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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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Filed under Aging, Family, Growing Up, Letting Go, Motherhood, Parenting

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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Filed under Aging, Babies, Christmas, Enlightenment, Family, Growing Up, Letting Go, Memories, Motherhood, Siblings

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

Give and Take

 

handssoft

You are my love and my life.

You are my inspiration.

Just you and me.

Simple and free.

Baby, you’re everything I’ve ever dreamed of.

 Just You And Me by Chicago

 

“Al, I need ice.”

With a white Styrofoam cup in hand, he bends over and carefully spoons ice chips into her mouth, her lips parched and quivering.  A few pieces drop off the plastic utensil onto her collarbone, the skin exposed where the hospital gown has slipped off a bony shoulder.

“You’re not very good at this,” she says weakly. Her breathing is labored and shallow.  The effort of reaching for the ice and talking at the same time is too much and she lays her head back on the pillow, exhausted.

“Well, whatcha gonna do?” He replies good-naturedly.  “I am all you’ve got.”

Quiet for a few moments, eyes closed and very still, she appears to have fallen asleep. But then, my mother-in-law’s eyes open and she answers irritably, “I’m getting somebody else.  You’re fired.”

But, it’s the cancer talking. And the chemo and the side effects and infections that have devastated her body and threatened to defeat her spirit.

As my husband’s father gently wipes away the melted ice, he smiles and croons, “Oh, I’m fired, am I?  Okay, babe.  But I get to interview my replacement.”

For 50 years they’ve faced life side by side.  For better or for worse.  In sickness and in health. Strong when the other is weak, optimistic when the other is sad, calm when the other is upset.  She is devoted to him and he adores her.  Two souls intertwined; theirs is the ultimate love story.

Young lovers can’t begin to imagine what awaits them; that the family born out of their passion will test their resolve and challenge their allegiance, forcing them to redefine love as they know it.

Years ago, when we were young, I married my best friend.  It’s a cliché sung about in love songs and easily dismissed, at least until it applies to you.  However prosaic it may sound, my husband is my partner, in all things.  He is my co-parent in raising our children, he is my intellectual equal, my companion and comforter and confidante.  The love of my life.  He is my home.

Nonetheless, navigating the constant demands of family life takes a heroic commitment and requires a willingness to place another’s needs above one’s own at times, trusting that it will balance out.  Never static, the relationship is fluid, the dynamics ever-changing, and it’s precisely this ebb and flow through seasons of abundance and seasons of bleakness that secures the longevity of a marriage.

Steven and I have been doing this parenting gig for a long time and the truth is we’re tired and we sometimes take it out on each other.  It’s a known fact that parenting children with special needs can contribute to higher divorce rates, though interestingly one study found that in families who had children with Down syndrome the divorce rate was actually lower than in families with other birth defects or no identified disability.  Predictors of divorce among parents of kids with ADHD, however, showed the divorce rate was nearly twice that of the general population before the child’s age of eight.

So, statistically speaking, Haley’s special needs add more marital stress than Sydney’s. I would concur.  Haley brings an energy to our family that is amazing and astounding, but also overwhelming.

Frequently my mind will spiral into panic when tallying what needs to be done, when, how and by whom until I’m convinced that I am doing everything.  Resentment poisons my thoughts and I can’t see clearly.

“Are you okay?”  Steven asks.  “You seem crabby.”

“I’m fine,” I mutter, crabby that he called me crabby.

And when my husband’s frustration mounts, his accumulating stress has nowhere to go but outward.  His patience is depleted; he is not pleasant to be around.  “Leave Daddy alone,” I tell the girls, giving him a wide berth.

Inevitably in marriage, storms hit.  Some hard.  Rain falls heavy and saturating until we can no longer buoy the other up.  A drowning person cannot save another drowning person.  Misunderstandings, unspoken expectations and harsh words flood and we are in danger of being swept apart by the current.

But gratitude is the ballast that holds fast, and forgiveness the rope that leads us safely back to each other, hand over hand.

At the end of long days I reach for my tall husband as he walks into the kitchen and wrap my arms around his waist.  It takes only ten seconds to feel the bands around my chest begin to loosen.  He rubs my back.  I close my eyes and breathe.

Then, I feel Haley dive between us, using her body as a wedge to leverage us apart, making a parent sandwich of herself.

“Group hug!” she yells, her voice ringing through the kitchen.

And . . . the moment is over.

Yet within this chaos of everyday life, our love solidifies into an unbreakable, brilliant diamond; under pressure, the mundane is transformed into the extraordinary.

I watch him from across the room when we’re enjoying the company of friends: the expressions I know so intimately; the way his lips curve up at the corners, showing his gums when he smiles; his eyebrows, animated when he talks, and the dimples that mesmerized me when we first met, still flash when he laughs.  Not as young now, but our life is written on his beautiful face.

He stands with one foot on the low rung of a stool, his legs long in slim jeans, sporting a graphic t-shirt and trendy glasses, holding a craft beer in one hand and gesturing with the other as he converses.

I fall in love all over again, but harder.  I see not only an attractive man, but a man who fixes my computer, and makes me laugh, and runs through the mud in a Viking helmet with me.  I see a father who camps in the backyard with his girls, and teaches them about fish and birds and nature, who strokes their cheeks tenderly with the back of his hand when he puts them to bed; a father who endures long hours, sacrificing his own leisure so he can pay insurance premiums, mortgages and college tuition, who generously provides the good things in life for his family, who gives and gives and gives and gives.

I hear not only his voice, but the clang of a lug wrench on concrete as he replaces the brakes on my car, the rhythm of the washing machine as he does 52 loads of laundry, carefully separating my Lululemon to hang-dry.  I hear the soft click of the bedroom door as he tiptoes away on a Sunday morning, letting me sleep.

He feels me staring and turns.  “I’ve got you,” I say without speaking when our eyes meet.  “I’ve got you,” he answers.

Ours is an ultimate love story.  Tested and true, redefining love as we knew it.

Like my parents-in-law.

Love is sleeping on a roll-away bed in a hospital room, an arm’s length from his wife.  Love is fighting the battle of a lifetime, with unending courage so she can stay longer with her husband.

“I was supposed to have more time,” she sighs.

“You’re not dying today,” he answers.  “Not today.”

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Filed under Aging, Family, Loss, Marriage, Parenting

Oh, the Places She’ll Go

picture-for-heaven-blog-post

Congratulations!

Today is your day.

You’re off to Great Places!

You’re off and away!

Dr. Seuss

By the time Sydney was born I knew firsthand how quickly babies grow up. The journey away from their mothers and towards their own becoming begins with the first breath. I knew that my job as a mother was to guard my children’s safety while guiding them to autonomy; to teach them self-reliance and then . . .  let them go. Never again could I protect her as much as when I carried her within my body, umbilical cord intact. I knew my little one with Down syndrome would need extra protection; what I did not know was that she would need independence and self-assurance just as much. And she’d need me to teach her, then stand back and let her thrive.

I’ll never forget the first time I lost Sydney. One moment she was standing by my side, the next she was gone. Vanished. Panic doesn’t begin to describe the altered-state of vertigo a mother feels on losing sight of her toddler. I felt I wouldn’t breathe again until I found her.

Wandering is a common behavior for children with Down syndrome — I read that early on somewhere in the considerable pile of literature we’d amassed. But, I didn’t get it until it started happening though I definitely wouldn’t call what Sydney did wandering.  wan-der v. to go aimlessly, indirectly, or casually; meander. There was nothing aimless or casual about her meanderings; they were purposeful and confident.  e-lope v. to leave without permission or notification.  run away v. to depart quickly; take to flight; flee or escape. These are more accurate words to describe my daughter’s exploits, occurring with what came to be exasperating frequency.

She was about 2 ½ when she mastered the art of a stealthy escape. Watching for an opening when my attention was diverted, she’d make her getaway, leaving me turning in circles, frantically, uttering “Where’s Sydney?” repeatedly. I lost her in the grocery store, in the mall among the clothes racks, in Walmart with its endless aisles. I lost her outdoors in crowds, at schools, at parks, at festivals and events. I lost her at parties. I’d find her off in someone’s master bedroom digging through their drawers (she even climbed in someone’s bed once), or getting into a cupboard in their laundry room.  Upon entering a new environment, my first priority was to secure the perimeter.

I even lost her at home. One spring Saturday when Sydney was nearly 4 and I was pregnant with her sister, Haley, the whole family busied themselves with preparations to sell our house and move. My husband, Steven was in our vast backyard, tending to an acre of walnut trees and gardens. Inside, boxes in various stages of packing lined the walls.The open doors let the cool air circulate; our high-schoolers, Melissa and Jeremy ran in and out.

I thought Steven had Sydney with him as he worked in the backyard, so when he came in the house alone, I said, “Where’s Sydney?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I thought you had her.”

My stomach dropped. “I don’t have her. I thought YOU had her!” I shot back at him.

A cursory search of the yard yielded no trace of her and with increasing urgency we spread the search in an ever-widening circle. I turned back to the house thinking maybe she’d snuck inside. I combed every room, closet, nook, under beds, calling her name.

Twenty minutes went by, a veritable lifetime. We called the local police and sent the kids and their friends in all directions to look. My perception of time warped and stalled out. It seemed interminable, yet I willed it to stop.  “Just WAIT!” I though, “until I find my child, safe and sound. Then the world can resume.”

I tried to shake the images that flooded my mind, but my gut churned, my heart raced and my throat locked down. I started hyperventilating as my fear overwhelmed reason.  Steven tried to calm me down; the likelihood of kidnapping was low in our small town, traffic was light — and slow ,and she couldn’t have gotten as far as the railroad tracks yet.  But anxiety crowded the edges of his composure, too.

After thirty minutes, I heard Melissa yell from the next-door neighbor’s house just 20 yards away the words I’d been desperate to hear for a half hour.

“I found her!”

Though relief flooded my system, the chemicals in my bloodstream shifted and nausea threatened. I quickly recovered and ran towards Melissa, calling as I went, “Where was she?”

“She was in the neighbor’s house.”

In small towns, people don’t always lock their doors and Sydney had headed across the road, up the back stairs and let herself in. While everyone was out looking, including the police chief, she was at our friends’ house, having a fine time by herself.

Her disappearing act continued, but once she discovered the enormous amount of attention her antics garnered, the ante was upped and she started bolting. Instead of surreptitiously gliding away, she’d make a quick break for it. She was smart and fast! For a child who’s cognitively impaired, she was nothing short of cunning. Despite having hypotonia (low muscle tone), she ran far enough and fast enough to evade capture unless a significant chase ensued. And so the game was on. Laughing hysterically, hair flying in the wind, little legs pumping like pistons, and completely oblivious to danger, she looked over her shoulder to be sure we were pursuing. The more we followed, the faster she ran. The more she ran and we followed, the more the behavior was reinforced. And we didn’t have a choice; we couldn’t not run after her.

If I, her mother, couldn’t keep tabs on run-away bunny, how was I to send her out in the world and trust anyone else? She started school at only 3. The early childhood special education program, held in a local church, featured a playground in the back parking lot—with no fence. We warned, “She’s a flight risk. You’ve got to watch her constantly.” Within the first week, I got a phone call from a neighbor telling me Sydney had been found walking along the highway. The school didn’t even know she was missing. She has eluded watchful eyes at every school since, taking side trips down hallways, foraying into other classrooms and even out into the woods once during recess. She managed to get away from babysitters during the rehearsal dinner for my sister’s wedding. Already uneasy to leave her, we cautioned the couple in charge–adults, a mom and dad themselves: “You have to watch her really closely.  She’s is an escape artist.” Sure enough, Sydney slipped out the side door of the guest house where we were staying, crossed the street, and through the grand entry into the hotel. No one saw her go and she wasn’t missed until one of the kids pointed out that she was gone.

We installed locks, gates and alarms but she continued to foil her captors. We ultimately used a harness and a leash in exceptionally risky situations. It was the only way I knew she was safe—if she was physically tied to me. The umbilical cord re-instated, my protective instincts were finally satisfied. As the terrifying challenge of holding onto her became our way of life, a pattern was formed: a habitual and unconscious sense of control I attempted to exert over the environment and my child’s relationship to it. I became so accustomed to reining her in and holding her close because of my own fear that I forgot to notice when she no longer needed it.

I never want my children to suffer and the desire to shield them from pain is as strong as my love for them is deep. But, I’ve had to ask myself when does sheltering my growing babies from life experiences no longer serve them in the journey they’ve undertaken? When does buffering the natural consequences of their own choices become detrimental to the instinctive objective they were born to; that of growing away from me? Wasn’t that the whole idea of having them in the first place?

Raising children means making the beautiful progression from the umbilical cord that sustains, to the leash that restrains, to the invisible tether that remains, connecting child to mother wherever they go in the world. Every day I take a deep breath and let go. Again. Then I  send them out into the world, into their world. They go because they feel the safety—it’s in the tether—and it can stretch as far as it needs to without breaking. When Haley gets on the bus heading a mile away to elementary school—she presses her face to the window and blows me kisses. When Melissa gets in her car and drives hundreds of miles to her summer job in Colorado—she looks back in her rear-view mirror and waves. And when Jeremy walks down the jetway and boards a plane to Chile—he turns back to see if I’m still there.

“Are you watching me, Mom?” each one asks.

You bet I’m watching.

Sydney’s almost a teenager and has pretty much outgrown this phase of running off.  She frequently declines to even hold my hand as we’re walking through a parking lot.  The other day I went to pick her up early from middle school and as I waited I noticed a kid, alone, at the end of the long hallway. As this lone figure advanced and came into focus, I saw it was my daughter, walking down the hall, unaccompanied, with confidence in her stride, toting a backpack as big as herself and wearing a smile that said, “I’m ready.  Let’s go!”

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

Any direction you choose.

You’re on your own.

And you know what you know.

And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

Dr. Suess

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Filed under Down syndrome, Growing Up, Letting Go, Motherhood, Parenting, Special Needs