Monday, November 20, 2017

Dear Parents of Kids who Didn't Come to My Kid's Birthday Party

Dear Parents of Kids who Didn't Come to My Kid's Birthday Party,

I've got a problem. It's been bugging me for awhile (for the past 9 or so years since I started hosting the occasional kids birthday party), and I just can't seem to solve it. So, I thought maybe it would help to create a guide to how to RSVP to an invitation.

Before we go any further, did you RSVP that your kid couldn't make it? Yes?  In that case, you don't need to read beyond this paragraph. We appreciate that you RSVP-ed in a timely fashion. It helped with planning to know you wouldn't be able to come. We were sorry to miss you but know people are busy.

What? What's that you say? You forgot to RSVP? I'd like to tell you that's ok. I really would. But, see, your kid told my kid he was coming to the party, and without your RSVP, there is no way for me to know if that's true or not. Sure, I can tell my kid to remind your kid to remind you to RSVP, but really, do you think that's going to happen? If you're someone who forgets to RSVP, somehow I imagine your kid might also have a hard time keeping on top of that kind of thing. And, even if your kid didn't tell my kid they were coming, my kid still believes everyone is coming unless the RSVP tells him otherwise. So, please, just send me a text or an email. It's fine if you can't come. Hell, it's fine if your kid hates my kid. What's not fine is not RSVP-ing. How are we supposed to plan or manage our kid's anticipation if we don't have any idea how many people are coming?

You RSVP-ed "yes" but then found out you couldn't come? That's no big deal. Schedules change all the time. Just let us know; we can adjust. But, you know what's not easy to change? It's not easy to change the fact that my kid's feelings got hurt when you said your kid was coming and she didn't actually come. Sure, I can make excuses about the weather or about people being busy or about people not being good with email, but she saw your kid at her friend's party, so she doesn't buy it. Instead, she believes it's because your kid doesn't like her. And, maybe your kid DOESN'T like her. It happens. Most of us have people we don't like. But, it seems extreme to say yes to an elementary school birthday party invite and then no-show just because your kid doesn't like mine. What? Your kid doesn't hate my kid? Then, why in the world would you break her heart like that? That doesn't make any sense at all!

Look, here's how this works. Someone plans a party, and as part of the planning, they decide who they want to invite and send an invitation to that person. The invitation has a lot of useful information like the date and time of the party and the location. It also has contact information so you can let the person throwing the party know whether or not you can come. If you don't quite know your schedule, you can wait a bit to respond, but really, you should let people know at least a week or so before the party so they can plan. It's okay if you can't come, it happens all the time. Just say so when you RSVP. And, if you RSVP "yes" but then learn you can't come, it is MUCH better to let the host know things have changed. I mean, they will notice that you're not there anyway, so what does it hurt to give them the head's up?

And, of course, if all of this is happening in the context of a child's birthday party, please think about how you would like to have your own child treated (honestly, I can't believe I even have to write that last sentence). Kids LOVE their birthday parties. They talk about who they will and won't invite for months before the party. Sometimes they tell each other these things at school. Sometimes they can be pretty childish about the whole thing. But, you? You're not a child; you're an adult. You have access to a phone, a computer, and a car. If your kid doesn't RSVP or if your kid says they're going to come and then doesn't, it's on you, at least until they're old enough to text/email and/or to drive themselves to the party.

I know you probably think I am overreacting here, but we have thrown many parties over the last 9 years, and elementary school parents are by far the worst at RSVP-ing. I've sent Evites, emails, paper invites, and texts, and I routinely only receive RSVPs from about 50% of the people we invite. And, every party (Every. Single. Party.) we have at least one, and sometimes more than one kid who says they are coming and then doesn't come (and doesn't let us know they're not coming). Have you tried to explain to your kid why only 1 of the 4 people (or 2 of the 6) people who said they were coming didn't come? Because, no matter what you say, all they believe is that the other kids don't like them. And, then, when the go back to school the Monday after the party, they see those kids and they worry about whether they're friends anymore. Even when my kids tell me they don't care about this, they are lying--usually to try to make me feel better since they know how much time and energy we put into getting ready for the party (which is really, really sweet but also heartbreaking in its own way).

So, I don't know. You guys tell me what I'm missing here because in the world I live in, it's proper etiquette to RSVP and standing up a child on his/her birthday is just a shitty thing to do.

Sincerely,

MOE


Friday, November 10, 2017

A Post at 4 A.M.

They say if you've met one kid on the autism spectrum, you've met one kid on the autism spectrum. In other words, no two kids with autism present in the same way. Seven years ago (almost), as a parent of a newly diagnosed kid, I found this truth to be especially galling. Friends would introduce me to acquaintances with kids on the spectrum, but our conversations would hit one dead end after another as I tried to figure out how I could learn from their years of experience when there seemed to be so little that our kids had in common. That's how I ended up on the internet and why I started this blog. Parenting a kid with autism felt a lot like shouting out into the void.

In February, Stow received an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, too. While I wasn't surprised given all the ways he has struggled and the various developmental delays that he continues to wrestle, I also wasn't sure I believed it. I mean, Stow's behavior and struggles seemed to look very little like Sky's. In fact, despite the fact that Stow showed various delays, his issues didn't present themselves enough like the autism we knew to convince us to seek out a formal diagnosis. And, presumably, we should know better. We're already autism parents. In February, when we went to the neurologist, we weren't looking for or expecting ASD. But, that's what we got.

Since then, I've started to see it. It looks SO different than Sky's, but I am pretty sure it's there. Currently, we're in the process of getting a second opinion in the form of a very thorough evaluation at one of the leading autism centers in the country, which will help us better understand all that is going on. Will they also diagnose Stow with autism? I don't know. I do know that they have already diagnosed him with a significant expressive and receptive language disorder. And, the sensory processing disorder continues to "stick." Early next year, he will get the final phase of the eval done, and I suppose then we will KNOW. But, do we ever really know? And, does it really matter? I suppose the diagnosis changes nothing. The struggles he has will continue to be the struggles he has, and second-opinion diagnosis or not, we will continue to work with him to manage those struggles in the best way we know how.

So, what's my point? Actually, none of the stuff above is my point, really (Sorry! I'm working on little sleep). My point is that this is hard. It's hard for all the ways I've talked about before--the meltdowns, the inflexibility, the unpredictability, the chaos, the interventions, the therapy appointments. And, it's also really hard because it takes a long time to figure out what is going on, and even as we are trying to figure it out, we still have to go to the mat for our kids and push back against teachers, strangers, and often even friends and family who don't understand.

For the first four years of Sky's school life, we had him in a private school (the best of our options at the time) that did not offer special education services. Every single day, (EVERY! SINGLE! DAY!) I was at the school talking to his teachers about one issue or another. Once he got the diagnosis, I had the words for what I was trying to tell them, but even though I was still learning what it all meant myself, I advocated for him daily and made sure they understood why he did what he did and accommodated him accordingly. Then, I got the job I have now, and we moved to an area with excellent public schools, and for the first time as an autism parent, I got to see what the right amount of accommodation by teachers who understood ASD could do. You can read posts here, here, and here (not to mention here and here and here and here and here) about the struggles we had with Sky in school back then. And, you can notice that I rarely talk about school any more. When schools handle special needs right, there's not much to write about. Stow does a lot of the same things Sky did in school at the same age, and because the teachers and the principal know how to handle it, I don't have to explain to them about sensory seeking behavior and poor social skills and intentionality. There are 7 people on Stow's IEP team who "get it," and just like that, my life is 1000 times easier than it could have been.

But, there are still a lot of people who don't get it, and I'd like to be able to tell you that I don't care about them anymore. On some level, I guess, I am so deep into parenting kids with autism, that I'm oblivious to the stares and the judgment of strangers who can't believe I "let" my kid hit me or that I give my careening pre-teen a device to calm him down despite the fact he's being "a baby." What still bugs me, though, is when people who know us question our reality. After all these years, I still have friends and relatives (some of them quite "close")*** that believe our kids' issues lie squarely in our failure as parents because we just don't discipline our children well enough. There are still people who know us well (enough to know better) who question why we need to make accommodations--things like not trying to do too much in a day or keeping a pretty steady routine or sticking as closely as possible to dietary restrictions--and who assume it's because we have raised three fragile (entitled? selfish?) snowflakes. I don't know, you guys; this sh*t is hard enough already. Wouldn't it be heavenly if we had lives full of people we love and care for who care for us and love us where we are and for who we are? These days, I'm working hard to see if I can't make that happen for my family and for myself. And, to be honest, I think, maybe, this might be the biggest challenge on this journey.




***For the record, if you're reading this blog, I am probably not talking about you. There are many people who struggle to know how to help or what to say, but they are trying and we know they are trying. Trying means a lot to us!






Thursday, November 2, 2017

#candycorn

Sky will soon turn 13 (GAH!), and, so, this Halloween, he found himself in the existential morass of really wanting candy but no longer wanting to pretend that dressing up, knocking on people's door, and asking them for candy is anywhere close to a thing that people should do. Granted, trick-or-treating and Sky have always had a very fraught relationship. I don't think I am exaggerating when I say that there are an infinite number of costume- and candy-related meltdown triggers that come together in a perfect storm on the final day of every October. My hope was that this Halloween would be the one where he was just too cool to care about any of it anymore, so we didn't talk about costumes when I shopped for Pink and Stow, and he seemed ok with just handing out candy.

But, then for reasons probably too complicated to describe in detail, this year Sky decided that candy corn is the hill he's willing to die on (figuratively, of course). It all started when we got boo-ed. Do you guys know about "boo-ing"? Someone leaves a basket/bucket/bag of goodies on the front porch, rings the bell, and runs away. Then you are left with some snacks and trinkets and instructions to pay it forward. One of the requirements is that you hang a sign letting people know you've been boo-ed. In theory, this is an awesome way to build holiday cheer and have fun with your neighbors.

In practice, my kids are insane.

Stow quickly figured out that this whole boo-ing thing could be quite a racket. Within 24 hours, unbeknownst to me, he removed the fancy handmade sign (see below) I'd hung on the door. Only I didn't know it and was mortified to see that not only was it missing but that we'd been boo-ed again. You guys, I can't handle THAT much holiday cheer. I can barely manage a shower most days. When the first sign disappeared, I thought maybe someone had knocked it down mistakenly (and also that maybe I was being punished for being such a lazy cheapskate who didn't want to change the color ink cartridges in the printer). So, the second time, I hung the pre-made version of the "We got boo-ed" sign. That one disappeared, too. Then I had Sky make one. At least he's got a better sense of design than me.

My sign.
It wasn't until I caught Stow in the act of taking down the third sign, that I understood what was happening. For all his social skills issues and troubles with language, that child is extremely adept at getting what he wants. And, in this case, he wanted more cool Halloween stuff. No amount of reasoning could convince him that he shouldn't keep taking down the sign. So, we compromised, and Sky's second sign (the 4th one overall) said, "We got boo-ed" in big letters and then "But Stow wants more candy" in fine print. Stow agreed to this compromise but only after I let him make a sign of his own with larger print.

Sky's second sign and Stow's amendment (name redacted)
******

Anyway, back to candy corn...the kind neighbor who boo-ed us, knew about our allergies and so left three allergy-friendly packages of it for the kids. So nice, right? I mean, really, our neighbors are the best (and they also read this blog, so I hope they won't stop including us in their amazing-ness after reading this post). After all, what's not to like about candy corn? I'll tell you what's not to like -- it was as if that tiny packet of candy corn opened a long-sealed portal to all the things Sky once loved but can't eat anymore. You know how kids on the spectrum can get stuck on a single idea and not let it go? Well, Sky's perseveration planted itself squarely in Candycornville and never left. Multiple times a day, I was treated to lectures and treatises on why I needed to make sure they all had a steady supply of candy corn. It was only fair. Other kids could eat it. It is THE BEST CANDY ON THE PLANET.

Candy corn. You guys.


Seeing no other way, I asked my friend where she'd gotten the candy corn and went to get some. It was sold out, so I got another variety pack of Halloween snacks the kids could eat. For a millisecond, that seemed to appease Sky.

Then on Sunday, our church had a Halloween party. Sky, of course, still being in the morass of pre-teen-ness, decided to stay home but reminded me (more than once) to bring home some candy corn from the party. And, I planned to bring him some, I really did. I even checked the package to make sure he wasn't allergic. But, then Stow almost choked on one, and I decided that candy corn is indeed the Devil's candy and not needed in our house. Miraculously, Sky seemed to forget about candy corn for awhile--long enough, in fact, that I thought maybe we were past it. It was as if the candy corn wars had reached a tenuous, yet hopeful, cease fire.

Of course, if life has taught me anything, it's taught me that siblings have a way of making things a lot harder than they need to be. That night at dinner, Pink announced out of the blue, "Mom, remember when Stow almost choked on that candy corn?"

In my brain, panic. I mean, of course I remember the near-death experience that happened mere hours before, but why, oh why, must this child take this shot across the bow, re-opening the possibility of a candy corn barrage? Pink's warning shot hit its target square between the eyes. With the words "candy corn," Sky snapped to attention and went into full perseveration meltdown mode. Stow, seeing his chance, decided this would be the best time to stand on his chair and do a little candy corn dance. Any hope of getting back to a peaceful dinner disappeared as we heard Sky in his room weeping, the words CAAAAAANDY COOOOOORN on his lips. For the rest of the night and into the next morning, whenever Sky was in earshot, Stow would hiss whisper "caaannndy coorrrnnn" as if possessed by some little brother candy corn demon. It took several meltdowns or near meltdowns for Sky to figure out how to ignore him, and when he finally did I gave him a big hug for his effort.

Seeing this, Stow, wracked with jealousy at the obvious turning of my affections, went into a full-blown meltdown of his own. "You don't loooooove meeeeeeee!" he cried, and then proceeded to repeat those words nonstop for the next 30 minutes until we were able to get him onto the bus and send him off to school.

#candycorn
#rememberthecandycornalamo
#boohoo
#parentinganinja
#thisiswhywecanthavenicethings
#halloween2017






You've been booed image from: https://www.happinessishomemade.net/free-youve-been-booed-printables/

Bite Me image from: https://www.etsy.com/listing/464721104/killer-crafts-candy-corn-bite-me-plate?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=corn%20plates&ref=sr_gallery_26




Monday, October 30, 2017

50 Easy Steps to Sunday Morning Waffles

1. Refuse to get out of bed until the absolute last minute even though each kid has come in twice to report on everything from the content of their dreams to details of their current Lego creation to the quality of their bowel movements.

2. Walk into the kitchen only to find that it and the living room look like something from The Hangover even though everything was in its place when you stumbled into bed 6 hours earlier.

3. Have a mini-stroke and go back to bed.

4. Try hard to ignore the increase in decibels coming from the other room.

5. Give up on sleeping, say a small prayer, and get up for a second time, hoping that somehow things are better.

6. Find that very little has changed but muster up all of your patience to calmly tell the children that you will make pancakes if they get things cleaned up.

7. Meet resistance. They want waffles.

8. Agree to make waffles while desperately wracking your brain to remember where you put the waffle iron.

9. Experience a wave of relief when one of the kids runs to the right cabinet and excitedly pulls out the waffle iron.

10. Have second thoughts when you realize they've pulled out the Darth Vader waffle iron.

Darth Vader's handiwork
11. Tell the kids to get out the ingredients while you go to brush your teeth in an attempt to buy yourself a few more minutes of peace and quiet.

12. Be met by an anxious pre-teen who tells you he can't find any pancake mix.

13. Tell him to look again. And, then again.

14. After he tells you that he can't find it a third time, look for yourself.

15. Realize too late that the three attempts to find pancake mix have triggered an ASD anxiety-induced meltdown.

16. Try to talk your pre-teen down from his meltdown while rummaging through the pantry.

17. Determine that there is indeed no pancake mix in the house and that you don't have time to go out and buy some.

18. Look in three other cabinets hoping that pancake mix will somehow miraculously appear while simultaneously debating the merits of running to the grocery store at this time on a Sunday morning.

19. Suppress your growing sense of panic when the younger two children come to see what all the racket is about and immediately insist they be able to help.

20. Despite your best efforts, watch as the melting down older son triggers a completely different (but equally difficult) response in the younger son.

21. Dodge incoming jab, shoves, and the occasional flying object from melting down younger son who is overwhelmed by the noise and chaos.

22. Hand younger son an iPad in an attempt to keep him from single-handedly triggering the apocalypse.

23. Grab your Kitchen Survival Guide (seriously, you guys, my mom gave this to me for college graduation, and I STILL use it more than any other cookbook I have) and frantically search for a waffle recipe.

24. Realize (with a wave of relief) that you have all the ingredients the recipe calls for.

25. Talk your older son down from his meltdown by giving him the job of measuring everything.

26. Plug in the Darth Vader waffle iron and try to remember how you're supposed to know when it's hot enough.

27. Help pre-teen find and mix everything while demonstrating the difference between sifted and unsifted flour but not before rummaging through the cabinets as you try to remember whether or not you have a sifter (you do).

28. While you're waiting for the waffle iron to heat, send the pre-teen to the garage freezer to look for sausage links.

29. Immediately regret that decision as he can't find sausage either and retreats to his safe space in an attempt to avoid a second meltdown in an hour.

30. Go to the garage and get the damn sausage yourself.

31. Start heating the sausage and realize that finally the waffle iron is ready.

32. Put the first batch of batter in.

33.  Wait....for a really long time

34. Try to ignore your 12 yo who is in the other room muttering under his breath about how big a mistake your failure to just go to the grocery store and buy more pancake mix was.

35. Wonder whether the light was supposed to be on or off and open the waffle iron to check.

36. Decide the light is supposed to be off.

37. Wait.

38. Realize you can't keep the 6 y.o. distracted by iPad videos forever.

39. Tell him to get out forks and put fruit on all the plates.

40. WILL the waffle iron to heat the waffle faster.

41. Peek inside the waffle maker again and decide there's no way you're making church, especially since the 12 yo is starting to panic again, and the 6 yo is freaking out about not having a waffle, yet.

42. After waiting for 30 minutes with no luck, get out the back-up waffle maker.....you know, the one you got for your wedding but completely forgot you had.

43. Plug it in.

44. Try to remember if the green light is supposed to be on or off.

45. Decide it's supposed to be off.

46. Wait.

47. Even though the Darth Vader waffle is clearly not done, scrape it out of the waffle maker and give half of it to each of the younger kids since they're the only ones around and seem desperate enough to eat anything.

This all-American breakfast brought to you by Moe, the world's greatest mom.
48. As you're putting batter into the back-up waffle maker, realize you only have enough for one more waffle.

49. Begin negotiations with three children to figure out how to avoid World War III.

50. Wish you never got out of bed.





Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Second Flood

It's weird that this all started and ended with a flood. But, then again, maybe nothing really started or ended at all. I'm not sure, to be honest. What I can say without a doubt is that there were two floods; one of them directly preceded the news that Ren needed a full spinal fusion and the other happened mere days after he officially graduated from his post-op restrictions. Sure, the back was bad well before the first flood, and it will remain bad well after the second one. Still, two floods in six months is weird.

The first flood I read as a sign--a sign that, even though the demise of Ren's spine seemed inevitable, somehow the fact that nothing was damaged when Stow plugged the drain and flooded the bathroom down into the basement proved that everything would be okay. Sometimes we really need to find reasons and reassurances, especially when we are facing something as inconceivable as a full spinal fusion and the sixth spine surgery in six years.

Happy Halloween from your friendly neighborhood skeleton! Ren's back post spine surgery #6.
The second flood happened on a Saturday morning just a few days after Ren's tight restrictions were lifted. For the first time in months, he didn't have to wear the turtle shell brace and I didn't have to remind him not to bend, lift, or twist (though he will from now and forever be beholden to a 25-pound lift limit which is going to stink at least until one of the kids is strong enough to help me carry things). I'm not going to read this second flood as a sign, though. Somehow that seems too easy. And a bit misguided.

I will, however, continue to think that the cupcake container falling on my head when I walked past the refrigerator (causing me to go to the sink and pull out the trash can, thereby discovering water spewing from the pipe) was very, very well timed. And, I'm going to remain very glad that we decided at the last minute that Ren's back couldn't take a 7-hour drive and so did not go to my parents for the weekend. And, I can't help but feel astonished by the fact that although we vacuumed and soaked up several buckets full of water, there was zero damage to the wall or ceiling of the TV room despite the fact that water was pouring down from the kitchen above.

It's not that I no longer believe in signs and miracles. I still do. But, the experiences of the last five months have taught me something else. They've taught me that looking so hard for reasons keeps me from seeing all of the good stuff that's happening all around me. It turns out there are many people in our lives who are more than happy to help if we just ask. It turns out it's okay to admit that you can't do everything, and it's even okay not to try. It turns out there are people who love our quirky kids for who they are and who will drop just about anything to be there for them. It turns out we are very, very lucky. I know I should have known this, but I'm a slow learner.

So, this side of the second flood, I'm aware that we lost a lot--we lost our sense of normalcy; we lost precious days and months with Ren; Ren lost much of his flexibility and his ability to lift; we lost Ren's mom at a time when we couldn't be there to say goodbye. But, we gained a lot, too. And, for that I am very grateful. Thank you to all of our family and friends who stepped up and stepped in, either in person or virtually. It has meant a lot. You all made this so much better than it could have been, and I'm sure we are better for it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Color Blind

The start of the school year means multiple emails and meetings with various folks involved in educating our kids. For Sky, who started seventh grade this year, the exchanges I've had with his teacher center around ways to lessen his anxiety related to assignments or unclear instructions. For Stow, my time has been spent working with his first-grade IEP team to incorporate new strategies related to recently diagnosed language delays. These are the kinds of interventions I expect to have to make as a special needs mom.

But, this past week, I found myself writing a whole different kind of email to Pink's school principal in response to an incident on the school bus.

Before she even made it into the door, she was telling me what happened. "A mean boy on the bus said Jay and I were boyfriend and girlfriend," she fumed.

I was half-listening in that way I do when I am trying to do too many things at once and said something to her about just focusing on her friendship with Jay and not worrying much about the negativity of others. Then she said something that made me stop what I was doing and ask her to repeat it because I was sure I'd misheard.

"He said, 'I'm going to put a Made in China sticker on you,' and then he pointed at me. And, he said he'd put a Made in Africa sticker on Jay. I tried to tell him he was wrong because I wasn't made in China; I was sort of made in Japan, but even that's wrong. He wouldn't listen to me, though! He told me I didn't know anything! He only believed it when Jay told him he was dumb for not knowing the difference between Japan and China."

What do you say to your child when a thousand thoughts rush through your head at once? I wasn't sure where to start, so I started with the perhaps dumbest question possible.

"Is Jay black?" I asked.

Pink looked at me funny and said in an exasperated tone,  "No, Mom. He's brown."

We talk more about skin color at our house than other people might because it's a question that comes up, usually in first grade or so, when the kids become aware that they don't quite look like their peers. The conversation usually starts with the same question: "Am I white?" and is usually followed by the equally vexing, "Then what color AM I?"

This is not a simple conversation to have. Kids are not "color blind" and we shouldn't strive to raise children who are. Non-white kids see and feel the ways in which they are different and experience that difference sometimes quite painfully. If we tell them to be blind to these differences, we erase their experiences. Instead, what I've tried to teach my kids is that the color of a person's skin doesn't tell us a thing about their character, their talents, their flaws, their pasts, or their futures, but it can tell us a lot about how they experience the world around them. When Tamir Rice was shot, Sky was about the same age as he was, and it hit me in ways I hadn't understood before that parenting a black son is different than parenting an Asian son, so Sky, Pink, and I have talked a lot about how to recognize overt and covert racism and how to stand up for their peers.

I struggled to explain to Pink why what the kid on the bus said was so wrong. Sure, both of us bristled at the complete lack of awareness that Japan and China are nowhere near the same country. And, sure I was incredibly annoyed to see that "mansplaining" happens even in fourth grade. But, mostly I wanted her to know that everything that happened in that interaction was wrong and was not her fault. Pink was silenced and Jay was provoked almost to the point violent resistance. And, this was done to them solely because they look different than all the white people around them.

Pink didn't want to spend much time talking about any of this. Once she'd told me what happened on the bus she was ready to move to other things. But, I wasn't. It's hard to know how often things like this happen to my kids. I'm sure it happens much more than they tell me. I imagine something like this is why Stow to tells me that he hates his Japanese face but loves his American body. Maybe it explains why he wishes he looked like the neighbor boys and had a daddy that looked like theirs. It's hard to parent against the effects of ingrained stereotypes and ways of thinking. And, it's hard to help educators and others who have never not benefited from their white privilege to understand that it exists.

At first, I wasn't going to follow up with Pink's principal. I figured there was little I could say that would push him to think beyond a single disciplinary action for the mean boy on the bus. But, then I saw how worried Pink was about school, so I asked her if she wanted me to follow up with him. She did, so I did. Here is what I wrote:

This evening Pink told me about an incident on the bus that I wanted to relay to you. Apparently, she is assigned to sit next to Jay on the bus as well as at school, so the two of them have become friends. Today on the bus, a peer named D started to tease them about liking each other. This kind of thing happens, so when Pink told me about it, I told her just to ignore it. Later, though, she told me that D also said, "I'm going to put a 'Made in China' sticker on you (pointing at Pink) and a 'Made in Africa' sticker on you (pointing at Jay)." Pink was most upset by the fact that D didn't know the difference between Japan and China and that he ignored her when she tried to tell him this.

As you know non-white students like Pink and Jay are few and far between in the R schools, and I think this incident highlights the need for education in diversity and the often subtle but strong impact that racism (or at least the notion that the white majority prevails) can have on the thinking of kids even as young as 9 and 10 years old. I understand that it is hard for students from a small town in the rural Midwest to understand that there is a great big and diverse world out beyond the boundaries of their town, their state, and their country, but it is important that we start working to help them grasp this reality--if not by ensuring that it's reflected in the population of children and teachers they encounter from day to day, then at least in purposeful education about this.

On her one of her papers today, I saw that Pink had written, "I hate school." When I asked her why, she struggled to explain, but I imagine the fear and discomfort she felt at being made fun of because of the physical features she was born with (and that are an important part of her identity) had a lot to do with the development of such a sentiment. Implicit bias in any form can be detrimental to the person who is subject to it, but this is even more true for children like Pink who are just now starting to figure out who they are and who they want to be.

I'm not sure what the answer is. I fear that disciplinary action directed at D will only lead to more trouble for Pink and her friend, but I wanted to make sure that you were aware of this incident in the hopes that we can work harder to prepare all students to be open-minded and accepting of difference.


********

Postscript:

The principal's response was entirely predictable. He assured me that he wanted all students to feel welcome and safe and that he did his best to make sure "situations like this stop completely." Then he met with all involved and meted out what he determined to be the appropriate punishment. I mean, I appreciate the effort, I really do. But, this is an issue that requires all of us to regularly interrogate the ways that we respond intentionally and unintentionally to people who aren't like us and to think about how we can best make sure our kids aren't inheriting biases we sometimes don't even realize we have. I can't imagine a lost recess or in-school suspension achieving that.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Eternal Post-op of My Soul


Six weeks ago, Ren came home from the hospital and reclaimed his wedding band, so technically, I don't need to be wearing this bracelet anymore. I can't tell you why, exactly, but this surgery felt different than the rest. And, so I decided to keep wearing it to remind me to stay all in with Ren as he gets through this and to remind me to take heart in the fact that we continue to survive against some pretty challenging odds.

This is spine surgery number six, and since each previous surgery has showed us the various permutations possible during hospitalization, post-op, and recovery, we thought we knew what to expect with this one. We have come to understand the many ways a body can rebel--a blistering allergic reaction to steri-strips; life-threatening blood pressure drops; confusion, hallucination, belligerence, or extreme grogginess caused by the slightest failure to get the meds right; worrisome weight loss. We've also seen surgery recovery be short-circuited by something else going wrong with the spine before even making it through the post-op period. This surgery threw us a few curve balls though. Two weeks ago, Ren went back into the hospital for double pulmonary embolisms. Four weeks before that, he was hospitalized for heart issues. At the end of week 8, we find ourselves where we might normally be at the end of week 3. This has become the eternal post-op of my soul.

Ren has four weeks to go until he is free from his post-op restrictions. He still cannot bend, twist, or lift, and whenever he is out of bed he has to wear a full torso turtle shell brace. For eight weeks, I have been mom, dad, cleaning lady, laundry person, taxi driver, personal shopper, cook, referee. And, I will continue to do all of these things for at least four more weeks. What makes it hardest, though, is that Ren wants to be doing these things, and once he feels well enough, he has to be constantly reminded not to do them. We fight about it. It's exhausting for me. It's frustrating for him.

In sickness and in health....

As we enter our seventh year of severe spine issues, I have an entirely new understanding of this promise so many of us make on our wedding day (though actually, Ren and I didn't say these words). Here's what I have learned. In sickness means being able and willing to advocate for your loved one even when you are totally exhausted and have no idea what's going on. In sickness means filling prescriptions, divvying out pills, and constantly watching for signs of side effects. In sickness means keeping your patience when the "patient" is being a complete asshole. In sickness is dealing with incisions, wiping bottoms, and washing hard to reach places for weeks or even months. In sickness means feeling isolated and alone when everyone else goes about their business but you are still stuck in limbo, caring for someone who isn't quite able to care for himself and wondering if or when he will be "back to normal." In sickness means being ever vigilant about the restrictions your loved one is under even when he doesn't want to abide by them anymore. In sickness is trying to help the kids keep it together in week one and week three and week eight knowing that all of the changes and the feelings of loss they are experiencing make it almost impossible for them to behave well. In sickness is wondering whether you can keep doing this but knowing that you have to. In sickness means knowing that your life is changing in ways you don't want it to and knowing there's nothing you can do to stop it.

A few months ago, I added this tiger eye bracelet to my collection.



The one on the bottom is the bracelet I wear in memory of Ren's brother; I had bought it on the day he was killed by a distracted driver (on his birthday in 2014). It reminds me to live in the moment, and more importantly, never to drive distracted. The new one, though, I picked up in Japan a month or so before this last surgery. For reasons I can't explain, I knew that this summer would be life-changing, but that I needed a reminder to be present and engaged in whatever changes were coming. I am only just beginning to understand what this means, but the bracelet prompts me to keep trying to figure it out. I know the bracelets are hokey, but with special needs kids, a job, and spine surgeries, I need something to help keep me grounded!

Not long ago, my brother was staring down a category 5 hurricane when Irma shifted directions and took aim at the southwest Florida coast. By the time they realized the hurricane was  coming at them, they had nowhere to go. Talking with him about what he faced made me think about the post I wrote here a few months ago. Sometimes in life, you find yourself staring down the worst possible scenario. You can rack your brain for alternatives, but sooner or later, you have to accept that there is no way around the storm in front of you. You don't know if you have it in you to get through it, but you have no choice but to try. The storm will destroy some things. Things that were important to you will not survive. You won't be the same when you come out the other side. But, you will come out the other side. And, when you do, you will know that you are stronger than you realized, and you will find the strength and resilience to rebuild, creating something new and different and probably totally unexpected from the pieces of your old life that remain. Ren, the kids, and I will rebuild. We always do.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Notes from a Spine Surgery

Ren had his sixth spine surgery a couple of weeks ago. The only way to explain what major spine surgery does to the family is with this image that keeps going through my mind. Forgive me if it seems overly dramatic:

It's as if a massive bomb has been detonated in the middle of our living room. I see it coming but can't stop it and immediately throw myself on it in an attempt to mute the impact. The initial blast leaves me battered, and, not surprisingly, I can't contain the damage. So, now I'm hobbled and trying to gather up the pieces of our lives. I won't be able to find all of them--some have been pulverized beyond recognition and others blasted so far away they can't be located. But with the pieces we have left, we begin the slow, tedious process of putting our lives back together, knowing that while we might be able to approximate life before the blast, it will never really be the same.

This surgery, I have kept a running account on my Facebook feed. Here are some excerpts. I'm not sure they are any less dramatic than my image of the bomb.

7.24.17 (surgery day)

Procedure started at 7:38 am and finished at 2:32 pm (as usual an hour later than predicted). Now we wait the 2-3 hours he will need to wake up and get transferred to his room.

(Editor's Note: he was actually in recovery for FOUR hours).

Patient number 349472

7.25.17 (day 2 in hospital, first day post-op)

This is going to take awhile.

Surgery survival bracelet.

7.26.17 (day 3 in hospital)

Saw surgeon this morning. Said he put in more than 200 sutures and over 100 staples. Oh, the irony. Long ago, I realized I could never be a doctor because blood and incisions make me queasy. Hahahahahaha. Sigh.

(Editor's Note: It was actually 200+ staples on a 58 cm incision)

Ren with Mimi, our new stuffed cat

7.26.17

Heading home to see kids for the first time in three days. 60 hours in the hospital is surprisingly exhausting!

(Editor's Note: I only managed to be home a total of 30 minutes between the immediate care visit for Pink's infected mosquito bite and a phone call from a disoriented Ren begging me to come back to the hospital. In the end, I was away from home for 160 of 180 hours during the two weeks he was in the hospital/rehab.)

7.28.17 (last day in hospital/first day in rehab facility)

So, here's the lowdown. The lumbar and thoracic spine repair seems to have gone well. Pain is controlled and he is able to walk w a walker. Unfortunately, the length/intensity of the surgery has triggered unexpected neck issues that cause excruciating pain and lead him to lose usage of his left arm and hand whenever he is upright. This is problematic because he needs to be upright to avoid complications (like pneumonia, which would be catastrophic) and to work toward mobility. Without that hand, he is unable to use a walker or care for himself enough to go home. The neck symptoms probably also mean that intervention has to happen sooner than later.

So, as of now, we know that he will be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital and stay there for 7-14 days. Not sure what happens after that.

Being transported by ambulance for the first time.

7.28.17

My week as summarized in the manner of Sei Shonagon's "Hateful Things."

Things I Hate:

  • Surgery that goes well beyond its projected end time
  • Four hours in the recovery room accompanied by phrases like "chest pain" and "extremely blood low pressure"
  • Hospital cafeteria taco bars
  • Handheld urinals
  • New nerve pain that is unexplained and makes the color drain from the surgeon's face upon evaluation
  • Extra long incisions held together by 200 staples
  • Answering the exact same questions and providing the same narrative over and over again
  • Hospitals that don't restock their vending machines
  • Loved ones strapped to gurneys and whisked away in an ambulance
  • Ambulance rides even when it's not an emergency
  • Rehabilitation facilities that look like they're straight out of the 1980s
  • When children cry themselves to sleep
Things I Love:
  • Friends who remind me to breathe
  • People who go out of their way to make sure my family and I are fed
  • Learning new games in hospital waiting rooms
  • Distracting texts and conversations
  • Parents who come to help even when you tell them not to and a babysitter who goes with the flow
  • Cold Japanese beer, especially when it's on tap
  • A new playlist to get me through a crazy summer
  • Handmade cards from the kids

7.29.17 (day 2 in rehab facility)

I have been through 10 (TEN!!) major surgeries with Ren and have never seen it go this way. Appreciate prayers/positive thoughts for things to turn around pretty quickly.

7.30.17 (last day in rehab facility/first day back in hospital)

On Monday, July 24th, Ren had his sixth spine surgery. It was a thoracic-lumbar fusion to repair a failed fusion at L1 and to deal with significant structural deterioration in the thoracic. The surgery took 6 hours with an additional hour before and one after in the operating room. He spent also four hours in recovery due to problems with blood pressure and chest pain.

The first 24 hours post op offered no surprises other than extremely low blood pressure that made it hard to stand due to dizziness. By day 3, things seemed to be going well, but mid morning, he began to experience scapular pain that eclipsed any other pain he'd been feeling. By the evening, he couldn't sit up without severe and completely new shoulder and arm pain. The next day, these symptoms worsened and eventually, he stopped being able to use his left hand when upright.

On the morning of the fourth day after surgery, the surgeon had a chance to evaluate Ren when he was sitting up and agreed that these severe pain symptoms were coming from the cervical spine despite the fact that part of the spine wasn't involved with the surgery.

Because Ren has an incision (from his tailbone to the base of his neck) that has approximately 200 staples in it, he cannot undergo an MRI to look at the neck until they've been removed. Without an MRI, it is impossible to tell whether the neck issue will resolve itself or require surgical intervention. Given the severity of the pain and the way his arm mobility is being impinged, the surgeon suspects something more than usual post-surgery swelling is happening.

Ren has had five other spine surgeries and has dealt with chronic severe pain for most of the last six years. Even when doctors have expected him to be laid low by pain due to the severity of issues in his back, he has always demonstrated sheer determination in not letting the pain keep him from living. He and I both know a lot about pain and spine surgery, and the current situation is unlike any other as he's trying to recover from major surgery while also being debilitated by new and excruciating pain. Needless to say, it's pretty overwhelming!


Things removed from Ren's spine this surgery.
7.31.17 (day 2 back in hospital)

The man was looking a lot better this evening than he has in awhile. Still working on pain management and some unexplained chest/abdomen pains. The neck is also an issue that requires long-term strategizing. For now, he's still hospitalized near the rehab facility. Will be here at least in more night. Looking at heart and gall bladder and will consult with spine surgeon today. Think rehab facility greatly exacerbated situation so will be insisting he doesn't go back there.

8.9.17 (day 5 at home)

"Wow! You win. I've been a nurse for 32 years and have never seen an incision that long!" #actualquotefromhomehealthnurse #goodatwinningallthewrongprizes

8.10.17 (day 6 at home)

Spine surgery recovery is slow and tedious. On the surface, Ren’s restrictions seem simple: no bending, no twisting, no lifting. But, almost everything we do during our day requires us to do one of those three things. Ren can do very little for himself. Fifteen minutes up, with a short walk and a short sit, is enough to exhaust him for a couple of hours. Pain continues to be his most constant companion, keeping him up at night, causing him to sleep a lot during the day, and making most food seem totally unpalatable. After a serious flare with a nerve in the lumbar that sent excruciating and debilitating pulses down his calf for 18 hours straight earlier in the week, his most persistent pain continues to come from the shoulder as a result of whatever is going on in the neck.

As happens with every one of these surgeries, we both get frustrated—me because he makes the most specific (and seemingly inane) requests even as I feel like my hands are completely full with all parenting and household duties and him because he is in constant pain and completely dependent on the kindness of a sometimes (often?) grumpy spouse and less-than-reliable children. This surgery is different because it was so major but also because we got so little time post op before learning something else could be wrong. For now, we are in a holding pattern until the staples come out next week and we can get a good look at the neck. Here’s hoping for some grace and some joy and a whole lot of humor as we two stubborn souls fight to keep our patience!

First time outside in weeks.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Days Before Surgery

In the days before a major surgery, we fall into an uneasy rhythm. Neither of us really sleeps well. One of us is worried about the waiting and then the caregiving and then the weeks and weeks of single parenting. The other of us tries to alleviate his fears about all that could go wrong by working overtime in futile attempts to do all the things that need to be done while also nursing an increasingly uncooperative back. Pain and guilt and disappointment are not insignificant factors in the calculus of our arguments in this week before surgery.

I'd be lying if I said that the dominant emotion I feel leading up to surgery isn't anger. There's an anger bordering on rage that percolates in the back of my mind and settles into my stomach in ways I never fully anticipate, and I fail to suppress it completely. At unexpected moments, it spills out onto Ren and the kids, paving the way for guilt and fear to coat the nooks and crannies of my consciousness.

The thing no one tells you about being a caregiver is that it will make you mad, and it's an anger that has no place to go. I want to be mad at Ren for having such a shitty spine and for convincing me that he would always be the healthy part of our "in sickness and in health." I want to be mad at the kids for not rising to the impossibly high levels of cooperation and performance that times like this require. I want to be mad at friends and family who don't reach out or offer to help. I want to be mad at all of you whose lives aren't completely upended every 6 to 18 months and who can imagine what the future will look like well enough to plan for it. But, I know this anger is inappropriate, so I try to distract myself with mindless activities. I spend too much time on Facebook and look for reasons to run useless errands. I obsess about stupid stuff. I pick fights with Ren.

Do you know how to remove a blood drain? Can you tell the difference between a skin irritation caused by adhesive and the beginnings of a wound infection? When is lethargy the sign someone is exhausted from major surgery and its recovery and when is it a sign of something more serious? Does unexplained pain merit a trip to convenient care, or does it mean you should go straight to the ER? What about a cough? Is it allergies? A cold? Or the beginning of so-call hospital induced pneumonia? These and many more are the kinds of questions I am expected to be able to answer when I am put in charge of the care of a person who's just had another major surgery, and, while the surgeon, your primary doctor, and the hospital are great at making sure you're well enough not to die on the operating table, they become surprisingly hands off once you're sent home. I suspect that maybe what I am angriest at is a healthcare system that sends people home after major surgeries--which are benignly referred to as "procedures"--while trying to convince them that they'd be "more comfortable" at home or that short hospital stays are "safer," a healthcare system, coincidentally, that also provides so little support for families of kids with special needs that a major health crisis like this makes it nearly impossible to move forward. But, I'm not supposed to be political. This is a humor blog after all, so forget I mentioned it.

By the day of surgery, I will reign in all of these frustrations and fears, and I will sit with Ren for hours as they shave and prick and pull and ask dozens of the same questions. Then, I will watch as they use a marker to map their plan on his back like a football coach diagramming plays. When they wheel him away already hooked to an IV with his head in a surgical hat, I will walk to the waiting room and wait. As the hours pass, I will struggle but ultimately fail to suppress my anxieties. During the impossibly short few days he stays in the hospital, I will keep him company and advocate fiercely for him. On day four (!!), he will be pushed out in a wheelchair, helped into the car, and propped on pillows, and I will drive him home, slowly, avoiding bumps and taking the turns along the way carefully, hesitantly. Once we're home, I will support his full weight as he gingerly makes the seemingly epic journey from the garage to the bedroom where I will help him get comfortable in bed and where he will essentially stay for months until he is ready and able to rejoin the world of the living.

In the meantime, life will go on. The kids and I will figure out how to find joy and have fun and include Ren where we can. I will remember what it's like not to feel so raw and vulnerable. And,(hopefully, most likely, assuredly) I will find my sense of humor again.

Monday, June 12, 2017

On Getting Pummeled

Growing up in a small town in the rural Midwest, not surprisingly, I didn't get into many fist fights. In fact, I was only ever punched once, by a kid named Dallas who should've been in 8th grade, not with me in 6th. Dallas stood beside me in lunch line. I was the last name in the alphabet, and he was the first kid to transfer in that year. When Dallas wasn't in detention or in-school suspension, he stood next to me in line and sat next to me at lunch.

Dallas and I didn't have much in common, so we rarely spoke to one another. He sought to be (and on some level was) an intimidating kid. You'd think, then, that I would give Dallas his space. And, normally, I did, but you guys, 6th grade was rough; I was in a class with all sorts of kids who got into all sorts of trouble, and on this particular day, I guess I'd had enough. Because, when Dallas started cursing because our line wasn't getting picked to go in for lunch, I turned to him and pointed out that if he'd shut up, our chances of going would increase considerably. He responded by shoving me, so I shoved him back. That's when he clocked me.

I don't know if you've ever been punched in the face, but it's a weird sensation: CONK! That's what it sounds like, followed by an odd ringing sound (I mean, I guess I understand the phrase "getting your bell rung" better thanks to Dallas). I was less hurt than really, really shocked that he actually hit me. Sure, I ended up with a brushed cheek and a stiff jaw, but more than that I walked away with a visceral understanding of just how unnatural violence is. Bodies aren't meant to be punched, and there is no way to reason around the violation that occurs when that line is crossed.

*****

Our bodies have limits; this is the lesson I've been reminded of over and over again over the past few years. We are not Wile E Coyote who can peel himself up off the road, re-inflate, and jump back into the chase. In fact, these bodies we inhabit are very, very fragile. Ren's brother, full of life one minute, expired on the sidewalk the next. Ren, able to run a marathon one night and unable to walk the next day. The body, it betrays us.

Part of why I am thinking about this is because I have watched the man who used to run to the peak of the mountain to check out the view before running down to get me and take me along to enjoy it be completely waylaid by his own body. Ren has literally shrunk before my eyes, bending further and further forward as his spine slowly but surely gives up on him. We have been together for 20 years, and this tragic saga has dominated the last six. It used to be that the most stressful part of the saga of the spine was that we didn't know what would happen next--it was like watching a super slow-motion chain-reaction train wreck with no end in sight. Now, though, the nature of our tragedy is clear. Ren's back is done; he will have a fusion of the thoracic spine, T1-T12--twelve full levels compared to the two and three levels of his previous two fusions. The surgery itself will take 6-7 hours with another 2-3 hours in the recovery room. After that, it could take 1-2 years before he is "back to normal," though we all know that normal is long gone.

I don't know how to describe this disruption to our lives as anything other than violent. The children no longer remember life before Dad's back went south. They don't remember the hiking, the running, the playing. They don't remember Dad not being in pain. It's hard not to feel mad and sad and jealous of all the people around us who are going about their lives raising children and building amazing (not tragic) memories. Surgery #6 will stop us in our tracks. I will become a single mom. Ren will miss months of our children's lives.

The other reason I've been thinking a lot about violence and the limits of the human body is the very real struggle we are having with aggressive meltdowns. I've written about autism and meltdowns many times before (here, here, and here, for example), but this is different. Those meltdowns tested my mental stamina. These test me physically. And, what I have learned is that I am not strong enough. Because I am mom, I am the recipient of most of the aggressive meltdowns that happen at our house. And, because I am not a cartoon mom, I end up with scratches and bruises and wake up with aches and pains. 

Since I am not strong enough to defend myself, Ren has been intervening. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that despite his crappy spine, Ren is still stronger than me. When a meltdown starts, using some story about Power Rangers or superheroes or Godzilla as a distraction, he swoops in and employs a simple judo move to neutralize the situation. Then he sits calmly and waits for the episode to pass. It makes me mad that I am not strong enough to hold my own; I hate that I crumble after a few good right hooks. With a spine like his, Ren shouldn't be wrestling on my behalf.

We are working hard to get to the other side of this aggressive meltdown phase before surgery #6 at the end of July. These days, I have a pretty good idea of my outer limits. It scares me to know that the challenges on the near horizon far exceed them. People often say that God doesn't give you more than you can handle. I think I used to believe this meant that the struggles helped us build character. I don't really believe that any more. Because, whether I have the strength to face the impending challenges or not, they are coming, and I know that I have no choice but to put my head down and walk into the massive raging hurricane, one foot steadily in front of the other.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Lost, In Tokyo

I'm in Tokyo, it's dawn
and it's raining hallelujahs
down the bright-lit neon canyons
along the sidewalks of Shibuya
I'm trying to take a stance
and rise above my contradictions
but I'm just a bunch of words in pants
and most of those are fiction

                                   "Long Strange Golden Road" -- Waterboys

**Warning -- This post is about mental health issues so if that makes you uncomfortable, well, now you know.**

When I was 18 and less than 2 weeks away from my first trip to Japan, I tore my ACL playing in the high school semi-state finals. In a very short time span, I abruptly ended my tennis career, scheduled an ACL reconstruction surgery, graduated from high school, and flew off to a country about which I knew next to nothing. In Japan, I fell apart so terrifically that I wound up crying most days and paid an extraordinary amount of money to come home a few days early.

Looking back, that was the beginning of it.

Not long after, I started college, and I spent the next four years trying to outwit my brain chemistry. I tried religion, music, theater, writing, therapy, academic overachievement, sports. I learned how to compartmentalize and only allowed myself to think about my studies. And, in the end, I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a list of awards and achievements long enough to make anyone blush. But none of that mattered as much as the words the head of the campus counseling center--my therapist and my mentor for the various social issues education projects I spearheaded--said to me right before I graduated. "Moe," she said, "sometimes you can do everything, and it is still not enough. Sometimes, it's really just chemical." So, I relented and went on medication and was amazed by how quickly the dark fog lifted from the recesses of my brain and light filtered back into the world before my eyes.

I stayed on the medication for a long time. But, then we wanted to have kids and so I went off of it. Now that I knew what depression looked like, I could manage the ebbs and flows of life. And, when the darkness started to creep into my peripheral view, I knew to exercise more, read good books, eat well, sleep better, and cut out the diet coke. I knew to write and to reach out to friends because I knew that all of these things would help me cast my anchor deep enough to steady me.

And, it worked for a long, long time. It worked through three pregnancies and babies, through three shoulder and five spine surgeries, through grad school and job hunting and multiple moves. It worked through health scares and unwanted diagnoses.

But then one day, it didn't anymore. A month or so ago, the bottom dropped out, and like Wile E. Coyote, I was running so fast, it took me a minute to realize what was going on before I plummeted to the ground. I've got experience with this and resources, so I'll be fine, but the suddenness of it makes me mad. At first, I just really couldn't believe that my brain chemistry would betray me like this. Now that I know it can and will, I know what to do and will do it. But since it's fresh in my mind, allow me to describe to you what depression feels like. I think it's important that you know.

  • Depression feels like you are on a planet that unexpectedly gets knocked from its perfect orbit sending you careening out into space at breakneck speed as you hold on for dear life with the very tips of your fingers. Every day, you think about just letting go.
  • It's being in the largest city in the world with people swarming all around and feeling like you don't know a single soul. It's being completely invisible in a crowd with a ringing in your ears that makes you feel like you're in a deep, deep cavern, more alien than human, and so far inside your head that you're not sure of the way out.
  • It's knowing that things will get better but not really believing it.
  • It's panic rising up into your throat, clutching at your chest and catching your breath, threatening to choke you as tears well in your eyes for no good reason at all.
  • It's speeding along the road and thinking seriously about veering to the left into the trees or the valley below. Or, waiting for the train and imagining yourself scaling the platform door and jumping headlong onto the track as it rushes into the station. It's wanting to step off the curb into an oncoming bus. It's being able to imagine the feel of the cold, hard tip of a pistol on your temple and longing to pull the trigger. It's knowing that all of these thoughts are lies but feeling drawn in by them just the same.
  • It's working hard and moving fast and being afraid to slow down because you know the depression that threatens to overwhelm you nips hungrily at your heels. It's choosing to live at an insane pace with too much caffeine and too little sleep even though you know you can't sustain it. 

Depression lies. It takes away your ability to be amazed, to find humor, to have hope. It exhausts you. If you are going through this, know you are not alone. You are not weak or a failure. In fact, I'd argue that you probably have more damn grit than anyone in the room. Cast your anchor and find others willing to help steady you. All you need is the tiniest sliver of light in the darkness.

There have been moments over the past few weeks for which I am truly grateful--beautiful sunrises, good meals, a couple of conversations in bars with friends who have reminded me of the beauty and joy and amazement all around me. These things have helped me remember what makes me happy--fresh mountain air, beauty in the chaos, a clever turn of phrase, unexpected friendships, irony, untethered conversations. Twenty five years ago, I would have never cast my anchor so willingly. Today, I know I have no choice.

I don't want this blog to be just a bunch of words in pants. I'm too tired to keep spinning my fictions. We need to be able to talk about these things. If we can't, then what are we doing here?

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Great Flood of 2017

I take a quick shower. Start to finish, 7 minutes tops. Still, you'd be amazed by how much can go wrong during that short amount of time. In fact, I am pretty sure that each time I cross the threshold into the bathroom, I trip some sort of wire in the time-space continuum. It is as if time stops and then stretches so that each minute lasts just short of eternity. Multiple epic sagas occur during the brief time I am occupied with my personal hygiene and self care.

Since practically every shower I've taken since 2004 has been interrupted by someone or something, I have gotten pretty adept at tuning out the mayhem that invariably occurs. This is why it seemed so strange to hear ear-rending screams the other day as I climbed out of the shower. Stranger, the screams were coming from Ren. Ren is the kind of guy who encounters a snake in the basement and decides the best course of action is to catch it with chopsticks and keep it as a family pet, so when I heard him screaming I knew it couldn't be good.

Grabbing a towel, I rushed out of the bathroom without even drying myself. I found him furiously wiping the floor in the guest bathroom. Clearly, this was no simple potty accident. But, before I could comprehend what had happened, Ren shouted, "Stow flooded the bathroom. Check the basement!!!!"

I'd only been gone for 7 minutes. When I went to the shower, the kids were dressed, the bentos had been made, and everyone was calmly eating breakfast. Now there was utter chaos.

We had 15 minutes to bus time, so I barked directions to Sky and Pink as I threw on some clothes and ran down the steps. "Get your teeth brushed. Pack your backpacks. Keep Stow out of trouble." Normally instructions like these go entirely unheeded, but the kids were suddenly unnaturally compliant.

Downstairs, I hurried from room to room trying to locate where the tremendous amount of water (WHY is there SO MUCH WATER?!?!) was going. I started in the bathroom and made my way from room to room checking the most logical places for the water to drain. Regret about the decision to drywall the ceilings consumed me. I heard the water before I saw it. It sounded a little like someone was dumping buckets from the ceiling. In my head, I was finding it hard to calculate the cost of repair.

When I finally found the damage, I was amazed. I was amazed by colossal flood Stow had caused, but I was even more amazed by the fact that the massive amounts of water all poured down just inside the doorway to the unfinished storage room. I mean, an inch further to the west and the water would have pooled inside the drywall causing it to crumble down onto the new-ish carpet and furniture in the finished part of the basement. More surprising, even though the water was spraying everywhere, it sprayed in such a way that only unimportant and easily dried things got wet. Mere centimeters from a puddle on the table, for example, a pile of the kids' best artwork was completely dry. I got up on a chair and reached my hand over the top of the storage room door frame into the finished part of the ceiling; besides a small bit of wet insulation, it was completely dry. I ripped out the wet part and went in search of the wet vac.

In the end, the whole catastrophe lasted about 30 minutes. The kids got to the bus on time, and after drying up the bathroom cabinets and floor and relocating all the dehumidifiers and heaters in the house to the basement, I left Ren and Sky to finish vacuuming up the water in the storage room. As I drove to work, only minutes later than I might have been without the flood, I thought about how this great flood so quickly resolved was probably a perfect metaphor for something--though for what, I wasn't entirely sure.

See, the other piece of the story is this: things are falling apart again. Our literal flood symbolizes a figurative one that threatens to overwhelm us. The week that Stow flooded the bathroom, we started pretty intensive in-home therapy to try to get a better handle on the flare in behavioral challenges that feel pretty insurmountable right now. That week also Ren finally acknowledged that, yes, his back really, really hurts. I'd been suspecting this for awhile, but he wasn't ready to admit it until he could no longer stand the pain. The fact that Ren panicked so quickly and worked so slowly to stem Stow's flood was irrefutable proof to me that the back is probably past the point of no return.

So, yeah, one way to read Stow's bathroom flood is as a sign that we are incredibly luck and that everything will be okay. But, I imagine the more accurate reading of it is as a sign that the relative peace that came from 12 straight months of a cooperative spine has come to an end. We're about to hit some rough terrain again, and Stow's flood was just the beginning.


Thursday, May 4, 2017

Stow's Epic Journey

It turns out that having two kids on the autism spectrum can make life pretty crazy at times. Among the interventions we've used on and off over the years is behavioral therapy. These days, we're fortunate to live near one of the best play therapy centers around, so both Stow and Sky work with therapists there. Because our particular combination of poor processing, anxiety, and sensory overload together with a considerable age and developmental gap between Sky and Stow can make for some challenging parenting, I often find myself texting the therapists between sessions.

One day a couple of weeks ago, I was engaged in a text exchange as I waited for Pink to finish checking out books at the local library. In it, I was describing to the therapist how life at our house is somewhere between "survival of the fittest" and Lord of the Flies. Just as I typed Lord of the Flies, though, I was interrupted by Pink.  She seemed upset.

"Stow's here!" she exclaimed.

Lord of the Flies...

You know how when you get news that makes no sense because it's so far out of context that you can't place it? Well, that's what this was like. Since I KNEW that Stow was at home doing his Superkids homework on the computer with Ren and Sky, I knew he couldn't ALSO be at the library. It was impossible--which clearly meant that Pink was lying, which really didn't make any sense. But, before I could figure why Pink would concoct such an outrageous story, Stow ran up to me and gave me a big bear hug.

I've never been more off put by a hug in my life. It's hard to describe the feeling one gets when one's 5 year-old appears in a place he's not supposed to be. I sought a rational explanation:

"Is Daddy in the car?" I asked.

"No."

"Then, how did you get here?" I followed up, not really wanting to hear the answer.

"I rode my bike!" he replied proudly.

Stow has only recently mastered the art of riding without training wheels. This day, this ride was probably only the fifth one he's ever taken without them. In order to get to the library, Stow would have had to leave the relative safety of our neighborhood and ride about 3/4 of a mile along a very busy road that has no sidewalk and minimal shoulder. Even Sky, who's 12 and who has been riding a bike for years now, is too nervous to ride his bike along that road. Though Stow was standing in front of me telling me he'd ridden his bike to the library, I found it hard to believe.

Struck with a sudden wave of nausea, I calmly stood up, took Stow by the hand, told Pink to meet us at the car, and left the library. Just outside the door, I found Stow's bike and helmet.

A little bike for such a big journey.
Still holding Stow's hand with my left hand, I picked the bike and helmet up with my right, and without a word, put them into the trunk of my car. Stow was simultaneously giddy with the adrenaline rush of his big adventure and puzzled by my response to him. He seemed to expect me to be happy to see him and maybe even proud that he'd gotten so good on his bike.

For a few moments, I couldn't figure out how to respond to this unexpected feat. But, once I regained my composure, I told Stow that I was very unhappy with his dangerous choice and that his bike would go into time out when we got home. He didn't seem to understand why I was reacting that way, so the conversation went like this:

"Stow, you can never, ever do that again. That was very dangerous!"

"It's okay. I am brave. I wasn't scared, even on the hard part. I just told myself, 'You can do it!'"

"But that's a busy street, and you are not very tall. What if someone didn't see you and hit you?"

"Don't worry, Mommy. The people were nice. They stopped for me."

Not surprisingly, this exchange didn't do much to calm my upset stomach or dissipate the growing sense of doom that crowded in around me. Stow had never just left the house before.  He'd never ridden his bike out of the driveway, much less out of the neighborhood. This act was so unprecedented, Ren and I struggled to get him to understand why he couldn't just leave like that.

At home, Ren and I explained that being brave and taking unnecessary risks were not the same thing. We talked about Spiderman and Power Rangers and all the good guys in Star Wars and every other superhero Stow loves, and using their examples, we explained how they were always only brave in order to help others. We told him that no superhero would do something dangerous unless he had no other choice. I'm not sure how much he understood, but I hope a least little.

In the end, we made him repeat the bike rules multiple times--

1) always wear a helmet
2) don't leave the driveway without permission
3) never ride in the middle of the road.

And, then we locked up his bike.

Grounded.
Ren and I have been co-parenting for the better part of 20 years. Stow is our fourth child. Before Stow, I think Ren and I had naively come to believe we knew what we were doing. Turns out maybe we don't.






Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Grumpy Yogurt Lady

I got yelled at in Aldi yesterday. It was no big deal, really--some lady just calling me out for what she perceived to be my kid's bad behavior (and my lack of fitness as a parent, no doubt) when Stow kicked a container of yogurt that someone else had dropped and left behind in a small, enticing puddle of creamy white. After he kicked it, Stow dashed in the other direction before I could either stop him or pick up the messy container. Not knowing whether he would stop at the door, I ran after him. That's when she yelled at me for dropping and leaving the container on the floor.

She couldn't know that the yogurt container was already there or that my focus was on keeping Stow from picking up the container and getting yogurt on his hands because I know it would make him sick if he ate any of it. She couldn't know that we don't even shop in the dairy section due to all of our food allergies. She couldn't know that I was much more worried about Stow careening away from me and into other customers or out onto the street than I was about a stray yogurt container. She couldn't know that the spilt yogurt on the floor mere feet from the check out lane was the last thing I needed to see at the end of a harrowing grocery store visit. She couldn't know that I was shopping with Stow because currently the best way to keep him calm and safe is to keep him close to me, even if it means taking him to the grocery store at the end of a long day. She couldn't know that Stow feels keenly the disdain of others even if he doesn't quite know how to make sense of or control all that's happening outside and within him right now.

All she knows is that she saw some rude lady and her bratty kid throw/drop a container of yogurt on the ground and then leave it there. So, she yelled down the aisle at me, "Ma'am?! Aren't you going to take this?" before angrily picking it up and thrusting it into the closest refrigerator. As I ran after Stow, I tried to explain, but she didn't want to hear it. Fortunately, Stow stopped at the end of the aisle, and when he realized she'd put the yogurt in the wrong place agreed to walk with me to get it and then to hand it off to a store employee. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, all she chose to see as I fought (and sometimes failed) to help Stow keep it together through checkout and bagging was an unruly kid and his ineffective mother.

Stow woke me up Sunday morning with this picture. "This is me," he said. "I'm a monster."
It's been awhile since I let the disapproving stares get to me. Part of that is because now that Sky is older, it has been awhile since I've had complete strangers judge me for the misbehavior of my kid. But mainly it's because I am feeling pretty raw about how things have been going lately. I wish Stow wasn't struggling the way he's struggling, and I want to help get him through this rough patch with as little heartbreak as possible.

The grumpy yogurt lady made me mad.  And sad. But, here's the thing: her reaction actually helped me remember something pretty important that I was starting to forget. She reminded me that my expectations and her expectations and your expectations don't mean much right now because right now is about breathing deep, drawing in close, and letting a little boy who's feeling pretty lost know that we've got his back no matter what.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Rock Bottom

In honor of April and Autism Awareness, here's a little story about what autism is like at our house...

A few weeks ago I read this article that references this study. The headline "Austistic Children 40 Times More Likely to Die from Injury, Study Shows" was bad enough, but, by far, the worst part was the statistics quoted in the study. These researchers at Columbia found that the average lifespan for individuals (in their study) with autism was HALF that of non-autistic individuals, or 36 years compared to 72 years. When I first read the article and study, I figured these differences had to do with the way the numbers were being manipulated or the way the study was being reported out (I'm a literature person, after all, so I think a lot about the construction of media narratives).

But, then I looked closer at the study and thought back over my own experiences and realized that maybe things really are this scary for families that live with autism. The weekend before this article came out, for example, Stow almost drowned THREE times during our visit to an indoor waterpark. Even though he'd had 8 weeks of private swim lessons focused specifically on how to be safe in the water (including repeated practice of getting onto his back, floating face up, and calling for help), and even though he had access to a life jacket, AND even though Ren and I were within feet of him each time and warning him as he headed into danger, he still got in over his head (in the EXACT SAME SPOT!!!) three times. The only reason he didn't drown was because we were right there, ready to jump into the pool and pull him out of the water. But each of the three times, he was truly surprised by his near drowning.

I thought about the indoor water park when I worked through my thoughts on the CNN article, and gradually it dawned on me that I was only just beginning to understand what Ren and I are up against. I know it sounds strange, but I became aware, in ways that hadn't quite solidified in my brain before, that Stow is not inherently safe.

"Koi" by Sky. Completely unrelated (although the water is a nice tie-in) to the post but a nice diversion from a grim discussion.
I've got six (well, technically 12, but is has only been 6 since the first diagnosis) years' experience as an ASD parent. I should KNOW what I am doing. But, in all those years before and after Sky's diagnosis, I never once worried about whether I could keep him safe. Sky's ASD runs along the obsession, stim, talk-incessantly-while-totally-oblivious-to-social-cues gamut. I mean, sure, I worried that he would be bullied and that the world might not accept him, but I never worried about whether he was at risk of severe physical harm. But with Stow, we need to figure out how to parent completely differently as we are constantly trying to anticipate and reduce risk. I thought dealing with non-stop discussions of Star Wars was exhausting, but it pales in comparison to figuring out how to keep tabs on a risk-taking wanderer who has little regard for self-preservation and with whom it's not terribly easy to reason.

Stow's ability to be destructive or to create risk for himself is simultaneously awe-inspiring and maddening. This week, for example, he figured out how to unlatch the screen on his second-floor bedroom window. As a result, he now delights in unlatching the hooks on the screen and watching it plummet to the ground below. The first time he did it, we thought it was an accident. The second time, we assumed he liked the thrill of watching screen drop but would curb his risky behavior once we explained to him the dangers involved. The third time he took out the screen, we realized this was now a thing and that we had to intervene. Apparently, life is freer without the encumbrances of a screen on the window because today (less than 48-hours after figuring out how to take off the screen) despite our near-constant surveillance, Stow managed to open the window, pop out the screen, and sit on the window sill to take a leak. OF COURSE this is dangerous, but we had no idea he would do that until he did it. Ren is installing new safety locks as I type. But, I stand amazed by how quickly and persistently Stow courts danger, and I have no illusions that these new locks are the answer to our problems. A kid intent on exploration without any regard to personal safety will find other ways.

Last week, Stow discovered that if he runs out of the house as fast as he can and jumps on his kick scooter, no one can catch him as he rides pell-mell toward the main road. So far, he's stopped without venturing into the traffic, but we have no illusions he will continue to make that choice. We're working on strategies. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of contingency plans for an old man with a bad spine and two kids who aren't quite old enough to control their rambunctious younger brother who seems hellbent on self-destruction. Our current strategy is to keep him inside and distract him with the iPad (it's a horrible strategy).

We also utilize safe spaces. His room is currently not one of those (though it should be soon). The corner of our living room is his other calm-down/safe space. A few days ago, when he was there, he did considerable damage to the door and wall, gouging out chicken scratch messages Tom-Hanks-in-Castaway-style using the pressed souvenir penny we'd bought for him at the zoo (WOW, that 51-cent bargain souvenir turned out not to be a bargain after all!!).

"Musings." Door carving by Stow. From a distance, it's not so bad. Up close, it's an impressive series of deep scratches. 
"2+2=4." Wall carving by Stow. Ironically, once I figured out those were twos instead of backwards fives, I felt a lot better about the fact he was practicing math facts on the wall.
So, I don't know you guys. I guess I've got nothing after all. None of what I thought I had figured out applies to where we are now. This is unchartered and unnerving territory.  It's exhausting and forces us to draw from reserves we didn't even know we had (and that we probably shouldn't be drawing from). But, we know our only option is to dig deep and hope we don't reach the rock bottom of our reserves before things change and life becomes more sane again.


UPDATE #1:
Update: 2:30 p.m. April 13th. Now, let's see how long this lasts.
(Also, I don't love that it's called a Window Warden, but oh well.)

UPDATE #2:

April 13th, 3:30 p.m.
Stow has figured out how to break into his brother's room and climb out his window onto the tiny roof. More window locks on the way!

UPDATE #3

April 19th, 4:15 p.m.
Stow has demonstrated that I should never--not ever--think I know how hard things can be or claim to understand the outer limits of chaos. On the bright side, I feel like I now have a much better grasp of the phrase "infinite possibilities."