exactly what she thinks about all of it.

Amy is an observer.

When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time watching. This may be why I have such clear memories of what everything looked like in my childhood. Some involve layered impressions of how I felt and what I thought…even how things sounded and felt. But the most reliable memories – the ones I know to be true and accurate – are dominated by images.

As a fellow observer of the world, I know that Amy feels far more connected to the whirl of life around her than she may appear. She isn’t just sitting by herself, lost in her own thoughts. She’s listening and experiencing. She’s seeing. All of it.

I didn’t know this about myself at the time – that I looked as if I was trying to be separate. I wasn’t old enough to have mastered the art of seeing myself through the eyes of others. As far as I knew, there was only one reality – one truth. And it was the one that I saw.

The view from my solitary perch wasn’t necessarily lonely. But it was cautious. I would eventually engage. I just needed time. And as I watch Amy watch the other kids play, I wonder how much time she needs.

For me, it varied. Whenever I started something new, it took me some time to warm up to the people around me – to participate.

New settings didn’t always require that much interaction. A gathering of grownups at the dinner table had no complaint with a little girl sitting quietly in their midst. But it was different with other children. They want more from you. If you take too long to join in, they leave you behind. And while the plasticity of their social dynamics will allow for latecomers, it’s hard for a cautious child to make that effort.

I can close my eyes and remember arriving at a new after-school babysitter’s house. I see the late afternoon sun that filtered through the trees as I sat quietly on a rock, watching the other children play. I sat and watched. For two days.

For two whole days, I watched them play tag and any number of other chase-related games. I also politely declined all of their invitations to join them. I wasn’t ready.

But on the third day, I left my rock. I walked into the middle of the crowd and was absorbed without question. Maybe it was because I would be there every day for what at the time seemed like forever, but there was an understanding that I would be one of them as soon as I was ready.

This wasn’t always the case.

And when I watch Amy, I see that it’s not quite that simple for her at school right now. She could just walk in and claim her right to be included…but it would require a forceful entry. And that’s not really her style.

To be fair, this isn’t the fault of the other children. A precedent was set early in the year when Amy wasn’t just “Amy.” She was “Amy and Audrey.”

Amy used to have a best friend.

The first few months of school, Amy and Audrey were inseparable. They made all of their craft table visits together. They sat side by side during story time. When hands needed to be held on walks to the playground, they stood apart from the frantic pairing off of the others. They were already holding hands.

This made me smile. I was rarely without a best friend when I was growing up. Maybe I wasn’t quite as exclusive about it, but I always had that one person who was “mine.” I understand the comfort of having a best friend. It makes the world seem safer – friendlier. People are more accepting of pairs.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have friends. But I had the most fun with my best friend. That someone who would giggle with me at things that no one else seemed to understand. That one other person who liked me best too. Who shared all of the deep dark secrets that I can’t even remember anymore.

Moves to other cities and schools were hard for me. I didn’t like the transitions. Some adventurous spirits are excited by the possibility of a new start, but I never cared for the uncertain future. I needed a best friend’s hand to hold.

And now, Amy doesn’t have a best friend’s hand to hold. Because several months ago, Audrey’s family moved overseas.

It always gives me a little pang to see the one where there should be two.

Of course Amy could find another best friend – and she eventually will. But for now, she she’s not interested in merging with the chaotic puppy pile of her other classmates.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this tiny tragedy. The other moms will smile-frown at the sweet sadness  – perhaps remembering a time when they were missing a lost best friend. And we all try to help the quiet little girl feel included. We encourage her to participate in snack table conversation and suggest that she join playground games.

We also do that silly thing that parents always do…we say things to her to make excuses for her painful shyness. And that’s really what it comes down to – Amy isn’t just disinterested in finding new friends right now – she’s also very shy.

So we say, “not really in the mood right now?” or “feeling a little tired?” As if this will help her save face – a very grownup concern that’s hardly on the list of preschool priorities. And she humors us. Or just hopes that a small nod or glance of acknowledgement will make us leave her alone.

A while ago, a friend told me a story about this. One day on the short walk to the playground, Amy refused to hold hands with any of the other kids. No one made a big deal out of it, because all of them do this at some point. But just like the rest of us, my friend felt the need to validate this behavior as being perfectly normal. And she did that thing – asking with sincere sympathy a little shy today?” But instead of the usual nod, Amy tilted up her small, serious face to respond, “I’m shy every day.”

This story just kills me. Partly because it’s really cute…but more so because ME TOO! EVERY DAY. Every goddamn day.

I’m shy EVERY day.

And I always have been.

This is why I like having a best friend. The intimacy is so comforting in the teeming rush of the big bad world. Because it’s overwhelming. No matter how beautiful life can be, it’s also terrible and menacing. It welcomes you in and throws you to the wolves all at once.

It’s a bit much for the gentle souled. It’s not easy to be shy.

And every time I look at that little girl, I want to tell her, “honey – it will be okay. You will find another best friend. There will be another hand to hold when things get scary – probably several. But sweetie, you should really reach out for that now, because it just gets harder. You’ll see. As you get older, it will never again be this easy to claim what you want – to walk into a group and grab someone’s hand.”

I want warn her that this shyness will sometimes make her feel like an outsider. That it will peak when she’s a teenager and it seems like everyone around her moves effortlessly through new social situations, while she needs time to catch up. Most of the boys won’t appreciate her thoughtful observations – her lack of talent for small talk (which ironically, she will most likely have mastered by the time they claim to not care for it).

But I also want to tell her that she will probably benefit from this under-valued tendency to be reserved when she is in high school. She will be less likely to throw herself into unsafe situations. Her version of the invincible teenager will be more careful and pragmatic. She will hang back where others race into danger.

I want to tell her everything. Because now, I know.

I know how much she will hate her insecurity and need to be cautious when she’s younger. How she will wish that she could be like the other girls with their perceived bold confidence. And when she’s older and adept at successful cocktail party navigation, she’ll look back and see how she could have done everything differently.

Then years after that, she’ll appreciate all of the unique weirdness that made her unlike any other girl her age. She will recognize the value in in this and be grateful for the experiences that made her exactly who she became. She will have few regrets. Because if things had happened differently, then she might not have everything she holds dear.

And at some point, the observer in her – the shy girl who watched and considered so much throughout her life – may even be able to acknowledge that it’s much the same for everyone else. That no matter how shy people may be – every day – some days – or even just ONE day…we all lead uncertain lives, full of risk and insecurity.

And even when we feel the absence of a best friend’s hand to hold, we’re never really alone. In fact, we are always in good company.

Stupid

It’s a loaded word.

And we use it all the time in so many different ways…

How could I be so stupid?…then the stupid coffee maker broke…don’t say stupid honey, it’s not nice…don’t be stupid, of course I’ll help with…that stupid dog was barking all night…please don’t say stupid sweetie, it hurts feelings…”

I’ve tried explaining that it’s okay to call a thing stupid, but not people…but that’s not entirely true either. “Your picture is STUPID – it doesn’t even look like a…” Sometimes calling things stupid hurts feelings too.

So we go back to the black-and-white-right-and-wrong-never-always world that makes sense to children.

And we NEVER say stupid.

Until we do. And get corrected or copied. And then remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can. No one is perfect. And we try again.

A few months ago, Eleanor called Oliver stupid.

And what siblings don’t do that? Hurl that easy meanness back and forth without a thought beyond momentary anger? Feelings are hurt. Tears are dried. Sorries are said. And everyone understands that it’s not really true. “Of course you’re not stupid, she didn’t mean that.”

But when your daughter calls her older, special needs brother stupid, there is far more at stake than hurt feelings. Because at age six, Oliver can see that he’s different – that some things come more easily to his classmates. To his little sister. And he understands what stupid means.

Poor little sister…you’re just being a kid. Your cruel words have no agenda. And you don’t really mean it. Even when you do.

In this scenario, Oliver was throwing a blanket over her. Over and over. No matter how many times she asked him to stop. Because sometimes he doesn’t know when to stop. Sometimes he can’t…impulse control issues, you know. But regardless of the reasons, her anger was justified. And she retaliated with angry words.

Oliver is stupid!

And a few minutes later, I heard the yelling and that word, “No YOU’RE stupid! No YOU are because YOU don’t listen. STUPID!” Stupidstupidstupidstupid….

So I sat them down, listened to sides, dried tears, defined words, explained cruelty, demanded reciprocal apologies…and ignored the ice that pierced my heart with that awful, everyday word that I misuse all the time.

We NEVER say stupid. It’s not nice. It hurts feelings.

Minutes later another squabble erupted, and this time it was Oliver calling his sister stupid. It was the first time I ever heard my sweet boy say that word, let alone say it about someone.

There were more tears and unreasonable behavior. Then arbitration. Then defiance.

Then Chris came in, saw all of the ugliness and disrespect for parental authority and sent everyone to their rooms.

This wasn’t a wrong thing to do, of course…but in this particular situation, with these particular children, it wasn’t the right thing either. So we gave each other the “okay, what do we do now?” look, and began damage control.

Since Chris administered the time out, I asked him to go talk to Oliver. Time outs don’t work with our oldest – and if I went to talk to him, then I would just be cast as the one who saved him from that mean asshole, Dad. They needed to work it out on their own. So I went to Eleanor.

She cried and explained. And I listened and agreed. But then I explained (and tried not to cry). And she listened. And finally understood. Why we never say stupid. Because it hurts feelings.

Later Chris told me that Oliver actually asked him, “Daddy, am I stupid?

How do you continue to breathe when your special needs child asks you such a loaded question? How do you answer?

For the first, it takes a lot of effort. For the second, it’s as natural as breathing.  You say no. “No, you are not stupid. Never think that. Never worry about that. You are a very smart boy.”

And Oliver isn’t stupid. So that’s not an ambiguous response. It’s the truth.

But the rest of the truth is, he is different. He doesn’t learn the same way other kids do. Simple Kindergarten crafts are often difficult for him. He has a hard time sustaining the appropriate level attention. He falls behind easily. And he’s starting to see all of this.

During parent teacher conferences last November, I (again) brought up the issue of holding Oliver back a year. He’s currently in first grade and I was astounded that they didn’t think he should repeat Kindergarten. In fact, I would have objected if he wasn’t in a K-1 class. Knowing that he’d be in the same classroom and would spend close to 30 hours doing one-on-one work with a special ed teacher each week, made me feel comfortable with the decision. The only difference would be a label: “first grade.”

But now it’s February. And he’s so obviously not ready to move on to second grade, no matter how many hours he may spend in a resource room. He’s barely working on a first grade level, let alone second grade.

Don’t you have to master a skill set before moving on to the next level – the next grade?

Apparently not.

When I broached this topic, and questioned whether children simply “age out” of their classroom, I got the shocking answer that, yes – in fact, they do. And I suddenly understood what I’ve been hearing for so long. Why people have been talking about kids being pushed through the school system. OF COURSE no one was suggesting that my son repeat a year. All of this time, I’ve been missing the point.

The school’s goal is to advance students through each grade, giving them the support they require to reach their highest potential. And there is nothing wrong with that.

The only problem is that I may have different expectations for my own child’s potential.

Listen – I know that teachers care. I’ve seen this first hand. There isn’t one teacher, classroom aide or therapist working with Oliver whom I don’t implicitly trust to have his best interests at heart. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they love my son.

But he’s my son. No one will ever love him like I do. No one will ever have his best interests at heart like I do. No one will ever see as much potential in him as I do.

So it’s up to me.

There is only so much that his teachers can do. They can’t suggest that he repeat a year when the school system has created a means of him advancing through each grade with help. And now that I understand this, I know what I have to do to help them. Help them help him.

I don’t want Oliver to feel stupid. I don’t want him to think he’s stupid. And while I can’t control how he’s going to feel or think, I can help create an environment that will guide him to better self esteem. And the first step is giving him a little more time to catch up.

When he started Kindergarten, he could barely speak in full sentences. He would wander around the classroom, unable to sit still for more than minutes at a time. He hardly ever asked questions. He played next to other children, not with them.

All of that has changed. In only 16 months, he has accomplished more than I would have ever guessed possible.

His potential is vast.

I can’t predict what will happen next for Oliver, but I can do everything in my power to ensure that he’s given a chance. To see his own potential. To believe in himself. To never accept the label “stupid.”

It’s inevitable that my children will call each other names. And “stupid” is the least of it… But the implications of that one silly word that is misused and overused to the point of desensitization are far too harmful to be ignored by my family.

We never say stupid.

So I wonder where Eleanor picked that up anyway… School? Friends? Me?

Chris claimed it was a cartoon. He said that they were watching Tom & Jerry, and a female cat character – the object of Tom’s affections – said it. Jerry set Tom’s tail on fire during the cats’ date at a restaurant. And when the bewildered Tom wondered what was burning his girlfriend said, “it’s you stupid.”

I was skeptical. Such a common word…so easy to blame it on a cartoon. Far more likely for it to be something she heard at school. From a friend. From me.

But very soon after that, Eleanor was telling me about a funny cartoon she saw. Tom and Jerry…Tom was on fire…”it’s you, stupid.”

Huh.

Stupid cartoon.

We still let them watch Tom and Jerry. It’s not my favorite – but it’s the least of my worries. I can’t shield them from the word stupid. And cutting them off from television isn’t the answer.

Better to educate them. Help them understand why that word can be so hurtful. When it’s okay to say it…when it’s not… Let them know that it’s okay if they make mistakes – hurt feelings. We all do the best we can. No one is perfect. All we can do is try again…

Right now my job is to give Oliver a chance to catch up. Help him see his own potential. Keep fighting for him.

And I am so grateful for the teachers we have on our side. While their power has limits, I now know how I can help them.

In fact, I just met with them this week. I asked questions and they offered a meeting. There were a few things to discuss, and I brought up my opinion that he needs another year in his current classroom. That he’s not yet ready for second grade.

They said that it isn’t quite as simple a decision as it once was…that administration would have to be involved in the discussion…but that the situation and the student in question would be given consideration. And that there are a number of reasons why Oliver should be given this consideration.

I think that’s a good start.

They love my son. I know this. And it means more to me than I could ever express to them in words.

I hear it in the way they talk about him. Their pride in his progress. Delight in his unique personality. Admiration for his strength of character – his sense of self.

They like Oliver as much as they love him. And they tell me stories about him. Particularly ones that make them laugh. The most recent one came from his classroom teacher who has been with him since his first day of Kindergarten.

She asked me if he was eating enough for breakfast since he often tries to open his lunch bag when he arrives at school. She wasn’t sure if this was because he was hungry or if he just wanted to eat his snack. We all agreed that it was probably the latter. It was noted that he does like his salty snacks…

And apparently, he’s quite partial to the soft pretzels that they sell in the cafeteria. Not that he should even know about them since he doesn’t buy a school lunch… But someone obviously shared a pretzel with him at some point because he does know about them. And he really likes them.

In fact, according to this teacher, Oliver must have made a friend who works in the cafeteria who also knows this about him. Because regardless of the fact that I have always packed a lunch for him – have NEVER sent money for the school lunch – several times a week, she will look over at his table to find him enjoying his own soft pretzel. The ones that you can purchase in the cafeteria lunch line.

So several times a week, my son who has these delays and IEP goals to improve his ability to communicate and relate to other people charms someone into giving him a free salty snack.

Smart boy.