And So This Is Christmas … Let The Grief In

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It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 pm. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors. A delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got work emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. All my albums — traditional, classical, contemporary, instrumental, pop — are on shuffle and iTunes is creating our playlist. The music stays pleasantly in the background of my awareness until I hear the opening phrase of Happy Xmas.

“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”

The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause my work. I close my eyes and listen to the familiar, comforting melody.

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Exquisite Grief

And when she shall die, take her and cut her out in little stars, and she will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

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And now it’s happened: I’ve lost my mother. She laid down her broken body — soft and comforting still, but no longer up to the task of moving her through the days — and died. She laid down her weary head, the short-circuiting neurons in her brain finally quiet, and slept.

In her own bed, under her lovely floral quilt, she drifted away and left physical concerns behind in the vessel housing them. Her breathing stretched, the silence between each ragged inhalation hung with anticipation. Her pounding heart slowed and faded to a quiver, like the fluttering wings of a little bird, until it beat no more. My sister quoted Shakespeare: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” For Mom, the pace has ceased its forward motion; there are no more tomorrows. And in retrospect, the petty becomes hallowed. “Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow . . .”

I knew it was coming, or rather, that she was going. For months, I mourned her absence even in her presence, trying to absorb everything and indelibly imprint her image on my memory. The days, finite and measured, poured like sand through the hourglass as I watched them go. I knew I would lose my mother, but I didn’t know it would bring me to my knees.

I didn’t know how heavy grief could be, that I’d drag myself under its weight from my bed each morning, pulled into motion only by the slipstream of routine. Even then, fatigue would leave me to endure the hours until I could curl up again, alone. I didn’t know the world would be too loud and too bright and too fast, its audacity for going on as if the cosmos hadn’t shifted unforgivable. I didn’t know I’d hide from my neighbors or seek solace nightly in wine or toss and turn restlessly in my sleep, dreaming of something just out of my grasp. I didn’t know it would feel like depression.

I didn’t know it would hit this hard, losing my 71-year-old mother to multiple sclerosis. I didn’t think I was entitled to the same bereavement as my friend who lost her 21-year-old son, full of potential, to a heroine overdose; or my friend, whose 5-year-old grandson was taken by a brain tumor before his life had even begun; or my sister, whose husband died of kidney cancer when he was 47, leaving a young son fatherless. Because Mom had been ill for decades and because I’d planned for the end of her life, because she’d become increasingly distraught and difficult, because she suffered, because she was at peace and ready, because I believe her death to be merely a transition — for all these reasons I thought my sorrow would be tempered. I know now, it matters not if the death is tragic or abrupt or expected, if the life has been long or interrupted; grief pierces and reverberates through all who have loved and lost.

I didn’t know it would lodge in my body, that I’d tamp down and swallow my emotions. That staying busy would be a coping mechanism. That avoiding reminders and seeking distractions would keep me functionally numb, but one handwritten note could unravel my hold. I didn’t know it would be a physical urge, this need to cry, and when unleashed, the intensity would crash over me in waves, plunging me under and washing me to shore only when the tide went out. I didn’t know I’d be a private mourner, that I’d get through the memorial with only a few tears, but in the dark of night, in my husband’s arms, I’d finally weep unabashedly, like a child.

I didn’t know people could show such tenderness, that when I returned home I’d find my friends had cleaned my house and left plants and flowers and cards and nourishing food. I didn’t know their generosity would humble me profoundly, that every thought and prayer, every gesture, every act of service would soften the pain and blur the edges.

I didn’t know I could miss my sisters so terribly, the airport goodbyes a severing. I didn’t know we would merge into the embodiment of the best of our mother, that separation would feel unnatural, impossible even. I knew the sacred experience of nurturing the exodus of our mother’s spirit from this world would bring us closer; I didn’t know escorting her body under a full moon to the teaching hospital where she would donate her brain for research would be just as holy.

I knew we’d draw comfort from each other, but I didn’t know heaving sobs punctuated by belly laughs could be so cathartic, that the somber ceremony of scattering her ashes at the ocean’s edge on a cold, overcast day could suddenly turn uproariously funny when one sister, attempting a dramatic toss into the wind, tripped and fell into the freezing surf. I didn’t know we would celebrate our mother’s magnificent life with champagne toasts, crying as we sang along to Helen Reddy and Anne Murray and Karen Carpenter.

I knew we were strong women, that working hard was inextricably woven into who she raised us to be. But, I didn’t know we could clean out her apartment in 3½ days, a whole life summarized in the boxes we carted to my sister’s garage. I didn’t know evidence of Mom’s bravery and integrity would manifest in the intimate task of settling her affairs; not only proof of her creative, tenacious resilience — the hallmark of her personality — but also, signs of her mental decline no one could see.

I knew she was loved by many, not only friends, but those to whom she bonded with fierce loyalty, her chosen family. I didn’t know I’d dread the task of calling each one to deliver the news, that the words would stick in my throat. I didn’t know that their lives would also be bereft without her and I’d be compelled to comfort them, even as my own heart was breaking.

I knew the daily texts would stop, that I wouldn’t hear her voice exclaiming, “Hi, honey!” on the other end of the phone, that when she came to visit it was the last time. I didn’t know when I logged into her account and shut off her electricity the sudden realization of its permanence would take my breath away. I didn’t know I’d question if I should have done more and agonize over whether I’d been enough. I didn’t know I’d ache for her forgiveness.

I knew she’d stay close, that we would feel her; I didn’t know she would come to me when I was exhausted and spent, in the dream-like trance of half-sleep, and spread comfort like warmth through my chest, or when I was quiet and contemplative, in a cool breeze, gently caressing my face and answering my question, “Is that you, Mom?”

I didn’t know the previous contentment with my pretty little life would now feel like complacency; that restless whispers would become clamoring discontent, catapulting me into change and insisting I choose a different path. I didn’t know this transformation was not hers alone; it was mine as well. I know now I’ll never be the same, but therein lies the gift: the pain that shattered my carefully crafted day-to-day, leaving me to ponder my purpose and revisit the very meaning of my existence, has allowed me to create the reality I was born to live.

I know now losing my mother hurts like hell; her absence incarnate is like a light gone out and it will be dark for a while. But in the darkness, I awaken. Holding hands with divinity, I glimpse that I, too am divine. My loss is not diminished by this blissful epiphany, and surprisingly, I’m glad. I don’t want its sharpness blunted. I welcome the overflowing experience, brutal one moment and glorious the next. I did not know, I could not know I would cherish my grief, a grief made exquisite because I loved her so. As I love her now. As I will forever more. This I always knew.

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Eulogy To My Mother

When she shall die,
Take her and cut her out in little stars,
And she will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

William Shakespeare

Wallow High School Senior Photo 1961

Patricia Ann Lyman Pullen-Jones, a 1943 New Year’s Eve baby, was from Bozeman, Montana. And Wallow, Oregon. And Monmouth and Salem and Coquille, Oregon. And Fort Collins, Colorado and Fort Meade, Maryland and Davis, California. From Phoenix, Arizona and Thousand Oaks, California, and for a short time, Taos, New Mexico. For the past 17 years, she was from her beloved Portland, Oregon.   She was from moving more times than anyone could count, except perhaps the faithful who, by her side, lifted mattresses and refrigerators and filing cabinets onto U-Hauls trucks. Pat was from making a home wherever she went; from a plethora of house plants suspended in macramé slings, sunflower artwork, ‘Bloom Where You Are Planted’ needlepoint, and The Desiderata with its burned edges, decoupaged onto a scalloped walnut plaque that hung in every living room in every house in every city. She was from a cat on her lap and a book in her hand.

Patsy was inescapably from her family: her mother, Katherine Ivannie Moore; her father, John Williamson Lyman, her big brother, J.W., who died at ten when she was only four years old, from her sister, younger by two years, Katherine Gwen and her baby sister, Doris Jane. She was from small towns and Rainbow Girls, and the newspaper her father owned (and where she worked); from a high-brow, journalistic lineage; from writers, from poets, from intelligence. She was from class.

Patricia was from skipping a grade and attending St. Paul School for Girls in Walla Walla, Washington, and from returning home to Wallowa High School and the friends she’d grown up with. From ballet and piano and theatre and baton-twirling and reporting for the school paper. From sewing her own prom dresses and covering her shoes with satin to match. She was from talent.

She was from marrying her high school sweetheart who called her Trisha, and following him across the country as he became an officer in the army, from putting him through veterinary school. And after 11 years, painful divorce. From single motherhood and singing her babies to sleep and kissing their fevered foreheads. From teaching them responsibility and manners and the names of wildflowers. She was from mama bear and don’t-mess-with-my-kid and you-and-me-against-the-world. From second chances and late-in-life babies who waited until the right time to come.

She was from three marriages and four children; Lisa Charmaine, Stephen Maynard, Heidi Ann and Sarah Elizabeth; from ten grandchildren, Melissa and Jeremy Buehner, Sydney and Haley Kent, Charles, Bronson, Isabella and Joseph Pullen, Gabriel Rabbat and Holden Collins, and one and a half great-grandchildren, Ashton and baby boy (or girl) Buehner yet to born, and with whom she dances now, whispering, “I’m your Grammy.”

Patricia was from tradition. From ham and twice-baked potatoes and peas and cheese on Christmas, from jello molds and casseroles, from lace tablecloths and felt wall-hangings. From putting in the Thanksgiving turkey and going to a movie with her kids while it roasted. She was from knitting needles and spinning her own wool; from handmade slippers and sweaters and hats and gloves. From oral traditions and stories and poetry. From re-finishing furniture and re-wiring electrical circuits and re-building computers. She was from re-cycling before re-cycling was en vogue. From flushing the transmission, replacing the starter, and installing the windshield-wiper motor on her car. From cabinets full of tools; from YouTube tutorials.

She was from Nordstrom style on a Goodwill budget and holding her chin up and pulling herself up by her bootstraps. She was from fortitude and determination and stick-to-it-iveness and elbow grease. She was from mind-your-own-business and what-goes-around-comes-around and create-your-own-reality.

She was from kisses on the lips and hugs that consumed, from frequent I love you’s and a mother’s intuition. From mothering the motherless, filling the void of their need and taking them as her own adopted children. She was from mother-love big enough to extend to her nephew, Njuguna and nieces, Randee and Cierra, acting as fierce protector and advocate, and never letting go. From making sure they stayed safe and connected, that they felt important and most of all, loved.

She was from teaching: her children, her students, her friends, and everyone around her. From standing with those who could not stand on their own. From liberal politics and feeding the hungry and sending money she didn’t have to women in war-torn and developing countries.

Pat was from loving everyone she met, and all those she met, falling head over heels in love with her. From loud, open-mouthed laughs and saying what’s on her mind and not caring what anyone thinks and swearing a blue streak. From cups of ice filled with Jim Beam and Diet Dr. Pepper, with no lid. She was from spills, and spilling over.

She was from classical music and a quiet life and simplifying. She was from tech savvy and Facebook and the internet. And texts made indecipherable by autocorrect. From many connections with many people, in her physical space and in cyber space. From loving the ones around her, and missing the ones who were not.

Pat was from MS, from nerves worn thin and the world too loud, from skin too sensitive and a heart too full, primed for love, and always broken wide open. From a cane that sat in the corner she refused to use. She was from living and dying on her own terms.

Where she was from is clear to anyone who loved her, and she will be missed immeasurably, but now, it’s about where she’s going. A place of light, brilliant and radiant, as vast as the ocean, as tall as the mountains. She’s returned to the ‘one-ness’ as she often said. She’s not left us, she is merely in non-physical form and in her death, in her own transcendence, she brings healing to her family; spontaneous, exhilarating, joyful healing that washes clean the wounds of human experience, leaving only love.

Love of a purity and magnitude beyond words. Love that is larger than we can comprehend. Love that she herself has become, encompassing and holding us in her embrace. We feel her in the breeze across our face. We feel her in the birds that swoop and soar. We feel her in the full moon as she rises over the blue planet. And if we are lucky, we see her in our dreams.

Format from the poem Where I’m From by George Ella Lyons.

The blue planet with her mountains
Now as always be my territory.
The blue planet with her rivers
Now and always be my hunting ground.
The blue planet with her cities
Now and always be my home ground.
The blue planet with all my goals
Now and always be my victory!


The Grandmother of Time, a Woman’s Book of Celebrations, Spells and Sacred Objects by Zsuzsanna E. Budapest

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In Her Image

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home

African-American Spiritual

Katie Lyman
Age 20, circa 1933

I’m going to lose my mother. It’s an inevitability I never used to think about. My grandmother, Katie lost her mother in 1920 when she was only seven years old. She was the second of five children and the oldest daughter. Separated by scarcely more than a year, the first three were born before her parents divorced. Her mother remarried and after a four-year gap, two more babies were born in quick succession. Katie’s stepfather moved the young family from the city to a rural farm in Wyoming when the littlest were two and one and her mother, Loretta, was eight months pregnant.

My Grammy wrote in her memoirs, “I remember snatches of my mother. It seemed she never sat down at the table because she was always waiting on we kids and Papa.” From my 21st century vantage point, I can only imagine how exhausting and laborious this 24-year-old mother’s life was, raising five small children on the prairie, without modern conveniences, while pregnant. Again. Before they were settled in the new homestead, Loretta’s sixth child was stillborn. Flooding prevented the doctor from reaching her, though we can’t know whether it would have made any difference. She became very ill in the days following but managed to send a letter to her mother, Tennie, saying the baby had died but she ‘supposed she’d be all right.’ Without the convenience of modern technology, that letter didn’t arrive until 2 weeks later, and on the same day as a different letter which carried the news that her daughter had died.

In Katie’s words, “. . . [they] took her to town in a spring wagon with a bed made in it. It was the last time I saw her alive. She said, ‘Goodbye kids. I’ll be back in a day or two.’ I had such an empty feeling. I went behind a tree and cried.”

I was 18 when I left home for the first time to attend college and I missed my mother, Patricia, deeply. A vocal music major, I sang with an elite a cappella choir. Every day at 1:00 pm we rehearsed, our voices painting tonal landscapes in which I lost myself. The eight-part harmonies of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” wrapped around me as the haunting melody, in a minor key, wept with visceral sorrow, expressing the universal loss; a child without its mother. I was reminded of my grandmother and how she was set adrift so young, alone in the world without an anchor to keep her safely harbored. I wondered, what happens to a girl when her mother dies before she’s become a woman herself. How does she know who to become? And who will show her who she already is? A mother shapes her daughter by simply being. Not nature verses nurture; the unfolding lies in both.

There is something profound in the biological connection between a mother and her daughter that transcends the quality of their relationship or the amount of time spent together. The genetic design that serves as a blueprint for the subsequent generation exists despite circumstance. Daughters can sculpt themselves, choosing how they manifest their best potential, but DNA maps their identity; the double helix provides the framework on which they build themselves. We emerge from those who come before us, carrying their pedigree within; there is no escaping our lineage.

At times, I’ll admit, this is the very thing I’ve rejected—the sameness. When face-to-face with the likeness, I balk and break away, accentuating my difference: I am my-SELF, not a copy of my mother and aunts and grandmother. And yet, at other times, I embrace my tribe with pride and solidarity; the familiarity claims me and I cannot deny my own belonging.

My life unfolded with similar patterns to my mother and grandmother. My grandmother was the eldest daughter. My mother was the eldest daughter. I am the eldest daughter. My grandmother had three daughters and one son, and her youngest, a daughter, was born when she was 40. My mother has three daughters and one son. Her youngest was a daughter, born when she was 40. I have three daughters and one son, and my youngest, a daughter, was born when I was 40. And we have more than numbers in common. We come from strong women; pioneer stock with do-it-yourself independence. We come from mental illness and trauma and divorce. We come from creativity, talent and passion, fiery tempers to match. We come from tender hearts and soft bodies and soothing hands.

I am my mother. I am not my mother. I want to be like my mother. I want to be nothing like my mother. All are true. And one truth remains superlative, no matter how old, we need our mothers; as babes and teenagers, as young mothers ourselves, as aging adults. To be nurtured and comforted, to be cherished and reassured; these are needs we do not grow out of. The simple presence of one’s mother on the planet provides the possibility of a light in the darkness. And regardless of conflict or resolution, intimacy or estrangement, issues past or present, in the end, forgiveness clears the space for only love to remain.

When Katie neared the end of her life she said to her daughter, “When I can’t live alone, will you come and get me?” And Patricia–my mother–did.  Instrumental in the sacred metamorphosis, she gently ushering her mother out of the world, just as her mother did, bringing her into the world.

It’s nearing the end of my mother’s life and the loss has already begun; the grief is nudging me, whispering. A mother’s first instinct is to shield her child from pain, but she cannot shield them from the pain of her own death, try as she might. I’m going to lose my mother, and soon, yet I feel the stirrings of my ancestry lending me strength. I sense the circle of grandmothers bringing me peace. Tennie, mother of Loretta; Loretta, mother of Katie; Katie, mother of Patricia; Patricia, mother of Lisa; we are linked, one to the next, and an unspoken knowledge pulses between us: a mother cannot be lost. She is connected to her children forever. Wherever we go, we carry our mothers with us and we are never far from home.

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Confessions Of A Reluctant Stage Mom

“I’d like to go to brunch,” I say, loading my athletic shoes into my gym bag. A suitcase sits open on the floor. My husband carefully lays out his dry cleaning on the bed for yet another business trip. I circle him, gathering my notes and music for yet another class. Leaning out of our bedroom door, I holler across the house to the girls. “Leaving in five minutes! Get your stuff together.”

After I teach we’ve got to go straight to yet another of their activities. I turn back to Steven.

“You know,” I continue, toggling between conversations at rapid speed, “like other middle-aged couples do on Sundays. Spontaneously. By them-SELVES.”

Sydney, still in her PJs, walks around the corner.

“What are you doing? Get dressed!” I moan.

Exasperated, I give her a gentle shove in the direction of her clothing laid out in the living room. Over my shoulder, I whine, “You. Me. Mimosas. Is that too much to ask?”

We are not a middle-aged couple who brunch because those people’s children have grown and flown, and two of our four are still at home, dependent on us for food, shelter and filling out forms. Besides school and Mom and Dad’s “day” jobs, orchestra, choir and cheer practices, and visits to the doctor, dentist and orthodontist fill our jam-packed schedules. Making it work takes a savvy mix of Type-A organizational skills and go-with-the-flow flexibility. Even with a smartphone and Haley’s photographic memory, some things disappear from my radar. (Serves me right, I ‘spose — back in the days when I kept my calendar in my head, I tsk-tsked plenty at the moms who spaced appointments. Tip from my older, wiser self: Go ahead, judge, but it will bite you in the bum.)

Like many families, our baseline level of rush-and-go hovers consistently at “Hurry up, we’re late!” and “Do you have your violin?” and “Remember, I’m picking you up. Do NOT ride the bus!” Under duress, the barometer pushes into the red with “How can you not know where your poms are, you just HAD them?!” and “What did I do with my keys? I swear I just had them.” Mom’s taxi puts down a lot of miles with three to four trips out and back every day. The driving is one thing, but it’s the level of involvement that costs. If I can drop at the curb, energy output is minimal. That’s usually Haley. But, if I have to go in, engage and even TALK to people, the meter starts ticking. And that’s usually Sydney.

When she was born with Down syndrome, I had a vague notion of the extra support she’d need, but I couldn’t know just what it would demand. For her to succeed, especially in environments composed of her typically developing peers, she can’t go it alone: Mom gotsta go with. Birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s and Going Bonkers? Playdates at friends’ homes? Picnics at the pool, festivals at the park and field trips to the zoo? After-school clubs and karaoke nights? I’ve been to all of them, a few particularly memorable highlights resulting in the blogs, “It’s About The Dance” and “Kids Can Save The World, or Lisa Goes To Science Camp.”

But, I am no heroic mother. Trust me, quite the contrary. On the nights that don’t end until 10 p.m. because after cheer practice, there’s still Sydney’s hair to curl for show choir dress rehearsal — dividing the heavy and wet sections and rolling them into sponge curlers while she cries — on those nights, I find it difficult to disguise the tired, impatient little man inside me. You know the one: Mr. Incredible’s boss, Gilbert Huph? “I’m not happy. NOT. HAPPY.”

It’s not that I resent it so much as I resist it; the pull of her special needs and what that requires of me. Plenty of times I’d rather be anywhere else than a high-school basketball game. But, not going is not an option. I won’t deprive her of the opportunities for fun and growth my other children have/had. Building relationships and making memories is what high school is all about. For that reason, I happily do what I must for my daughter, even when I’m decidedly not happy doing it.

Case in point: the show choir concert. Sydney’ high school performing-arts program has a reputation that doesn’t disappoint. Even the novice freshman choir takes its commitment seriously with clear expectations from the start. Tonight I have curled, styled and sprayed her hair into submission — an emotional ordeal for the both of us — and superglued French-tipped fingernails to her tiny nail beds. Lastly, I’m putting makeup, including foundation, eye shadow, eyeliner and mascara, on my daughter’s porcelain skin; my daughter who prefers natural beauty and balks at this intrusion. I hold the back of her head to line her lower eyelid and tell her for the 25th time to look UP, feeling my patience wane as she lifts her chin even higher, but keeps her eyes down.

“LOOK up. Your eyes, Syd!”

Sydney feels my impatience too, and her eyes well up.

I pull her close, blotting her tears quickly with a Kleenex, and tell her I’m sorry I’ve hurt her feelings, but she’s going to ruin her makeup!

“It’s OK, Mom. I’m fine,” she says, mustering her courage. I finish the job, getting us out the door and to call only a few minutes late.

While other moms find their seats, I’m backstage looking for the dressing room. Teeming with half-dressed girls leaning into mirrors, yelling across the room, laughing and talking and singing, it’s chaotic and adrenaline-charged. Sydney, sensitive to sensory input and a bit overwhelmed, follows me closely as we weave through bodies in search of her costume. I’m directed to a satin dress, covered in sparkling gems, with barely-there spaghetti straps, hanging in a plastic bag with her name on it. There are Spanx and tights and size 1 character shoes with a 2-inch heel, too. We retreat to a corner and I help slide her little toes into pantyhose and her little feet into the dance shoes. I zip up her dress and spin her around. Altered for her smaller frame, the dress fits perfectly. I clip the finishing touch–dangling rhinestone earrings–onto her ear lobes and step back. I’m blown away by this stunning, lovely young lady. She is talented and able, and no less so for needing my help putting on her undies and buckling her shoes.

Sydney can take it from here, so I give her a squeeze and go join my family, collapsing into the seat with relief just in time. The band strikes up the opening number and the freshman choir spills onto the stage, mounting the risers and belting out an upbeat number that instantly delights the audience. Energetic and vibrant, they move across the stage, in and out of clever formations, dancing and kicking and twirling. Fists pumping and hands clapping, it’s “Glee” in real life. And there in the middle, looking just like the other girls, if a miniature-sized version, is Sydney, grooving along and singing her heart out. She knows the words. She knows all moves. She knows no fear.

It comes to me in a rush, all at once, knocking the wind out of me: the realization of just how capable she is. She can DO this. She IS doing this! A sob rises in my throat and I stifle it with my palm. I look over at my husband who is already looking at me. Boundless pride pulses between us; shared in a way that is ours alone as her parents. In silent celebration, we clasp hands and I let my tears come.

The vocals swell and the big finish approaches. At the dramatic ending, in perfect timing, Sydney shoots her arm to the ceiling, jazz hand extended, and throws her head back. She and the rest of the choir hold the pose through the applause. Magic fills the auditorium. I’m flooded with gratitude for these sweet kids who have accepted Sydney as one of their own, for all the teachers and paras and adults who invest in her and continue to draw out her strengths, and for the man by my side, who resonates devotion; the powerful love that transcends any limitation, including busy-ness and weariness. He knows it’s worth whatever it takes to see Sydney, as normal as any other kid, following her dreams.

It’s even worth skipping brunch.

 

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To Believe or Not to Believe

Christmas 1970

“Mom, is Santa real?”

My youngest shouts this over the top of Katy Perry’s “Roar” playing on the radio as I’m dodging traffic on Providence Road, trying to get to gymnastics. I shouldn’t be surprised that questions of this magnitude frequently come from the back seat of the minivan. Questions like, “Why can’t gay people get married?” or, “Are you a Christian, Mom?” or, “What does it mean, ‘I’ve got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it?’” We spend a large quantity of our time in transit; it makes sense that life lessons are dispensed there.

“Some of my friends are saying it’s just your parents who put the presents under the tree,” Haley yells.

I turn down the volume and glance in my rearview mirror. So, I sigh, it’s begun.

“Hmm, they are?” Buying some time, I ask, “What do you think?”

Haley noticed a few years back that not all Santas are created equal. It wasn’t the Halloween-grade red suits, or even the slip-on shoe covers in lieu of black leather boots. No, it was the beard. Perfectly groomed white facial hair with a slit for the mouth signaled fake. Luckily, she accepted the explanation that Santa needs helpers around the world, and while they aren’t the real Santa they are bona fide representatives sanctioned by the Master Elf himself.

When the subject of Santa sightings came up with her younger cousins — so many Santas, so little time — she bragged, “I’ve seen the real Santa,” as in, “you just think you have.”

“At Bass Pro, in Columbia,” she clarified.

Wide-eyed, her spellbound audience gasped, “But, how do you know it’s him?”

“Well,” her eyes darted up to the left, “he’s pretty old, kinda fat and his beard is dusty and oldish. He’s the real one.”

This year, however, we’re skating on thin ice. At 10, her analytical ability and attention to detail are developing at an alarming pace. And she’s getting curious.

“I think that if there is really no Santa Claus and if parents buy the presents and put them under the tree themselves, that would mean that you and Dad are doing it, too, and all of these years you’re doing it, then you are LYING to the kids. Would you lie to me, Mom!?”

Curious and savvy. Case-in-point: The current question — brutal in its honesty — is almost impossible to answer.

Sydney still believes, though at 14 she’s surrounded by peers who’ve long since traded the childish story for a “nobody believes that” attitude, cue eye-roll. But because of Down syndrome, like many developmental phases, she will get there when her little sister does, and Haley isn’t in a hurry to grow up. Maybe it’s her role as baby of the family, but she’s made a conscious decision to stay arrested: She refused to potty-train until 3, and no amount of pleading would coerce her to ditch the diapers. She hung on to her pacifier until 4, hauled her booster chair out of the trash at 7 and to this day lapses into baby talk.

But, as anxious as I’ve been for her to progress, I’m not ready for this childhood rite of passage. Her innocence is adorable; Christmas seen through her eyes becomes new again for us as her parents. The year she was in second grade, she hung a tiny stocking next to her regular one with a note that read: “Merry Christmas, Santa Claus! I love you! This is mine too, Haley Kent! Shign if yove been here!” (sic) At the bottom she penciled two boxes to choose from: “Been here” and “not been here.”

Perpetuating the magic for my girls takes me back to my own childhood, revisiting my father’s firsthand account of seeing Santa. My brother and sister and I would beg to hear the tale: In the wee hours of Christmas morning, when everyone else was sleeping, he heard sleigh bells and looked up just in time to spy Santa’s sleigh flying away. The fantastical vision of my dad as a freckle-faced farm kid, leaning out an attic window into the cold night air, gazing into a starry sky and seeing something so rare, made me shiver with delight and more than a little envy.

He solidified our confidence by staging a Christmas morning I’ll never forget. Rushing into the living room before dawn, utter amazement stopped us in our tracks. There, on the shag carpeting before us, large foot prints walked directly out of the fireplace and to each present laid out on display; for me, it was a Crissy doll, with long red hair that grew from the top of her head when her belly button was pushed — exactly what I’d asked for.

And my dad isn’t the only father (or grandfather) committed to creating wonderful memories for their kids. In the Kent family, Santa has made several appearances. Announced by approaching jingle bells, he’d enter with a “Ho, ho, ho, Meeeeerrrrrry Christmas!” and a bag of presents on his back. The kids were fascinated by this special, home visit.

One year Santa made a substantial impression on our youngest. Spending time with each, he welcomed the children to sit on his lap, even the teenagers. Shy, she hung back, but in a big booming voice he said, “Haley, come sit,” slapping his thigh. “Ho, ho, ho. Have you been a good girl this year?”

Ducking her head she answered, yes, she’d been good. She hugged his furry neck and thanked him politely. Then, present in hand, she hopped down and hurried to her daddy, whispering ecstatically, “He remembered my name!”

It never gets old. The excitement never wears thin. And the kids never make the connection that PaPa is nowhere to be found during Santa’s visit.

“PaPa, where did you go? Santa was just here!”

“He was?! Well, Jim-ah-nee! I go downstairs to get a beer and I miss everything.”

My husband, too, loves to see his daughters enthralled with the wonder of the season and is not above artful manipulation. One Christmas morning, he called urgently, “Girls, come see this!” In footie pajamas they padded across the floor. Peering through the cold glass of the patio door they saw, lying on the deck, under a dusting of snowfall from sometime during the night, a pile of reindeer droppings, a tell-tale sign that Santa — and his reindeer — had indeed been there. And yet another example of what a father will do for his children.

“Is Santa real?” my children want to know. As they face this inevitable epiphany, my hope is they won’t outgrow their belief in the mystical, but will see the spirit of Santa in the ones they love, and everyone around them, if they look closely. And most importantly, it can always be found within them. It isn’t in the goods. It’s not about the stuff: the loot they stockpile, the stack of toys guaranteed to be broken by New Year’s.

In fact, the risk of greediness arising from a Christmas morning piled high in crumpled wrapping paper threatens more disillusionment than questioning Santa’s existence. What I want my girls to get is that the celebration of Christmas — Santa Claus and his jet-setting reindeer delivering presents on one night of global magic, or the miraculous birth of a baby long ago under a star followed by wise men from far away bringing precious gifts, or both — is not about the gifts themselves, but the connection between the giver and the receiver. It’s about the exchange of love and the phenomenon of belonging to each other.

The most magical Christmas memory I have is of the night before, when I was in second grade. I’d woken up and tiptoed down the hall. Afraid I’d be in big trouble if discovered, I peeked stealthily around the corner into the living room. It wasn’t Santa that I saw, but my parents, sitting on the couch together in the dark, the twinkling lights of the tree casting a glow, soft music playing on the stereo turntable. Unseen, I watched, mesmerized. The very air was enchanted. I can still remember the voices of the Ray Conniff Singers:

“And when you’re giving your presents, don’t forget as you give them away, that the real meaning of Christmas is the giving of love every day.”

Their heads turned at the same time, but instead of shooing me back to bed, they motioned me over, making room between them and handing me a mug of hot chocolate; my mom on one side, my dad on the other. Time stopped. Pure love surrounded me. I believed.

“So, I guess you have to decide, Haley Bug.” I offer this to my daughter by way of an answer.

“Well, my friends say, ‘You don’t still believe in Santa, do you?’ and I just go with the flow and say no so they won’t make fun of me, even though I really do believe.”

Saddened that she needs to protect herself from peer pressure, I’m nonetheless touched that her child-like outlook prevails, at least for one more year.

“But, I have a plan. This year? When we go to Bass Pro? I’m going to whisper in Santa’s ear, ‘Are you the real Santa?’ What do you think he’ll say, Mom?”

I smile, “I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe he’ll say, ‘Do you think I’m the real Santa?’”

“Hmm. I think he is. Besides, another reason I know? Last year you two were exhausted and I know there’s no way you could do all that in one night.”

 
 
 

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Enough

I actually did it. For once I followed through on a threat. I’ve battled my children for years — no, decades — over the condition of their bedrooms. When the eldest two were teens, I all but conceded the fight. Their dark, damp rooms devolved into giant petri dishes, emanating mysteriously mingled odors. Clothes covered the floor, and dishes littered every surface; drinking glasses half-full and film-covered, cereal bowls congealed with the remnants of sugary milk, plates smeared with dried-on leftovers. Trash and treasures alike were shoved into nooks or carelessly strewn about, unprotected, revealing a laissez-faire attitude toward expensive teenaged paraphernalia: Game Boys, skateboards, headphones, stacks of loose CDs. The horrific messes frustrated me, but my kids taking everything for granted, that disheartened me. The situation resolved — when they moved out.

I can’t wait that long with the second batch. I’m old and basically one apoplectic fit away from a heart attack. I vowed things would be different and set out with two basic tactics: 1) Stay on top of it; get organized and maintain order, and 2) Teach them to be respectful; expect responsibility and reward compliance.

Mmm-hmm. Yeah.

I organized the play room with color-coded tubs on corresponding shelves. I arranged drawers, cabinets and cubbies. I used LABELS. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” I intoned, and for whole hours at a time their rooms looked like a Pottery Barn catalog — such a sweet sensation! But there was no way I could keep up the relentless policing and cajoling and reinforcing. Even with control issues, I was no match for the destructive force of my children. When I let down, even a little, it all went to hell in a hand basket; the little monsters annihilated my beautifully orchestrated design. Their energy was tornadic — toys, games, books and dolls were flung everywhere. And all those tiny pieces — broken crayons, Barbie shoes, key chains, pennies, paper clips, empty wrappers from Halloween candy and crunched-up chips smuggled in and hidden under the bed. The wreckage sent me into my own tailspin.

 

Prolonging the inevitable, I’d shut the door and walk away. I did not want to see it. Eventually I’d muster the strength and supervise the restoration of order by the demolition crew themselves. And by “supervise” I mean losing patience with their lackluster, apathetic efforts and cleaning it all up myself as they stood by, repentant and cowed into silence by my ranting.

“Look at all this stuff! It’s too much. Seriously, if you girls cannot change, you are destined to become hoarders. You’ll live alone!”

This cycle has repeated itself ten-thousand times, but the last time was different. I was different. I had enough.

“That’s IT. I am DONE! I’m NEVER doing this again. The next time you leave your things all over your room, they will BE. GONE. I MEAN it. I’ll come in here with GARBAGE bags!”

They didn’t believe me, but it was no idle threat; I followed through. Well, Steven did. My husband seemed to think I’d back-pedal, so he waited until I was at work to do the deed.  I came home to 12 heavy-duty black bags sitting in the garage where I park my car. And an empty play room. Epic in scale, their messes flat wore me out, but it was what those messes said about my kids that truly bothered me. It said they don’t appreciate what they have, that they are used to getting what they want; they’ve certainly gotten anything they’ve ever needed. And they don’t value it or the hard work and money it took to purchase their luxuries. As a parent, it’s a hard truth to face: having more than enough has not made them grateful, it’s made them greedy. And I’m to blame.

When we were in high school, my brother, sister and I lived with our single mother in a double-wide trailer. Parked on farmland in southeastern Idaho, we hunkered down for subzero winters and dug ourselves out of snow that began in October and stayed until April. To fight off the brutal cold, we fed a wood stove throughout the night and burrowed into heated waterbeds. My brother and I drove our one car to school after we dropped off our mom at work. Our clothes came from K-Mart, our furniture from thrift stores and when we worked potato harvest, our wages went to the household rather than in our pockets. I got good at pretending I wasn’t hungry on Friday nights at McDonald’s with my friends.

When I became a mother, I wanted my children to have what I didn’t, but in filling that void, maybe I denied them the opportunity to develop something I did have, in spades: a work ethic and sense of responsibility, an appreciation for material things and what it takes to earn them. Gratitude. Perspective. In hindsight, while they were tough, those experiences made me who I am today.

At Christmas, especially, when the anticipation of presents dominate my young daughters’ thoughts, when the reason for the season is buried under retail consumerism and drowned out by advertisements of aisles and aisles of bright, shiny treats, I grapple with how to adjust their attitudes. I long for them to recognize their bounty and share it freely with those in need. At heart, they’re not selfish. Sydney is so sensitive to other people’s feelings and generous. She has literally tried to give people the shirt off her back — or the iPod in her hand. And Haley, who has a special love for little ones, latches on to anything about sick kids. She filled out a donation slip for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and tucked $15 of her own money inside, asking me to mail it for her. My girls are kind and compassionate; they just need a chance to express it. And I need to lead the way.

Where to start? The world is full of hunger and pain and loss — the need so great. What could we do that would make a difference? The answer is simple: Whatever you can give, give. Whatever you can do, do. Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

In Columbia, you don’t have to look far to find ways to give. Organizations such as The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, Rainbow House, Coyote HillTrue North and Harvest House are among many worthy causes working tirelessly to serve humanity. Technology makes it possible to impact lives globally as well as locally. One mom I know coordinates an annual packing party for Operation Christmas Child, sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. This year, I took the girls. On a Friday night, we gathered to fill shoeboxes with school supplies and hygiene items, socks and hats and flashlights. And toys, of course: dolls, trucks and stuffed animals; things that will surely become prized possessions rather than yet another plaything to be taken for granted. Packing the boxes full, Sydney and Haley topped them off with handwritten letters and their school pictures to add a personal touch and sent them winging their way around the world to be received by children who might not have access to clean water or health care, let alone presents on Christmas Day.

By giving their hearts, my girls realized it’s not about the stuff, and in fact, excessive stuff gets in the way. Material things are not what bring us happiness. Connection, service, love: These are the gifts I want to give my daughters, and the knowledge that they can make a difference themselves, right here at home and across the universe.

So far, it’s sticking. Greed is giving way to benevolence. We’ll keep it up, finding opportunities to reach out. It is far better to give than receive, and they know that now.

The bags containing evidence of their overabundance sat in the garage for a few weeks, giving them plenty of time to think and allowing them to discern what they cherish, what they appreciate and what they can let go of. And in the process, they learned how good it feels to have, not too much, but enough.

 
 

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Becoming

I love teenagers. I do. Everything about them: the awkward, the self-conscious, even the angry bits. I’m especially intrigued by the way they shed their childhood like a skin and emerge a newer, older version of themselves. I even kind of love parenting teenagers. I know–it sounds nuts, but I feel I hit my stride as a mom when my kids hit double digits.

My babies slathered me with sloppy, open-mouthed kisses and clung to me like monkeys with their dimpled fingers; their miniature selves extensions of my body, not quite separate. Pressing them, sweet smelling and downy to my chest, was intoxicating. It comforted me as much as them. But there was the sleep-deprivation and the crying and the poop. So much poop. Not my fave.

My toddlers left sticky handprints on the walls, dropping crumbs in their wake and careening clumsily through our days, insisting loudly, “No, I do it!” Mini-tyrants, they asserted their independence and in conquering their world, dominated mine. Adorable to grandmotherly types who no longer dealt with blow out tantrums and whole gallons of spilt milk. Pass.

My preschoolers asked thousands of questions starting with “Why . . . ?” Insatiably curious, they chased sensory input with the sole purpose of soaking up knowledge . . . and destroying my house. Their constant motion and boundless energy siphoned me dry. Plus, the requisite mommy activities filled me with dread: crafting was code for a special sort of hell surrounded by Elmer’s glue, paper plates, and a million tiny beads. Not my best skill set.

In elementary school, baby-fat gave way to long legs as my kids morphed into capable young people with new skills and talents. They lived large and played hard and the noise threshold hovered around ear shattering, leaving me slightly deaf and functionally catatonic. No thanks.

By pre-pubescence, mysterious internal stirrings accompanied outward signs of impending change. On the cusp of a developmental leap, my children remained child-ish, but their sense of savvy and street smarts emerged. Thinking for themselves and testing limits, their personalities started taking shape and I enjoyed their unique brand of humor and conversation. All in all, a delightful stage, except for the hygiene: showers, toothpaste and clean underwear — not even on their radar. Getting closer.

With full-on adolescence, things got much more complicated; the physical work of parenting shifted dramatically to mental stress and strain. I expected the hormonal mood swings, the acne, the shocking growth spurts and voice changes, but I did not foresee that while their bodies mimicked adulthood and their psyches masked a false bravado, their brains — and hearts — remained immature and thus vulnerable. They were babies in grownup bodies, but I loved being with them. My goal was to keep them talking. I believed that communication was key to navigating the rough waters of parent-teen relationships and in my book, we succeeded. They felt safe enough to come to me with anything. Well, ‘aaaal-most anything.’ This according to my husband.

Don’t get me wrong, it was no nirvana, and I will state for the record, sometimes it was God-awful. I was certain we’d be swept under by those rapids, but we made it. And over the years, the intensity has faded — ironically, not unlike labor pains — and what lingers are gratifying memories of my older children becoming the smart, funny, compassionate and talented individuals they are today. With the age difference in our kids, it’s two down, two to go.

Now Sydney, 15, the older of the second batch, traverses the current. At schedule pick-up walking the halls of the high school, crowded with teenagers a full head taller than my petite daughter, I follow behind, watching her stride confidently down the corridor. I feel an acute sense of poignancy so sharp it’s almost painful: my girl, who happens to have Down syndrome, is a freshman.

While it’s true that many people with intellectual disabilities will retain child-like qualities, they do mature mentally, physically and emotionally. Sydney initially resisted the changes to her body. “I don’t want to become a woman!” she cried. But with the onset of her cycle, she’s embracing her new place among the women in our family and wants to share the news. With her trademark lack of self-consciousness and social decorum, she makes random comments — in public, no less. “I’m wearing a new bra!” and “Me and Mom are growing boobs. We’re boob twins.”

Sydney is intuitively aware of her disability and how she fits into social manueverings. As a cheerleader, she has an opportunity to ‘belong,’ but her success depends on me going to practice with her. I learn the routines and then teach them to her; practicing over and over and over. I’ve not always been cheer-ful about doing it. More than once I thought it was too much, for both of us. However, I also know she’s competent — she can do it, I’ve seen her! Despite the sighing and the tears, it’s worth it to see her achieve, on her own merit. Besides, she looks darling in her uniform.

Raising kids requires discernment about when to protect and when to prod, when to hold back and when to let go. With special needs kids, it’s easy to err on the side of caution and unintentionally block their progress. Sometimes we just need to get out of the way.

Like hatchling chicks, adolescents gain strength by breaking through their shells, earning a resilience they’ll need to live on their own. In many ways Sydney is a normal 15-year-old who loves YouTube and shopping and Taylor Swift and pizza parties. A teenager who rolls her eyes and says, “Mom, you’re ‘bare-assing me!” Who wants a phone and her own room. And a boy friend.

Being a mom to teenagers is the ultimate exercise in frustration, but I kinda love it. Sydney has begun the trek to independence and her sister, our last, is not far behind.

A few nights ago, Haley, age 11, came out of her room sobbing, during the scarce quiet time between the girls’ bedtime and our own. From my seat on the couch I watched her make a beeline to my husband, Steven, who stood in the kitchen. She wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her face in his belly.

“What’s the matter, love?” Daddy asked. “Did you have a bad dream?”

She cried and mumbled something incoherently.

“Sweetie, I can’t understand you,” he said, bending over and untangling her from his torso.

Pulling her head back and wiping her nose on his shirt, she took a deep breath and wailed, “I’m crying but I don’t … know … why!” and collapsed into fresh sobs.

He rubbed her back sympathetically, but looked to me helplessly, raising his eyebrows and shrugging his shoulders as if to say, “Um, what do I do with this?”

“Come here,” I said soothingly and stretched my arm out. She settled into my lap, curling into my body as I stroked her hair. “Chickadee, I know exactly how you feel.”

Some things, we don’t grow out of.

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Never Miss A Chance To Dance

Sydney’s YouTube debut (click link below):

Dance, Sydney, Dance

SMiling Sydney

 

 

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And Miles To Go Before I Sleep

It’s morning and I awake, not to an alarm, but to bright sunlight streaming through a crack in my door. Cradled maternally by my mattress, I’ve slept so hard the sheets have left deep creases on my skin. My consciousness attempts the swim  through layers of fog; “What day is it?”  “Where, exactly, am I?” With great effort, I roll over and squint, reading the digital numbers on the bedside clock: 8:29 a.m. The house is quiet; no one’s up yet.  And I remember: there is nowhere we have to be! Two months into summer vacation and today is our first free day — no camp, no summer school, no nothin’. I sink back under the delicious covers. In a few minutes Sydney and Haley will be ransacking the kitchen, eating peanut butter out of a jar and reheating chicken nuggets for breakfast. But I don’t care.

I love my bed and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Just the thought of my comfy pillow-top soothes my strung-out mind. This bed knows the contour of my body and calls to me seductively, “Lisa, come lie down.” And I do, whenever possible. Late afternoons, especially, once I am horizontal, I’m gone. People who nap are lazy, I used to think. Back then I was judgmental and more than a little pious. Back then I had yet to become a mother.

Almost 30 years later, I can’t remember the last time I felt rested. Child-rearing and chronic fatigue go hand in hand like hot wings and heartburn. As a new mom, sleep-deprivation on the level of Chinese water torture started when my first adorable but very loud newborn arrived and immediately took all nocturnal activities hostage. My initial resistance to being jolted out of an altered state turned to incredulity when I started to realize  I would be sleep-walking through life long after 3:00 a.m. feedings ceased. The epiphany was driven home after it was too late, after I chose to have more kids at an ‘advanced maternal age,’ thus clinching the deal: I’ll rest when I’m dead.

Facing this reality is much like processing grief; it comes in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, defeat. I mean, acceptance. The stages aren’t always in that order and some resurface frequently. Like bargaining. Especially bargaining. We all know one should never negotiate with terrorists, even if they’re tiny.

But in our defense, they’ve worn my husband and I down over the decades, reducing us to desperate acts committed in exhaustion-induced delirium. “Will you lie down with me?” they ask.  And we cave, letting them snuggle up as we read a story, fighting to keep our eyes open, but four hours later we wake with a start, fully clothed and drooling.  Or worse, we let them into our bed. But that, my friends, is a trap. All angelic with the gossamer eyelashes and the delicate skin, they curl up close, their soft breathing rhythmic and hypnotic. They lure us in and lull us to sleep in the sweetest of embraces. Bliss descends. For about 5 minutes.

What follows can’t really be called sleep; collapsing into a coma only to be startled awake by a sharp knee in the shin or a sudden slap across the face. Through the night, they migrate across the bed’s surface. Rooting like baby pigs, they thrash and turn, never still for more than a few moments. Heat-seeking, their little feet reach for the nearest body part. The broad expanse of Daddy’s back makes a good target, right between the shoulder blades. By morning, the bed resembles a war zone, the blankets wadded and twisted or in a heap on the floor.

The family bed is a myth. It’s actually more like musical beds. At some point the willingness to do anything for a good night’s sleep overtakes good judgment. Dad often is exiled from his own bed. Gone in search of a place to land, he ends up downstairs in the guest bed, or on the couch, or in a bunk bed, wedged up against the wall, his 6’3” frame contorting to fit — or not — the twin mattress with twin-sized blanket and not-so-clean twin sheet that slides over the protective plastic liner.

My poor husband is a character from Dr. Seuss’ “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.”

“Who am I? My name is Ned. I do not like my little bed. This is not good. This is not right. My feet stick out of bed all night.”

He’s been displaced so often the girls refer to the master bed as “Mommy’s bed” and frequently hit me up to fill the vacancy.

“Can I sleep with you tonight?”

“No, Daddy is sleeping with me. In his bed.”

I should be grateful that only 50 percent of my children are difficult sleepers; in each of the two sets, there is one good sleeper. Of the first batch, Melissa was the one, sleeping like a dream and waking up happy and contented. Jeremy, not so much. He was never easy; putting up the good fight at bedtime and waking hyper or cranky. He ran on two speeds: turbo-charged or out. Constant ear infections caused him to wail in pain for hours, always in the middle of the night. I remember rocking him, both of us drifting off just as the sun came up. He never learned how to get to sleep by himself and for years, though he’d start out in his own bed, morning would find him on the floor next to my side of the bed.  I stepped on him more than once.

With this second round of kiddos, Sydney’s the piece of cake. The cliché that kids with Down syndrome are good sleepers is true. As a baby she would lean out of my arms and reach toward her crib at nap time. As a teenager she says, “I’m tired. I’m ready for bed, Mom,” and down she goes. Mornings start with a hug and a shy smile and flow from there. Easy.

Haley couldn’t be more opposite. Bedtime drags on interminably: She’s thirsty, her head (throat, foot, bottom) hurts, she doesn’t have the right pillow, she’s too hot, too cold, her nose is stuffed up. She can’t sleep. She can’t stop thinking. She’s excited, she’s sad, she’s needy. “Mommy, I want you,” she says, reaching her arms out, fingers clutching. “I haven’t spent any time with you!” Steven calls her a little tick.

But see, I need to count on my children being unconscious for some amount of time during each 24-hour cycle.  With a child like Haley, there is no such respite. She comes stealthily into our room, appearing suddenly at my bedside, her hand like a woodpecker tapping my shoulder. “I had a bad dream,” she whispers loudly. Or sometimes she just climbs in over us; jostling the whole bed and wiggling her way to the middle. A few times she walked in and  flipped on the overhead light.

Though our older children eventually grew out of sleep disturbances, my weariness remained; the cause merely shifted. Teething and nightmares and the sudden onset of stomach flu at 1 a.m. morphed into loud music and late-night phone conversations and the unbidden images of worst-case scenarios 30 minutes past curfew. Anxiety and stress and overwhelm continued to plague my dreams as they became adults and headed into the wide world. Now, they’re having babies of their own; more  worry  to steal my sleep. There’s no going back; parenting is a long-term gig.

Coffee is my salvation in the morning and a glass of wine in the evening, a reward for making it through the day, helps me unwind. But the cycle sometimes leads to insomnia, the most maddening affliction – when the children are finally sleeping, I lie wide awake, completely and utterly spent, yet unable to let go. And if I’m perfectly honest, there is, as well, the self-induced lack of sleep; the time I carve out of my repose, because, by damn, I must have some to myself! I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. to teach a 5:30 a.m. class, sacrificing the extra Zs so I can meditate and prepare, unhurried and in peace. I stay up late, until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. to write, because the house is quiet then and I am, at last, alone.

The other day I ran across my old journals from the mid to late-80s. Steven pulled down a few dusty boxes from the attic and as I paged through entries written by my much younger self, I was intrigued, as if observing someone else’s life. The narrative was passionate with a tendency for the dramatic and the words that emerged repeatedly were, “tired,” “exhausted,” “overwhelmed.” If I could, I would say to that young woman, “Honey, you’re going to be tired for a while – it comes with the job – but you’ll be all right. Take really good care of yourself; it’s crucial if you are to go the distance. Rest when you can. Take naps (it’s not lazy). And remember the love. It will see you through. Sometimes, you’ll just be tired. And that’s okay. It will all be worth it. Trust me.”

I’m still tired. I fall asleep at rock concerts, stop lights and in front of the TV; I nod off at movies, kids’ concerts and even weddings; I pass out while reading before bed, my book slipping out of my hands, reading glasses still on, mouth open. I half-wake to my husband as he tenderly takes my book and glasses, and placing a kiss on my cheek, turns off the light.

I’m still tired, but not all the time. I start most days feeling energetic and hopeful, though the demands of our busy family leave me running on empty by afternoon.  It’s just the way of it. This is my life; the one I chose and the one I love. Haley said it best: “In the morning you’re ‘Happy Mommy.’ In the evening you’re ‘Tired Mommy’ because we accidentally exhaust you.”

The little (and big) people I’ve birthed don’t mean to wear me out, they just need me. Which is an amazing feeling. I’m the Mom. And if it only takes a nap to turn me from Tired Mommy to Happy Mommy, fetch me my pillow.

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