Saturday, March 25, 2006


A line from one of my favorite songs says, "There's people been friendly, but they'd never be your friends / Sometimes this has bent me to the ground." As I have watched Peter's heart and mind develop, I have thought a lot about friendship.

Our life has been somewhat isolated, of necessity, since the process of his diagnosis began. It was obvious when he was only a few months old that he hated change far more than most infants do. The daily treks to church and the grocery store and friends' houses, so stimulating and delightful to Mary, were distressing and frightening to Peter. I stopped teaching piano when he was a year old, and as his issues became more clearly evident, I dropped out of more and more activities so that his life could be orderly, calm, and well-defined. He and I became a quiet circle of two in which we spent most of our hours, and while it gave him the environment he required to learn to talk (our first priority after his initial diagnosis), it was often a lonely little world.

It was intriguing to me to see my friendships shift and change over this time, and it was a struggle not to take it personally. This season of my life simply needed to be quieter, and I could not fault people for being too busy to try to understand it. As I retreated, some friends drifted away, shouting over their shoulders, "We should get together some time! Call me!" And I smiled and waved back, "I will!", taking the path of least resistance. That was easier than trying to explain that we could go to lunch, but I would probably spend at least half the time in the lobby, my son wrapped around my body in the protective hold he craved in stressful situations. I have no doubt that my apparent unwillingness to meet people halfway contributed to the increasing isolation, and I have wondered many times what I could have or should have done differently.

But some friends cheerfully ignored my determined unsociability and simply came with me. They would e-mail me, call me, write notes, and when they said "How are you doing?" they would not accept "fine" for an answer. They didn't always know how to encourage me or what to say, but their efforts made more difference than they could ever know.

All of this came to mind again last week when I saw friendship in its simplest form, landing in a giggling pile at my feet. Peter's preschool, part of our city's wonderful special education program for young children, is not a place where I expected him to make friends as I would define the word. Some of the children are wheelchair bound and communicate primarily through gestures and grunts. Most of the children have speech difficulties, and many have problems making social connections as well. With Peter's own challenges in these areas, it was hard for me to imagine anything approaching friendship to result.

I was wrong, and delightfully so. I dropped him off at school one morning, and he was enthusiastically greeted by Christian, who greets everyone enthusiastically. I encouraged Peter to say "hello", and when it became evident that Christian desperately wanted to give Peter a hug, I gave Peter his familiar prompt: "Give him a hug with your arms." To my surprise, he obeyed, and I had barely had time to register the burst of maternal pride before Emma came barrelling down the hall, radiating excitement at the sight of her two little buddies. She hollered, "Hi, Peter!" and threw her arms around both boys, her exuberant embrace knocking all three of them to the ground in a confused, laughing tangle of arms and legs and little blond heads.

Between these three children, there is a list of diagnoses and possible diagnoses as long as your arm. Emma is autistic. Christian didn't talk until he was nearly four. All three have social and speech delays, and those are only the most visible struggles. But whether or not they could articulate it, they figured it out that morning: Friends are good. Say hello to your friends. Even if you fall down, a hug is almost always a good idea.

They say it's the thought that counts, but I don't actually think that's true. Just thinking about being a friend only makes me feel better inside my own head, and only for a moment at that. Even in my temporarily shrunken world, I want to be the kind of friend who says hello. I want to answer letters, to return e-mails, to call and have lunch, even if we have to eat at restaurants where plastic toys reign and the paper napkin may well be the most nutritious item on the menu.

I want to give hugs, even if we all fall down.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

losing things

There are lots of good reasons to have kids, and I think I've just found another one. After over twenty years of losing things and bearing the full responsibility of my carelessness, I can now blame it on my kids.

I was a loser as a kid, and I don't mean it in the "shape of an L on your forehead" way. I lost things. Unbelievable amounts of things, and usually at the worst possible time. If we needed to leave, I had lost my coat. If it was time for school, I had lost my homework. If it was time for my piano lesson (and once, disastrously, for a piano competition), I had lost my music. I lost earrings, glasses, shoes, sweatshirts, school books, backpacks, jackets, and on one memorable occasion in the Seattle Coliseum, myself. And the thing about losing stuff is that you really can't blame it on anyone else, since it is not highly likely that anyone would steal an enormous and fabulously ugly denim jacket with white fuzzy lining. Well, OK, maybe in the eighties they would have, but they probably didn't.

I should have realized, at my high school graduation, that I was destined for greater things than losing trivial items such as socks. (I kept one yellow sock for fifteen years, hoping the mate would eventually show up.) I graduated with an empty diploma folder because I had lost an American History book that I was sure would reappear, genie-like, in time for me to avoid the $28 replacement fee. In college, I lost textbooks, umbrellas, library books, and cold hard cash. After moving into the adult world, I progressed to car keys, birth certificates, college diplomas, day planners, and a car. (I found it, though.) But always, until now, it was entirely and unavoidably my fault.

Yesterday I lost four pieces of French bread. They were not especially small or inconspicuous. They were your standard-issue slices of bread, soft, white, fragrant, and most importantly, inert. I took them out of the bag, intending to make sandwiches for my kids for dinner, and laid them on the counter while I put the rest of the meal together. I did not leave the room. But apparently the bread did. I reached for them, and experienced a moment of stunned silence when it became evident that they were gone, and that no amount of staring at the counter was going to cause them to reappear. I looked in all the usual places -- back in the bag (now inhabited only by a sad, chewy-looking heel of bread), in the refrigerator, in the garbage, on top of the microwave, and on the other counters. I looked in some unusual places as well -- on top of the piano, in the oven, by the CD player, and in the bathroom.

Then I realized that a while earlier, Peter had dragged his little wooden chair into the kitchen to supervise my work, and for a brief moment, I had my back turned. I changed my strategy. I looked in with his train set, the domino box, the toy basket, behind the couch, and among the queasily realistic rubber reptiles he got for Christmas. No luck.

By now it was a matter of principle. I rampaged through the kitchen and family room, lifting up cushions, shoving papers aside, slamming drawers open and shut, flinging open cupboard doors I hadn't opened in days, looking in impossible places because all the possible ones had been used up. I grumbled and groused and sputtered, occasionally punctuating my rumblings with an exasperated outburst, "How can you LOSE a QUARTER of a LOAF of BREAD?"

I never found the bread. I made sandwiches out of something else, served dinner, and ate with my family, still watching for four slices of French bread to pop out, waving and grinning, from behind my water glass. The adrenaline dissipated, but unlike incidents in the past where I would spend the next two hours quietly fuming and muttering to myself, I now had an explanation that brought surprising peace of mind, given that it was almost entirely unreasonable:

"Peter did it!"

Ahhh, relief. I had an answer. It wasn't a good answer, and it wouldn't stand up to any level of scrutiny, but it was an answer and it worked just fine for me. Children are supposed to bring joy to their mothers' hearts, and this child just had, whether he knew it or not.

Now if he'll just tell me where he put my 2001 tax return ...

Friday, March 17, 2006

looking back, looking forward

"You really ought to get this stuff published."

I've been hearing that for years now, starting with the Tiny Baby updates. Those were the immediate fruits of the conversation with my mother in which I became urgently aware that twenty years was far too long to wait to see the humor in the mess and noise of life with a highly verbal toddler. I was struck with a merciless case of morning sickness during my pregnancy with Peter ("morning" meaning "from just before waking until just after falling asleep" and "sickness" being defined as "it would make you nauseous if I told you"). During those four months I read a lot, rested a lot, and wrote a lot. The updates began as a weekly e-mail to five members of my immediate family, and were little more than a progress report on the unborn baby's development and a short, usually humorous anecdote about Mary. By the time Tiny Baby made his grand entrance (proving to be misnamed by at least two pounds), the mailing list had grown to over forty friends and family members.

I had intended to continue writing the updates every week, and then life intervened. It turned out that my sense of humor was somewhat compromised on four hours of sleep a night, so the Mary anecdotes were much shorter on giggles. Also, the reports on Peter's growth would made less than gripping reading: "He ate, he pooped, he ate again, he slept. He ate, he pooped, he ate again, he slept." They drifted to monthly reports, then bimonthly, and I think they're on a centennial schedule now.

I quit writing for a while, and then got involved with an online parenting group. Many forums of this nature involve short posts, a revolving door of members, and frequent nasty arguments about aspects of conception, birth, and childrearing that I hadn't even known existed before I discovered the Internet. (Ahh, the wonders of modern technology. You can argue about ovaries with people you don't even know!) At first ours was no exception, and then after a series of changes to our forum, we moved en masse to a new, closed site that allowed for more open conversation. The discussions grew more serious (and the humor more riotous), the posts got longer, and some of mine veered closer and closer to essays. We started a journal page within our forum, and while I was only an occasional contributor, the enthusiastic response of my online friends planted a seed in my mind. We hadn't met in person, but they still liked it, so maybe someone else would too? Interesting thought.

Not long after, our church began a newsletter. Our pastor takes the delightful position with new ministries that if we don't have it and you think we should, maybe you're the one to start it. It has been a good policy, and when a retired journalism professor thought we needed a newsletter, he gave her the freedom to nurture her idea and let it grow. She asked me for something about my kids, and "Elephants" (see the January archives of this blog) was the result.

I kept writing essays, and finally I summoned up the nerve to e-mail one of the few that was not about my children to a former college professor and current friend for his professional opinion. He read it, gave me some polite suggestions for making it more interesting and less rhapsodic, and diplomatically reminded me of one of the key rules of the craft: "Write what you know." The next one I sent him was "Somebody Else's Kid", and the highlight of his succinct response was this: "It knocked me out of my shoes." This was high praise indeed, and the idea of seeing it in print took on new life -- this one might actually make a difference to another mother who was walking my path, thinking (like so many of us) that she was alone.

By now, the idea of getting an essay published had progressed beyond a silly idea, something someone would only say as a means of complimenting my work. But the actual process of it escaped me. After a few brain-picking sessions with a friend who has more work published than I have actually written in the first place, I decided that it was time to get moving. It was nice to imagine that the editors of Parent magazine would happen across my blog and send me large sums of money to tempt me to submit my work to them, but it really wasn't very likely.

So next week it begins. Editing, printing out, putting in envelopes, and waiting for rejection letters. That's not being pessimistic, either, as it turns out -- my goal is to get something published before I've had 100 rejection letters, and that may actually be on the optimistic side of reality.

I'll let you know!

Friday, March 10, 2006

It's Just Stuff.

The older I get, the more I find myself quoting my mom. Sometimes it's accidental, where I hear her words coming out of my mouth before I have time to rephrase them: "That! Is! E! NOUGH!" Other times I don't realize that I've done it until I have the eerie experience of hearing my mother's inflections falling from my daughter's lips: "Peter, if I have to tell you that one more time..."

This time, though, I'm doing it on purpose: "It's just stuff."

My mom used to say that a lot when things broke or got lost, and it is an attitude that I appreciate and admire much more now that I have my own children. One of my stronger regrets about my teen years is the sight of my mother's tears as she swept up the remains of a cherished teacup. She had been holding it in her hands on top of something else in a grasp that was a little precarious, but nothing irresponsible for an adult taking a stack of stuff from one room to another. She paused in the doorway of the kitchen when I blocked her path, enthusiastically telling her an irrelevant story about a friend, probably for the third or fourth time. She shifted her grip on the teacup and it fell, obviously irreparable as soon as it hit the floor. Fifteen years later I can still hear her voice, fuzzy from recent tears, as she knelt over the shards with a brush and dustpan: "It's just stuff, honey. It's just stuff."

It meant that while some things were irreplacable, nothing was so important that it should be held onto more tightly than people. All of it would someday be broken or burnt or decayed, and the eternal perspective was what mattered. In the meantime, it was a good philosophy for living with a child who seemed to leave more than her share of broken glass in her wake.

I have had to remind myself of this good advice several times this week, sometimes through clenched teeth with a face red from the effort of not packing my son into a crate (with air holes, don't worry) and mailing him to my sister in California. The following is a partial list of the affected "stuff" in my house in the last seven days:

1 bottle lavender hand lotion
1 bottle lavender hand soap
1/2 spray bottle of OxyClean stain remover
4 bottles of nail polish
1 bottle nail polish remover
1 bottle hair gel
1 bathroom sink
about $30 in loose change
4 chocolate cookies
8 peanut butter cookies
1 Portabella mushroom
2 steak knives (not very sharp, fortunately)
1 Power Bar (Peanut Butter flavor)
1 Clif Bar (Chocolate Almond Fudge flavor)
1/2 banana
1 spool of thread
3 board games
1 child-size root beer from McDonald's
3 trial-size tubes of toothpaste
2 tubes Baby Orajel teething gel
1 tube insect bite itch relief cream
1 glass of water
1 small wooden chair
4 decorative pillows
1 large salt-shaker
1 pair of kitchen scissors
1 couch

I'd give you the details, but they're not funny yet, so I'll just leave you with the list. Peter is fast, he is quiet, he is ingenious, and he knows how to wait for the opportunity and then move immediately and disappear completely once his mission is finished. Come to think of it, he'd probably make a great Green Beret.

Until he's in basic training, though, I'll clean up the mess, love my son, and keep telling myself:

It's just stuff ... it's just stuff.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

one of those amazing moms

"Who's the gal with the little boy in the yellow shirt? I don't think I've met her."

"Oh, that's Jenny, she's one of those amazing moms. Her little guy is blind [deaf/autistic/brain-damaged/has cerebral palsy/leukemia/Down's Syndrome] and she is just so great with him. She takes him to his therapy and classes almost every day, and I know he has extra stuff they have to do at home to help him. She just has the sweetest spirit about her. I'm serious, I don't think I've ever heard her complain about it, and you can tell she just loves him so much.

"I could never do what she does."

I've heard this, in one form or another, countless times in my adult years. I've probably even said some version of it a time or two. You know the women I mean, the ones who continue to smile and encourage all the people who come through their orbit, shedding light and grace that seems to glow from within. The child in their arms or in the wheelchair or clinging to their hand only serves to accentuate the mother's maturity and joyful spirit. And they are amazing.

Yesterday I signed the consent forms so that my 3-year-old son could be assessed for autism. On some level, I knew it was coming. I've done enough research about his particular set of challenges that I knew autism was frequently the eventual diagnosis with kids like him. The Big Bad A-Word had been tossed around since the first evaluation when he was barely two, and it has always skulked in the corners of the conversations with his teachers and speech therapists. His teacher had seen the red flags and asked me for permission to go ahead with it, and I immediately agreed. Even if I hadn't suspected it myself, I trust her judgment and experience completely.

It was the right thing to do. I signed the papers, had the obligatory conversation with the teacher in which I smilingly answered that of course he could have the assessment and it would be all for the best, said good-bye to my little buddy, and closed the classroom door behind me. Then I cried for the next hour.

So here's my question: When do I get to be amazing?

These women appear to have been amazing from day one -- you know they must have bad days and times when they mourn the loss of what could have been, but you never see it. How did they get that way? Were they amazing already and that's why they were "blessed" with a "special" child? (Note to self: Never again use the words "blessed" and "special" with the parent of a disabled child.) Maybe they've been amazing since birth and it just happened to work out that way, no advance planning on anybody's part, just good luck.

Maybe it was in their prenatal vitamins -- dang it, I knew I shouldn't have gotten the generic brand. Or maybe when they had the ultrasound that told them their baby's spine was fused together, the technician hit an extra button that gave the moms a blast of particles that reconfigured their DNA and made them amazing. Or no, maybe it was in the epidural! (See, my friends were right, natural childbirth was a crazy idea.) Maybe some moms get a super-duper extra-special cocktail of drugs during delivery, and in addition to the pain medication, they get a dose of amazing injected right into their bloodstream.

I think it's actually more likely that they become amazing, though. It's the day-in and day-out of caring for a child with extra needs that builds up their tolerance for pain and exhaustion and vomit and crying, and after a while, things like petty arguments and the price of gas fade in importance. I suspect that the constant erosion of expectations and hopes and dreams eventually results in a visible bedrock of grace.

Do all the moms get it, though, or just the ones with really sick kids? What about me? I'm not amazing now. I'm tired and cranky and a little sleep-deprived. I eat too much chocolate, and I've been known to wake up with a minor headache that reminds me not to drink two screwdrivers after dinner. I read too many John Grisham novels when I should be doing laundry, and my kitchen floor is sticky a lot of the time. I get impatient with my kids. I tell them they have to go to bed, and then I get talked into fifteen more minutes. I'm not a bad mom, but I'm definitely not amazing.

When do I find out? Do you get a notification in the mail, or perhaps a light from above, letting you know that from now on, you're amazing? Can you apply for it? Is there a line to stand in? Does it help to have connections?

Oh. That's it, isn't it. It does help to have connections. But not those connections, not the kind on TV where if you know the right people you can do anything. It's the connections with my husband, my parents, my sister, my in-laws, my dearest friends. It's the support and wise advice of my beloved online mommy group, and the somewhat weirder collection of friends on my other online forums who make me laugh when I need it most. It's Peter's teacher and the incredible group of women who assist her, who remember his name and his likes and dislikes, and help him be everything he can become. It's the other moms in his class, the ones who also held a baby who wouldn't look into their eyes, who also set aside one more dream every few months. These are the ones who will hold me up and remind me that there are new dreams and new hopes to be found.

The truth is, though, I don't want to be amazing. I just want to be a normal mom, with a normal kid. And if saying that disqualifies me from being amazing, I guess I'm OK with that. I think I'd rather be real than amazing.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


I never liked surprises as a kid. I enjoyed the anticipation of the event too much. Like many children, I made the construction paper chain where you counted down the days to Christmas, but mine was twice as long as normal and it started with orange and brown instead of red and green, to indicate how many days were left until Thanksgiving. I didn't want to know what my presents were in advance, but I loved seeing them ahead of time, shaking and prodding and sniffing them just for the hint of what was coming.

It seemed like the sort of thing I might outgrow, but it wasn't. It is a standing joke between my husband and me that he had to make an appointment with me to get engaged. Of course, when he tells the story, I always have to defend myself by explaining that he did choose to propose on the last Friday before finals week my senior year of college, which also happened to be the opening night of the Christmas choir extravaganza for which we'd been rehearsing for months. It was a busy day, and I was so afraid of losing the really important event in the shuffle that I gladly sacrificed the traditional element of surprise, to his initial irritation and (fortunately) eventual amusement.

Thank goodness for ultrasounds -- I still didn't like surprises when I was pregnant with Mary. Since I am slow to get on board with most new technologies, I wanted to do it the old-fashioned way and find out the gender in the delivery room. But when it came down to it, I decided to find out what we were having so I could be prepared, as much as one can be for the total joyous disruption of one's life. Getting to know her would be surprise enough for me.

Mary quickly made it clear that parenting meant being surprised day in and day out. If I didn't get used to it pretty soon, I was going to go crazy in short order. I had expected a calm, easygoing child who learned to read early and spent most of her childhood immersed in a book, just like her parents. (Anyone who knows Mary personally is probably already laughing.) Suffice it to say that Mary's personal theme song is "Wild Thing", she has proved herself capable of talking for three and a half hours without stopping, and her favorite time to practice her spelling words is while she's jumping on the couch. She is exuberant and loud and energetic, and her room is an explosion of color -- ribbons, beads, paper, and bright scraps of fabric decorate every available surface.

Mary was not what I expected.

Peter brought his own set of surprises. What he lacks in his verbal skills is balanced by a cleverness that never ceases to amaze (and occasionally appall) me. Before his second birthday, he was able to open a closed door, turn on the water in the bath tub, and pull the lever to activate the shower. At two, he moved a chair into the kitchen, climbed onto a counter, opened a cupboard, and helped himself to several chewable children's vitamins. Last month I caught him retrieving a banned toy from the top of the refrigerator via an ingenious application of couch cushions. And last week, he gained access to a coveted board game by simultaneously releasing two childproof locks on the kitchen utility drawer, removing a carpenter's tape measure, extending it, and using the metal tip to manipulate the hook-and-eye lock on the upstairs closet containing the game.

Peter was not what I expected either.

I didn't expect this much noise, this much mess, this many hours of unintelligible conversation. I didn't expect it to be so expensive or so exhausting, and I certainly never expected that there would be days I was tempted to see what the going rate for a three-year-old was on eBay. (Kidding. Don't worry.) I didn't expect to go to the emergency room so many times, or to know the number for Poison Control by heart, and I never could have imagined the nearly miraculous proliferation of small plastic toys in dark corners of the family room.

I also didn't expect the internal burst of joy at my daughter's first clumsy crayon drawing that included her baby brother. (He had no legs and was mostly head, but at least he was there.) I never could have anticipated the day she and I got a serious case of the giggles in the middle of a very proper restaurant, sounding more than a little like my sister and I did twenty years ago. I couldn't have imagined how I'd go completely still with surprise when my son, who had to be painstakingly taught all forms of affectionate touch, climbed onto the back of my office chair and began to gently stroke my hair, patting and smoothing and caressing in a way that I had not thought him capable of.

I still don't like surprises. I'd rather know what's coming, put it on my calendar, and gleefully count down the days. But I've realized that on the meandering path of mothering with all its secret bends and hidden marvels, many of the best things can't be predicted, and they wouldn't fit on my calendar anyway.

I am learning, albeit slowly, to delight in the unexpected.