Tag Archives: parenting

Resurgence of Hope

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
and the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

I read once that Canadian geese are monogamous, that most couples stay together all their lives. Considering the brutality of life in this wild world, I find that to be an inspiring example of devotion, applicable to the human condition, particularly in our postmodern reality.  

My husband and I have, on day 13 of the COVID-19 quarantine, brought our two goslings out to the country for a change of scenery. This is our fourth spring out at the farm. Well, that’s what we call it. Although we raise no livestock nor harvest any crops, my husband and I christened the 22 acres we bought in the rolling countryside of Steedman, Missouri “the farm.” 

It was Steven’s idea, owning property, a dream of his for years. I’m not sure what shifted from casually keeping an eye out for good deals to hunting in earnest for a prize parcel. Maybe the fact our youngest would be heading to high school or the approach of his 50th birthday, but his vision became a quest. 

Property moved quickly and several times choice lots were sold before he could make his move, so I wasn’t surprised when he called me one Sunday from an open house.

“I think this is it, but I have to make an offer now.”

“I trust you,” I said, and meant it.

Still, a purchase that large, sight unseen left me a bit unsettled. It was his dream, I reassured myself; it didn’t matter much what I thought. I knew my husband worried about pleasing me, so I was determined to reserve judgment. We wound around a rural two-lane highway for miles before turning off the asphalt onto a gravel county road. We passed the stares of grazing cattle and a herd of goats that ran for the fence. After a mile or so, Steven rounded a corner and drove up the hill to park the truck in front of a green metal house and carport which sat overlooking a grassy meadow. The view showcased an open field sloping down to a small pond flanked by walnuts and maples and oaks. Spreading out from the clearing, thickets of woods covered the swells and ravines of the terrain. In the heart of winter, the trees were bare and the forest floor, a bed of leaves. I’d adjusted my expectations, but I could not have possibly known it would feel like coming home.

That first spring, the place greened up like Jumanji as Missouri is wont to do when a sunny day follows drenching March rains. Weekends found us driving out to work on the cabin, making it livable with paint and flooring and furniture. We slept with the windows open, the cool breeze carrying in nocturnal sounds of the wildlife that seemed unperturbed by our presence. 

A pair of geese made their home near the pond, and judging by their protective behavior, closely guarded their future family. One night we were awoken by horrible, guttural shrieks. The primal quality of the squalor struck my heart before my mind was able to identify its origins. I heard ferocious terror, the sound of survival in the endlessly shrill honking. Come morning our fears turned prophetic. A predator had invaded the nest and our geese were gone. We were left wondering if the parents had been injured or even killed in the attack, but we knew for certain, there would be no babies. 

The second year Steven built a nesting box out in the pond, safe and elevated away from prowling raccoons and foxes and skunks and out of reach of foraging turtles and snakes and muskrats. But the geese missed our offer of a safe haven and rebuilt their nest in the same long grasses on the bank of the pond. That year, our anxious anticipation of babies was suspended by the sudden absence of the parents and abandoned, broken eggshells.  

Last year, we watched, hopeful the couple would discover the stilted rubber tub, but it remained empty. Neither did they return to the pond. No geese, no eggs, no tragedy. But my disappointment felt like loss. Sadness filled the void where their presence had been the two years before.

This year, busy travel schedules, illness, and weather have kept us away. Additionally, amidst global crisis, we’ve submitted to the confinement that saw our 25th wedding anniversary come and go, any plans postponed indefinitely. But in truth, the lack of overt gestures and social pronouncements pales compared to the surprising gift of this pandemic: time together.

We’ve come out to the farm with our brood to hunker down, but also to expand into our wide open spaces. We play games and solve puzzles and cook food and watch movies. We have conversations and we take walks.

As Steven and I set off this morning, he stops me short. 

“Shhhh, look!” he says, pointing down the hill to the lull of meadow between road and pond.

I squint, shielding my eyes as I make out the silhouettes of two geese. The male stands guard, stock still. In profile, his head is raised, his long neck extended. He is a sentry. The female bends over, feeding in the grass. I bring binoculars to my eyes, adjusting the dial until the image swims into focus. Two fluffy balls hop near the mother’s feet. Goslings. 

“We’ve got babies!” I say excitedly to Steven, handing him the binoculars. “They’ve got to be the same geese, right?”

Lest we doubt these geese are ‘ours’ and mistake the sight for a mere coincidence, the father, sensing our watch, suddenly ushers his little family toward the safety of home. Mama noses the little ones along, scooping them up from behind with her bill as they bob and trot fuzzily through the grass. Daddy brings up the rear and disappears into the marsh at precisely the same place as the years before, where previously the nest lay empty.  

Tears well in my eyes, a daily occurrence it seems lately. I experience a cocktail of emotions: the resurgence of hope after loss, a resilience borne of grief, holding steadfast in the face of uncertainty. The dignity of the natural world teaches me a simple lesson: Life will go on. My mate and I will follow our instinctual path. We will protect and provide for our family.

We’ll be all right, I think as I take my husband’s hand and walk down the road into the morning sun. 

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Filed under Babies, Family, Gratitude, Grief, Loss, Marriage, Motherhood, Pandemic

Just Breathe

Re-posted from March 6, 2014

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.
I am, I am, I am.”

Sylvia Plath

There’s a stillness that descends on the hospital late at night, softening the harshness of bright lights and the sterility of hard floors. Sounds are muted and voices are hushed. Sydney is the only patient in the sleep lab tonight located at the end of a long, empty corridor. It’s dark in her room but for a night light and the glowing dots of the medical devices she’s hooked up to. I shift uncomfortably in the reclining chair next to her bed and wonder how I’ll make it until morning. It occurs to me that my father-in-law spent more nights this way than I can count during the fourteen months of my mother-in-law’s battle with cancer. It also occurs to me that the last time I sat in the dark next to a hospital bed was with him, the night before she died.

But here and now, Sydney is well. We’re only here one night, for a sleep study. Multi-colored wires trailing from the electrodes glued to her head are gathered in a rainbow ponytail and plugged into a large unit sitting on the bed next to her pillow. A smaller unit is strapped to her chest emitting various cords that coil and disappear under the blankets, connected to her legs and other body parts. The tubing for the cannula in her nose and a sensor that protrudes over her mouth like a tiny microphone tucks behind her ears and tightens under her chin. More sensors are taped to her face at her cheeks, temples and chin. It’s an alarming sight if you don’t know what you’re looking at.

My girl knows the drill, though, having undergone sleep studies in the past, the last when she was seven. She put up very little resistance then. Now, as a fourteen-year-old, she may have protested a little more, but overall, she succumbed to the awkward and uncomfortable preparation for the test without complaint, this ever-accommodating child. While I can’t imagine being able to drift off while rigged up like this, Sydney is sleeping the peaceful sleep of the innocent as cameras and monitors record her CO2 and oxygen levels, her heart rhythm and other vitals, as well as her gross motor movements. She’s my good sleeper, always going down easy and sleeping through the night.

Sydney at seven

Her first sleep study was when she was just a week old. Sydney came exactly on her due date and though we had no suspicions of Down syndrome, her birth wasn’t without incident. Labor came hard and fast, but since she was my third, I stubbornly paced at home awhile and insisted on taking a bath and shaving my legs before I let Steven convince me to make the 30 minute drive to the hospital. I guess I pushed it too far because once there, frenetic activity ensued and nothing much went according to the beautiful birth plan I’d created, including the epidural I requested. In between painful contractions I noticed a conversation between nurse and doctor and sensed some concern. When a neonatologist showed up, I knew something wasn’t right. In my delirium I heard talk of meconium. Before I could make sense of it, she was here and I caught a brief glimpse as the doctor handed her to a nurse who whisked her quickly away to a warmer. She seemed blue and for a few terrifying moments it was silent. There were no cries from my newborn, no talking from the medical personnel huddled around my daughter, and no words from my husband.

“Was she blue?  She looked blue to me. Didn’t she look blue to you?  Is she breathing?!” My questions came at him, one after the next.

Face hidden behind the surgical mask, Steven’s eyes conveyed thinly veiled panic as they widened and followed our baby across the room in response to my questions.

I later learned she was under fetal stress, meconium was present and they didn’t want her to breathe before her lungs were suctioned to be sure she wouldn’t aspirate. It seemed interminable, but after a few moments, she took her first breath and pinked up. Relief flooded my body as I reached for my baby with a primal instinct. A kind neonatal nurse, Leann (I’ll never forget her), brought Sydney to me, but gently told me she had to go to the neo-natal intensive care unit.

“We’re not what you expect,” she’d said as she patiently eased my baby from my reluctant grasp.

Sydney spent 14 days in the NICU. About halfway through Steven noticed her stop breathing intermittently. He watched her intently for hours as she lay in her isolette connected to a pulse ox, heart monitor, central line, oxygen, IVs and various tubes and wires. He saw her little chest rise and fall, then pause. Nothing. Stillness. Several seconds would pass before she took another breath.  Because of her daddy’s vigilance, Sydney was found to have sleep apnea and she went home on a monitor.

In newborns sleep apnea is an underdeveloped neurological issue in which the brain fails to signal the body to breathe. The monitor is a safeguard, set to alarm when no breathing is registered for an interval of 20 seconds. Adhesive electrodes stuck to the bare skin of Sydney’s chest were attached to lead wires that plugged into a bulky metal box. Not to be disconnected except during bathing, we lugged that thing everywhere for nine months.

Inconvenient?  Sure, but the reassurance was worth it. I had always checked my babies’ breathing when they slept, feeling for the whispers of air moving in and out of their tiny nostrils. Sometimes they were so still I’d wonder, “Are they alive?” and nudge them, relieved only when they moved grudgingly in response. With Sydney, the monitor was my 24/7 electronic sentry, always on duty.

Once off the monitor, we didn’t worry about her central nervous system regulating her breathing, but we did look for obstructive sleep apnea—not uncommon with Down syndrome—where a variety of factors contribute to air flow blockage. Like tonsils. Sydney’s are enormous and though not chronically infected, they nearly close off her throat when she sleeps. Recently, snoring, gagging, and even lapses in her breathing warranted another sleep study.

“Why do I have to stay at the hospital, Mom?” she asked me earlier today as we packed her pillow and blanket along with her iPad.

“The doctor wants to watch you sleep. So we can see you breathing.”

Now, I look at my slumbering little teenage daughter across the darkened room. When she fills her lungs, I can see her breathing. When she snores, I can hear her breathing.  But I can’t actually see her breath, the air that moves in and out of her body. How fragile this invisible, delicate stream, and yet, how powerful. The physical exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide is miraculous in and of itself. We are purified and nourished in every moment, taking in what we need, releasing what we do not. But more than the mere breath itself, there’s a universal energy that flows like a river through the landscape of the body and through all creation, connecting us with everything that breathes, the very force that animates the inanimate.

In all wisdom traditions of the world, the breath is sacred. In Sanskrit, prana, the original life source. In Native American culture, the Divine Breath, the divine spirit in all living things. In Christianity, God’s breath of life, breathed into man’s nostrils by the Divine. In Buddhism and Taoism, Mindful Breath, the path to enlightenment. In Hebrew, the Nephesh or soul, an animated, breathing, conscious and living being. In Sufism, breath is the source which keeps body and mind alive, body and mind connected.

Our constant companion from birth to death, breath is there . . .  until it is not.

I witnessed Sydney take her first breath and come fully into this world as a living being. I also witnessed my mother-in-law take her last breath and quietly ease out of the physical world. The thought fills me with a rush of profound awe and deep gratitude. Life is incredibly valuable. A gift in every moment. Every breath.

“Just breathe, Lisa,” I think, closing my eyes and turning my focus inward.

{Inhale}

{Exhale}

{Inhale}

{Exhale}

My mind quiets and I am bathed in stillness. It is here I come to commune with the sacred. Here, I connect to the source which unites all life. It is here, I find everything I need.

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Filed under Childbirth, Down syndrome, Family, Gratitude, Letting Go, Loss, Motherhood, Parenting, Special Needs

Depth of Field

It’s a gorgeous spring day on our 22 acres outside Fulton, a brocade of rolling green set against a periwinkle sky. It’s where I come to breathe. Today all four kids, their families, plus my dad and sister visiting from out of state are here to celebrate. Four generations together, a rare treat. I’m relishing every idyllic minute. The afternoon, spent fishing, exploring, hiking, and picnicking, is nearly over before I remember the photo.

“Hey, you guys!” I say, calling everyone in. “Let’s get a picture under the big tree.”

“Mom, I’ve got my good camera in the car,” my son says. I’ll go get it.”

Of the four kids, Jeremy is my only boy. He’s back in school at 31, Wichita State, in the grueling physician’s assistant program. I watch him stride away, six feet and 220 lbs., the KeltyKid carrier strapped to his back swaying as the blonde head of his two-year-old son gently bobs up and down. Behind me, his four-year-old son plays near the base of the sprawling old oak, chasing a tiny black Chihuahua (one of three granddogs) who runs circles around him.

Jeremy returns with the camera. Negotiating the cargo on his back, he bends to place it on a tree stump. I stoop to check the shot and as he adjusts the depth of field, the image sharpens into focus. In my mind’s eye the range of images from near to far begin to merge. Can it be? The blue-eyed boy before me with round cheeks and a broad smile is not my own toddler, but my grandson.

“Ready?” Jeremy shouts. I move quickly to my husband’s side and slip under his arm. My sister scoops up the dog, Dad hugs his teenage granddaughter, and my oldest coaxes her nephew into her lap. Jeremy bolts, his cowboy boots dancing across the ground and his baby boy bouncing along for the ride, grinning open-mouthed. We all laugh and Jeremy slides in next to his wife, just as the shutter clicks, capturing the moment forever.

Life isn’t perfect, but this moment is exquisite. An increasingly familiar emotion surfaces: the deep satisfaction of watching my children blossom into adults tinged with sadness that it’s happening so quickly. My father, white-haired for decades, must feel the same when he looks at me. Though my son towers over me, I clearly see the infant, born with hair forecasting an irrepressible personality. Jeremy chased life, careening off the walls and ricocheting into the next adventure, embellishing his exploits with contagious laughter. Underneath his boisterous joie de vivre breathed the most gentle soul and tender heart, full of compassion and as big and wide as his smile.

They say you’re not just raising your son; you’re raising someone else’s husband and father. My son was a good boy who grew into a good man. I blinked and he was a husband and father. Now he’s raising the next generation. My hair is graying, like my father’s. I’ll blink again and it will be white. But for today, I’m keeping my eyes wide open.

Published July 26, 2018: COMO Living Magazine, Seasons

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Filed under Adolescence, Aging, Babies, Family, Grandparents, Growing Up, Letting Go, Memories, Parenting, Siblings

Coming Home

Ethan and Sydney at the magic moment

The night is a pleasant 68 degrees, but heat emanates from the bright stadium lights, and I’m damp beneath my Rock Bridge High School T-shirt. My boots clink on the aluminum steps as I climb past the student section and up the bleachers. A few people in the stands wave and others call out “Good luck!” I slide into the seat my husband, Steven saved for me while I helped our daughter, Sydney, execute the night’s events. ​​

“She’s ready,” I say, glancing at the scoreboard. A minute thirty left in the half. Steven pats my leg.

“But are you?” he says with raised eyebrows and a smile.

From our perch, I see her on the sideline with the rest of the homecoming court. Stunning in a full-length navy dress and silver pumps — from the children’s department, she wears a white sash like the nine other lovely, accomplished candidates. Suddenly she punches an arm forward and stomps her foot.

What is she doing?” I say. “Oh, no. Is that the whip? Or is it the nae nae?” I prepare to bolt down to the field, but Ethan, her escort is on it. He takes her hand and gently tucks it into his elbow.

This sweet young man, handsome in his brand-new suit, is a fellow cheerleader, but more, he’s her friend. Throughout the years there have been many — Katey and Raegan and Lindsey and Jordan, the kids who’ve seen Sydney first and her disability second.

“Thank God for Ethan,” I say to my husband as we both keep our eyes trained on our daughter below. “Come on Syd, keep it together,” I whisper nervously.

Jordan, Sydney, and Ethan

When Sydney was born with Down syndrome, we had no idea what to expect. She was a cherubic baby with coppery red hair, an adorable button nose and sparkling blue eyes. She loved people and music and food. Not much has changed in 18 years, except now, rather than suspect, we know what a gift she is. Sensitive and compassionate, Sydney regards herself and others without judgment. She accepts everyone just as they are, though the reciprocal has not always been the case.

We’ve made inclusion with her developing peers a priority, which has often meant that I go along to parties and field trips and dances, I sleep in a cabin of seventh grade girls at science camp, and learn the routine for cheer tryouts to teach to her. As I’ve observed the kids in their natural habitat, I’ve seen the bravado that masks their insecurities. The pretense actually reveals an awkward and touching innocence. They’re all searching for their place in the world by measuring themselves against one another. They all want to be accepted. Sydney is no different, she’s just more transparent.

I remember the day she said to me, “Mom, somehow I’m a little different,” with a look of resignation so full of knowing I wanted to wrap her in my arms and never let her go. But to champion her true potential, I’ve had to do just that: Let Go. Again and again and again, tempering my instinct to protect her. I’ve tried instead to empower her, to love herself, to ​​be herself, even if it risks rejection.

Last night, I fell asleep on the couch, exhausted by the activities of homecoming week. My phone buzzed, startling me awake. Sydney, alone in her room, texted me, as is her practice, with her deepest thoughts and feelings.

I feel very emotional 😭 and I’m literally FREAKING Out

I’m so proud of you, honey. It’s a big day tomorrow!

Thanks mom I am praying for you 🙏🏻 thanks for all your supports and needs you deserve to have an awesome award 🥇goes to you I mean it you did it you helped me through times and lots of supporting so thank you mom you are great I love you so much ❤️

Mothering a child with special needs brings the same unbearably exquisite moments coupled with the same painful heartaches, the same sleepless nights, and the same anxiety.

I love you, too. You are fabulous. 😘️

Thanks mom I love you more than cheese 🧀

And mothering this one always brings a smile to my face.

The time has arrived and the crowd quiets as the announcer begins introducing candidates alphabetically. Sydney’s last name puts her at the 50-yard line.

“And now, the 2017 Homecoming Queen is . . . ” The words echo across the football field in a pregnant pause.

“Sydney Kent!”

We’re on our feet as the crowd erupts. The students roar. Sydney’s big sister squeals. Her dad beams. Ethan picks up our girl and swings her around, a genuine princess moment. The crown placed on her head slips down over her eyes and she’s rushed by screaming cheerleaders, who claim her as their own.

RBHS Varsity Cheer Squad 2017-2018

Awestruck, a deep quiet holds me still. I find it profoundly symbolic; as she’s experiencing this ultimate gesture of acceptance, I’m far away, watching. Sydney is on her own. A surge of hope for our collective future swells within me and my heart fills with gratitude for this community and these students. With their vote, these beautiful kids said: “We see you. You belong with us.” And that message doesn’t just change her, it changes them. It changes all of us.

My friend in the row below turns around and jubilantly places both hands on my face, saying “Oh, my gosh, Lisa! You better get down there!” My reverie is broken; everything shifts into fast forward as I make my way down the stairs, laughing through my tears.

Published March, 28 2018 in COMO Living Magazine

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Filed under Adolescence, Aging, Down syndrome, Family, Gratitude, Growing Up, Letting Go, Motherhood, Parenting, Special Needs

A Good Enough Mother

The words are sharp, a staccato litany of frustrations ricocheting around the room. They’re mine, directed at my misbehaving teenager. Adrenaline shoots through my veins. Careful, I think, sucking in a breath, holding it. The silence echoes loudly. In my head, the diatribe continues.

Shhhh, a gentle voice says. Stop now.

My youngest stands in her pjs, ten feet away in the darkened kitchen. Backlit by the hall light, she’s small for fourteen, but contrition renders her smaller. The fire has gone out in her eyes.

“Go to bed,” I say in resignation. “Think about what I said.” I turn away, exhausted. Tirade over.

In the living room, my husband sits, a witness. Abruptly, I’m awash with self-loathing. I lower myself onto the couch and draw bare feet under me.

“She makes me so mad!”

He listens to my rumination of dance steps well rehearsed: I sacrifice, the kids exploit, I explode, they atone; forgiveness rounds out our choreography. Except for myself. I never quite forgive myself. Drained of my own fire, I see my daughter morph from provocateur to vulnerable teen; she’s done nothing her three siblings haven’t before.

“I need to go to her.” Unfolding my legs, I head across the house to her room. I find her sitting up in bed. She’s been crying, hard. Her nose is stopped up. She’s breathing through her mouth and discarded Kleenexes litter the blankets. Her suffering torments me, but recrimination keeps me rooted at the door. She’s earned her remorse, as I’ve earned mine.

“So,” I begin, but there are no words, just an unbreachable chasm. I hesitate and nearly retreat, when the same gentle voice says: She needs her mother. Unlocked, I take the few steps to her bed, draw the covers back, and climb in. She comes into my arms, lays her head on my chest, and erupts in fresh sobs.

I stroke her hair. My lips brush her temple. “I’m sorry, honey,” I whisper. “I love you.”

“I’m sorry, too,” she says, shoulders shaking. Choking, she sits up. Tears and snot mingle on her face. She swipes her nose across the sleeve of her T-shirt. Suddenly, she’s my precocious toddler, difficult even then, when I was no less flawed myself. A pang of longing rips through me. Did I love her enough? Was I a good enough mother? My mind jumps forward; she’s a young woman and I’m remembering this moment, wondering of my angst-ridden fourteen-year-old: Did I love her enough? Was I a good enough mother?

Time, fleeting, malleable, shifts backward, forward, and lands in the present. I hug my girl tighter, but still, I feel her slipping from my grasp. Motherhood is a wild ride careening this way and that without much to hold on to. Instinctually, we clutch at passing moments, only to find fistfuls of air. We berate ourselves for imperfection, withhold compassion, and crave a forgiveness we alone can grant. When she is grown, will it have been enough? I can’t know, but here and now, sharpened by pain, soothed by absolution, and bathed in benevolence, I could not love her more. And that might be enough.

Published on November 30, 2017: COMO Living Magazine

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Filed under ADHD, Adolescence, Aging, Babies, Family, Growing Up, Letting Go, Motherhood, Parenting

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 sun.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

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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Filed under Aging, Enlightenment, Family, Grandparents, Gratitude, Grief, Letting Go, Loss, Memories, Motherhood, Sisterhood

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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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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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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Filed under Aging, Babies, Childbirth, Down syndrome, Family, Motherhood, Parenting, Self-Care, Special Needs