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To Believe or Not to Believe

Christmas 1970

“Mom, is Santa real?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
 

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

Just Like That

Melissa

Aaaaaaand just like that, Christmas is over.  The preparation, the anticipation, the actualization; come and gone for another year.  My beautiful live tree adorned in sparkling red and gold is dead, morphed into an endearing Dr. Suess caricature; its pliant needles turned brittle and sharp, its majestic branches drooping sadly, ornaments lowered to the floor in resignation.

But, I’m in no hurry to take it down, even if it is a 10’ fire hazard.  I want to sit with it a few more days, turn on the lights and gaze at all the pretty decorations in my house; pretty things that hold pretty memories.  The presents have been opened.  The food has been devoured.  The kids have gone home. But the lights can wait to be wound around plastic spools, the garland to be coiled into plastic tubs and the tree to be hauled out to decompose. I’m not quite ready to let go.

All our children were here this year – the ‘little girls’ who still live under our roof, and the ‘big kids,’ who grew up and left years ago. Melissa and Jeremy were 9 and 7 when I married Steven and we celebrated our first Christmas as a new family.  They were 14 and 12 when Sydney was born, her diagnosis of Down syndrome an unexpected turn of events, and 18 and 16 when Haley came along, her very presence an unexpected turn of events.  As older sibs, they were a huge help, stepping up to the responsibilities of dealing with their younger sisters’ special needs.

And just like that they’re 28 and 26, bringing their significant others home, growing our family and adding more people to love.  Melissa lives, with her partner, Jey, here in Columbia, For now.  She didn’t always, and one day she will spread her wings to fly far and wide. But that day has not yet come.  Jeremy recently landed in Oklahoma City with his wife, Carly; albeit temporarily.  The 450-mile stretch that separates us now is a much smaller distance than the 1300-mile span it used to be.  I’m hanging on to every day that they’re close by.

Because of it, we don’t often get Christmases together.  It’s been four years since the last so I wanted to make this a big one and the preparations started early.

“Are you sure you want to spend that much on a tree?” my husband asked, checking the price tag on a gorgeous Balsam Fir.  He craned his neck to look up, “I’m not sure it’ll even fit.”

“Honey, the kids are coming home,” I reminded him. “I want it to be special.”

Of course he gets it; he shares my inclination to go all out.  It’s the same drive that lead him to the roof for 12 hours in 30 degrees, hanging brand-new LED lights, clip by clip as he inched along the gutters and peaks, only once sliding to the edge and nearly plummeting to the ground (thank God for the satellite dish).  Tons of work, more than a little frustration, but the result was magical and breathtaking.

The tree went up in the corner of the living room; a few inches lopped off the top left just enough room for a delicate illuminated star.   Fragrant evergreen scent, full of promise, permeated the house,  We trimmed the tree while listening to Pandora’s “Traditional Holiday” station and took turns identifying the crooners; Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin.  We shopped; at the mall and at our computers. We wrapped and wrapped and wrapped.  We got out the good dishes.  We baked and we cleaned.  We stayed up late and got up early, exhaustion crowding excitement, knowing it would be worth the effort.

And then they were here.  Melissa and Jey came from their little house downtown, and Jeremy and Carly drove seven hours on the interstate, stopping regularly because my daughter-in-law is 33 weeks pregnant.  Their first, a boy, will arrive shortly before their third anniversary.  And just like that, my boy will become a father.  7 lbs. 1 oz. at birth, he now towers over me and swallows me in bear hugs.  I can picture him holding his tiny infant son in those arms, just as I held him.

Our time together didn’t disappoint; it was full and rewarding.  We told stories.  We played games.  We ate and then ate some more.  We watched ‘Home Alone,’ 1 and 2, the kids reciting the classic line in unison – “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.”   And ‘Christmas Vacation’ with Chevy Chase, the hilarious spoof of stereotypical holiday foibles; both funny and touching as we recognize ourselves in Clark Griswold, a hard-working family man determined to create the perfect holiday for his clan.  We love him for his indomitable spirit in the face of mounting obstacles and catastrophic property damage, and for his vulnerability that reveals itself in the midst of calamity.  Locked in the freezing attic, he bundles up in a woman’s fur coat then stumbles across a box of old film reels.  Before we know it, he’s projecting black and white movies onto a sheet, frustration and mayhem forgotten.  The juxtaposition of a grown man lost in childhood memories, wearing his mother’s turban while a sentimental tear slips down his cheek captures the complexities precisely.

We also watched our own home movies.

“Mom, look. I found some old videos,” Jeremy yelled from the guest room, emerging with a crate of VHS cassettes, my handwriting on the labels: ‘Melissa and Jeremy 1988.’

“Let’s watch ‘em!”  He said with his typical enthusiasm.

We dimmed the lights and gathered around the big screen. I loaded the tape into a borrowed VCR.  It disappeared, sucked inside with a click.  The play button lit up, images sprang to life on the screen and just like that, it was 25 years earlier.

A three-year-old girl in pink sponge rollers eats tortilla chips out of the bag on a couch with her best friend.  She wears panties and nothing else, watching King Kong from 1976 with Jessica Lange.  She says to her baby brother blocking the TV, “Germ-y, get out-uh-our way!” leaning around him, intent on the images in front of her.

She sits on the floor of a horse stall in her grandpa’s barn.  A new litter of puppies was born in the hay and a squirming puppy licks her face as she holds it.  Giggling she says, “He likes me!”

A toddler in diapers sports a blond mullet, the back long and curly.  He wears top-siders with no socks.  In the sunshine he climbs into his Little Tikes car and walks his feet ala Fred Flinstone to make it go.  Hands on the wheel, he steers his yellow and red cozy coupe down the sidewalk and off the curb, lodging it against a parked car.  He cries in a bitty voice, “Mama, I stuck!”

He holds his hands out to catch a ball and it hits him in the face, bouncing off.  Exploding with laughter, he runs to chase it then heaves it back with all his might.  Not quite in control, he jumps up and down then trips over his own feet, yelling, “My turn!  My turn!”

A young woman in mom jeans, the waistband hiked up under her armpits, bends to speak in a loving voice to her babies.  She wears her hair like Dorothy Hamill with a perm.  She has clear eyes and a soft face; she is self-conscious and uncomfortable in her own skin.

Time bent.  I couldn’t get my bearings as I glanced from the wide screen TV to the kids watching themselves, and to their partners watching their loved ones as children.  They’re all laughing and taking delight in the obvious evidence of personalities, even early on.

Melissa was thoughtful and a little shy; content. Her easy-going nature radiated visibly and she smiled easily and often.  She was innocent and sweet and unassuming.  Her motto was, life is great—I’m happy to be here.  She was pure, authentic.

Jeremy couldn’t sit still or stay quiet; his exuberance was uncontainable.  He lived large and loud, grabbing on to every moment and demanding attention.  Whatever he felt, he expressed.  His motto was life is great—what’s next?  He was eager, energetic.

Then just like that, my daughter is putting herself through college, returning to school with purpose, pursuing an advanced degree in psychology.  She’s an honor student with scholarships and awards, a leader, a camp counselor, a nanny, possessing rare qualities for working with children and teenagers.  Babies love her, children flock to her and adolescents confide in her.  She’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world.  She is pure and authentic.

And just like that, my son is saving lives in his profession as a paramedic.  He responds to people’s worst nightmares; accidents and overdoses and violence, guiding them through crises, ministering to body, but also to mind and spirit.  His medical skills combined with his compassion make him a calm force and a steady presence.  He’s a husband and provider and soon to be a parent.  He’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world; he is eager and energetic.

This is how I know it to be: life flies past in a moment.  And still, I take it for granted. Still, I assume there will be 25 more years until the realization hits; we don’t know what lies in the days ahead.  Just like that things do change.  And I am brought up short.  I’m in awe of the gift of my family.  My family, here, now, together.

We posed in front of the giant tree, me in the middle, surrounded by the ones I love the most:  Jeremy with his arm around his wife, Carly holding her beautiful belly and within it, our grandson; Melissa seated in front of her girlfriend, Jey, whose hands were placed gently on her shoulders; the little girls at our feet in their Christmas pjs, and Steven, my partner, my love, standing ever-present behind me.

Just like that it’s 2014.  I can’t stop or even slow down time, but I can hold on loosely—I’m not letting go.  I can take it all in and savor it and relish it.  And I guess I can go ahead and take the tree down.

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Filed under Adolescence, Aging, Babies, Childbirth, Christmas, Down syndrome, Family, Growing Up, Letting Go, Loss, Memories, Motherhood, Parenting, Siblings, Special Needs

Holding Space

Trees grave

Brother and sister, together as friends,

Ready to face whatever life sends.

Joy and laughter or tears and strife,

Holding hands tightly

As we dance through life.

Suzie Huitt

 

‘Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.’ Edna Buchanan said that. I can only assume the implication is that the relatives we’re stuck with wouldn’t be the ones we’d pick if given the option.  On some days, I could see myself choosing friends over family, but in the end, I believe I’d take the parents and siblings I’ve got.  Among this motley crew, the love is hard-earned and runs deep.  We started small then divided by divorce and multiplied through remarriage, becoming a Modern Family before it was trendy.  Actually, it was more like The Brady Bunch.  From hell.  Three parents, two brothers and seven sisters, consisting of steps, halves and wholes, round out my nuclear family; every one unique and each one, extraordinary.  A complicated blend, the reciprocity is messy and even volatile—there’s been no lack of drama in 38 years.  But in the hotbed of familial relationship, conditions are ripe to learn life lessons that just don’t come any other way. Lessons on love, forgiveness, redemption and transformation.

Flying over New Mexico on my way to Phoenix, I peer through the airplane’s small window and take in the vastness of the red rocks below.  I’m going home, to the funeral of my oldest brother’s son.

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Filed under Aging, Family, Growing Up, Loss, Siblings

Joyride

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

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

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

But since we’re on our way down,

We might as well enjoy the ride.

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

It’s just a lovely ride.

James Taylor—The Secret ‘O Life

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

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

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