Monthly Archives: February 2012

Handle With Care

I have this problem. I can’t stop myself from getting rid of things. I am the queen of throwing things away. Or giving them away. I see an abundance of stuff as an invitation to sort it and get rid of anything that isn’t serving a vital purpose. I guess this can be a positive thing–like when I am inspired to clean out my closets and toss things which don’t seem at all useful to me anymore. I can really get on a roll when the spirit of decluttering seizes me. Sometimes I may go too far. There has been the rare occasion when, a month or two after getting rid of something that was simply taking up space, I think of a scenario where it might have proved useful. In my defense though, it hasn’t happened all that often!

I used to enjoy watching a show (was it called Clean House?) which featured homeowners who were prone to clutter and disorganization. During the course of the 30-minute show, they learned how to systematically go through a room in order to clean it up and make it pretty. The dude on the show who talked the people through the process of letting go and clearing out almost took on the role of therapist or behavioral psychologist. Some of the homeowners would get really weepy or angry or belligerent as he compelled them to sort and prioritize their belongings. The guy–I’m pretty sure his name was Peter–had a charming Australian accent and a really soothing way of helping people assess what things in their homes were really worth keeping. He compelled the people to explain WHY the objects they couldn’t part with were important, or more importantly admit that holding onto things isn’t always necessary in order to hold on to the memories we associate with them. Peter taught them to keep only things which were a) useful, b) beautiful, or c) sentimental. His caveat about keeping sentimental things was to skim a handful of meaningful things off the top of one’s piles of memories, and keep them in a way that is decorative. He encouraged people to showcase their few, best momentos in a shadow box, a picture frame, or some other mode of display.

My mom is a natural at this sort of thing. She has an innate gift for rescuing old, antique, forgotten items from the ruinous clutches of time and neglect. She finds creative ways of preserving these artifacts so that they can remain as meaningful possessions which tell our family’s history. She has framed everything from my great-grandpa’s pince nez (old timey clip-on glasses) to the bowler missionary hat worn by my great-great-great grandpa years ago in the deep South. She has rescued gloriously colorful vintage quilt blocks from my grandmother’s house and fashioned them into quilts for my sisters and me. Whether its an old cracked, leather bound family Bible, or a stack of yellowing postcards mailed one hundred years ago, she distributes them among family members and keeps us connected to our ancestors.

She likes to keep the things that tell a story. Years ago as she was cleaning out my grandparents’ house when they had both passed away, she got to the end of emptying a closet, even climbing on a chair and reaching a hand into the dark recesses of the deep shelf to check for missed items. When my mom prepared to move on to the next project, she heard my Grandma Lila’s voice say “look again.” So this time, armed with a yard stick, she looked again. This time the stick in her hand pushed against the bulk of one of my grandma’s handmade quilts. It is beautiful, useful, and most certainly tells a story, that quilt.

My impatience with superfluous things probably stems from the unique family dynamic which shapes our home life. At my house, things present one son with innumerable opportunities for manipulating, disassembling, or shredding. Jack likes to drag things rapidly through the house to watch them bounce along the floor behind him. He likes to throw things, simply to see what kind of marvelous crash they might make upon landing. He enjoys crinkling things close to his ears, or taking them in the bath and drowning them. While he likes things; he also loves them to death. Things of value tend to be closely guarded and usually are literally kept under lock and key. Anything else is pretty much fair game for the boy who loves to pack it around, beat it up a fair bit, and then abandon it someplace random, like in Mom’s shower or in the frozen backyard. It’s just the way he rolls, and we can’t fault him for manipulating things in the only way he knows or finds intriguing.

While I can’t say that I always like finding photographs ripped into dozens of bits under said boy’s bed, or finding a newly-purchased item ripped from it’s packaging and strewn across the baby’s room, I will say that Jack has taught me that things don’t matter as much as people do. And from my mom, I’m learning that things do matter, because they connect us to people–especially beloved family members who have gone before. Between the coaching I’m getting from these two, I think I’ll probably find a happy medium.

Based on Actual Events

I’m currently reading 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place. I was completely fascinated by the movie which was based on the book, which was written by Aron Ralston about his now infamous experience in the Canyonlands area of southern Utah in April 2003. When I have shared my love for the Oscar-nominated film (for best actor AND best picture last year, seriously folks!) several people reacted with a nausea-tinged “I’ll pass on that one,” simply because of the gross-out potential of a climactic and seminal scene of the movie.

That moment, which many folks balked at viewing because of the horror and nastiness of it, turned out to be completely inspiring to me. I won’t summarize the whole book here, but as pretty much everyone knows, Aron Ralston cut off his right arm to free himself from a boulder where he had been crushed and pinned for five days in the desert. What he did IS terrifying and unthinkable. But the fact that he did it resonates with me at a very basic level. His story feels like a metaphor for my own keen challenges.

I love that the movie and the book take you intimately into the experience, where you see the desperation and difficulty and lack of options. One can immediately discern, like Aron did, that the only possible escapes from his predicament were these: being found and rescued by other hikers, chipping away at the rock by himself until he could move it, or cutting off his arm to free himself. After five days of trying to free himself and simultaneously hoping to be discovered and rescued, he realizes that if he doesn’t act, he will assuredly die.

I’m inspired by the courage he exibited in realizing that he could only depend on himself for rescue. It’s a valid lesson applicable to pretty much everyone: most of the time in the midst of challenges, we have to come to our own rescue. Waiting to be saved from adverse situations isn’t going to get us very far from where we are. I feel that God has given me “challenging opportunities,” or difficult situations which are ripe with refining and instructive lessons about how to become a better person. L. Tom Perry has said, “It is seldom that the Lord will do something for us that we can do for ourselves,” which to me does not mean that God takes a totally hands-off approach when we are suffering. Rather, I believe it means God expects us to accept reality and make our own luck–much as Aron Ralston did–all while we benefit from the myriad blessings we receive from God, which ultimately help us to help ourselves.

In 127 Hours, Aron has vivid dreams where he is visited by family members and his best friend. These dreams offer him moments of peace and respite from his ordeal. He finds beauty and comfort in the brief slice of warm sunlight which traverses the canyon where he is trapped, even if it is for only a few minutes a day. He explains that a moment of divine intervention whispers to him to use the rock and torque his arm against it, in order to break the bones in his forearm. He describes a vision in which he sees himself interacting with his son who will not be born for several years. These vision compel him to start amputating his arm after so many days of dehydration. As he begins the process, Aron writes that a force outside himself takes over and it is as though he is on auto-pilot, watching himself sever his own arm.

I like this story of survival and resilience because I’ve also been the recipient of innumerable, helpful blessings which do not remove me from my challenges, but which give me the strength to engage with them and move forward. They are people and insights and bits of inspiration which turn out to be gifts which propel me forward. I’m finding it’s less about escaping the challenge and more about realizing that the trick is to acknowledge from whence the tender mercies originate. I just love me a good story about triumph over adversity and the ways God intervenes to help. Just like in 127 Hours, for me it’s a true story.

Holiday Road

Every once in a blue moon, my family attempts to do something normal, like take a weekend trip to the family cabin. It never, ever works out very well. Despite our best efforts, the unique (and I daresay difficult) dynamics of our family manage to somehow torpedo the fun getaway that we always hope for. There just is no “getting away” from some things.

For Jack, a few days out of his structured routines is pretty tortuous, and not really his idea of a good time. For Jeff and I, leaving behind the organization of our Jack-proof home and the supportive people who help us manage our way through each weekend is really the opposite of a vacation. Jack struggles to eat, sleep, relieve himself, and settle down when we go away–even to a place like the cabin that he has been visiting his entire life. I think he enjoys some aspects of a trip: stopping at McDonald’s en route, admiring Grandpa’s electric trains, and going for rides on the atv. But for the other ninety-seven percent of the trip, it’s a struggle to calm him down and help him cope. One of us is constantly on Jack-duty, while the other takes care of the rest of the boys, helps with meal-prep and clean-up, and tries to hang out with the other extended family members at the cabin.

My father-in-law always says that there is no such thing as a vacation when one brings one’s young children along. It is, rather, a trip. I agree with this assessment and I would also add that our “trips” which involve a person with intense special needs are essentially a journey to the dark side of my mental health. Why do we attempt it in the first place, you might be asking yourself? We attempt it because our other children want to go, and our family members encourage us to go, and we ourselves would like to see that elusive peaceful getaway actually happen. Hope springs eternal, you know.

I feel like I should create one of those posters circulating all over Facebook regarding different occupations, which feature a pair of photo triptychs with subtitles like “what my mom thinks I do,” “what I think I do,” and “what I actually do.” Mine would have a picture of my family laughing and strolling happily through the lovely outdoor setting that is the cabin; next to it the “reality photo” would feature Jack, amped on sugar and little rest, shredding some of the household decor or maybe leaving a deuce in an unoccupied corner of the house.

After a wearying and unsuccessful cabin trip last July, we have stayed away for months. We miss that beautiful place, but we are not superhumans. We can only expect so much from ourselves and our brood. This weekend, we decided to split the family into two factions in order to meet the needs of each kid. Jeff stayed home with Jack while I took the other three to the cabin. Did it work? Yes, I guess. Jack had a lovely weekend one-on-one with Jeff. Jacky just loves it when we all leave and he has one parent all to himself, as well as the run of the house. It kind of makes me sad that he enjoys having us all clear out, but Jeff pointed out that it’s kind of a little vacation from the norm for Jack, but all happily within the familiar confines of home. There were also several poo mishaps which weren’t a big deal at home, but which would have caused havoc had they happened at the cabin.

The other three boys were really very good. Aside from some issues with sleeping in a new place which resulted in a sleep-deprived zombie mom (what else is new), the trip was pleasant. I’m glad the boys could spend time with their cousins and their grandparents. I’m happy that I got to spend some time visiting with my siblings and that I could enjoy the quiet, wintery beauty of a fresh snowfall in the mountains. But I still feel disappointed that we couldn’t all be together this weekend. I wonder if the iconic family vacation will always evade our grasp.

My support group friends understand that it’s not wise to look too far into the future and wonder about what things will be like next summer, or next year, or in ten years. It can be extremely depressing to envision the very real possibilities. But I sometimes slip into the unproductive trap of wondering if the classically rendered “family vacation,” wherein all family members go along and a good time is had by all, is a pipe dream for us. Who knows? Zombie Mom will have to get to the bottom of it later though, because all boys are now sleeping.

I Heart Simplicity

Yesterday afternoon as Charlie and I sifted through the Valentines he brought home from preschool, it was plain to see that there are two schools of thought behind the organization and execution of mom-directed Valentine-giving among those in early childhood. There is the handcrafted, clever, and uniquely adorable variety–perhaps inspired by Pinterest or purchased on Etsy. And then there is the canned and generic “buy a box of Cars-themed Valentines while grocery shopping and slap a tootsie pop on it” kind. Can you guess which sort my son took to school? I am unabashedly not ashamed to own the fact that my three-year-old went with Cars.

I really enjoyed looking at the sweetly, beautifully handmade cards laced with a chic presentation of candies. It was kind of like a mini session of browsing online pin boards for uber-adorable Valentine ideas. And they were right in front of me, already created. And Charlie and I were mining them for their attractive cache of candy. At lunchtime.

I also really enjoyed looking at the Cars-type cards. There were a bunch, all delightfully adorned with taped-on pink tootsie pops. Was I embarrassed to see these identical cards with identical treats, presented in such a pedestrian way? No, my friends, I was anything but embarrassed. I felt, rather, a satisfying sense of solidarity with the moms who sent Valentines like ours. “That’s right, people,” our kids’ Valentine offerings seemed to declare, “We went with pre-fab Cars and a taped on tootsie pop. Deal with it.”

Lest you think I am trashing the moms who made the super cute offerings, let me state that just a few years back, I was one of them. I remember packing my baby and toddler tots off to my favorite scrapbook store to purchase stamps, paper, and all the supplies necessary to create ladybug Valentines for a preschool party. It was exciting for me to envision the finished product, and fun for me to engage in a few hours of stamping, cutting, and ribbon-tying in order to make it happen. Back then, I enjoyed it.

Now, eight-ish years after the ladybug cards, life has intervened. If I have a few hours to fill, I desire these things, in no particular order: a nap, a trip to the movies, a meal eaten somewhere else and prepared by someone else, a book, dark chocolate, a Netflix fix, a walk, and/or some uninterupted conversation. It’s not that I don’t appreciate crafting or see the value in it for other people. It’s simply that it’s no longer fun for this gal. It’s work, and I have plenty of that already.

I love that I have friends who have the gift for making beautiful, handmade things. I like that they enjoy creating and that their creations make the world a little prettier. I really do get a charge out of admiring the fruits of their craftiness. But I also like that I am not crafty anymore, and I know it.

I still create things. But now it may be more along the lines of a dinner which successfully feeds my morbidly picky eaters. Or an evening when Jack’s poo-palooza goes no farther than a three-minute smearing of the bedsheets (the easiest smear to remedy, as Jeff and I both know). I’m proud of the calm demeanor I created and doggedly maintained this week when Jack sassily lobbed a Lightning McQueen across the room, knocking my Paris plates off their perch and into a shattered pile on the floor.

Anyway, Cars IS on my three-year-old’s list of top five most-repeated movies. And to be perfectly frank, some members of my family like tootsie pops so much that they request that two of them be packed for their lunch–with nothing else. (Just because he asked, it doesn’t mean that is what he got). Basically, we just went with it, tootsie pop-style this Valentine’s Day. It’s how we roll.

Getting Schooled in Our Town

Today is Jack’s first day at a new school. After a few months of steadily worsening behavior problems, Jeff and I, along with the rest of Jack’s IEP team, decided to move him to a different placement. It’s a newly-created class with a newly-minted teacher at a newly-built school which is close to our house. Jack and I toured the facilities yesterday afternoon. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the teacher in the room next door is one of Jack’s former preschool teachers back from when he was little and chubby and had those unruly red curls. This teacher, who was a quiet, gentle, and persistent force for good in Jack’s preschool education, embraced him yesterday. She spoke to him the way she always has–like he is just as smart as the rest of us and understands exactly what we are saying, even if he can’t articulate a response. Jack, who was quite smiley and making his happy sounds, was unequivocally pleased at this unexpected reunion with a special teacher who “gets” him and who also has a room full of cool toys.

I have a feeling there were probably some gleeful moments this morning when Jack had his first foray into the totally amazing sensory motor room at the school. Yesterday it was locked for the evening and we only got to peek inside the darkened room at the swings, therapy balls, heated water bed, tunnels, and other implements crucial to someone as sensory-seeking as Jack is. The building itself is great. The staff appears to be, as well. As I wait for Jack’s new bus to bring him home, I’m hopeful that this change will be positive and the transition itself uneventful.

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Okay, Jack is home now and I feel like hugging his new teacher. Her daily note home included specific, happy details, such as, “Jack loved starting the morning in the sensory motor room,” and “Jack enjoyed riding the three-wheeled bike in adaptive PE, and was really good at it.” Her note was like peeking in a classroom window and seeing the things that Jack can’t tell me about when he comes home in the afternoon. As all my mom friends with special kids know, having a special ed teacher who values her students’ families and communicates meaningfully with them is priceless.

I am not kidding when I say that I give prayerful thanks every day for the good teachers that my boys have. Between a charter school for H, an evolving special ed placement for Jacky, and a nurturing home-based preschool for Chachi, my boys are all over the map and perfectly situated for their varied needs. I’ve seen time and again that our family has lucked into some of the most wonderful classes with some of the most fabulous teachers. I consider this most invaluable help from caring, professional sources a tremendous gift that my family has been given. We would be completely snowed without their help.

Chach and I took a Kindermusik class together in our neighborhood last summer. During one class, the pre-instrument-banging banter turned to which schools our older children attended. When I explained that my second son attends a different school every year, depending on where his specialized autism-specific program is located, one young mom looked horrified and exclaimed, “I would hate that–all that moving around. It sounds awful!” But what she didn’t understand is that I’m totally NOT inconvenienced by Jack’s ever-changing school placements. I’m super grateful that they exist, and in such abundance.

We live in a newer, sort of outlying community which has seen its share of growing pains in the early years, like, for instance, a string of rogue mayors. Seriously, thumbs down. But those crazy-types fortunately are not representative of my terrific neighbors. Despite growing like gangbusters, our town still holds onto a really lovely small town feeling. The sense of community here is pretty Mayberry-like. A few years back, when it was just beginning to see growth with a few businesses, my sister and I walked through my neighborhood on a summer evening. Kate, known for her truthful and sometimes hilarious observations, took it all in and remarked, “This place reminds me of a child’s play set. It’s like, ‘Here’s the park. There’s the church. This is the gas station and the Chinese restaurant. And these are all the houses.'” She totally nailed the description.

But while it isn’t hip or urban, or old or storied, I really love where I live. I love it for my lovable neighbors, for my children’s great schools, for the beautiful views in every direction, and for the feeling that people generally care. I love that one Saturday every December, Santa Claus sits atop a blaring fire engine, waving and tossing candy to kids on every street in the city while kids and parents emerge in their pj’s to smile and wave back. I love that the only time you ever really hear police sirens are when the city is officially welcoming home a citizen returning from deployment. I love that the beautiful mountain landscape is an inseparable part of this place. It’s nice here. It may not be Grover’s Corners. But it is our town.

P.S. Thanks for not mentioning the name of my town in the comment section of this public blog, friends 😉

Baby Steps

I met with the child psychiatrist last week. He had some good insights into Jack’s recent behavior slide, as well as Charlie’s overall meltdown response to becoming a big brother. I like the approaches we talked about for addressing Jack’s current stumbling blocks. They aren’t revolutionary, but they are reasonable and not impossible for this weary parent to attempt. Overall, I left feeling validated. The underlying cause of the difficult behaviors is traceable to the baby’s entrance into the world and into our family. It isn’t baby’s fault. He just inadvertently tipped the precariously balanced scales of functional family life. And though he is one of the easiest, calmest, gentlest, and sweetest babies I’ve ever encountered, Truman had a dramatic start to life.

For reasons no one can discern, he was born six weeks before my due date after my fluids ruptured one November morning at 4:00 AM. Minutes after birth, he was in respiratory distress serious enough to require numerous interventions, including an ambulance transport to a larger hospital where a well-equipped NICU awaited. Our baby received excellent care in his twenty-five days at the hospital. The nurses, doctors, OT, and lactation staff embodied supportive, compassionate, well-informed care. Our neighbors, friends, and family members performed countless acts of helpful kindness. Looking back on that very surreal experience, it is easy for me to see that in the midst of a traumatic time, we were carried through it with a great many blessings. It felt like God held me in the palm of His hand and gently set me down the day our baby came home.

But when he came home, the real challenges began for boys #2 and #3. Suffice it to say that while I was thrilled to have my whole family living at the same address, two little boys were struggling to reconcile themselves to a new family member and a new family dynamic. It has been crazy ever since. Now with baby recently turning three months old, I am beginning to feel that we are incrementally climbing out of the mucky trench which we’ve been wading through for weeks, and at moments I sense more calm and less crazy.

Progress happens in baby steps. Like today, for instance, when Jeff and I tag-teamed teaching Sunday school and handling a Code Brown, with introducing Charlie to his Sunbeam class at church for the first time. He attended one hour and in that time, only climbed onto my lap once and generally seemed to enjoy himself. It felt like a victory to me. I like seeing the aura of contrariness dissipate from my sunny three-year-old. It also happened when Jack did his biz in the potty tonight twice(!) and earned himself two ringpops. My BIL Joe asked me if the two potty poops cancel out the disaster this morning. Sort of, I guess. It’s kind of a one-step-backward/two-steps-forward thing. But I’ll take it.

Man About Town

Jack got lost at school yesterday. The principal called me around 12:30 and started the conversation with “everything is okay now,” which always makes me wonder. He proceeded to tell me that while Jack was outside on the playground with two aides and some other students, there were two simultaneous distractions, which resulted in one aide going back into the school with a student and the other aide falling and hitting her head. Somewhere in the midst of the chaos, Jack left the playground through the gate, walked around the school, crossed the length of the school and the parking lot, and went the front door of a nearby house. The woman inside heard something and opened the door to find Jack, who ran into her house and (in typical carpe diem Jack-fashion) began playing with her children’s toys and watching TV. This mother, to whom I will always be grateful, must have figured out pretty quickly that Jack wasn’t going to answer any of her questions, so she called the school to let them know they had a runaway. No one at the school even knew he was missing until this call came in, because both of the classroom aides though that Jack was with the other aide. So the principal and Jack’s teacher, who was having lunch, went to the house and brought Jack back to school, before calling me.

For the past two days, I have vacillated between feeling sick about the situation, and feeling gratitude that it turned out the way that it did. I can’t really blame the teachers for what happened. Jack has been known to slip out the back gate or the garage door when our backs are turned, and return a few minutes later with a neighbor, whose bell he rang and whose vacuum he quickly located upon darting into their home. It’s happened to me, so I know how quickly it can happen. I have always felt very lucky to live in a neighborhood filled with really nice people. Some of our neighbors we know better than others, but they generally all know Jack and watch out for him and treat him with kindness and generosity. Jack is so innocent and childlike. His escapes aren’t planned or premeditated–they are simply crimes of opportunity. And in his moments of unsupervised freedom, I’m so grateful to the kind-hearted, good people who care for Jack.

We don’t often take Jack to the grocery store with us, ever since an event took place at the local big box store which we refer to as The Day the **** Hit the Floor, as that is indeed exactly what happened. I don’t like to relive it by talking about it. I’m pretty sure that I have PTSD in some form based on my mental, emotional, and physical response to the mere mention of the Day. I’m not even going to go there. Just picture your worst nightmare with a mentally disabled person happening in the middle of a crowded store, and that was exactly what we experienced. Anyway, because of said Day, Jack usually doesn’t go to the store with us. But many months after the Day, we again attempted a family shopping outing with Jack.

This time the most delightful thing happened. We happened upon several neighbors at the store who immediately came over and greeted Jack (not us) and told him what a great kid he is and how glad they were to see him. Jeff remarked at the end of this outing, “Jack, you are quite the man about town!” The same thing happens at the Chevron near our house. All of the cashiers are acquainted with Jack because he and a therapist practice appropriate social behaviors by paying a daily visit where Jack can choose a snack and wait patiently in line to purchse it. When I took Jack to the gas station over the Christmas holiday, the cashier beamed at Jack and talked to him with sweetness and enthusiasm. I realized, with much gratitude, that our son is surrounded by admirers. His behavior can be difficult, and to some people, daunting. But so many of our neighbors don’t see just the behaviors. They see Jack. And they love him just the way he is.