Saturday, October 20, 2018

Meet Taro

Smoldering eyes.
Remember a few summers ago when we went to Japan and then things started falling apart for Stow a bit, so we decided to get a cat and build a pool? Turns out, this is kind of a pattern. Not the building the pool part--the making various changes to see what helps Stow part. I know it doesn't make a lot of sense when you think about it, but it seemed to me that since things were going so well with Momo, it couldn't hurt to get another cat. Momo and Pink had bonded so solidly that the boys were getting left out on the pet love. Since Momo's a calico, she can be a bit stand-offish, so I didn't imagine her warming up to either of them any time soon. And, my gut was telling me that Stow could learn a lot from having a pet that would put up with him.

Bird watching.
Everyone who owns cats knows that change can be hard for them. In fact, cats are a lot like kids on the autism spectrum (check out this book), so adding one risked upsetting the balance we'd managed to develop with Momo. Friends with single cats told me to leave well enough alone. Friends with kids on the spectrum told me to leave well enough alone. Ren told me to leave well enough alone, and especially since he takes care of the litter box, I was inclined to listen to him.

For awhile, anyway.

So much fluff.
Then we went away for a long weekend and Ren worried about Momo being lonely the whole time. On top of that, right after we got back, we got an email that the Humane Society where we got Momo was having a sale. If Ren's a sucker for anything, it's for Momo and a good sale. So, one Friday in July, I finally convinced him to go to the Human Society to check out the kittens.

We told the kids we were just going to look, but we also knew it would be nearly impossible to leave without a new cat. It didn't help that the kids discussed names for the twenty minutes it took us to get to the Humane Society. They wanted to name it Freddy or Jason since it was Friday the 13th. They suggested Ringo (apple) to go with Momo (peach).  I reminded them that we might not get a cat and that, if we did, Ren had naming rights. He'd named Momo, and that worked out pretty well.

The cat, eating my homework.
When we got there, we learned the sale wouldn't start until Saturday (ugh) and that there were just a handful of kittens ready to go home with people. Ren thought we should walk away while we still could, but then we found Taro. When you put a tiny kitten into a small room full of this family, you expect two things to happen: 1) the kitten to hide as far under the nearest chair as possible, and 2) everyone to fight over who gets to hold the cat. Neither of these things happened. In fact, everyone patiently awaited their turn to hold a very purr-y and cuddly kitten. Despite all the signs telling us not to get a kitten, I chose to focus on the one sign that mattered. This kitten was totally down with us.

Momo, wholly unsure about Taro
I suppose the rest is history. After a bumpy first few days, Momo and Taro became fast friends.

What? What do you want?
More importantly, though, Taro has continued to be the most easygoing cat I've ever met. He purrs nonstop and often loud enough that it sounds like it hurts. He chooses to spend time with Stow, climbing on his lap, sleeping on his bed.

A patient study companion.
For his part, Stow is thrilled when Taro shows him affection, and he is learning what cats do and don't like. These are amazingly portable skills.


Besides the cat, we've also started speech therapy for Stow. He's doing it at a place that does hippotherapy. Sky (and Stow) benefitted from OT at the same place, so I figured it was worth a try, even though I had a hard time imagining what speech on a horse would look like. (Hint: it looks exactly like speech off of a horse, but with a horse.) In the few times he's gone so far, the therapist has already confirmed that Stow most likely merits an auditory processing disorder diagnosis (one that won't be formally done until he's at least 10) and that he has a hard time picking up conversations when there is any kind of static at all. So, each session, she has the horse leader and side walker have a conversation while Stow tries to complete various tasks. Over the last several months, we've become more and more convinced that the speech and auditory processing issues are Stow's biggest challenges, so we will see if this helps manage the meltdowns some.
Speech on a horse.
Another big change for Stow is that he started doing karate. I know it seems counterintuitive to give a kid who has aggressive meltdowns formal instruction on how to hit, but we hope that karate lessons will help Stow better delineate when it is and isn't okay to use his hands that way. We also figured it wouldn't hurt to give Stow lots and lots of practice in hearing and then physically responding to prompts. The pathways from his ears, to his brain, to his body have always been a little muddied by the autism, so strengthening/clearing them can only be a good thing. The instructor, who has been teaching karate for 25 years, uses multimodal approaches to teaching and has shown unending patience. As a result, Stow has thrived. Just today, he finished the tasks required to get his orange belt. His ability to focus, listen, and follow directions blows my mind.

The small mercies of all of these things aren't lost on me.

Stow and Ren at Stow's yellow belt ceremony.
I know I've been a bit negative lately. The re-emergence of the depression after all these years caught me off guard. And, Stow's struggles have made Ren and me weary. We're getting old, after all.  The thing is, though, Stow is an amazing kid who has overcome some pretty big challenges. And, nine times out of ten, he's done that with a huge grin on his face and a ready hug for anyone who needs one.

He's going to be just fine, you guys. We all are.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Week in Japan

"I love what it smells like here," I tell Ren in our first conversation since arriving. The grass and the cedars and the wooden buildings smell especially sweet as the October chill settles over the campus.

"Maybe it's where you will die," he replies, trying to be funny. It's not funny, of course, but sometimes these terrible jokes are as close as Ren can get to connecting with me. Ren knows that I struggled with ideations the last time I was here, so the joke is particularly poorly-timed. I don't know how to respond.

"Ok, I gotta go get some sleep," I tell him, cutting the conversation short. My mental health is an uneasy topic for both of us.


In my restless sleep, Stow is having another meltdown. He's pretty sure someone has stolen his LEGO. The problem, of course, is that he's stolen so many LEGO from Pink and Sky, it's nearly impossible to determine uncontested ownership. Pink wants her LEGO back, but verbal reasoning is not the way to achieve this. Neither is simply taking back what is hers. I try to distract Stow  as I position myself between him and Pink. If Pink can  just walk away, perhaps the meltdown can be averted. She jumps in, though, "Why does he always steal my stuff?" she whines in a voice at least two octaves higher than  normal, triggering Stow who grabs her arm and then her hair. I wrench him away and then deflect his blows with my forearms. Two things are sure to trigger a long meltdown: LEGO and screens. So, the hitting and erratic and impulsive behavior go on for awhile. When Stow melts down like this, he has to be protected; as much as I want to, I cannot walk away from his flying fists. Eventually Ren changes places with me and uses one of his old judo moves to get Stow on the ground. Only then, with the two of us working in tandem, can we slow his feet and hands and help him calm enough to keep him from flying out of the house in a panicked rage.

When I wake, I remember it’s just a dream. The bruises on my forearm have already faded.


Pink's teacher wants to know why she insists on reading her book and working on her stories instead of listening to classroom instruction. It's a legitimate question. I try to explain that things are hard for her at home between two mercurial, black-and-white-thinking brothers, especially when I'm gone for work. The teacher says she seems happy and positive at school. I don't understand why he doesn't understand kids better. Avoidance and defiance are two pretty common coping strategies for kids with anxiety, after all. It occurs to me that I am failing all of my children. It doesn't matter, though; I'm the only mom they've got.


Walking alone down the busy sidewalks of Kyoto, headphones turned up loud as a way to distract me from my brain, the title of memoir I didn't even know I was writing popped into my head: Fat, Ugly, and Suicidal. The thought makes me laugh because I know I could never name a book that but also because it's a shame I can't even tell anyone that it's the kind of thought that pops in my mind, despite the fact I’m in a place I love, listening to good music, and surrounded by the energy of the city. My brain is an asshole.


Sky answers when I try to Facetime with Ren.

"Hi," he starts, "I know I should, but I don't really miss you at all."

And, then, "Did you buy me a building for my electric train? Because I don't want one."

"I know," I respond. "Where's Otosan?”

While I talk to Ren, Sky hams it up in the background. First, dabbing dramatically, then shoving Pink's stuffed unicorn into the camera so I can no longer see their dad, who is droning on about the broken faucet. Teenagers are complicated.


Doubling the dose of the antidepressant seems to have worked. I no longer spend all of my energy trying to avoid stepping in front of a bus or jumping off a bridge. But, the days don't feel a whole lot easier. Unwanted thoughts still pop into my head: at the cape I briefly picture myself going head first over the cliff; drinking with friends, I imagine drinking just enough to excuse a tumble off of a curb and into oncoming traffic. I'm amazed by the persistence and creativity of these thoughts that come from somewhere along the border of my conscious and subconscious mind.


On Facetime, Stow is trying to tell me something. A few hours earlier, his teacher sent me a picture of him smiling widely as he holds a filled sticker chart. His new tooth seems to have grown so much more than it should have in the six days I've been away. I can't understand what he wants to say. Something about a thing on a table next to the stairs and a big surprise. The message, in and of itself, makes little sense, but I imagine he's talking about the sticker chart and the reward. Without context, communication with Stow can seem impossible.


I listen to a playlist a friend shared with me. 237 songs. My whole life I've struggled to describe my music tastes. But, this playlist hits it. It feels like an unexpected gift, a light at the end of the tunnel.


The fog hangs low today. Maybe my first flight will be delayed. Maybe I won't make my connection. The smell of Akita cedars accompanies me as I roll my suitcase across campus to meet the taxi. In 20 hours, I will be home again, no more or less sure that I got away at all.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Don't Stop

A few years back, we got a pool as a way to help manage the kids' sensory issues and to cope with the long summers of disrupted routines. Of course, the kids have loved it, and Ren and I have enjoyed having a place to contain them during hot summer days. But, it wasn't until about a month ago that I started swimming.

Swimming at daybreak.
When I was younger, you know, before kids, I swam a lot. I also hiked and biked and played tennis. But then I started a PhD program and found a job and got pregnant, and I couldn't figure out how to do everything. So, I stopped exercising and sleeping and eating well. Very easily, I convinced myself that parenting babies and toddlers and writing a dissertation and being on the tenure track and supporting kids on the spectrum and dealing with food allergies and getting Ren through spine surgeries were all perfectly good reasons to put myself last.

Then I started swimming again. First, I swam late at night and early in the morning, still trying to accommodate everyone else's needs.

Night swimming
Eventually I started swimming during the day whenever I could squeeze it in--after work before carting kids around town, in between meetings, instead of going to church. And, soon, everyone seemed to understand that when Mom needs to swim, Mom needs to swim. I still can't take a shower or go to the bathroom or talk on the phone without someone barging in or causing a mini catastrophe, but, for whatever reason, I can swim.

Maybe I started swimming as a way to get exercise. Now, though, I swim because I realize that only when I swim can I quiet the noise in my head. The depression, it's not going away. And, things aren't getting any easier with the spectrummy behavior at our house. So many problems, I just can't seem to solve. But, when I am in the pool, the twenty to thirty minutes it takes me to knock off 1000 meters are the most peaceful moments of my day. When I swim, I don't have to think about the lies my brain is telling me or how terribly exhausted the depression makes my body feel. I don't have to worry about whether I'll get tenure or whether my book will be published or whether the class plan I have for tomorrow will succeed or fail. I don't have to physically intervene with a meltdown or restrain a small body out of control. I can't hear when the kids are fighting or someone is crying. And, I can't tune into the news. When I swim, it's just me in this body gliding through the water, breathing rhythmically, methodically counting my laps.

After a mile. Photo credit: Stow.
Watching the news this week (and especially today), seeing and hearing women scream their truths into the void of a society run by wealthy white men who don't understand or care what it is like to grow up female or poor or disenfranchised in this country, I finally realized why I'm so driven. I also understood why I need to keep swimming. Like most (all?) of the women around me, I have spent my entire life fighting to be heard, to be taken seriously. And, from that experience, I have internalized the belief that I am only worth being heard if I am stronger, fighting harder, and working longer than everyone around (while also, of course, being a wife and mother who is willing to sacrifice everything for my family). This belief is a fundamental part of my existence. It is a completely impossible ask, but it's one I've striven to achieve my entire life.

No wonder I'm so damn tired.

Today, when I got home from work, Ren had the pool ready for me to swim. Likely he hasn't paid attention to the Ford hearings and, even if he did, the ramifications of this turn of events wouldn't necessarily register with him. Still, he knew I needed to swim and didn't even protest when I walked into the house, put my work stuff on the desk, and changed into my suit without saying a word. As I neared the end of my 100 laps, I wondered how many more laps I would need to swim to approximate the emotional, physical, and existential exhaustion that have plagued me these last several months, and it occurred to me, that to achieve that, perhaps I might need to swim forever. So, I kept swimming. At lap 138, Stow came out to ask me to do something for him. "Wait for 22 more laps," I said. "I'm almost done." So, he sat and paced and crawled, and when I reached the mile mark, I climbed out of the pool and we came inside for a shower and a craft before dinner.

I can't possibly out-swim the patriarchy, and I'm not sure how to make any of this better. Most days I can’t even make measurable change in my own tiny corner of the world.

All I can do is keep swimming.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

One Year Later...

On this day a year ago, our lives ended, and then they began again. Because a year ago today, Ren had his most major spine surgery. This whole week, FB memories have been reminding me of how raw I felt heading into what I knew was going to be a huge ordeal. I had dreams of a miraculous recovery while also harboring anxieties and anger about how bad I imagined things might go. I wrote FB and blog posts as a way of coping (link and link) all the while knowing that nothing I could do would prepare me for what was to come.

He walked into the hospital (with a cane) and left in an ambulance.
Going into the surgery, it turns out we really had no idea how bad it would be--and that's saying a lot since it was Ren's sixth spine surgery. Despite all we knew about how spinal fusions could go, we were missing some pretty basic information. For example, no one told us they would remove the old hardware in order to replace it with a single rod. Looking back, this seems obvious, but at the time, neither of us realized he would be cut open from the base of his neck to his tail bone.  Later we learned that the fusion itself took about four hours, but that it took the surgeon another almost 2 hours just to close the incision. When one of the nurses finally got around to counting them, we discovered that he had 140 staples in all. One hundred and forty--like a tweet, only not.

What they removed from his spine.
Ren went into pre-op before 6 am and didn't get to his hospital room until after 7:30 that night. In the meantime, his surgery went an hour longer than the longest prediction and he spent nearly 5 hours in the recovery room as they struggled to get his heart and BP under control. Even though he was one of the first cases of the day, he was also the very last case. Around 6 pm, after I'd been waiting for 12 hours, they asked me to go into the recovery room with him because they were having such a hard time communicating with him.
And, then there was one--Pre-op at 5:48 am. Surgery finished at 2:42 pm. Still waiting at 5:22 pm.
Ren had 9 (!!!!!) surgeries before this one, but nothing had prepared me for how bad he looked in the recovery room that night. So many friends got me through that day--texting, FB messaging, bringing games and food, sitting with me. One happened to check in just as I was walking into the recovery room to discover Ren in such a terrible state. That friend surely kept me from being swallowed up by my fear and panic as I felt the floor give way beneath my feet.

The neck wasn't suppose to be an issue.
With past surgeries, the long wait on the day of surgery is normally the worst part. This time, though, July 24, 2017 was just the beginning of what I came to see as the eternal post-op of my soul (link). Even though we THOUGHT we'd seen everything over the course of the first five spine surgeries, surgery number six seemed to bring a perfect storm of all the things that could go wrong. Ren had major issues with chest pain and blood pressure management (like what happened with surgeries #1 and #4). One of the kids turned up with MRSA, even though no one had been near the hospital or near anyone who'd been near the hospital (like what happened with surgery #2). We ended up back in the ER, twice (which is one more time than after surgeries #3 or #5). All of those things were at least on our radar as possible outcomes, but what we didn't expect was for Ren to almost immediately lose the use of his right arm, eliciting concerns that the neck had suffered catastrophic damage in the process of repairing the rest of the spine.

Transport from hospital to rehab facility.
Since he couldn't feed himself or use his arms to help himself walk with a walker, Ren was sent to a rehab facility. The facility provided such shoddy care and messed up his pain and heart medications so bad that he ended up in the ER and then in the hospital for four more days. We left that stay with a new aortic aneurism diagnosis and a strong conviction to never use a rehab facility again.

Back to the ER.
When I finally managed to get Ren home after nearly three weeks in the hospital and at the rehab center, he was less able to care for himself than he had ever been. He didn't go outside again until a month post-op. And, then, a couple of weeks after that, he ended up back in the ER, this time for pulmonary emboli in both lungs.

Ren's first time outside, one month after surgery.
All this time, I was juggling Ren's care, the kids's needs, everything associated with their schooling, preparation for my classes, and anything else that needed to get done on any given day. Not surprisingly, it didn't take long for me to realize that I couldn't possibly do it all. Less surprising, of course, is that all of the people around me had figured that out way before I did. Even before I knew to ask, they had started to gather around and provide a network of support. They brought food. They encouraged me to let others step in for me at work. They watched my kids. They helped me figure out all of Ren's new medications. They ran errands. They came over after the kids were in bed to have a drink.

Bionic man: an x-ray of what Ren's spine looks like now.
Looking back over the hellish year that started with a 12-hour day of waiting but that also included the death of Ren's mom (at a time when he couldn't travel to be with his family) and a formal and heartbreakingly detailed autism diagnosis for Stow, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to do it again. But, I am also pretty sure that I learned very important lessons (ones I needed to learn) about finding my tribe and trusting (and allowing) people to step up and help. It stinks that it took 6 spine surgeries and a whole lot of pain and suffering for me to figure this stuff out, but, you know, better late than never.

About this time last year, I adopted a new motto: "I'm growing as a person, dammit." If I've learned anything through these surgeries and the kids' various struggles, it's that I am not done figuring things out, yet. I suppose that's an important lesson to learn, too.

Monday, July 23, 2018

On the Road

When I decided to call this blog post "On the Road," I figured I should quote Jack Kerouac out of context. These are the quotes that struck me as most appropriate for the tales I wanted to tell and perhaps the perfect distillation of what it means to be an autism mom.

"It all ends in tears anyway."
"I had nothing to offer anybody but my confusion."
"We agreed to love each other madly."


Every summer, I am invited to return to my alma mater and give a series of lectures. The audience is an eager one, the pay is good, and it's a great chance to see family and old friends. So, every summer we load up the family and make the 6-hour drive from our house to the university. The kids love making the trip, and there are generally no surprises or new things they need to anticipate. We stay in the same hotel and do essentially the same things. We see my parents. And Big Sissy.

Obsessed with his bowling ball.
I suppose the sheer regular-ness of the excursion lulled me into a sense of complacency because I did not anticipate that Stow would lose his shit in the ways he did on this trip. It started with battles over how much he should or shouldn't tilt his chair. Then, it turned into him refusing to keep his seatbelt on. Next, he was hitting his brother and sister and then me. Then kicking the back of the seat as hard as he could to express his discontent. By the time we got to our destination, he was threatening to jump out of the car and Ren, and I were completely spent. For the next four days, Stow proceeded to behave in ways we hadn't seen for months. He was impulsive, unpredictable, and risk seeking. He relentlessly picked on his brother and sister and reacted with aggression toward us. One night at a restaurant, he said, "I want to go back to the ho-towel!" loud and repeatedly for the entirety of the final twenty minutes it took the rest of us to finish our food. In the interim, he tried to run out of the restaurant three times.

Some of you might ask whether we did X or Y or whatever to support or distract him. I can assure you that we probably did. We have, in fact, tried to do everything to help Stow. What we haven't figure out how to do, and in fact, maybe can't do, is to help Stow figure out how to process his anxiety. Change is HARD for him. Social stories, sticking to routines, bringing along familiar lovies and toys--none of these things are doing the trick any more. But, on the bright side, I guess this last short and (supposedly) simple trip showed us that it's time to go back to the drawing board.

When we pull into the garage after a day or a month away, Stow always heaves a little sigh of relief. He is just so very happy to be home with his toys and his bed and his driveway and his yard. Hopefully, eventually, we will figure out how to make being away less stressful for him. Until then, I think we might just stick close to home.

Cucumber harvest after 4 days away.
That's probably better for the cucumbers anyway!


A week or so after we got back from our road trip, Sky and I spent the night in downtown Chicago. I made the last-minute decision to book a hotel room on that particular weekend after I realized one of my friends was playing in a local music festival that also headlined one of my favorite bands. Somehow I figured I could convince Sky to come watch live music as part of his special weekend away with me. (I was wrong, it turns out).

The day before our departure, we went to the Humane Society and got a new kitten because clearly, any changes in routine should definitely be accompanied by the introduction of a new family member (and clearly, I have not learned enough about how to parent kids on the autism spectrum). Sky worried that he would miss the most important moments in Taro's young life, so it took longer than expected to get away (and required me to calculate the approximate number of hours and days Taro would be in our lives based on average cat life expectancy in order to convince him to go at all). By the time we got on the train headed to downtown, it was already after noon.

On the way to our hotel.
Our hotel, it turns out, was about a block from the Japanese Consulate in an area we know well. Sky was most thrilled by the tall buildings. Then I took him to have some Ghirardelli chocolate and to the LEGO store, and he lost his mind. After wandering for a couple of hours, Sky insisted on going back to the hotel room so he could build the LEGO set he'd bought. Turns out cable television and early 2000s comedies are also mind-blowing because we spent the next two hours in the hotel room while he built his LEGO set and watched Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Despite my best efforts, I could not convince him to come with me to the music festival, and given that I'd let Pink do her thing on the farm, I knew I owed it to Sky to let this trip go at his pace.

Sometimes you just need to go look at LEGO.
Sky was gracious enough to agree to have dinner with a fellow ASD mom-blogger friend and her kids, and he even agreed to be patient while my friend and I quickly tried to catch up on the four years since we'd managed to have dinner last. I can't tell you how reassuring (and completely disconcerting) it is to hear someone describe the insanity in their own lives in practically identical terms to the way you describe your own. If you're reading this blog because you have a kid on the spectrum, reach out! Being able to talk to people who actually KNOW what this is like may just be the thing that keeps you sane.

Tall buildings as viewed from our hotel bathroom.
Sky had anxiety about walking back to the hotel after dinner and also about using a ride service, so my friend graciously agreed to drop us off at the hotel in her Uber. (God bless friends who accommodate random anxieties! I mean, really.) After another quick walk among the tall, familiar buildings, he settled in for a Harry Potter marathon. I fell asleep AND woke up to the sound of a Harry Potter movie. After breakfast, I'd hoped to get Sky to a museum, but when I asked him what he wanted to do, he said he wanted to do the exact same things we'd done the day before.

So, we did.


"It all ends in tears anyway."
"I had nothing to offer anybody but my confusion."
"We agreed to love each other madly."

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Down(,) on the Farm

Back in May, before I left all three kids home with Ren for 25 days, I promised each of them we’d do something special together once I got back. They jumped at the idea.
“I want to go to farmer’s market and eat Mexican ice, pet animals at the pet store, and then go read at Starbucks!” announced Pink.

“I want to stay up late with you and watch Star Wars,” said Sky.

“Let’s buy candy!” exclaimed Stow.
First of all, awwww.

And, second of all, geez, they have low expectations! When I told them I was thinking about doing something more substantial, they each just kept adding to the list of things we already do, somehow making me feel bad that we’ve worn them down to the point of expecting not much at all. 

In fact, we do take them to do some pretty great things, but it’s probably also true that they couldn’t fathom what I meant because I’d never been able to imagine going away alone with one of them before now. After all, until this year, taking one of them while Ren stayed home with the other two seemed impossible. Ren’s back has stabilized some, though, so I decided to try it. 

When they realized I would take each kid somewhere special for a night, Pink wanted to go to a farm, Sky wanted to go to Chicago, and Stow just wanted to go to a "ho-tower" (his word for hotel)--it didn't seem to matter where. To his credit, Ren agreed to this plan even though I hadn't consulted with him in advance. Thank goodness Ren's cool like that!

Last night marked step one in this new experiment; Pink and I stayed at a farm B and B. The B and B is a place I'd visited it as part of preliminary research for a student project, and since the farm has cows, sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, dogs, and cats, I immediately decided Pink P would love it there.

Helping look for eggs.
The two of us arrived at the farm just after lunch time. By dinner Pink had located and named all seven of the farm cats, found a bunch of chicken and duck eggs, fed the calves, and helped corral a particularly skittish sheep. For dinner, we managed to find a pizza place that had a gluten-free option. Sure her pepperoni pizza with no cheese cost $18, but apparently that's the cost of quality time away when your kid has food allergies! Over dinner, we laughed harder than I’ve laughed in long, long time as we talked about all the crazy things Stow has done lately, so I guess that pizza was worth it. 

Giant dogs soon became Pink's BFFs.
When we got back to the farm after dinner, there was a fire going in the fire pit, so we stayed up late roasting marshmallows and making new friends. 

S'more fire.
In the morning, after helping with chores and eating an allergy-friendly fresh farm breakfast, we headed back to "civilization." When it was time to go, Pink cried. She was going to miss the animals and the alone time with me.....but mostly the animals. We both were going to miss the reprieve from daily life with two brothers on the spectrum. 

Pink's anxieties about going home were well-founded; within five minutes of stepping into the house, Stow had a massive meltdown and pulled Pink’s hair hard enough to get a fistful of it. In fact, he's been out of sorts every since we left--it's funny (and really, really hard) how the slightest changes impact him so. The immediacy of Stow's meltdown served as a stark reminder of the limits to what I can do for my kids, but it also reinforced for me the importance of giving each kid time to decompress away from the fray.
Farm bedroom

Morning on the farm.
In general, I’ve come out on the other side of the severe depression. But, I’m still not sleeping all that well, and I'm still struggling to keep my head above water. While being at the farm with Pink made her tremendously happy, it also helped me see I still have work to do until I am back to where I was a couple of months ago. So, you know, one step at a time. In the meantime, I'll keep looking at these pictures of sunrise and sunset on the farm and listening to good music and getting up in the morning and facing the new day with as much resolve as I can muster. For now, I guess that'll have to be good enough.

Friday, June 29, 2018


The last time I really slept was more than a month ago. Most nights, like tonight, my brain spins with problems I need to but can't solve, and my body tells me I can't sleep until I fix at least SOMETHING. But, I don't even know which parts are broken much less how to fix them, so I wander--literally and figuratively. On the worst nights, I drive, hurtling further and further into the darkness in search of answers. Most nights, though, I spend wandering through the rooms of our house or into remote corners of the internet.

Wandering in late-night Kyoto.
In college, when my depression was undiagnosed and unmanaged, I avoided real sleep and chose instead to  string together a series of 20-minute naps over the course of any given night. When I did try to sleep longer than that, I found it easier to relax on the floors of friends' dorm rooms far from all the things that were worrying me. After I moved to Japan in my twenties, I had a standing invitation to use the hammock my fellow teacher had strung across her living room. She lived 10 miles away along windy mountain roads, but I still found myself there often. I can't think of a more generous act than letting someone sleep with you like that.

These days, it's a little harder to accommodate my wandering sleep habits. In fact, these days, a lot of of the self-preservation techniques I developed the LAST time I struggled with depression 25 years ago feel completely out of reach. Special needs co-parenting with a disabled spouse has shown me that ignoring my needs is the best way to get through most days, even it is a terrible idea.

Despite the reappearance of my symptoms, everyone else's needs haven't suddenly and miraculously disappeared. Ren still loses hours and days to pain and depression. Stow still melts down and engages in risky behavior. Sky still goes into anxiety spirals and wreaks havoc with his lack of empathy. The kids still need to get places and do things. Dinner still needs to be served. Clothes need to be washed and bodies bathed. And, of course, someone needs to make some money to keep the whole thing running. Who has time to be depressed? I mean, really!

Ironically, this experience will probably turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. Constantly running myself ragged and ignoring my own health is a terrible way to parent. I've known this for awhile but didn't see a compelling reason to change. Funny*** how depression has a way of forcing me to.

***By "funny," I probably mean "this is totally irritating and completely annoying," but since I haven't had much sleep, it's really hard to know.

Also, if you haven't read it, I recommend the short story "Sleep" by Murakami Haruki. It's in a collection called The Elephant Vanishes. "The Second Bakery Attack" and "The Elephant Vanishes" in the same collection are also pretty great.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Life Goes On, Really

Today I laughed, I mean really laughed, for the first time in a long, long time. Sure, it was inappropriate and in reaction to Stow's misuse of the word "attitude," and, sure, my laughter led him to throw pillows and then punches at me, but eventually, he was laughing, too.

Stow re-enacts his heroic efforts to "survive" the flash flood that happened on campus today when the storm drains clogged and our car was surrounded by rushing water a few inches deep. The tall fry is me, and the ketchup is the water.
Also today, the boys got haircuts, and the girl had fun at horse camp. Something that felt like progress happened at the kids' therapy session, and the teenager actually smiled.

Plus, no one cried.

Produce from our vegetable garden.
Life does indeed go on.

(Pssst. Click on the last sentence to read the previous post if you haven't read it already. Or go back to the the first post in this series about mental health  and read from there..)

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Life Goes On

Bedtime tonight looked a lot like the apocalypse as three children fought over who was in charge of picking up the Lego, who was in charge of picking up the train tracks, and who was in charge of picking up Ultraman guys. Stow exercised the typical little brother tactic of walking off the job. Sky, whose voice is now at least an octave lower than it was six months ago, employed his man voice having discovered that yelling at people has a much greater impact than it did when he sounded like a child. Pink, who has learned to ignore the yelling, taunted the yeller, a strategic move that never ends well for her. Listening to it unfold from upstairs, I imagined limbs entangled in a dust ball of a fight like in the old Loony Tunes cartoons.

Ultraman guys as visual representation of the number of times I've traveled to Japan for work over the past however many years.

At one point, Stow came up, angry that I persisted in requiring these things be picked up (a request that was at least four hours old by that point) and threatened to break the lamp (our lamps take it on the chin, you guys) before coming at me with a phone handset. Fortunately, he's just barely this side of holding it together, so instead of getting clocked in the head with the phone, I got hugged aggressively (for the seventh or eighth time today), before he pulled it together enough to go back down to help. Not long after, Sky and Pink stomped their way upstairs to bed.

Ren had already retreated before the bedtime smackdown unfolded.  I know he heard it, but he didn't intervene. His leg pain is back, and after ten days of dealing with my depression (and 25 days before that parenting the kids alone), he'd hit his wall. I wasn't surprised or even disappointed by this; he made it longer than I expected he would. Both of us are married to someone who suffers depression--mine lifelong, his situational, the product of severe and chronic pain and of being so far from home and parenting kids on the spectrum--so I suppose the bright side is that we understand what the other is experiencing even if we don't have the resources to help.


When you come out the other side after a serious bout of depression, it feels a bit like you've re-entered the Earth's atmosphere in a spaceship that has a cracked heat shield. You can't believe you made it back, and, also, you feel pretty fried.

In that fuzzy state when you've transitioned from the sheer terror of ideations and a brain on the fritz to the more familiar general malaise of life with chronic depression, it's hard to figure out how how to piece things together again. The easiest way, of course, is to just go back to whatever it is you were doing before the crisis--you know, to pretend you didn't just go through days or weeks of hell. To keep going to therapy and taking the medication.To focus on work and the kids. To go out with friends. To distract yourself with television or mindless games. To exercise more. Only, it feels a little harder to do these things because you are less and less sure that anything really helps.

Plus, you don't come out the other side into a vacuum. You come straight back into real life after having lost days, weeks, or even months to the darkness that sought to overtake you. There's no trophy for outrunning it again, no celebration that somehow you made it through. Instead, you dust yourself off and keep running, slower, winded and limping, but moving forward. Life goes on because it has to, and you figure out how to go on with it because, really, that's your only choice.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Moe's List of Things You Can Take Away from Her (Gross) Oversharing

When I was deep in it while far from home a couple of weeks ago, the only person I told was a friend thousands of miles away. "You need to tell [the person your traveling with]," she said. "If your leg was broken, he'd want to help. This is no different."

Though I really didn't want to, I took her advice because I knew I needed to let someone closer know. But, I'm not sure I agreed with her assessment; I think the way our society thinks about mental illness IS different. Despite how much our medical system has evolved over the last 100 years, mental health issues are still treated as somehow less acceptable than all the other ways in which a body can let a person down.

I experienced my first severe depression when I was 18, an event triggered by a career-ending tennis injury and subsequent surgery. I went off to college that year hardly able to walk, and although my knee eventually recovered, I spent the next four years battling a depression I didn't want to admit I had. Depression gives you a certain empathy, and in my case, it led me to be actively involved with the student counseling center on campus. At the end of my senior year, the head therapist, who had become a good friend by that point, said to me, "Moe, You've done everything in your power to deal with this. Sometimes, though, it's just out of your control. Sometimes it really is just a matter of chemistry."

I had done everything--hours of therapy, prayer, meditation, exercise, lifestyle changes--but I had refused to consider medication. To me, taking an antidepressant was akin to failure because I didn't really grasp what my friend was reminding me of a couple of weeks ago. Depression is not a personal failure; it's the body's way of responding poorly to a host of internal and external factors. And, along with a whole bunch of other mental illnesses, we need to talk about it.

Depression and anxiety don't define me any more than my nearsightedness or my flat-footedness. Though I can't imagine a conversation in which I describe in great detail my use of orthotics, I suspect most people would be more comfortable with that conversation than with one about the ways in which my brain has been messing with me the past few weeks. That's why I've been writing these posts. Mental health struggles shouldn't be a secret. We need to be able to think about depression and anxiety and all the other mental health issues in the same way we think about a broken leg or an astigmatism.

I will be okay. I've been through this before. And, if/when I ever feel that I will not be okay, I have assembled a safety net of people I've promised to let know. But, I am sure there are people all around us who are still fighting this fight largely alone--afraid or unable to get the support they need. Chances are, they are people like me--highly successful and driven and with a sense of humor perfect for masking what's going on. Being vulnerable is hard. Being vulnerable regarding your mental health feels impossible.

If you've been reading my blog for awhile, you know I'm a fan of lists. So, here's a list for you:

  1. We need each other. And, we need to be okay being vulnerable.
  2. It's okay to ask for and receive help. One day you will be able to return the favor.
  3. Having mental health issues doesn't make you weak. In fact, you're probably the strongest person you know.
  4. Every day that you keep going in the midst of your mental health struggle is a tremendous victory. Try to celebrate it and know that one day it won't be so hard any more.
  5. Sometimes your family can't help. Mental health issues are hardest on the ones you love the most, so it's okay to look for support outside your immediate family.
  6. Sometimes the best way you can help a struggling friend is to keep talking to them. Don't pity them or patronize them. They don't want to worry you but probably really, really need someone to be present with them and treating them the same way they've always been treated.
  7. Total "recovery" from mental health issues is probably not a realistic goal. Think about ways to embrace and accept this part of yourself.
  8. Learning to live with things like depression can actually help you tap areas of strength you didn't know you had. For me, it's writing. I often write better when I am depressed, and at the very least, depression motivates me to put to words things I wouldn't normally talk about.
  9. It's up to all of us to remove the stigma around mental illness. We must teach our young people to do this differently.
  10. If not us, then who will take these hushed whispers and turn them into a collective roar for change?

Monday, June 18, 2018

Day Three

Pink wants to know if today is the day that I won't sleep on the couch for hours at a time. She asks how long it usually takes for jet lag to wear off. I explain to her about depression, so then she starts telling me the best jokes she knows.

Stow wants my attention. He comes to me frantic about his train, his tummy, his sister, his window. He hits me in frustration when my responses are slow and sloppy. I turn him away when he asks me to go downstairs and play with him. I can't possibly muster the energy it would take to play.

My chest feels like someone has filled it with quick drying concrete that hardens as it seeps into my stomach and down to my legs. The simplest tasks feel insurmountable. I'm able to make it through the grocery store but can't face putting gas in the car or picking up a prescription. The kids have a swim lesson that I'm not sure I will make it through.

This pizza felt like a herculean achievement.
Ren's patience wears thin. Under his breath, but loud enough for me to hear, he says, "She's back, but I am still doing everything myself." Supine on the couch, I don't disagree. Sleep beckons me in the middle of the day. At night I lie awake hour after hour as it eludes me replaced by anxiety dreams and a buzzing in my brain that can't be shut off.

This is not my A game, or my B game, or even my C game. This isn't really even coping. In my head, I know that it will get better (it always does), but I also know that it could take awhile. I don't have awhile; being a mom in a special needs family means I'm operating on borrowed time already. Still, my only choice is to put one foot in front of the other, to wake up each morning and to try again, to hope that tomorrow will be a little easier than today, and to pray that somehow everyone else can keep it together just enough to avoid complete catastrophe.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Game: An Anxiety-fueled Post at 3 AM

The other part of it, of course, is the anxiety. My anxiety is as old as my memory. When I was six, I insisted I go to bed at 6:45 pm EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. for I was convinced I'd never be able to sleep if I didn't. Bless my parents, they accommodated this demand and then spent many nights sitting up with me as I cried well past midnight. By fifth grade, my anxiety had expanded and taken over; I cried every single day for the first six weeks of school filled with worry about things I didn't have words for. It's hard to make friends and be liked when you're constantly crying for no reason, so eventually I learned how to internalize those feelings and instead would start awake each morning gripped with a sense of terror that ripped me from my dreams and set my stomach on edge. That's when I stopped eating breakfast.

By seventh grade, I decided the only way to deal with anxiety was to take complete control of any and everything I could. Sure, that led me to develop an eating disorder, but I was also a straight A student, star athlete, and successful musician. That summer I shot 100 free throws, served 100 tennis balls, and rode my bike 10-15 miles every day. It turns out perfectionism is a pretty effective way to deal with anxiety; it drives you to be the very best at everything, even if doing so isn't well-advised or necessary. The downside of course is that when you're striving to be perfect, you miss a heck of a lot along the way.

Eventually, I internalized my coping strategies so deeply, that it wasn't until recently that I understood how much my anxiety still controls my life. Parenting has a way of highlighting these kinds of things for you, especially when your children start to exhibit some of the same behaviors you remember struggling with as a kid.

Texts from Sky; he outgrew size 12 but hasn't grown into size 14....
During the three plus weeks that I was in Japan for work, Sky frantically texted me almost every day. The nature of the texts were largely the same--they either highlighted for me whatever was going horribly wrong at home or repeatedly asked me to walk him through something that was happening or about to happen. Autism and anxiety go hand in hand, and Sky's anxiety is absolutely brutal. From thousands of miles away and with my own anxiety percolating just below the tipping point, I eventually had to stop answering his texts and hope that somehow Ren was on top of it.

These are just the moms I managed to fit into the screen shot.

Calling home didn't go much better. The first Skype call ended in a wrestling match. During the second, a lamp got broken. I stopped calling after that. For kids on the spectrum, change is hard. Reminding them of that change by calling leads to chaos, so as awful as it seems (and is), it's actually better for me just to disappear when I am gone.  Fewer interactions meant slightly less anxiety for all of us.

Even as I felt things falling apart for me on the depression front while I was away, I also knew that my family wasn't the place where I could find solace or respite. We love one another fiercely, but mental health issues are hard on everyone. Special needs parenting requires your A game, and if you can't bring it, you don't get the option of sitting this one out. Your best (and only) hope is that the other parent can be on their A game while you try to hobble alongside offering support where you can.

In the first 24 hours I was home, Stow broke a door, attacked his sister over a couple of Hotwheels cars (causing her to have a pretty scary asthma incident), wept uncontrollably multiple times at the thought that I don't love him, and ran away twice. When I tried to introduce the kids to a new board game, Sky got so anxious that he gave himself a nosebleed bad enough to convince me that he was patient zero for a new Ebola outbreak. It took two of us to help him get it under control and to keep him from passing out in the middle of the kitchen. I spent the rest of the afternoon in bed with headphones on and a towel over my eyes. At dinner, which didn't happen until 9 p.m., Stow spilled a plate of curry, eliciting an unwanted critique of plate carrying methods from his brother who didn't, of course, extend his helpfulness to assisting us with the clean-up.

Stow's "Welcome Home" note for me: "Please don't leave me like that. (heart heart). How much I love you __________ Moons."
Mercifully, despite the fact he single parented for 25 days (the longest stretch, yet), Ren senses where things are for me and has managed to stay on his A game so far. I know the limits of his reserves, though, so I'm hoping to turn things around quickly and take on some of this load.

First, though, I really need to figure out how to get some sleep.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Safety Net

Not long ago, I got back from trip to Japan where I participated in some exciting and hopefully life-changing work, but I also had a pretty significant mental health regression while I was there. Normally, I don't write much about the mental health aspects of my/our lives, but given the high profile suicides that happened while I was in Japan and given a recent post by one of my fellow autism mom bloggers describing her very recent suicide attempt, I think it's important to add my voice to this conversation that so desperately needs to go from hushed whispers to an unrestrained collective roar.

Shallow river
Depression is terrifying. One minute you can be doing just fine and the next you're totally overtaken by the grim calculations of suicidal ideations--if I jumped from this bridge, would I die or would I just break my legs or back? If I land just right, would I hit my head and drown? Is that door frame high enough, and how would I need to tie the sash to make sure it holds and my feet don't touch the floor? At which spot on the train platform is the train moving fastest, and if I jumped, would I be able to do so without anyone stopping me? .......

Eight stories
Eight stories should be high enough, but can I get over this wall and scale the safety fence fast enough to avoid being caught? If I step in front of this truck, could the driver brake in time? How can I be sure he doesn't swerve and hit something/someone else? These thoughts come at you regardless of where you are, what you're doing, or what you should be doing.

Some days, you spend a lot of energy just making sure your feet stay firmly rooted to the ground. Waiting at a crosswalk with friends, you find yourself stepping behind them--in a move subtle enough that they probably don't notice--because you know you need that extra barrier between you and your demise. You exhaust yourself as you try to shut out those thoughts and you recalculate your routes so you aren't crossing any bridges or using stations without security gates between you and the track. Some days, you hand over the obi to your pajamas and your car keys to an unsuspecting friend/colleague/spouse and hope he/she doesn't question why. Those days you know it's just a matter of making it until morning because you know that when the sun rises again, you will have bettered the depression, at least for one more day.

Sometimes depression finds you sitting on the floor of the train station at midnight, too overwhelmed to go home, too overwhelmed not to go home. You'll discover you're crying only when a nice young man and his girlfriend come to ask in anxious and broken English, "Are you okay? Need help?" And, you will lie and say you're waiting for a friend, which turns out not to be a lie entirely because you do need a friend to save you but you don't know how to ask for that or how anyone could ever possibly save you from the noise in your head. After the guard kicks you out of the station and you find yourself sitting next to a drunk homeless man, you might find the strength to text someone, and if you're lucky, they will come sit with you or they will stay on their phone, talking/texting you through making your way back to the hotel. Sometimes, they may even let you sleep on their floor so you don't have to spend a long night alone with the buzzing in your brain.

Depression tells you that there is no way you can go on like this. And you know this is true, but you you're not sure what to do about it. On the days when the depression isn't as crushing, you let some people know what's going on. And, somehow, those people work out ways to help; they share Spotify playlists, and YouTube videos, and FB memes. They invite you to do something fun months in advance to give you something to look forward to. They tell you how amazing they think you are and remind you of all the good you do in the world. None of these things is actually enough, but you tell yourself the glass is half full, and you hold on tight to them. You try to string together the little joys (when you can find them) into a chimera of hope, fragile and unsustainable. You see your therapist. You adjust your meds, and you pray like hell for it to get better.

The more you do all of these things, the more you come to understand that, for better or worse, depression is just part of who you are. You cannot separate yourself from it, and no one can take it from you. You realize that the life you lead will not be the one you hoped for, but you will discover that if you give people who care for you a chance, they will show you tremendous grace in the midst of your worst moments.

All I can tell you is the same thing I tell myself--hang on. I know the herculean effort it takes to make it through any given day. On those days that you can, reach out to others and start to string together a safety net. The work you are doing is hard, but it is so very, very important that you keep doing it.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Searching for Manna, Part 4

Part 1

Ruth zipped her coat, pulled up her hood and stepped back into the cold. She walked to the edge of the woods and yelled twice. There was no answer. For all of the light outside the Fletcher house, the woods were surprisingly dark. She needed a flashlight.

"Do you have a flashlight in here anywhere?" Ruth asked her mom as she opened the car door. Her mom looked up from the piece of yarn she had unravelled from her glove.


Ruth looked at the Fletcher's "Greatest Christmas Spectacle Ever." The light was still on in the dining room. She crossed the road and walked along the edge of the yard around to the side of the house. Instead of theme bushes, it was surrounded by words spelled in white lights. To the left of the one that said "Feliz Navidad" there was a sidewalk that was gradually vanishing under new snow. Ruth stepped over the red ribbon. The music grew louder as she got closer to the house and then faded once she was behind the speakers. For a moment, she wanted to slip behind one of the giant firs and pretend she was 007.

The bell surprised her. She expected it to play a tune like "Jingle Bells" or "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." It didn't. No one answered, so she rang it again. A middle-aged man, in at­shirt and worn brown corduroys and no shoes or socks came to the door. She could tell from the pictures that it was Mr. Fletcher. He had a beer in his hand and was smoking a cigar.


"I 'm so sorry to bother you this late on Christmas. We've lost someone. Do you have a flashlight?"

Ruth expected concern or sympathy or at least curiosity. Instead, he said, "Just a minute," and left her standing in the entryway. In the room straight ahead and a little to the left, Ruth saw that he was in the middle of a game of poker. Two men and a woman sat at the table. The woman was chewing on a piece of pizza, holding it in her left hand, mulling over the cards in her right hand. Looking beyond the people at the poker table, Ruth saw a grey-haired woman sleeping on the couch.

Mr. Fletcher came back with a MagLite, a flare and some matches. He handed her the flashlight first.

"I don't know if the batteries are any good," he said. "If not, try this." He handed her the flare. "Just leave them in the mail box when you're done."

He smiled. It was a genuine smile. Ruth turned to go. The people at the poker table wished her a Merry Christmas. She walked back through the yard and past the car. Her mom got out.

"You coming with me?"

Ruth's mom didn't answer. She followed her to the woods. Ruth turned on the MagLite. The light was dim but usable. Besides her sixth grade camp-out, she could not remember ever being in the woods at night.

The beam from the flashlight bounced off the trees, sections of it disappearing completely into the darkness of the woods. The trees went much deeper than they appeared to from the road. The two women waded in. They walked slowly and carefully, each step sounding vaguely like two styrofoam coolers rubbing together. Ruth swept the woods with the narrow beam of light. From within the trees, the Fletcher's was no brighter than a few lighters held up by enthusiastic fans before a rock concert.

They went into the woods a few feet and then moved laterally. "Dad," she called into the trees. It occurred to Ruth that he would be a lot easier to find in day light. She supposed they couldn't wait that long. She yelled again. Something moved a few feet further in. They stopped and then moved cautiously forward. Ruth's dad was burrowed in the snow under a fir tree twenty feet into the woods. His lips were still pink. Ruth knew he hadn't been there too long. He reminded her of the baby Jesus sleeping in the manger. A baby some said would change the world. A baby sleeping under the stars, resting on his mother's breast not yet aware of what it is to hurt, to fear, to distrust--one who didn't realize that at any moment his mother's arms could spread open and take flight, allowing him to go tumbling to the ground.

The End

Friday, April 20, 2018

Searching For Manna, Part 3

Part 1

Ruth crossed the street toward the house. It was "The Greatest Christmas Spectacle Ever," a place owned and run by Bob Fletcher. He and his wife had been accumulating Christmas decorations for years. The lights on the house blinked intermittently. Across the sky, above their heads, a plastic Santa in a plastic sleigh pulled by plastic reindeer moved back and forth on a cable strung from the roof of the house to a utility pole across the street. When it moved forward, the light was on, giving Santa a jolly-red glow. When it reached the utility pole and began to move backward to the roof, the light went off.

Ruth stopped with her shins touching the rope of red bows tied to candy canes that kept people from walking across the Fletcher's yard. Maybe they didn't want footprints mucking up the snow. The yard was divided into sections and cluttered with plastic statues and mechanical dolls. There was a fake pond with fake skaters who spun and moved in figure eights and sang "Winter Wonderland." There were polar bears, and four different manger scenes, one of which had three wise men that actually walked and pointed at the Star of Bethlehem overhead. Each of the trees and bushes had a different theme. One was wrapped in white lights with yellow bows and had a sign hanging from it which read, pray for Peace." Another was covered with big primary colored light bulbs and had all of the Disney characters hanging from it. Mickey was Santa, and Goofy was an elf.

Ruth thought it must cost hundreds of dollars in electricity alone to make this place run. She wondered if the light made it hard for them to sleep. Maybe they had black shades to pull over the windows and keep the light out. Ruth looked at one of the windows. Instead of seeing black shades, she saw directly into their dining room. It was gold colored. They must have just finished dessert, she thought. It occurred to her that the music must be bothersome too.

She thought about the endless tangles in the hundreds of feet of cord that powered this spectacle, imagining trying to find the one burnt bulb that kept the peace tree from lighting and cut the electricity off from two of the manger scenes. Ruth wondered what the yard looked like when the sun was out and there wasn't any snow. She could picture the orange heavy-duty extension cords that bound the trees and wove through the grass like poisonous snakes. Perhaps the whole thing became a giant electrical field when it rained or snowed. That's the real reason for the red­ ribbon, Ruth thought.

Next to the parking lot, across the road from the Fletcher house was what looked like a little shrine. Ruth walked to it. There were hundreds of pictures taped to it, pictures of people-­singles, couples, families--all of them standing with their arms across Mr. Fletcher's shoulder. Ruth had left her camera at home. It just as well, she thought, it's late. She tried to imagine their picture on the wall--Ruth and her mom with their arms around Mr. Fletcher's shoulder, and her dad standing behind, all of them grinning like the people in the other pictures.

On the ledge inside the stand, there was a painted coffee can with a sign that read, "Please donate to make the Fletcher's display an annual tradition." Ruth wondered how many coffee cans full of money it took to cover the electrical bill. Next to the can was a register for all of the guests who had visited "The Greatest Christmas spectacle Ever." There were names from as near as Letts and Madison and as far as Ohio, Illinois, and even California and Maine. It occurred to Ruth that this place was a beacon that drew people out of the dark, if only for a moment.

She turned back toward the car. Her mom was standing next to it smoking a cigarette. She didn't see her dad.

"What do you think?" Ruth's mom asked.

"It's something."

"It sure is." Her mom looked up toward the giant star which flashed over the house and exhaled a stream of smoke which concealed itself in the whiteness of her breath.

Ruth and her mother didn't make eye contact. They both wondered how long he would take. They'd been there for nearly thirty minutes. The wind began to bite them through the layers of clothing they were wearing. Ruth got into the car, turned the ignition, and flipped the heat to high. They sat in the front seat, waiting for it to warm up. Ruth began to consider the possibilities. He probably got lost on the way back from the port-a-let or forgot where they parked. Or maybe he slipped and hit his head and was bleeding to death somewhere in the woods. The idea intrigued her. Maybe he was dead. A part of her hoped that it was true. She wanted to leave. She was tired of waiting.

"Do you think he's coming back? It's been almost an hour."

"I don't know."

Ruth couldn't tell if her mom was scared, sad, or relieved. "I guess I should go look for him, huh?"

"I'll go with you." Ruth's mom said pulling her white glove back onto her hands and buttoning the one button on her dress coat.

"No, you're not dressed for it."

Part 4

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Searching for Manna, Part 2

Searching for Manna, Part 1 is here.

The snow rushed before them, through the headlights, at the windshield and on over the top of the car. Ruth gasped like she was taking her final breath before trying to swim the length of the pool without coming up for air. Her mom turned up the heater. Warmth burst from the vent. The windshield clouded and then cleared. She pushed her way back into the upholstery. They drove for five more minutes and then ten, making their way deeper and deeper in to a darkness they didn't want to be in but couldn't turn away from.

They drove through Napolean. The buildings were dark, and the streetlights reflected dimly off of the crumbling buildings and the cheap Christmas decorations--red and white candy canes, green Christmas trees, gold stars of David, all of which whipped in the wind looking a lot like giant pipe cleaners. The sign in front of The First Bank of Napolean displayed the vital information 27°, 10:52 pm.

Ruth's dad began to snore in the back seat. It occurred to her that he should have been driving. He knew these roads better than anyone. They were the roads of his youth, of winding rides on rickety school buses to every one stop sign town in southern Indiana. These were the roads where he had learned first to drive and then to fly. She hadn't been this way since she was a girl.

Three miles outside of Napolean, they encountered their first oncoming car. It seemed like a good sign. It can't be too much further, now she thought.

Her mother asked meaningless questions. So, what were Jeff's plans for Christmas? Do you still have that green blazer we bought on sale last fall? How come you never wear it? They were the same questions she always asked. Sylvie couldn't let her focus be drawn from the road.

Another set of headlights appeared faintly in the distance. Ruth could tell that the oncoming vehicle was moving fast. She braced herself. For a moment, she could no longer see the lines on the road. The truck barreled past, and she felt the passenger-side tires rumble on the edge of the pavement. She imagined their car springing from the road, climbing and somersaulting into the crisp black sky, eventually landing softly, upside down in the snow-layered fields. There would be no pain or discomfort, only rest, absence of motion. The car slid back across the center line and toward the driver side ditch. She regained control without using the brake.

They drove on in silence. Above the trees, in the distance, the two women began to sense a pulsating light.

“That must be it,” Ruth said.

Soon, they were part of the dome of light which flickered and flashed against the falling snow. Ruth felt herself becoming part of it. She could picture it--the little 4 door sedan sliding along this road where the cornfields start to give way to the glacial hills of the terminal moraine--as if they were preserved by the dome of light like in one of those paperweights with falling snow that settles and can be shaken again, at once peaceful and chaotic.

When they got there they found a makeshift parking lot on the side of the road opposite the house. There was just enough shoulder for two or three cars to pull off of the road at one time. She eased the car into the first available space. The odometer read thirty-two miles.

Her father woke up, climbed out of the back seat, and walked into the woods without saying a word. She was used to this. There were many nights while she was growing up that he didn't come home at all. Her mother would make excuses. Your father had to work late out of town, so he's staying in a hotel, she would say, or the roads are slick, we both thought it was better if he didn't come home until morning. It took Ruth a long time to see through the lies.

"Too much beer?" said Ruth, getting out of the car.

"I don't know," her mom replied, never facing her, walking toward the house.

As long as she could remember, Ruth's mom never betrayed him.

Part three is here.