Monthly Archives: September 2009

Winding Down: Days with my Papa

DSC_4413He wakes with a start in his bedroom, the alarming sounds of his mind and body regaining consciousness causing me to jump in the next room.  I eventually hear the inch-scritch-inch-scritch of the walker as the 90-year old makes his way across the room to his bathroom, and many long minutes later he emerges into the kitchen, small tufts of grey hair disheveled and mouth gaping in shock at finding himself in a world that must become less familiar day by day.

I move slowly and carefully in the kitchen, attempting to prepare breakfast the way he likes it without confusing him.  Deciding whether I ought to save him the ten-foot walk to the front door for his morning paper or if this disruption to his routine would require so many loud and repeated explanations – It’s already on your chair, Papa; in the den, I brought it in for you – as to outweigh its usefulness.  I wash the blueberries and strawberries he requested when I asked what he’d like me to pick up at the grocery store.  Grandma seems to think we should have some berries for our cereal, he had said, despite the fact that Grandma is in a hospital bed downtown and we are here, at the senior apartment complex.  Setting his place at the spot that’s easiest for him to get to with the walker, and quietly leaving extra napkins because he spills an awful lot since his stroke last year. Checking to see that his 7-day pill organizer is on the table and the milk for his Cheerios is in the expected pitcher, within reach and not too heavy for him.

I make coffee for myself, a necessity after sleeping on the floor in his living room night after night, and its presence here confuses him.  I know he no longer drinks it, and that all they had in the house was weak and decaffeinated.  He stands in the middle of the kitchen, frozen in place, hands gripping the walker, and stares at his coffee maker for a long while as it glub-glubs my very dark miracle drink into its carafe.  I stand by him silently, waiting for him to make the connection.  Finally it clicks: You made some coffee? I assure him it is just for me and it’s caffeineated, but that I’ll make him a pot of decaf if he’d like some. No, no, he murmurs, and eventually turns back toward the table to spend the next thirty-five minutes on a bowl of cold cereal with berries.

*****

We are ready to leave the apartment no earlier than eleven o’clock each day.  It has taken at least three hours to eat breakfast and get dressed.  This gives me time to do their laundry, clean out the refrigerator, water the plants.  I walk Papa down to the lobby, get him situated in a chair, and walk to get the car – the one neither of them can drive and that has been promised to relatives.  I drive to the main entrance, help him into the passenger seat, and store the walker in the trunk.  This ritual is reminiscent of my days with the boys’ strollers and I repeat it several times a day.  He’ll use a wheelchair when we get to the hospital, however, because Grandma’s room is many long corridors away from the hospital entrance.  He argues that it’s too much for me to push, but in truth it’s no great weight for me and I prefer it to inching our way through the hospital as he uses up all of his strength on one leg of the walk.  Knowing it would be impossible for him to push it, I say very little.

My grandfather, who has lived in this town for over 70 years, directs me to the hospital with determination and apparent confidence.  It very quickly becomes clear that he has taken me off course and has no idea whatsoever where we are.  He stares out the window, and no matter how slowly I drive or what landmarks I point out to him, he cannot grasp where he is.  However, he continues to belt out directions.  Yes, take a right up here, I know you’ll hit State St. and Keep going down this road, and you’ll see 91 up there.  You can take that instead. There is no State St. nor is there a Route 91 where we are, for we have left town and are sailing out into the next village.  It is pouring rain and I am hungry; we are nowhere near the hospital.  My GPS won’t pick up our location, and my heart sinks.  I read Papa the next major landmark sign and he finally says, Aw, shit, I took you all the way to Chicopee? I say nothing, just calmly begin to stop at successive gas stations to find my way there.  We pass through three other towns before we finally arrive, because my grandfather continually insists that what I am doing is wrong and he does know the way now.  We spend an hour and a half getting to a medical center that is in the town where he lives.  He seems embarrassed but perhaps more befuddled than anything. Upon our arrival, I tell my grandmother that we had some stops to make along the way.  You know, that medicine we had to pick up, I tell her.  And you were almost out of toilet paper.

*****

Neither of my grandparents could live alone, but somehow they muddle through together.  They’re a matched set.  I’m not sure how a blind woman could make this living situation work for him, but she does.  However, she’s been gone for a few weeks now, and even if she gets to a rehabilitation program this week she’ll be gone for many more weeks.  And when she’s out, will she be strong enough to keep this up, this independent living situation?

*****

As I prepare emotionally to leave on the fifth day, I don’t know the answers to their future.  I have a sense that it’s not going to be especially long, nor overly comfortable for anyone, but I don’t know what should be done and how any of us could begin to predict what will happen next.  All I know is that these days – these slow moving, getting lost, rooted in routine, reliant on each other days – are important.  When I look back on all these years with my grandparents, I’ll have been fortunate to be by their sides during this time, too.

I am overwhelmed with this dawning sense that these final chapters of their lives are just as important as all that came before them.  As a culture we mark a baby’s entrance into this world as a beautiful event worthy of great celebration and ritual, we give gifts and read entire books about it – but we fear and run from the final days, months, and even years as if somehow we’ll get swept into the curtains and be taken away, too, when they finally close.

Just as I treasure memories of my grandfather gathered throughout my entire life, I will always hold onto the moments we had together in this past week.  I will not regret seeing him confused and befuddled, moving slowly, spilling his food, or forgetting my name, because this is as much a part of his life as sitting in the audience during my school plays, driving us to Mountain Park, and swimming in the Atlantic with us on Cape Cod.

When I said good-bye to my grandfather yesterday, he held me tight and told me how much he loved me and what good care I’d taken of him and my grandmother.  He wiped his eyes behind his glasses as he said he wished for me to stay longer but knew I had to get back to my family.  I told him honestly that I’d loved every minute of it and wouldn’t trade it for anything.  And then I leaned in close to him and whispered – Except maybe Chicopee – and we began to laugh through our tears.

I left the hospital room and headed out to the airport with the sound of his guffaws behind me.  It’s true: I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.

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Lessons from my Son

DSC06980For Baxter, my fourth grader, one’s belief system is pretty black and white and ought to be acted upon in a clear manner.  Although I know he’ll become familiar with life’s shades of gray as he gets older, I appreciate his clarity.  Here’s what I mean:

1. Walking to the movie theater in downtown Evanston over the summer, Matt and I tell him that we’re going to take him and his best friend to Chili’s for a quick dinner before the movie.  It’s just a few doors down from the theater and we’re short on time.  He’s never been to a Chili’s and expresses some ambivalence.  Trying to dismiss his fear of novelty, I say, “Honey, there will be plenty of things you like on the menu – it’s a big chain, lots of kids like it, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Baxter eyes me: “It’s a big chain restaurant?

“Yes,” I reply firmly, as if this should somehow convince him of its advantages.

“Then – why are we going there?” he asks in a perplexed tone, clearly having internalized City Kid Lesson #43 which teaches the children to frequent local independent businesses rather than the big chain stores whenever possible.  I think of this every time I pass that Chili’s now, and use it as a reminder to uphold the values we’re teaching these kids; what we’ve taught them is meaningful and is worth living by.

2. After reading a book on global warming that my mother gave him, Baxter rejects the idea of choosing any new school clothes from a catalog on the grounds that the packaging used for shipping is wasteful.  My mother, who was hoping to see what clothes he wanted and order them for him once back in California, ends up leaving a check for us to go shopping in the stores.  His next request is that as much of his clothing should come from a resale shop as possible.  I will be happy to do this.

3. As we approach the Unitarian Universalist Church, I point out to Baxter the rainbow flag on its sign and wonder if he knows what it means.  When he understands that the symbol expresses openness, support, and a welcoming environment for those who identify as GLBT, he asks simply, “Why don’t we have one on our car, then?”  Why, indeed.  “I’ll get right on it,” I tell him.

In a life where it’s easy to say, “It’s not that simple,” or rationalize our modern conveniences, I appreciate these reminders from my firstborn that some things really are that simple.

Just Not All that Competent, Really.

0511-0906-2523-5412_Black_and_White_Cartoon_of_a_Woman_Screaming_in_a_Dirty_Kitchen_clipart_imageHow can it be that I just spent two days as a perfectly competent workshop facilitator who may well have seemed to a whole group of people to really have her shit together, and then came home tonight and completely botched the simple task of making dinner to the point where three out of four members of the Wonderfamily sat and stared morosely at our plates?

Seriously.  Can anyone explain this to me?

Because, really, Matt had done a great job of marinating the salmon and all I had to do was bake it, make mashed cauliflower (a yummy, healthy substitute for mashed potatoes), and steam some snow peas.  He would’ve made the dinner, but at the time it seemed easier for me to make it while he supervised The Bathing of the Boys.  Whoo boy, was that a bad call.

Fifteen minutes later I was standing in the kitchen, soaked in sweat (a hot dinner on a warm night?  not so smart), fighting for my life against my ancient Cuisinart (it was my mom’s, a 1st generation one), the assemblage of which is never intuitive for me. (Please tell me they’ve redesigned those.)  I finally decided I’d have to go the lumpy route and mash the cauliflower with a fork which not only didn’t work AT ALL but resulted in small bits of cauliflower all over the countertop and floor.  Soon thereafter, I burned my right forearm on the pan that held the salmon, fresh from the oven.  Out of desperation, I eventually realized I just wasn’t going to make mashed cauliflower with a fork (even though Matt says that works for him) and, fighting the pain in my arm, spent another 5 minutes overcoming the Cuisinart.

Matt and the freshly-scrubbed children appeared at the table, all smiles, only to find me holding an ice pack against my arm, sweating like a total freak (I’d put the A/C on by this time), and tearfully serving slightly undercooked salmon (ew), way overcooked snow peas (double-eww) and well mashed but by now room temperature mashed cauliflower.

Oh, and we were out of wine.

While the children and I stared sadly at our plates, I told them that, frankly, I thought my dinner was awful, too.  It was a teachable moment – they learned what it means for dinner to be a “complete flop”.  Matt seemed to honestly like his (god love him) and Baxter was careful of my feelings and tried to say it was okay but didn’t eat much of anything.  Lyle and I essentially pouted at our plates. Okay, so my pout was internal, but whatever.

I finally told the boys that if they just took a bite of everything they could be excused. Truth is, that happens often enough even when I think dinner is edible.

Matt got my attention and silently gestured:  “you” + “me” + “pizza”.  If i’d been a nice mom I’d have told the kids to scrap dinner, we were ordering pizza, but that is one precedent you just don’t want to set.  Hey kids! Don’t like dinner?  We’ll toss it and order a pizza! So the poor saps had to make do with what they had.  I trust they’ll make up for it at breakfast.

The pizza is on its way and Matt is making an emergency trip to the nearest liquor store in walking distance.  This night will be salvaged yet, even if I do have to hold this ice pack on my arm.

Now.  What’s on cable?

Thanks for Asking!

There is so much to say about this first week of school.  I could talk about Lyle’s transition from anxiety to ambivalence to an attitude of embracing kindergarten – right down to today’s unbridled joy over actually getting his first homework assignment.  I would also love to tell you about Baxter’s giddiness about being back in the classroom, the fine motor skills he’s been plugging away at starting to improve enough to give him some real confidence about his writing and drawing.  The super cool work they’ve started to bring home that I’m dying to scan and post here.  It’s been a pretty incredible week to be their mother, that’s the truth.  They may not be the only ones with the perma-grins.

But here’s the thing: it’s my turn.  So let’s pretend for a moment you all came here to find out what I was up to this week.  Because, really, aren’t you kind of wondering what the hell I’m doing with myself now that I’ve cut back dramatically on the kind of direct work I’ve been doing for years? I thought so.  Thanks for asking!

First of all, it’s been awesome.

Second of all, it’s been awesome.

Seriously.  I’ve got just a small number of regular work hours scheduled this fall and the rest is flexible time.  And remember that I now have two kids in full-day school – I still can’t believe my luck.  Right now I’m filling many of those hours with a strange combination of errands, appointments, hours at my desk on billing and insurance for my practice, and returning calls.  But I am loving what feels like carefree independence, being out and about in the city, getting things done without anyone sharing minute details about Pokemon with me in the backseat; when I get through the things I pushed into September (knowing I’d be kid-free), my days will be a bit more open.

For the past few years when I’ve been working like crazy with highly scheduled days,  I was aware of these little flickers of professional opportunity – I had a vague sense that they were out there but was too busy to focus on what they actually were and grab hold of them.  I decided – for all sorts of reasons – that this was going to be the year I would open up my schedule and really see what’s out there.

For one thing, I am continuing to run workshops with school districts that are implementing the SCERTS Model, something I love to do and believe strongly in.  In fact, I’m leading a 2-day training this coming week for a local district.  But I couldn’t have done too many of these this year if I had a schedule booked with lots of regular clients again.  I wasn’t sure what else was out there but I felt strongly that it was worth the risk to make the time available.

Sure enough, things are already getting interesting.  Families looking for SCERTS help in the home, a new start-up focusing on autism home care and educational programming seeking input and advice, a new Music Together class I’ve initiated for kids with special needs and their siblings.  I have time to meet people over coffee, find out what they need, network, and figure out how I can help.  That seems so basic, but it’s been years since I’ve had the kind of time available to do things like that during the day.

I don’t know which possibilities will turn into reality yet, but I don’t mind.  I feel confident after just one week that I’m going to be perfectly fine – that the bills will get paid and I’m going to have all sorts of interesting new work.  Bring it on!

First Day of Kindergarten in Pictures

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Tomorrow.

IMG_2039Tonight the house is filled with the scent of coffee cake baking in the kitchen.  In the morning the boys will come bounding upstairs asking if they can have some immediately, and of course they will – it was made especially for the first day of school.  We’ll add some fruit and protein to go with it to hold them until lunch.  They’re growing fast these days, and usually want a mid-morning snack.

Their backpacks wait by the back door. Tomorrow they’ll wear them – Baxter to fourth grade and Lyle for the first time – to kindergarten.  Inside these will be family photos – one for Lyle to look at if he’s missing us and an identical one for Baxter, requested by his teacher.  Lyle’s is laminated in case it gets handled a lot.  The backpacks – a large red one and a smaller blue one – will also contain their lunchboxes, the ones that they diligently packed by themselves after dinner tonight and jammed into the fridge.  A peanut butter and honey sandwich for Baxter, a little light on the peanut butter, and a mini bagel for Lyle with cream cheese slathered on so thick that some had to be removed.  Grapes washed by Daddy and some snacks from the new drawer way down low that’s filled with lunch foods for the kids to pick out themselves.  And finally, a love note from us, with two little Hershey kisses tucked in as a surprise when they went to bed.

It was four years ago that we sent Baxter off to kindergarten.  The post I wrote on his kindergarten eve was my first blog post ever and feels like eons ago, and yet so much about the experience is unchanged.  Last time, however, many people were asking if I was nervous.  This time the question I’m getting is, “Will you cry?”  I suppose this is the difference between sending your firstborn to kindergarten  (when “big kid school” is all brand-new and your child surviving a full day of school seems all but impossible) and sending your “baby” to kindergarten.  Four years ago, my answer was “No, I’m not nervous!” but this time around?  About me crying?  Extremely likely.

I can say that with great certainty since I already found myself choked up last week sitting on the  colorful circle rug with Lyle on my lap at kindergarten orientation, reading a Froggy book, and hearing a Dad nearby gently reminding his son of where he should put his jacket and backpack on the first day of school and suddenly his unspoken words “…when we won’t be here to show you…”  reverberated through my mind and then ricocheted down into my heart, causing my eyes to sting and my breath to catch, forcing me to pause and collect myself before continuing the story.

And so, in addition to remembering the backpacks and lunchboxes and the shiny red apple Lyle wants to bring for his teacher, I will stuff some tissues into my pocket tomorrow morning.  Because in the end it doesn’t matter how ready he is, how nice and capable his teacher is, how lucky he is to go to this school, or how prepared I am to have both of my kids in a great public school in an amazing city all day (pinch me!), my little guy is going to big kid school which must surely mean that he’s growing up.

Pass the tissues.

Summer of Love

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As we make our way through the last week of summer vacation, I am reflecting on what an incredible summer we’ve had.  I won’t say that it flew by; quite the contrary.  Trips we took and visitors we hosted in the early weeks seem as if they were a lifetime ago.  Lyle’s tantrums feel like perhaps they took place last year.  I know, I know, tempis fugit and all – but we have been having a great time and yet it seems that it’s been long: the best of both worlds.

In part it was all the short trips we took – 4 days in Michigan, 4 days in Wisconsin, a long weekend for Matt and the kids in Minnesota, and 4 days for Matt and me in San Francisco.  I’m finding that I prefer a few small trips to one long one in the summer. We saw and did so much, spent time with  many wonderful people from all over the country, and yet were never gone so long that we had to stop the mail, take many vacation days at work, or worry about whether all the plants would wither and die.  Four days is long enough for me to get away and relax but short enough that, wherever we are, the days are action-packed for the kids.  Perfection.

It also had to do with the fact that I’ve been home with the boys most of the time this month and that’s been a blast.  Being at home focused on the kids, taking them to appointments, running errands, arranging play dates, and running the household is smooth sailing when you’re used to doing that and working full-time.  I’ve done some major organizing here at home and look forward to more when the kids go back to school; the house is becoming a more pleasant place to spend my days now that I don’t see piles of paperwork and filing to deal with in every corner.  Once that was handled I was able to think about other cosmetic changes that I’ve been wanting to make.

And in large part this summer has been glorious thanks to the boys themselves, who have really hit their stride: they are extraordinarily manageable.  Friends tell me I’ve hit the “golden years” of motherhood, when the kids are fun and so much easier.  I’m assuming this changes dramatically as they get closer to adolescence so I’m reveling in it.  In the past couple of weeks, there have been mornings when I give them breakfast and then don’t hear from them again until almost lunchtime when they’re hungry.  They are so independent!  This from the boys who have never wanted to go downstairs without me and come to implore me to play with them every ten minutes?  Yes, parents out there: there is hope.

They’ll watch a PBS show, read books together, and play “Pokemon battles” down in the playroom.  As much as I think I cannot stand another day of hearing about Pokemon, I begrudgingly admit that my life has become so much easier because they are both totally obsessed by it and will play it and talk about it together for hours. Lyle will also sit down and paint or write without asking for help, and get engaged with other little kids in the building and run back and forth between the condo units for hours with his friends.  Bliss.

This week I’ve instituted 30-60 minutes of “Mommy School” each morning before lunch, when the boys sit at the table and learn to write the alphabet, drill multiplication/division facts, and practice cursive handwriting, depending on the child.  We did very little school work all summer (which was not a good thing for my reluctant writer) but we’re on it now.  They don’t mind and we enjoy that time together, too.

I’m going to be home a lot more this year, and don’t think the irony is lost on me that I’m cutting back on my regular work hours just when my younger child is going to full day kindergarten.  That’s no mistake and the timing couldn’t be better, with the kids behaving so well.  Given how delightful this month has been, I look forward to our after school hours together.  And happily, now that I’m with them all the time, there is a total lack of clinginess from Lyle.  Last night I was able to tell them that I was going to the grocery store just before they went to bed and there wasn’t a peep of protest – Lyle’s calm acceptance of that fact made me want to swoon.

I don’t know how long it’ll last and it doesn’t really matter.  For now, we’ve got a good thing going over here, and I know I will always remember this summer as a wonderful turning point into middle childhood for our family.