Grief That is Coming of Age

SONY DSCI found a new diary app call Day One that makes it simple and fun to record moments on my phone and attach a photo. It’s a wonderful, quick way to capture images and events that otherwise get recorded in my many random notebooks. The images get buried in my 30,000+ photo library and the words and pictures seldom come together again in the same way I felt them at the time. All the entries can be downloaded en masse as a PDF on my computer if I ever want to do anything more with it. It’s brilliant.

This morning I was waiting for a child to awaken and took a moment to look at the pouring rain and remember this, the anniversary of our Dad’s death, 21 years ago today. I opened the Day One app and I wrote this:

It set off a chain of events that have influenced every moment since.

It was as though the words typed themselves, without my knowledge or permission. It is absolutely true, though, and even though it may seem like a surprise to me now, I knew even then that something fundamental had changed with Dad’s passing. I felt it on the train home that day, knowing as I stepped off that when I left Cambridge he was alive, and when I arrived in Concord, he was not. When I got to the house I called my brother and told him Dad was gone.

“How could you possibly know?” he asked.

“I just do.”

My brother was in New Jersey, I was in Massachusetts, Dad was in Saint Louis. It didn’t matter. A long chapter in my life, in all of our lives, had closed and we were free to look back and forward in ways that were not possible before that moment. It’s when memories and myths and mysteries all start to form and weave together ways that are different for every person; truth matters for a while but then becomes so complicated and elusive that you give up, only to go looking for it again later.

It happens this way for plenty of people, I’m sure, when they lose someone so influential to them. The absence of the reflected love, hate, or diffidence changes the image in the mirror and adjustments must be made. In my case it marked the start of the transition from being a child to being a parent, and the quick realization that even that traditional and expected path was not as straight or simple as I thought.

Libraries and hard drives the world over are full of the stories behind this revelation – that life seldom is what we expect it might be and what happens to us brings us unheralded joy, pain and wisdom. It just so happens that on this day back in 1992, my life took a turn in a new direction – if it were a movie there would be a map with a prop plane and a dotted line moving across continents with great zigs and zags, still going forward but making its way around the globe again and again, flying repeatedly over that point where the journey began.

Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?

The last photo I took before I whacked my head on the ice
The last photo I took before I whacked my head on the ice

Four years ago today I went out to play with the kids and take photos in the snow. Two minutes into it I slipped on smooth ice under the snow and landed on my head and watched the Presidential Inauguration through the fog of a mild concussion (Hillary Clinton, I feel your pain). Sometimes it still hurts on that spot at the back of my head, and it hurts, too, to know that not everything has gone as well as we had hoped over the last four years. We feel more divided and less safe and we are still at war, but we seem to be making progress in a lot of important areas even as we fall behind in others.

It's not as easy to believe as it once was, but I still do
It’s not as easy to believe as it once was, but I still do

In 2009, we were elated at the historical significance of Barack Obama’s election and also in survival mode from the Great Recession. Then, we were looking at some huge milestones for our kids and wondering how we would survive those. Now, we are satisfied from having accomplished so much, proud of our children, but weary and a little worried about the world we are handing to them. It is a new kind of uncertainty, informed by the realization that talking about peace and compromise are so much easier than accomplishing them – and we really thought we knew that. Sometimes it’s like the 1970s all over again, just with better clothes and more cynicism (which I didn’t think was possible).

I still have high hopes for our President, still feel the same thrill at seeing the monuments and marble corridors in Washington that we have visited a few times in recent years, still look ahead optimistically to the next milestones for our family. And I still walk very gingerly in the snow.

Mr. President, on the inside, looking out
Mr. President, on the inside, looking out – God Speed, sir

Ending the Year Talking About the Best Kind of 20-Year Olds

Nearly perfect pecan pie
Nearly perfect pecan pie

The world is rightly preoccupied with the details, perspectives, and aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and I have said my piece here. One day just before Christmas, as I blogged and read the news and generally wallowed in the injustices of the world late into the evening, my cell phone rang. It was a 20-year old young man I have known since he was a tot, and he was calling to say he was on our front porch because he did not want to startle us by ringing the doorbell. He and his friend came by to deliver…pecan pie. Pecan pie that they made from scratch (crust and all) that they wanted me to taste and critique so they could make a second pie even later that night. Home from college, they were following up on a pie tutorial they had from our neighbor over Thanksgiving break. The pie they brought me was nearly perfect – better than I’ve ever made, for sure – and they asked me to pull out all of my many pie plates and tins to see if they should try a different sized dish for the next version. I’m not sure if you can justifiably say that deconstructing a pecan pie recipe is a life affirming experience, but I will happily go out on that limb. Watching the meticulous, bright-eyed enthusiasm these guys showed as we discussed how to improve their recipe (it came out eventually that the perfected pie would be proffered to a girl the next day) was the closest I came to pure joy in those days following the tragedy.

As the holidays have progressed, it is this newest emerging generation that gives me the most smiles, the most hope, and the most confidence that we will emerge from this era of dysfunction and despair with our souls intact. I love you guys.

Back to School Clothes

Right on cue, the weather turned cool, the summer haze lifted, and the sweatshirts came out. People and nature fall into step for the first day of school. Squinting in the sunshine, I see the first leaves drift down, only the edges yellow and red, and I swear can smell the apples ripening even though the orchards are miles away. Labor Day is coming up and the blooms on the snowball bushes are trading in their white for pink. The boys put on their new sneakers, and I get out my hipster glasses so that I can read the tiny type on all of those forms I have to fill out with my brand new sharpies.

I have not even reached for the towel yet after my shower when a voice pipes up around the corner “Ready to go yet, Mom?” School isn’t scheduled to start for an hour, it takes fifteen minutes to get there, and I know he heard me turn off the water four seconds earlier. No, I am not ready to go. But I am glad that it is still possible for a teenager to be excited for the first day of school, so I snap it up and get him there twenty minutes early, knowing that for the first time in 10 weeks I will be returning to an empty house.

Roots & Bulbs

Spring is a month early and I am not complaining even though we have had precious little rain.  Having come late to the gardening party I have noticed only in recent years that each spring things sprout and bloom in a slightly different order.  This year the change is more dramatic:  the peonies are well on their way, even as the forsythia is in full bloom.  The tulips seem visibly annoyed to being pushed aside by the busy peonies; they are used to having the front garden all to themselves. The azalea, battered by autumn storms and with no snow cover to protect it from the winter wind, seems to have given up in exhaustion and pushed out only a handful of blooms from nearly bare branches.

I am always particularly glad to see the tulips. The red ones are the first to appear and the first I ever planted.  I put the bulbs in shortly after September 11, 2001.  Before then, my attempts at gardening were halfhearted and largely unsuccessful; our yard is so shady and the soil so sandy and acidic that no perennial I planted ever came back the following spring. But the previous owner clearly knew what to plant and so the garden she built always filled in nicely.  But there were a few spots near the driveway that got a little sun and seemed a little bare, and the events of that fall got me to thinking that I’d been living in our house like a renter – doing precious little to show any kind of long term commitment to a family home now buzzing with three young children. The crazy world (remember Graydon Carter announcing the end of irony?) and the empty skies of that September made me look up from storybooks and changing tables and brought me outside, and made me want to plant something beautiful, something hopeful, for the spring.

So I did.  And they bloomed, and have bloomed every year ever since (provided I remember to put out soap to keep the deer from nibbling the bulbs).  When the trees at the front of the house grew too big we had to take two of them down and that gave me more sun and soil to work with, and my perennial track record improved:  sedum, cone flowers, delphiniums, daffodils, iris, bachelor buttons, phlox, creeping thyme. A few years ago hyacinths appeared out of nowhere and they seem to be proliferating.  The original daylilies are stalwart and dependable as ever.  The hydrangea and the poppies are dubious and bloom sporadically.  The hollyhocks are a total failure. The shady areas still baffle me; the ivies are anemic and I am the only person I know who can’t grow hostas.

Last spring I took an inventory and ordered more tulips and daffodils to supplement my reds – I wanted orange.  The box showed up in late August for fall planting, at which time I promptly broke my foot and was relegated to the couch for 4-6 weeks.  My plan was to get them in just after Halloween, but when I went to plant them the box was in the recycling, empty.  My husband had come upon them and handed the box to my daughter and told her to plant them, which she did, grudgingly, with little attention to where.  So all winter long I waited to see if and where they would come up.

This week, they emerged – a few here a few there, some in groups, some in rows, some in places where the deer dined on them so I don’t even know for sure which ones they are.  It isn’t the way I would have done it – it is better, creating a haphazard path of blooms up the front walk, starting with my 2001 tulips.  Nothing at all about this whole operation went according to plan but it all seems so right – this is her senior year, and these are her tulips that she planted at the only home she has ever known. Next spring I will cry when they come up and send photos of them to her at college which will delight and exasperate her.

It is only now, as I type, that I recall my own mother hovering over her tulips in our back yard in Saint Louis, and how the entire city seemed to be swimming in them the last time I went to see her in hospice. Saint Louis sees spring much sooner than New England so that visit was, for us, like Dorothy emerging from the back and white of winter to full technicolor spring. It was an intensely sad and joyful time, punctuated by tulips. Every time the deer snack on them I swear I will not plant any more, but I don’t think I can stop. Not now.

The Oracle

I have been reading the letters that inspired – and continue to inspire – LettersHead.  She really was ahead of her time; Mom should have been a blogger.  Her words are inspiring, sweet, maddening, crazy, funny, wise.  The best ones are family updates with a little local history thrown in followed by “I have been reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica on [insert topic here]” with a page or two xeroxed and stapled to the letter.  When I read them now I can understand exactly the way she felt as she sat at the typewriter tapping them out, cigarette burning on the ashtray to the right, Hershey bar half out of the wrapper to the left. We may not be passionate about exactly the same things but in large part we are both driven to do what is right for our families and to express it, explain it and expound on  it early and often.  At least once she signed my name to a Letter to the Editor because she had met her quota for the month.

But a key thing I loved about her was that while on paper should could be relentless, most of the time in person, with the family around, she was such fun.  I so wish she had taken the time to write down the stories she spun after dinner – a little less L’Osservatore Romano and a little more Spy Magazine.  Both she and Dad had such great stories about the early and mid 20th century (their WWII courtship is a novel in itself) and they were good at telling them. I know that most of us (with some very notable exceptions) do not do them justice in the retelling.

I admit there were days when those postage-paid envelopes with the telltale IBM Selectric type address on them stayed on the counter for a bit until I was ready to open them – but I’m glad I did and I’m glad I kept them.

Raising a Cup

Eighteen years ago my mother was here with me, welcoming our first child, a girl.  Mom stood on our deck, smoking cigarettes and commenting on the spectacular display of autumn leaves.  “That,” she said, nodding toward a large, bright red sugar maple, “will be her tree, because it will always be beautiful on her birthday.”  And for 16 years, it was, casting lovely pink  light into her bedroom on sunny autumn mornings.  It is both satisfying and sad to know how much of the world we shared in those heady, confusing days of new parenthood is gone.  I look at it now as the cusp between being a child and becoming a mother, feeling only now, with my girl 18, that the transformation is nearly (though never, I guess) complete.

We are renovating our bathrooms, the last rooms untouched since those weeks she spent here, and it was recalling her blowing smoke out of the downstairs bath window (please don’t smoke in the house, Mom) that prompted me to think of all that has changed since then.  Little by little we have made the place our own, replacing the carpets, the floors, the kitchen, the boiler, the air conditioning, the roof, the deck and many of the trees (the sugar maple fell victim to a spring storm downdraft that sliced it clean in half).  Nursing a broken foot, I am forced to slow down and note the changes to life, inside and out, as I walk gingerly down the street and up the lawn after getting the newspaper, just as she did.

She used to tell a story from that visit, in which she and my husband stood at the kitchen window viewing some small pine trees scattered around the back yard.  They talked about how it would be so nice to have a little row of them lined up outside of that window.  A couple of hours later she came bustling upstairs to my room where I was nursing the baby, to report that my husband had gone out that very moment and moved all the trees to create the row of tiny pines outside the window, where they remain today, almost as tall as the house now.  She couldn’t get over it, “He just went out and DID it!!  Just like that!!”  It was a defining moment for her, and for us, as we have benefitted from – and been dumbstruck by – countless permutations of my husband’s thought-it-up-and-did-it moments.

She did that for me, and for many others, pointing out things in life that we weren’t really noticing but maybe should be.  She wasn’t always right but she made me think, made me BE in my life in a way that is still hard to do without her, eight years after she died.  But she has her ways of appearing, of reminding, of inhabiting the lives of her children and grandchildren.  A day does not go by that I don’t tell a story about her, say something just like her, or wear something that makes me think of her.  I wear her rings, I have her gray hair, I have glasses that are too big for my face,  and I’m pretty sure I am buying her sweaters. So, while the outside looks more and more like Mom, inside I am less lost in her shadow than I have ever been.  Life has thrown us different curves, and we have handled them differently, if with the same kind of determination. 

This week I pulled out a china cup and saucer  for my coffee like the ones she used to use to replace my usual white diner mug, partly to reduce the amount of coffee I drink (which is a Mom story for another time) but also because when I see it from across the kitchen, I can pretend for a second that she is just around the corner – or more likely, in the bathroom (I painted it her favorite color, periwinkle) having a smoke.

Dusting Off the Soapbox

 

I have signed up for another tour of duty advocating for special education in our school district and so am subject to ruminating and ranting about how to do this kind of work without becoming jaded.  It’s probably already too late. 

The local organizations, committees, boards and councils charged with overseeing or advising school districts are made up of people who have consciously chosen to volunteer and advocate on behalf of students and communities.  These are roles people take on outside of their chosen profession; it’s not anyone’s day job (although we could certainly make a cases that it can be a full time job).  In larger towns and cities the lines between volunteer organizations and professional and political organizations are distinct, but when it comes to schools (and churches, for that matter) in smaller communities, those lines become blurred.

My point:  while the volunteer groups are in it (mostly) for the community and the kids, the same cannot be assumed to be true of educators and staff.  Hear me out.  At the outset it seems cynical, but education is a business and the currencies are power and turf – for every fabulous, gifted educator there are a dozen for whom it is a job where they do what they need to do, benefits are good, job security is great and the summers are open.  Being a teacher or a special education provider doesn’t automatically make someone a better person or make them insightful enough to see what is best for each child; not everyone is equally good at their job.  I hasten to add that people who volunteer don’t win the altruism prize automatically, either – they are just as vulnerable to power grabs and turf wars as anyone; for years we had PTA groups who refused to sit in the same room with each other to share fundraising and or even calendar event information.

Parents should recognize that administrators and teachers are under tremendous pressure to perform in a variety of ways, and for some teachers and schools the best way to get your students’  statewide test scores up is to get the children with difficulties assigned to another class or school.  Inclusion is a wonderful idea that takes tremendous work to implement successfully; not everyone is up to the task.

I didn’t come to this view quickly or easily myself – someone in my family, a high school teacher and track coach for over 30 years – clued me in ages ago when my kids started school but it took some time for me to grasp his fuller meaning.  He advised me that, just as in the business world, educators  are (understandably) interested in establishing their place within the educational community and that parents and kids are transients in that world – parents come and go but, especially with unions, colleagues are forever.  Sticking together and resisting certain kinds of change among staff peers is key to survival.  I remembered this when I learned over the summer that teachers in our district were asking that their non-certified colleagues get the ax, regardless of how successful they were with the kids.  I also thought of it during the various search processes where people lobbied to get friends hired or took our staff with them with them to new assignments.  People have a right to pursue their professional goals, but sometimes those goals do not match up to those of the students they serve.

Thus, I think parents who advocate for their children with special needs hobble themselves when we assume that everyone at the table is in it only for the kids – we are constantly having to push people to make child-centered decisions because in many cases they really don’t know what that means and making a child-centered decision often means change – and we know that people are naturally resistant to change even when their intentions are good.  We have seen again and again that some of the people working with our children do not learn quickly or adapt well to new methodologies.  I’m not saying that such educators are not doing their best (though some aren’t); I am just pointing out that they are people who are not inherently more virtuous or altruistic than anyone else, that education is their job, and that parents and volunteer organizations would do well to remember that when they interact with district staff.

 When advocating for children who are having difficulties, parents often feel so vulnerable and exposed by the process of asking for help they fail to see clearly what other people bring to bear on the situation.  Parents are seldom at their best when their children are the topic of a meeting (duh) and this adds to the power imbalance and increases exponentially the possibility of misunderstanding.  Most of the families that come to me at the outset of their interaction with the district tend to exhibit one of two postures:  fierce and demanding, or needy and apologetic.  The demeanor I strive for – and don’t always achieve – is unrelentingly realistic and collaborative.  It requires listening when I don’t feel like it to people I don’t respect, overlooking small slights that are painful for me but that don’t affect my child, arriving with an agenda that has as many bullets praising things that do happen as things that require attention, and advocating for teachers getting what they need so that children get what they need.

 Naturally, it is not fair or realistic to assume that everyone is as invested in a child’s success as the parent, or that they are invested in the same way; indeed I have seen several cases where schools offer help and parents decline services.  In both schools and families there are so many things competing for attention and resources it’s impossible to give every issue, every child the attention they deserve.  The key is to try, and to create and maintain a climate in which that effort is rewarded.

The Autism Beat: Reflections of a Furious Cow

I asked my son to turn off the basement light and as he strode across the room to comply he retorted, “Oh all right, you furious cow!”

“Thank you!” I said, not very politely.  At which point another of my children said, “If I had called you a furious cow, you would have gotten really mad at me.”  I agreed, adding, “But he got that from somewhere else, and on top of that he loves cows – the furious part is the insult, not the cow part.”  Point taken.

Even though I shouldn’t be pleased that the autistic trait of drawing speech from movies and TV is so prevalent in our boy, I have to admit I get a kick out of it.  When he was small, people at the local pool thought he was British because he drew so many of his phrases from the exceedingly polite Kipper cartoons: he would stand next to the diving board and pipe up, “You have a go!”   Considering all the movie lines people throw around these days, it’s really not so undesirable – it’s a useful kind of shorthand.  As he has grown and developed more of his own, original speech, his reliance on scripts appears most often when he is upset and words come less easily. Knowing that the phrases come from somewhere else takes some sting out of the confrontation and allows us all to laugh (most of the time).  After the cow exchange we set about documenting the latest vocabulary of annoyance, and its sources:

  • “Exactly WHEN did you go insane?” – Ice Age
  • “I’m not interested in your excuses!”  – Sir Topham Hatt, Thomas the Tank Engine
  • “You’re a cowardly chicken, you really are.” – Porky Pig
  • “You are shrewd, rude, mean and dangerous.” – Chicken Little
  • “I hate you, rabbit.”  – Yosemite Sam
  • “Foom!!”  – This is the noise made when Sylvester the Cat’s head ignites in frustration.
  • “YOU get out!  This is MY swamp.” – Shrek
  • “Well?  Where’s the REST of me?” – Daffy Duck
  • “I’m going to go to the hospital for a NEW one.” – so old no one remembers, including him
  • “You’re just. . .different.”  Howard Bannister in What’s Up Doc?
  • Murderer” – Scar in the Lion King (complete with Jeremy Irons accent)
  • “You’re a looney duck and a cowardly cat, you really are.” – Porky Pig.
  • “Madam, you WON’T” – Merlin in The Sword and the Stone

and, my all time favorite from What’s Up Doc:  “Who is that dangerously unbalanced woman?!” 

That would be me.

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