Category Archives: Stress

The Way Home

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I went to church this morning—on my couch. A dutiful daughter, I spent the first half of my life in religious prostration, and then I left. But detachment from dogma meant disconnect from community and I wandered, people-less into my middle-age. In recent years, I sometimes sat, shyly, noncommittally, on the back row of a new church I discovered, an un-church. The Unitarian Universalists. 

The UU church, nurturing spirit and service, brings a solace of words and music and familiar faces to my living room via Zoom on this second Sunday of social distancing. Congregants come like moths to the chalice flame. Greetings scroll up from the chat box as joiners bask in the warmth of shared hearts and minds, if not bodies.

Sensitive to surrounding energy, I’m challenged at the best of times to recognize what is mine and what is not. I get that from my mother, I suppose, an empath who could not witness a child harshly disciplined in the grocery store without weeping. My body picks up stray vibrations like a musical instrument and amplifies emotions I cannot name. In this time of global crisis, the volume is deafening. 

Reverend Molly reads poetry. The words are gentle hands untying the knots that bind my chest, loosening the resolve I wear as armor. Awareness of my unawareness blooms; I’ve been holding my breath and I didn’t even know it. With room to expand, distress spirals up toward the open air and I am crying. Copious tears trace their way slowly over my cheekbones and drip off my jaw.

I cannot stop, but even if I could, I would not. This grief is my prayer. 

On day 8 our family has cut our losses, nursed our disappointments, regrouped, and hunkered down for the duration. Cancellations and interrupted routines require precarious adjustment. Intimately, we hover protectively over our own. Sydney, 20, with Down syndrome, who suffered a near fatal pneumonia when she was 2 is particularly at risk. Melissa, 35, is 3 years out from breast cancer, including the full-on assault of chemo. I worry that her immune system is not fully recovered. And Jeremy, 33, is a physician’s assistant, on the front lines, testing and treating by day, returning home to his wife and 3 babies at night. I wonder if his PPE will last and if it can protect him from harm. 

Our fears are mitigated by gratitude for good fortune and blessings abundant: the opportunity to work from home, continued income, food, and shelter, and togetherness. All shall be well for us. What I feel today is bigger than myself.

The overwhelming scope of collective human experience rises in my throat like a coyote’s mournful cry in the night.

I have become those who are ill and those whose very lives are forfeit. I am their loved ones who rail at the injustice of their loss. I am those whose businesses are failing, finances lost, futures uncertain. I am everyone who is alone and afraid. Boundaries and borders blur. I am more than the inhabitant of this one small life. I am everyone.

How can it be true that this intensity is not mine? I think perhaps it belongs to me more than ever.

For in it, I sense a seismic shift; the world will simply not be the same on the other side of this. And what hangs in the balance, could this be the answer we’ve been praying for? Might it be the transcendence we’ve searched for? The salvation of humankind? 

There’s meaning here, an invitation. As the centrifugal force pinning us to our lives suddenly stops, radical change isn’t only possible, it is inevitable. It feels like a reckoning, a nudge as we lurch and tilt toward a tipping point, hanging on by our fingernails, poised to cascade over the edge into a cavernous unknown. But in freefall, we grasp and clutch with fear only to find it is in the letting go that we are safe. And finally, fully alive.

Spirit of hope, help me.
I can’t seem to find my way back to your realm.
I’ve been wandering in labyrinths, running into dead ends,
facing down monsters, losing my way.
Ariadne’s thread only tangles my feet and leaves my fingers raw.

Spirit of hope, ground me.
I’ve lost my bearings on what’s real, who I am, how I got here, why it matters.
Unreality makes a poor compass.
I remember to look up lest I get caught off guard,
but such preparations mean little to a soul suffering vertigo.

Spirit of hope, steady me.
Maybe the only way forward is to stay still.
Perhaps if I rest my bones exactly where I am instead of
scrabbling for purchase, searching for loopholes, willing myself on,
perhaps the dust will settle enough for a path to reappear,
a path that needn’t be tended or beautiful, just barely discernible.

Spirit of hope, guide me.
You dwell in the turn around between inhale and exhale,
a moment of trust that pulls me into the future.
I’ve been looking for something more grand, more obvious,
more compelling.
Help me recognize the promise and the flickering signs of life,
of love, of hope.
Help me remember that my body already knows the way home.

Lindasusan Ulrich

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Filed under Breast Cancer, Down syndrome, Family, Gratitude, Grief, Loss, Motherhood, Pandemic, Stress

Big Rocks

I ran out of time. For a year I intended to write about turning 50 – a contemplative, insightful piece extoling the wisdom gained from living for half a century, but in a few days I’ll be 51.  Gone the way of shoulder pads and stirrup pants, like it or not, the time has passed.

I ran out of time though I’ve tried diligently to slow down my life and clear some space. Simplify, downsize, prioritize; these are my buzz words.  Progress is evident, although the perfect balance wherein I fulfill my roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and instructor, and manage to shave under my arms occasionally . . . this eludes me still.

The other night, my father-in-law, glancing at my Google calendar on my iPhone, its colorful blocks stacked atop, beside and overlapping each other like a patchwork quilt, looked from the screen to my face and said, “You’re too busy.”

This, I know.  How to change it, I do not.

“What can I cut, Dad?” I asked, a little desperate, a little exasperated.

Life seems to be speeding up, or perhaps it’s that more life is crammed into a single day.  I know my parents’ generation raised their families in a slower time. Compare a rotary phone on the wall, its handset tethered by a 10 foot spiral cord, to a smart phone, handheld and able to, at virtually any time, any place, connect to limitless information . . . and limitless other smart phones.  Technology adds convenience, but these instant connections, particularly in the form of text messages, demand instant responses, & idk if we r betr 4 it.

During the last week of school my moderately frenetic pace kicked up to severely frantic.  With routines out of whack, extra activities to manage and preparations for the upcoming summer vacation (‘vacation’ is truly a misnomer), the needle on my stress gauge pushed into the red.

With Type-A drive I tackled numerous projects at once, the way I know best – with sleep deprivation and coffee.  The goal; to knock out as many items as quickly as possible.  My monkey-mind chanted an endless to-do list like a scrolling marquee across the back of my mind.  I was running out of time.

In the midst of it all, Sydney had, as a result of a sleep study and the subsequent diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea (common in kids with Down syndrome), a tonsillectomy, and was spending the week recovering at home. Before surgery, she charmed the staff with her smiles and snappy come-backs, but afterward, my brave girl was miserable and understandably, a bit grumpy.  We stuck to an alternating 3 hour dosing of Tylenol and Motrin to keep the pain at bay.  Armed with popsicles and ice cream and soup and mashed potatoes, we told her she could watch as much Disney Channel as she liked.

Since Sydney’s my easy-going kid, stoic with a high tolerance for discomfort and doesn’t complain often, I figured it would be, for the most part, business as usual.  Steven and I arranged our schedules to trade off being home, but I anticipated that while she rested I’d be able to toggle between making milkshakes and sending emails.

Uh, yeah.  No.

She didn’t really rest.  In fact, she was rest-less, never settling for more than 30 minutes at a time.  She couldn’t focus on TV, it hurt too much to eat (even ice cream), and she had no interest in her iPad.  She wanted to talk.  To me.

“Um, excuse me, Mom?”  Sydney asked from the table.  “Why my voice is low?”

I answered from my computer without looking.  “It’s from your tonsils, remember?”

I’d just blended a smoothie to chase a round of medicine, hoping for a few free minutes to compose an email.   “Don’t worry.  It won’t last.”

“Why can’t I go to school?” she asked.

“Hmmmm?” I replied, fingers flying over the keys. “School?”

“Why am I not at school?”  She repeated.

I could picture her face though my back was to her; eyes opened wide behind purple wire-frames, eyebrows arched high, her mouth frozen in the shape of the last vowel sound she made.  She’d asked this question every day, several times a day, for the last week.

“You know why.  You tell me, why you aren’t you in school?”  I said trying to be patient, though I felt anything but.

“Because I had my tonsils out?” she asked, acting unsure.

But she knew.  I’d noticed her strategy of waiting for me to pick up my phone, then immediately starting in with obvious questions to which she knew the answer.  The more I needed to concentrate, the more effort she made to divert my attention.  And the more she kept me from working, the more annoying it became.  In front of me, my iMac displayed the afternoon’s tasks; open Word documents, several tabs on the web browser, iTunes with my playlists for teaching, an unfinished email to Sydney’s teacher.  And my calendar.  Always my calendar.

Behind me, my daughter waited for an answer.

Realizing it had been several seconds, I turned and looked directly into her eyes. “Yes, honey,” I said firmly, “because you had your tonsils out.”

Her days were long, her throat hurt and she was lonely.  My compassion stirred when she said, “I just miss my friends, Mom.”

“I know, sweetie.  I’m sorry.” I got up and walked to her, resigned to the conversation for the moment.

“Good job! You drank your whole smoothie!”  I said with over-the-top enthusiasm as I took the empty cup to the kitchen sink.

She soaked up the praise with a smile and a shy little shrug.

“I know you miss your friends, but you’ll see them at yearbook signing, remember?”

She perked visibly at the mention. “Oh, yeah!  Yearbook signing. On Thursday, right?”

“Yep.  On Thursday.”

She sat without speaking as I rinsed dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher.  Though I heard my daughter’s angst, my monkey-mind chattered louder, calculating what was due when.  I was running out of time.

“Mom needs to get some work done now, Syd.  Okay?”

She was quiet.

“How about a pudding?”

She nodded.

“Do you want anything else?” I asked.  “I can put on a movie.”

“No, I’m fine,” Sydney said, matter-of-factly.

I registered her disappointment, but I was up against a deadline and the detailed work required focus.  I sat down once again and the clacking of the keyboard filled the silence.  For 15 seconds.

“Mom? Excuse me.”

Like clockwork.

“Wow,” I said, taking a deep breath.   Patience, Lisa.  “You sure are talking a lot today.  Doesn’t that hurt your throat?”

“No-oo!” she answered emphatically.  “I just . . . , I just have tonsil breath,” she stammered, referring to the unfortunate halitosis following a tonsillectomy.

Her voice, from behind, carried recognition; she knew what she was doing, but couldn’t stop herself.  I didn’t catch the rest of what she said; I was reading the three texts I’d just received. My adrenaline rose as my shoulders tensed up to my ears.  And my monkey-mind chanted away.  Running. Out. Of. Time.

“I know I’m talking a lot,” Sydney admitted.

Tapped, no restraint remaining, I interjected, “And . . .  you’re driving me CRA-zy.”

An offhand remark, casual, yet careless, it stung with more bite than was intended.  But I didn’t know that yet.  I went on with my work for a minute before a subtle energy permeated my unraveling focus.  I felt more than heard something and turned around.

Grimacing with silent sobs, Sydney bent over her pudding, shoving bite after bite in her mouth until it overflowed.  She inhaled sharply and coughed.  Snot billowed from her nose until her face was a mass of chocolatey mucus.

“Oh, honey!”  I jumped up and grabbed a Kleenex, wiping her nose and mouth quickly.   “Swallow,” I said, holding the straw of her water jug to her mouth.  “Breathe,” I directed.  She cleared her throat repeatedly then took a shaky breath as she tried to calm herself.

When she could talk, she said softly, “I get it, Mom.”  Speaking with a wisdom I forget she is capable of, her words held the implication that she did indeed understand how swamped I was and that she was doing her best not to need too much from me.

“I know we have a busy schedule?” she continued, shrugging and turning one palm up as if to say, ‘it is what it is,’ “but,” her small voice quivered, “you’re going to the gym and . . . ,” she paused, “And . . .  and . . . and I just really . . . “

I waited, my attention fully–and finally–and my daughter.

” . . .  miss you.”  The last two words came out high-pitched and barely audible.

Her chin trembled. She tucked her head down and reaching her index finger underneath her glasses, and wiped fresh tears from her eyes.  Lifting her head with a slow inhalation, she looked to see if I was watching, then choked out the words, “but, I . . . just . . . NEED . . .  you!”   And with that, she abandoned her fight to hold back the tide of her emotions.

Remorse hit me like a wave.  My heart broke open wide. The tightness in my chest loosened and slid away as I gathered her in my arms.  She buried her gooey face in my belly and we both cried.

In the past I would have castigated myself for being a bad mother, but as an older parent, my compassion extends to myself as well.  With maturity comes the recognition that when I’m drained by overdoing, I lack what she needs from me; it’s just not there. I can’t make it materialize.  Conclusion: In order to take care of Sydney, I need to take care of myself.

The overdoing has to stop.  This I know.  How I to change it, I have not known.  But perhaps the analogy of sand, pebbles and rocks in a glass jar illustrates how.  My time – a finite amount – is represented by the glass jar; the sand, pebbles and rocks are all the many, many things that fill that time, ranging from smallest to biggest.  Fill the jar starting with the sand and only a few big rocks will fit.  But reverse the order and miraculously, everything slips into place.  It becomes clear to me: if the big rocks are gonna fit, they must go in first.

My fatal flaw? Everything has been a big rock; I’ve missed the distinction between size and texture and value.  But now I know it just ain’t so.  Obviously, Sydney is a bona fide big rock along with my other children and my husband.  But, what about me?   Is it possible to forgo some sand and pebbles to make room for a big rock of my own?  I don’t know whose permission I’ve been waiting for.  Who’s jar is it, anyway?  In my 50th year, these shifting perceptions and realigning priorities influence my choices more than external expectations.  The voice I’m attuning to now comes from within – not without – myself.

My friend, Jackie once told me, special-needs mom to special-needs mom: “There is just no way to get it all done, so I have to let some things, the less important things slip.”  Since it is my jar, I get to decide what’s more, and less, important.  If worry about the big rocks, the rest can slip.  No more running out of time for what really matters.

I untangled from Sydney and pulled back to look at her puffy, reddened eyes.  I sighed, smoothing her hair back from her face.  Such a precious girl.  My daughter.

“Do you want to watch a movie?” I asked.

She looked crestfallen.  I’m sure she was thinking, ‘Mom is shoving me off again.’

I added, “With me?” and a smile lit up her face as we headed to the couch.

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Filed under Adolescence, Down syndrome, Enlightenment, Family, Gratitude, Letting Go, Motherhood, Parenting, Self-Care, Special Needs, Stress

Let It Go

Before moving to Columbia, Missouri, spring break meant a week off school to hang around the house and catch up on projects. I soon learned this is not the case in the Midwest.  In CoMo, it’s ‘hasta la vista, baby,’ and everybody gets outta dodge. Headed to prime vacation destinations like Florida and Mexico (the country, not the city in Missourah, population 11,543), people lay out the big bucks.  And they take their kids with them.

For eight years I didn’t get it.  An Arizona girl transplanted to Texas, I never felt the need to migrate to warmer climates; I already lived there. But, by adopting the Show-Me state as my new home, I’ve been reacquainted with the seasons, and after this particular year – the year of the interminable winter in which the world descended into an icy kind of hell, a frozen apocalypse with subzero temperatures, biting winds, ice storms and snow day upon snow day upon snow day – I got it.

“I’m so cold!  I haven’t been warm in months,” I said to my friend Jane in Phoenix, who at that moment was sitting on her patio shaded by palm trees, enjoying a perfect 75 degrees. “I can’t wait to feel the sun on my face again.”

I pictured myself lying on soft sand, nearly lifeless, basking in the golden rays like a reptile sunning on a rock.

“You’re going to be gone how long?” she asked.

“Nine days.  Granted, it’s four long days of driving, but five full days of camping right across from the beach.  South Padre, baby.  Kicking back at the KOA!”

In my mind’s eye I can see us in our little home away from home: a green sturdy mat to cover the ground outside the trailer, an awning to create a cozy space lined with Little Japanese lanterns that cast a soft glow, music resonating from outdoor speakers. The girls riding their bikes. Steven at the grill, searing steaks, enjoying a beer.  Me, reclined in a comfy camping chair, feet up, wine glass in hand.

“All I’m going to do is relax.”  I said, “And, Steven’s taking his kayak so he can fish.  It’ll be so good for him.”

A nature lover, my husband is most at peace on a lake, river or ocean, casting his reel.  It’s his meditation, his sacred communion.

“And it’ll be good for you.”  Jane said.  “You guys both need this after everything you’ve been through.”

Stress is a buzzword that’s become cliché in our fast-paced culture, but ‘this’ year has been even more intense for us than normal.  A lot of travel, the girls’ medical and educational issues, my job, Steven’s job, our new grandbaby’s heart surgery . . .  well, nothing has been routine for awhile.

And then there’s Mom’s death.

“It’s been six months already,” I said, disbelief in my voice.

Our grief cycles as we learn to live without her; it’s been hard, but more and more the sadness is imbued with vitality and getting away to enjoy each other is a significant part of that healing process.

“So, we’re going,” I exclaimed.  “All the way to the coast!”

Jane celebrated with me over the phone, “I’m happy for you guys.  You really deserve this.”

Steven brought the RV out of hibernation, cleaning and repairing and stocking, and making sure his 4WD truck was tow-worthy.  Ever the über-boyscout, my mate impresses me with his thoroughness, making lists and spending hours following through with his plans which this time included detailed preparations for salt water fishing.  He loaded his kayak atop the roof of the Super Duty.  Protruding over the hood, the end rested on a carrier attached at the grill, forming a visor that framed our view as we headed south on a 1,200 mile trek in search of fun in the sun.

Everyone in their places, we drove; over 22 hours, but we made it, full of anticipation and ready for anything.  Anything, except what we got.

After all that, the weather did not hold up its end of the bargain.   In fact, the elements conspired to create the antithesis of perfect weather. Warm temperatures were nowhere to be found; we wore jeans instead of shorts and jackets rather than short sleeves.  At night every blanket was put to use until we broke down and turned on the heat.  All day, the sun hid, obliterated by cloud-cover, casting a gloomy pall.  Thunderstorms shook the trailer and gales of wind blew day and night, snatching the door out of our hands and slamming it against the side of the RV, whipping up everything in its path, even extinguishing the flame on the BBQ grill.  We retracted the awning and stayed inside.

We were not happy campers.

On the morning of the fourth day, I lay in bed listening to the sound of a downpour – rain dancing with tap shoes on the roof of the trailer – and had a conversation with the petulant teenager who lives inside me.

‘Let it go, Lisa.  You’re ruining your own vacation.’

‘But, this isn’t the vacation I ordered.  This is not the vacation I NEEDED!’

‘The girls are handling it better than you.’

They were such troopers.  Sydney’s ability to go with the flow has always amazed me.  And even Haley wasn’t complaining, finding other things to do.  But hanging out inside our RV wasn’t what we planned.

‘This weather sucks. This totally sucks.’

‘You’re still spending time together as a family.’

‘Three miles shy of Mexico, for the love of Mike!  We came all this way to get out of the cold.’

‘Lisa, shhhhhh.  Let it go.’

Cue music: the infamous melody from Frozen rang through my brain, “Let it go!  Let it go!”  a counter to my stubborn argument. Tenacity and perseverance have gotten me a long way, but this time, a white-knuckled grip on my expectations was not serving me well.

Later that day we passed the time browsing a few touristy gift shops with their shelves of souvenir shot glasses and cheap jewelry, bins of shells and painted starfish and rows of campy T-shirts and hats.

Haley hollered at me a few aisles over, “Mom, look!”

Rounding the corner, she held up a shirt, excited to show me the writing on the front.

“Read it!” she insisted, grinning ear to ear like a little Cheshire cat.

So I read.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Yep.  That’s what it said.

Haley beamed at me as if she’d discovered the meaning of life (and maybe she had).  “I’ve never seen this on a shirt before.  Isn’t that cool?” she asked.

Pretty cool,” I said.

Um, hello?  A personal message from the universe, you think?  Let. It. Go.

I looked at the past few days through this lens.  I didn’t lounge lazily in the hammock like I wanted, but I did cuddle up with my girls to watch movies.  I didn’t play catch with Sydney using those little Velcro mitts, but we did play Candy Land and Go Fish, much to her delight.  Steven and Haley didn’t take their father-daughter fishing excursion (in fact, Dad’s kayak never even touched the water), but, on a nature walk they did find a fantastic creature called a sea hare.  And as a family, we ate delicious seafood at a very cute restaurant on the pier, (while wearing pirate hats), and visited Allison at the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, an old sea turtle with only one fin, who wears a prosthesis and stars in a documentary.

Then, on the last day, the clouds evaporated and the glorious sun shone bright, warming the air as the winds calmed.  The spring break paradise we’d been longing for suddenly materialized.  Gathering our gear post haste, we headed to the beach and I lay supine in the sun, eyes closed, drinking in the radiant heat, reptilian instincts satisfied.  Haley surfed on her boogie board, Sydney dug in the sand and Steven combed the beach.  Bittersweet.  We finally got a taste of what we came for.

“Mom, I don’t want to leave,” Haley said.  “The sun just came out.”

Sydney said, “But, I miss my friends.”

I understood the sentiments of both my girls.  Incredibly grateful for one gorgeous day, I was, nonetheless, disappointed that we didn’t have more.  But, I had finally let it go and was ready to go home.

I’m recovering now, adjusting to the discrepancy between what was hoped for and what was.  As I contemplate my resistance to (okay, my utter rejection of) accepting the things I could not change, I had to wonder why was I so terribly disheartened?  Life happens; C’est la vie and all that, right?  But, there was too much riding on the trip; it absolutely had be renewing and rejuvenating.  Desperate for rest, we knew it would be a long time before we could commit this kind of time, money and effort to another lengthy sabbatical.

The life lesson comes in not only leaning into the acceptance piece, but embracing the courage piece; the courage to change the things I can.  Moving forward, I can create time and space in my busy life for recreation before the need becomes critical.  I can infuse my daily routine with all the good things life has to offer, seizing opportunities for joy whenever they present themselves – who said I have to wait?   Using my hard-won wisdom, I can sort out the difference.  I can have . . .  Serenity Now!

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Filed under Enlightenment, Family, Gratitude, Letting Go, Marriage, Motherhood, Stress, Travel

Extinguish and Evolve

Old Photos

“Mom, do you have a pencil and paper I can have?” Haley, my 10-year-old asked as we watched the ring-tailed lemurs leap from tree to tree at the San Francisco Zoo. “I need to write something down.”

Our vacation this year — part sightseeing, part family reunion — took us on a 5,000-mile adventure that included 4 flights, 3 hotels, 2 rental cars and 1 beach house. My husband, Steven and I took our two youngest, Sydney, 14, and Haley, braving airport security and mass transit to do something we love: travel.

I scrounged in my purse, finding a pen and a grocery receipt, and handed them to my daughter. I watched her walk over to a placard and started writing.

Peering over her shoulder I read:

We are burnt by the fire we have started
Proverb from Madagascar

Madagascar’s deforestation, largely the result of slash and burn agriculture, is resulting in the rapid destruction of the lemurs’ habitat and has rendered the primates endangered.

I was intrigued. “Why do you want to write this down, sweetie?”

She didn’t hesitate, “This is a good thing to remember because when you make bad choices you’ll always be affected by it; you’ll always get consequences.”

When I was growing up my mother was fond of saying, “What goes around comes around,” something I didn’t quite understand then. Looks like my daughter gets it already. Smart girl.

We drove up the California/Oregon coast to join my mom’s side of the family for a rare reunion. There are three sisters in her generation; all single and living alone. In preparation for this momentous occasion, they went through albums and storage boxes of old photographs and sent me scads of them, some faded and torn, dating back more than a hundred years. I sifted through them, selecting the best ones to create a slideshow.

For hours I worked, mesmerized by the sepia tones and black and white images of decades past and awed by uncanny family resemblances. My great-grandfather in his 20s looked shockingly like my brother at the same age; a genetic blueprint stamped across time. The photos held the energetic charge of ancestry brought to life in cryptic storytelling. At 50, for the first time I felt deep stirrings, sensing my lineage as a gossamer web linking me to strangers. As though the double helices in my DNA vibrated in recognition of my people.

The similarities are not only physical. I come from brilliant minds. A long line of artists, musicians, writers and teachers, we are creative souls and passionate innovators, yet the pedigree is rife, too, with mental illness, addiction and abuse. While the photos tell tales of triumph over loss, inspiring hope, behind the camera lie stories of pain and suffering, often at the hands of loved ones. I cannot deny the dark reality of my origins, but bringing the past into the light to examine allows me to see where I come from. And moreover, who I’ve become in spite of it. Or perhaps because of it.

Our family reunion provided the perfect opportunity to take a closer look. A kaleidoscope of personalities and interactions, the few days spent with some of the people I love most on this planet can best be described as… intense. Being together after many years apart was indescribably sweet and heartwarming. The conversations and tender reflections, just as I’d envisioned, elevated and strengthened our bonds. But patterns springing from old injuries triggered strident reactions. The tension born of control issues and power struggles — dynamics all too familiar — began to threaten the happy tone of our gathering.

At one point, I ran away. To the beach. I found a trail and followed it up a mountain, working out my thoughts to the pounding of my heart. Pumping my legs and lungs, I breathed in the cool air. By the time I emerged on a steep cliff overlooking the vastness of the ocean I’d gained perspective. In front of me was the big picture. Gorgeous waves sprayed white foam as they crashed against jagged rocks below, the sound, both powerful and calming at once. The lush pines growing along the sheered edge reminded me of the place Mom and I scattered my Grammy’s ashes.

In solitude I stood. The wind whipped at my hair. My apprehensions lifted, dissolving, blowing out to sea. I was left with a peaceful quietude and a clear mind so I could hear the voice that said, “Separate the worth of those you love from the way they behave.” Here was my salvation: In my compassion for my family I found freedom for myself.

Terri Cole, licensed psychotherapist says, “When you analyze the family belief system, you can begin to see that much of what you experience as ‘the way it is’ is just the way it was in your family of origin and that you can choose a different way of seeing yourself and your potential. Once you understand how it was, you can decide how you want it to be.”

What goes around comes around, but does that mean history must repeat itself? I think not. “When you know better, you do better,” said Maya Angelou. Can I put the fire out and stop this generation from burning the next? The answer is a resounding yes.

Though conflict was inevitable, the visit was also interspersed with priceless moments to cherish: combing the tide pools and watching the kids play in the waves, making breakfast side by side, singing with a guitar around the campfire. And the highlight, dimming the lights to take in the slideshow. My intention was not to glorify the past and hide its shadowy secrets, but to illuminate that which holds us together amidst our brokenness. It was my gift. To a soundtrack of “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway hit, Rent, years of memories passed across the screen; lifetimes told in pictures.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee,
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure a year in the life?

We watched in a cacophony of noise. Shouts of recognition and celebration. Squeals of delight. And tears of mourning and regret. We’re artists; passionate and expressive (some might say dramatic). We reached out and held hands. We held each other. We forgave each other.

Like I said, intense. But, profound.

And pivotal. Because the cycle is broken with my generation. We are no longer burned by the fire that was started ages ago and our children will never know the scars our parents bore.

Back in the Bay area, after our trip to the zoo, my little family enjoyed dinner at a local bar and grill, comfortably seated in a high-backed wooden booth. Haley finished first and got squirrely. She needed to use the restroom, but had kicked off her shoes. She dove down and her denim-clad bottom piked above the table. Her bare feet followed, their blackened soles flailing in my face. Before I could stop her crawling on the floor, she cracked Steven’s shin with her head.

“Ouch!” he startled, rubbing his leg.

“Haley, get up here, now!” I said peering under the tablecloth.

She popped up, breathless. “But I had to get my shoes!”

Steven lowered his chin to level his best “listen-to-me” look at her. “This behavior isnot okay. Where are your manners? We take you out to a nice restaurant and this is how you act?”

She listened quietly, taking her licks. At this point, living out of suitcases and eating in restaurants was taking a toll on us all.

“Tomorrow night, you’re having a burrito from the gas station!” he finished, exasperated.

I looked at her repentant little face, thinking he might actually be getting through to her.

“Come on, I’ll take you to the bathroom,” I said, sliding out of the booth.

As we walked down the hallway, hand in hand, I reminded her of the quote she’d copied earlier and her own interpretation, when you make bad choices, you’ll always get consequences.

She leaned in conspiratorially and with an expression that said “the joke is on Dad,” she whispered. “They don’t even have burritos at the gas station!”

 

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Filed under Enlightenment, Family, Letting Go, Memories, Motherhood, Siblings, Sisterhood, Stress, Travel

Elastigirl

Elastigirl

The interesting thing about being a mother is that everyone wants pets, but no one but me cleans the kitty litter.

– Meryl Streep

Haley is playing Jingle Bells on the piano.  It’s been less than a week since the girls schlepped their backpacks home stuffed with months of worksheets, book reports quizzes, science projects, a clay pinch-pot (penny holder? soap dish?), and a smashed cupcake from the last-day-of-school party.  There are no buses to catch this morning and at 8:00 a.m. they’re still in pj’s.  Sydney sits eating at the breakfast table, but her steady, methodical routine is disrupted by the percussive volume coming from the front room.

“Haley!”  I yell, “It’s June, for heaven’s sake.  Play something else.” Sending the piano stool spinning, she jumps off and comes sliding into the kitchen.

“I’ve got the Power!” she sings loudly, growling the word power and adding a kick and a punch for emphasis.

Dancing around and under my feet as I move from fridge to sink to coffee pot, she belts, “I’ve got the Power!  I’ve got the Power!  I’ve got the Power!  I’ve got the POWER!”

Ha-ley.  You’re annoying me.”  Sydney says quietly.  “Your .  .  .  singing.  You are, you are giving me .  .  .   a headache.”

“I’ve got the Power!  I’ve got the Power! I’ve got the Pow-ow-ow-ow-er!”  Haley scoots undeterred out of the room.  Sydney sighs, placing her palm on her forehead.

In preparation for summer fun with my girls, I cut back my hours at work.  My fantasies consisted of less routine and more freedom, less busy-ness and more togetherness, less time spent working and a whole lot more spent playing.  But that was before summer actually started.  I should know better by now.

Because, truth be told, I am a psychotic mommy; a June Cleaver meets Joan Crawford version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The fact that only my children are capable of triggering this instantaneous shape-shifting is oddly comforting and disturbing at the same time.

My youngest, in particular, with her brilliant mind and astounding zest for life, pushes my buttons, and is (coincidentally?), like me; multi-dimensional. Living with ADHD, she is challenged by impulsivity, inattention and hyperactivity. While Sydney needs time to process, room for flexibility and a slower pace, her sister needs constant stimulation, a high level of structure and detailed feedback.

Being with Haley is like living inside a pinball machine; a jarring barrage of sounds, words and thoughts.  Continually absorbing her environment, what she takes in, she remembers forever after.  When she was 5 she said, “I have a camera in my head,” a perfect way to describe her photographic memory. Her brain fires rapidly and her mouth interpolates a running narrative.

“How do you make your own fossil?”

“Is wood a plant?”

“Why do we say 9 ‘oh’ 4 instead of 9 ‘zero’ 4?”

“Who answers the questions that scientists can’t answer.”

Incessant talking, questioning, exploring and exclaiming; Haley is compressed energy.

Sydney tries to interject between the words, but it takes her longer to get her sentences out, “Um, Mom? Mom? Um, am I going to Camp Barnabas on June 17th?”

“Yes,” I answer for the 700th time, “you are.”

Sydney is needy for attention because her sister commands it all.

“Haley!  Stop!  Mom, I didn’t get to talk.  She’s talking across me.”

Managing the lives of not one, but two, children with special needs—diametrically opposing needs—has made me the crazy mom I am today.

But, I vow this summer will be different.   This summer I don’t want to get angry and turn green, ripping my clothing to shreds.  I need a plan.  When I’m putting away freshly folded laundry and I find mildewing towels on the bathroom floor piled on top of inside-out clothes, globs of toothpaste on the counter, and a specimen floating in an un-flushed toilet bowl and I feel a familiar chemical reaction, an adrenaline surge through my body, I need to Breeeeeeeathe.  I need to Stay. In. Control.

And, how can I make it different?  That is the million-dollar question.  Being with my kids 24/7 reminds me that there is only one time they drive me nuts, and that’s when I’m with them 24/7.

One strategy is to keep moving.  We are booked day after day and frequently into the nights.  My Google calendar is colorful with appointments and events and practices and play dates.  I can’t stop or even slow, because, at that moment, sensing weakness, they will circle for the kill.  My mind repeats, ‘just keep moving, just keep moving.’

Yesterday we made it to swim practice (almost on time), picked up milk, dish soap and a birthday present at the store, had a friend over to play and went to the library.  I managed to get dressed, but I think I may have forgotten to brush my teeth.

Realistically, I can’t keep up that pace and honestly, I don’t want to.  I crave down-time and I will get it, even if it’s forced on me by exhaustion.  They need down-time, too, so scheduling relaxation at the pool seems a perfect strategy.  The kids can swim and mommy can lie in the sun; it’s a win-win!  However, another mother has messed with my plans this year; Mother Nature.

It’s been a cold, rainy spring in Mid-Missouri but despite the temperatures and weather alerts for thunderstorms, floods, and even a tornado watch, swim team practice has been held.  The little troopers sit at the edge of the pool, shivering and hugging themselves; their lips blue, teeth chattering.  Yesterday the sun broke through the clouds for 5 glorious minutes, then, a crack of thunder, and down came the rain.  Again.

My last and best strategy is to simply let go.  Surrender.  Give in, but not give up. Flexibility is the mother’s F-word.  It feels like a relief to embrace that things won’t go as I’ve planned, and in fact, that’s not what I want anyhow.  There’s an elusive truth somewhere in the back of my mind—or heart—waiting to hand me the key to the best summer yet.   Like I said, I should know better by now and maybe I actually do.

As I renegotiate my expectations, time for myself mustn’t be excluded, because what I do know is this: ‘neglect my own needs repeatedly, mercilessly and I will crash and burn.’  Prioritizing time alone is worth any effort it takes and my spoiled princesses will learn that everything is not always about them; that their indulged desires need to be balanced with others’ needs.  And for me, space from my little darlings can be the difference between Super Mom or Mommy Dearest coming to stay; the difference between me surviving the summer or relishing it.  My house might not be clean, but I will be rested and happy and appreciating my children, who won’t ever be this young again.

“Mom, can I borrow your boxing wraps to make something?” Haley asks as I type an email.  Because of her tendency to rip through drawers and closets in search of some specific item, leaving destruction in her wake, she has been told and warned and threatened to ask before she commences digging.

“Okay,” I say, not looking up from my computer, “but only one pair.”

She starts to move, and I look at her over my reading glasses, “I will get them for you.”

Sheepishly, she says, “I already got them.”

She lifts her whole leg and sets her heel heavily on the coffee table, revealing a makeshift cast, my white wraps wound and Velcro-ed over her foot, around her ankle and all the way up to her knee.

“I broke my tibula and fibula.  Can you show me how to limp?”

Eventually, the sun has to come out, right?

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Filed under ADHD, Down syndrome, Family, Letting Go, Motherhood, Parenting, Special Needs, Stress

Crystallizing Iridescence

water_crystal love

Love

93 million miles from the Sun,

people get ready, get ready,

’cause here it comes it’s a light,

a beautiful light, over the horizon into our eyes…

Jason Mraz

 

A hush descends on the earth when it snows.  It’s as if the fluffy white stuff that covers the ground and coats the trees and houses and cars also mutes the volume of the world.  The rough edges are smoothed.  The hard places soften.  In the stillness, magic glitters.  Untouched, the newly fallen snow collects; fresh, like a blank canvas to be painted, like a story to be written, like a new year to be lived.

2013 sounded like science fiction when I was a child, eons away.  But, I’m getting older and the passage of time is accelerating at a spectacular pace. I am stunned to find myself, once again, on the brink of another year.  Change beckons and opportunities entice.  Anything seems possible.

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Filed under Aging, Enlightenment, Family, Motherhood, Parenting, Self-Care, Stress

Joyride

red convertibleThe secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.

Any fool can do it; there ain’t nothing to it.

Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.

But since we’re on our way down,

We might as well enjoy the ride.

Sliding down, gliding down, try not to try too hard.

It’s just a lovely ride.

James Taylor—The Secret ‘O Life

I don’t always recognize I’m headed for collapse until, speeding down the freeway at 100 mph, dashboard warnings flashing, I veer off the road to make an emergency stop. I’ve gotten so good at disregarding my maintenance lights, by the time I realize I’m in trouble, I’m already sputtering and careening; out of gas, overheated, or worse, out of control, crashing and taking out everyone around me.

When we moved from Missouri back to Austin, Texas in 2003, circumstances combined to create a fusion of indescribable stress that will go down in Kent family history as The-Time-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named.   Every member of our family was a hot mess; Haley, 5 weeks old, a textbook example of a colicky infant, emitted a type of banshee wailing that could literally wake the dead, and was silenced only when nursing (constantly) or sleeping (rarely).  Sydney, 4 years old, with modulating sensory integration issues, experienced overstimulation, auditorily and otherwise. She was confused and jealous.  Her ‘elopement’ was at an all-time high and, thanks to a very ambitious preschool teacher, potty training had begun in earnest (it took two years to fully train our sweetie and it wasn’t the potty that was so much the problem).  Let that image crystallize for a moment: Clingy, wailing infant on the boob and pooping-in-her-britches toddler on the run.

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Filed under Down syndrome, Family, Grandparents, Motherhood, Parenting, Self-Care, Siblings, Special Needs, Stress