I held some strong convictions when I was young. I just knew what I knew was true because, well, “when you know, you know,” right? But I didn’t know what I didn’t know. For most of us, we often miss the realization that we actually don’t know. Until we’re knocked loose from those dearly held certainties, that is, and not always gently.
Around age 28, life provided me plenty of jolts to rumble the foundation I’d built, one I was sure was rock solid. I’d left the Mormon church. And my marriage. The shockwaves were severe enough to send many of my beliefs toppling ass over teakettle and smashing to bits on the ground.
When I was growing up we moved a lot, big moves crisscrossing the country. Perpetually the new kid, I never stayed long enough to feel like I fit in. Then, I married a man whose childhood was the opposite of mine, who grew up in a small north Missouri town of Mayberry charm. It seemed like the ideal for many reasons and though I could not give it to my oldest two children, Columbia is the only place my youngest two remember.
A dream come true for me, raising the kids in the same town, the same schools, the same neighborhood, the same house, felt like a second chance for me, too. Like coming home.
But now it’s time to go. Change is hard, even when it’s the right thing. Objectively, I marvel at our human tendency to reverberate with surprise or even shock when life takes a turn. Why, exactly, are we so astonished? After all, the only constant in life is change. But subjectively, I am taken aback at every shift and feel it deeply, personally. Even when it’s my own choice.
Binge watching TV, a pastime for which I previously had little time, and a guilty pleasure I’m loathe to acknowledge, has opened a portal for me during the pandemic, a passageway to another world. Once Upon a Time has been my alternate realm (except for the period I resided within the universe of Schitt’s Creek—almost completely comprised of two adjoining motel rooms–where I voraciously gobbled up all six seasons, the final episode leaving me a sobbing mess in disbelief that it ever was allowed to end).
Contemplative by nature, the isolation of this COVID year has forced constant and not always welcome introspection. Magnetically drawn to the tales of Storybooke, the fictional town inhabited by intersecting celebrities of the make-believe power set (and not just characters from the Brothers Grimm, mind you, but also those of C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, and the numerous Disney creators of Mulan, Jasmine, and Anna and Elsa), I’ve been intrigued by my own intrigue. I have always loved stories, but why such attraction to these fairy tales and their creative twists? Magic, true love, mystical powers, light in the dark, good versus evil, the epic tales contain the stuff of classic yarns. A harmless escape into fantasy, I decided it was. A much needed exit from the chaos of this reality into the multiverse of the Enchanted Forest. A rising hero, a vanquished villain, a happy ending, the clear cinematic themes provided structure. Closure. There’s something satisfying in watching the formulaic saga repeat itself: Innocents, the undeserving victims of circumstance are trapped under a curse cast by a malevolent force seeking to retain brutal control by exerting their powers. Dire straits intensify until certain doom awaits and all hope is lost. Or is it? Because in that precise moment the miracles occur, triumph at the last moment by an unforeseeable savior. A potion, a spell, a token. True love’s kiss. No matter how dark, light always prevails. Love wins the day.
There’s something satisfying in the formulaic saga.
I thought perhaps I’ve been charmed by the childish simplicity. Real life isn’t so black and white. Upon a closer look, however, I saw that neither is life in that pretend place. When peeling back the layers of vile atrocity, no matter how black the heart, no scoundrel began their sojourn as such. Pain, abandonment, betrayal–these drive the bad guy’s blood lust for revenge and destruction. Moral devastation amplifies their rage aimed at those who have what is desired but remains out of reach. And even the good guys sometimes succumb to hopelessness or jealousy. They, too, can lose their way, pouring gasoline on the fire in their fight for justice, learning that the end cannot justify the means. I think even children can tease out the truths embedded in these stories. Especially children.
Maybe my deep dive into the fairytale world isn’t just escapism. Maybe it’s a way for me to process what I’m seeing around me: the age-old struggle of humankind for equity, collectively caught in a violent tug-of-war, “others,” perceived as enemies, dominated and killed. The battle for the soul of humanity is still happening today. For all the advances of technology, in the Information Age, we’re not much different than in the Dark Ages, when kings hoarded wealth and peasants starved. When the elite few sustained their power by climbing on the backs of the working masses.
Even children can tease out the truths in these stories.
I feel in my bones, though, the longing to evolve, to purge ourselves of ugliness and petty, selfish greed, to emerge outside the rigidity of our own thinking into a collaborative, peaceful co-existence. But how do we get from here to there? I suppose the answer lies within each heart and mind. In every choice. As we co-create the world around us, moment by moment, this synergy of choice operates on free will. And like the characters in Storybrooke, we all possess both lightness and darkness. At any given intersection, the possibility exists to take a different fork in the road.
Even then, happy endings aren’t static. They don’t last forever–that was never the point. As perfect as they might feel, our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season. Life is transient. For better or worse. In sickness and in health. The afterlife notwithstanding, the physical limitations of our kingdom on earth offer the inevitable exchange of heartache for the gift of having loved in real time. For every summer, there is a winter. The leaves turn. The snow falls and signals the chapter’s end. And life waits patiently, dormantly, until it renews itself in spring and a new chapter begins.
Our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season.
My Auntie Gwen reached the apex of her winter last week and arrived at the end of her story. She was ready, she told me, at peace. “I’m so looking forward to seeing my mom,” she said. ”And Jesus.”
Aunt Gwen is the third of four siblings now gone. My mother, Pat, died five years ago, and their older brother, J.W., back in 1948 when he was only 10. My Grammy and Grampy, Katie and John, died in 1998 and 1990 respectively. Only Auntie Dee remains earthbound. For now. The family history is written in letters and journals and essays. It’s preserved in my DNA. It lives in my memories, passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions like the one that begins, “Once upon a time, not so long ago and not so far away, there lived a Little Old Man and a Little Old Woman and their Little Dog Turpy in a Little Old House by the field where the hemp stalks grew.” I clutch at a past that’s slipping away to die with those who lived it. Perhaps this is why I am compelled to take up the pen and tell their stories.
Katherine Gwen Lyman was born in Bozeman, Montana on May 14, 1946 and grew up in Wallowa, Oregon. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare and a Master’s in Special Education and School Counseling, she spent her career as a beloved teacher of students with disabilities. An avid vegetarian and lover of birds and wildlife and flowers, she was never without a feline companion. Auntie Gwen was my first musical influence, pulling me into her lap to sing as she played the piano. I watched her fingers trill on her delicate flute, amazed and enthralled at the beauty of her embouchure.
This is why I am compelled to tell their stories.
She was a free spirit, a true bohemian, with long, sleek hair and John Lennon glasses, favoring embroidered tunics and leather sandals. With no make up, no fingernail polish, and no shaved underarms, she seemed exotic to my church girl sensibilities, just wild enough. Once Mom drove us south from Phoenix to Tucson to vist her adobe cottage in the middle of the desert. When she didn’t answer we went around to the back to peer in a curtain-less window. And there she was, sitting in Sukhasana (cross-legged) on her meditation cushion, eyes closed, face serene. Completely nude.
We visited her when she lived in Eugene and Seattle and San Francisco, though not in Hilo, Hawaii where she married a gentle bearded man named Guha. They both wore long, native leis, a symbol of their love, over white muslin. His easy-going ways tempered her high energy, and they lived their bliss for a time before parting ways. Later, she lopped off her hair in an asymmetrical cut that became her signature style, short enough to showcase the long beaded earrings she’d made herself. There would only be one more love, though they never wed. Joel, another beautiful man, this one with olive skin and dark curls brushed with silver, was mellow and generous. Another uncle to cherish. But again, only for a time.
Auntie Gwen lived alone after that, but she was rarely lonely, filling her time with friends and family and travel with her widowed mother. She adored her nieces and nephews and loved watching us grow up. She endured her share of physical challenges, an aneurysm that left her without the sense of smell, breast cancer, knee surgery, chronic back pain. But these ailments never dampened her joie de vivre. She was a true optimist with an effervescent smile that lifted right up into her twinkling eyes as if to say, “Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
She told me my mother always accused her of being a “Pollyanna,” the caricature imbued with excessive cheerfulness and based on the heroine in a book of the same name, authored by Eleanor Porter in 1913. Pollyanna was brought to life on the big screen in 1960, with Hayley Mills playing the irrepressibly sunny orphan. A nearly life-sized doll with a dimpled grin and blond curls, wearing a gingham dress and MaryJanes was launched on the retail market to coincide with the Disney film. Either my mom or Gwen owned one because we found it, sitting upright in a corner, green eyes staring, when cleaning out my Grammy’s house after she died. My bet is on Auntie Gwen.
“Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
In her own defense she’d said, “What’s wrong with that? I like seeing the up side of things.” I admit, I myself am slightly suspicious of those with unyielding positivity. But of all her eccentric idiosyncrasies, because of (or maybe even in spite of) an inherently strong personality—a trademark feature of all the women in my family, I find Auntie Gwen’s rejection of gloom admirable. Something I will always seek to emulate. After all, it was her steady stream of buoyancy that kept her afloat her whole life.
She died comfortably and peacefully in her home on Friday, January 8, 2021, surrounded by love, my brother holding one hand and her dear friend, the other. My sisters and I held her in our hearts from miles and miles away. Our goodbye, like too much of this past year, was remote. On Zoom. Auntie Gwen promised if we would hang bells, she would ring them. With quivering chins and welling eyes, we promised to hang them and watch for the sound of her eternal optimism, an omen of her tangible presence and a spark of magic in our ordinary days. And a reminder that “not so long ago and not so far away” a new story has begun.
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.”
It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 pm. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors. A delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got work emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. iTunes shuffles our collection of eclectic albums, creating the playlist that plays pleasantly in the background. Until the opening phrase of Happy Xmas catches my ear.
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”
The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause. I close my eyes to listen. Such a familiar, comforting melody.
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.
When she shall die, Take her and cut her out in little stars, And she will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Wallow High School Senior Photo 1961
Patricia Ann Lyman Pullen-Jones, a 1943 New Year’s Eve baby, was from Bozeman, Montana. And Wallow, Oregon. And Monmouth and Salem and Coquille, Oregon. And Fort Collins, Colorado and Fort Meade, Maryland and Davis, California. From Phoenix, Arizona and Thousand Oaks, California, and for a short time, Taos, New Mexico. For the past 17 years, she was from her beloved Portland, Oregon. She was from moving more times than anyone could count, except perhaps the faithful who, by her side, lifted mattresses and refrigerators and filing cabinets onto U-Hauls trucks. Pat was from making a home wherever she went; from a plethora of house plants suspended in macramé slings, sunflower artwork, ‘Bloom Where You Are Planted’ needlepoint, and The Desiderata with its burned edges, decoupaged onto a scalloped walnut plaque that hung in every living room in every house in every city. She was from a cat on her lap and a book in her hand.
Patsy was inescapably from her family: her mother, Katherine Ivannie Moore; her father, John Williamson Lyman, her big brother, J.W., who died at ten when she was only four years old, from her sister, younger by two years, Katherine Gwen and her baby sister, Doris Jane. She was from small towns and Rainbow Girls, and the newspaper her father owned (and where she worked); from a high-brow, journalistic lineage; from writers, from poets, from intelligence. She was from class.
Patricia was from skipping a grade and attending St. Paul School for Girls in Walla Walla, Washington, and from returning home to Wallowa High School and the friends she’d grown up with. From ballet and piano and theatre and baton-twirling and reporting for the school paper. From sewing her own prom dresses and covering her shoes with satin to match. She was from talent.
She was from marrying her high school sweetheart who called her Trisha, and following him across the country as he became an officer in the army, from putting him through veterinary school. And after 11 years, painful divorce. From single motherhood and singing her babies to sleep and kissing their fevered foreheads. From teaching them responsibility and manners and the names of wildflowers. She was from mama bear and don’t-mess-with-my-kid and you-and-me-against-the-world. From second chances and late-in-life babies who waited until the right time to come.
She was from three marriages and four children; Lisa Charmaine, Stephen Maynard, Heidi Ann and Sarah Elizabeth; from ten grandchildren, Melissa and Jeremy Buehner, Sydney and Haley Kent, Charles, Bronson, Isabella and Joseph Pullen, Gabriel Rabbat and Holden Collins, and one and a half great-grandchildren, Ashton and baby boy (or girl) Buehner yet to born, and with whom she dances now, whispering, “I’m your Grammy.”
Patricia was from tradition. From ham and twice-baked potatoes and peas and cheese on Christmas, from jello molds and casseroles, from lace tablecloths and felt wall-hangings. From putting in the Thanksgiving turkey and going to a movie with her kids while it roasted. She was from knitting needles and spinning her own wool; from handmade slippers and sweaters and hats and gloves. From oral traditions and stories and poetry. From re-finishing furniture and re-wiring electrical circuits and re-building computers. She was from re-cycling before re-cycling was en vogue. From flushing the transmission, replacing the starter, and installing the windshield-wiper motor on her car. From cabinets full of tools; from YouTube tutorials.
She was from Nordstrom style on a Goodwill budget and holding her chin up and pulling herself up by her bootstraps. She was from fortitude and determination and stick-to-it-iveness and elbow grease. She was from mind-your-own-business and what-goes-around-comes-around and create-your-own-reality.
She was from kisses on the lips and hugs that consumed, from frequent I love you’s and a mother’s intuition. From mothering the motherless, filling the void of their need and taking them as her own adopted children. She was from mother-love big enough to extend to her nephew, Njuguna and nieces, Randee and Cierra, acting as fierce protector and advocate, and never letting go. From making sure they stayed safe and connected, that they felt important and most of all, loved.
She was from teaching: her children, her students, her friends, and everyone around her. From standing with those who could not stand on their own. From liberal politics and feeding the hungry and sending money she didn’t have to women in war-torn and developing countries.
Pat was from loving everyone she met, and all those she met, falling head over heels in love with her. From loud, open-mouthed laughs and saying what’s on her mind and not caring what anyone thinks and swearing a blue streak. From cups of ice filled with Jim Beam and Diet Dr. Pepper, with no lid. She was from spills, and spilling over.
She was from classical music and a quiet life and simplifying. She was from tech savvy and Facebook and the internet. And texts made indecipherable by autocorrect. From many connections with many people, in her physical space and in cyber space. From loving the ones around her, and missing the ones who were not.
Pat was from MS, from nerves worn thin and the world too loud, from skin too sensitive and a heart too full, primed for love, and always broken wide open. From a cane that sat in the corner she refused to use. She was from living and dying on her own terms.
Where she was from is clear to anyone who loved her, and she will be missed immeasurably, but now, it’s about where she’s going. A place of light, brilliant and radiant, as vast as the ocean, as tall as the mountains. She’s returned to the ‘one-ness’ as she often said. She’s not left us, she is merely in non-physical form and in her death, in her own transcendence, she brings healing to her family; spontaneous, exhilarating, joyful healing that washes clean the wounds of human experience, leaving only love.
Love of a purity and magnitude beyond words. Love that is larger than we can comprehend. Love that she herself has become, encompassing and holding us in her embrace. We feel her in the breeze across our face. We feel her in the birds that swoop and soar. We feel her in the full moon as she rises over the blue planet. And if we are lucky, we see her in our dreams.
The blue planet with her mountains Now as always be my territory. The blue planet with her rivers Now and always be my hunting ground. The blue planet with her cities Now and always be my home ground. The blue planet with all my goals Now and always be my victory!
The Grandmother of Time, a Woman’s Book of Celebrations, Spells and Sacred Objects by Zsuzsanna E. Budapest
“I’d like to go to brunch,” I say, loading my athletic shoes into my gym bag. A suitcase sits open on the floor. My husband carefully lays out his dry cleaning on the bed for yet another business trip. I circle him, gathering my notes and music for yet another class. Leaning out of our bedroom door, I holler across the house to the girls. “Leaving in five minutes! Get your stuff together.”
After I teach we’ve got to go straight to yet another of their activities. I turn back to Steven.
“You know,” I continue, toggling between conversations at rapid speed, “like other middle-aged couples do on Sundays. Spontaneously. By them-SELVES.”
Sydney, still in her PJs, walks around the corner.
“What are you doing? Get dressed!” I moan.
Exasperated, I give her a gentle shove in the direction of her clothing laid out in the living room. Over my shoulder, I whine, “You. Me. Mimosas. Is that too much to ask?”
We are not a middle-aged couple who brunch because those people’s children have grown and flown, and two of our four are still at home, dependent on us for food, shelter and filling out forms. Besides school and Mom and Dad’s “day” jobs, orchestra, choir and cheer practices, and visits to the doctor, dentist and orthodontist fill our jam-packed schedules. Making it work takes a savvy mix of Type-A organizational skills and go-with-the-flow flexibility. Even with a smartphone and Haley’s photographic memory, some things disappear from my radar. (Serves me right, I ‘spose — back in the days when I kept my calendar in my head, I tsk-tsked plenty at the moms who spaced appointments. Tip from my older, wiser self: Go ahead, judge, but it will bite you in the bum.)
Like many families, our baseline level of rush-and-go hovers consistently at “Hurry up, we’re late!” and “Do you have your violin?” and “Remember, I’m picking you up. Do NOT ride the bus!” Under duress, the barometer pushes into the red with “How can you not know where your poms are, you just HAD them?!” and “What did I do with my keys? I swear I just had them.” Mom’s taxi puts down a lot of miles with three to four trips out and back every day. The driving is one thing, but it’s the level of involvement that costs. If I can drop at the curb, energy output is minimal. That’s usually Haley. But, if I have to go in, engage and even TALK to people, the meter starts ticking. And that’s usually Sydney.
When she was born with Down syndrome, I had a vague notion of the extra support she’d need, but I couldn’t know just what it would demand. For her to succeed, especially in environments composed of her typically developing peers, she can’t go it alone: Mom gotsta go with. Birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s and Going Bonkers? Playdates at friends’ homes? Picnics at the pool, festivals at the park and field trips to the zoo? After-school clubs and karaoke nights? I’ve been to all of them, a few particularly memorable highlights resulting in the blogs, “It’s About The Dance” and “Kids Can Save The World, or Lisa Goes To Science Camp.”
But, I am no heroic mother. Trust me, quite the contrary. On the nights that don’t end until 10 p.m. because after cheer practice, there’s still Sydney’s hair to curl for show choir dress rehearsal — dividing the heavy and wet sections and rolling them into sponge curlers while she cries — on those nights, I find it difficult to disguise the tired, impatient little man inside me. You know the one: Mr. Incredible’s boss, Gilbert Huph? “I’m not happy. NOT. HAPPY.”
It’s not that I resent it so much as I resist it; the pull of her special needs and what that requires of me. Plenty of times I’d rather be anywhere else than a high-school basketball game. But, not going is not an option. I won’t deprive her of the opportunities for fun and growth my other children have/had. Building relationships and making memories is what high school is all about. For that reason, I happily do what I must for my daughter, even when I’m decidedly not happy doing it.
Case in point: the show choir concert. Sydney’ high school performing-arts program has a reputation that doesn’t disappoint. Even the novice freshman choir takes its commitment seriously with clear expectations from the start. Tonight I have curled, styled and sprayed her hair into submission — an emotional ordeal for the both of us — and superglued French-tipped fingernails to her tiny nail beds. Lastly, I’m putting makeup, including foundation, eye shadow, eyeliner and mascara, on my daughter’s porcelain skin; my daughter who prefers natural beauty and balks at this intrusion. I hold the back of her head to line her lower eyelid and tell her for the 25th time to look UP, feeling my patience wane as she lifts her chin even higher, but keeps her eyes down.
“LOOK up. Your eyes, Syd!”
Sydney feels my impatience too, and her eyes well up.
I pull her close, blotting her tears quickly with a Kleenex, and tell her I’m sorry I’ve hurt her feelings, but she’s going to ruin her makeup!
“It’s OK, Mom. I’m fine,” she says, mustering her courage. I finish the job, getting us out the door and to call only a few minutes late.
While other moms find their seats, I’m backstage looking for the dressing room. Teeming with half-dressed girls leaning into mirrors, yelling across the room, laughing and talking and singing, it’s chaotic and adrenaline-charged. Sydney, sensitive to sensory input and a bit overwhelmed, follows me closely as we weave through bodies in search of her costume. I’m directed to a satin dress, covered in sparkling gems, with barely-there spaghetti straps, hanging in a plastic bag with her name on it. There are Spanx and tights and size 1 character shoes with a 2-inch heel, too. We retreat to a corner and I help slide her little toes into pantyhose and her little feet into the dance shoes. I zip up her dress and spin her around. Altered for her smaller frame, the dress fits perfectly. I clip the finishing touch–dangling rhinestone earrings–onto her ear lobes and step back. I’m blown away by this stunning, lovely young lady. She is talented and able, and no less so for needing my help putting on her undies and buckling her shoes.
Sydney can take it from here, so I give her a squeeze and go join my family, collapsing into the seat with relief just in time. The band strikes up the opening number and the freshman choir spills onto the stage, mounting the risers and belting out an upbeat number that instantly delights the audience. Energetic and vibrant, they move across the stage, in and out of clever formations, dancing and kicking and twirling. Fists pumping and hands clapping, it’s “Glee” in real life. And there in the middle, looking just like the other girls, if a miniature-sized version, is Sydney, grooving along and singing her heart out. She knows the words. She knows all moves. She knows no fear.
It comes to me in a rush, all at once, knocking the wind out of me: the realization of just how capable she is. She can DO this. She IS doing this! A sob rises in my throat and I stifle it with my palm. I look over at my husband who is already looking at me. Boundless pride pulses between us; shared in a way that is ours alone as her parents. In silent celebration, we clasp hands and I let my tears come.
The vocals swell and the big finish approaches. At the dramatic ending, in perfect timing, Sydney shoots her arm to the ceiling, jazz hand extended, and throws her head back. She and the rest of the choir hold the pose through the applause. Magic fills the auditorium. I’m flooded with gratitude for these sweet kids who have accepted Sydney as one of their own, for all the teachers and paras and adults who invest in her and continue to draw out her strengths, and for the man by my side, who resonates devotion; the powerful love that transcends any limitation, including busy-ness and weariness. He knows it’s worth whatever it takes to see Sydney, as normal as any other kid, following her dreams.
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.”
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.”
Lisa Pullen Kent is a writer, yoga teacher, musician, and passionate lover of people. She writes on parenting, marriage and the sacredness of the ordinary in everyday life. Lisa splits her time between Columbia, Missouri, where she lives with her adult daughter who has Down syndrome and Steedman, Missouri, where she lives with her husband on their farm in the country.