My oldest had his wisdom teeth out a couple days ago. He’s been fortunate, and it’s been mostly not a big deal for him. He’s had no bruising, very minimal swelling, and pain that is manageable with over-the-counter relief. Last night, however, he didn’t sleep well. So he awoke at 5:30 a.m. to take some more Advil and when they kicked in he fell back asleep. Great, right? Wrong. He had a coffee date planned for 9:30 this morning. I didn’t know this, but somehow wandered down to his room at that time to check on how he was feeling.
He was pretty out of it as he awoke. He looked at the clock on his phone for a long five or six seconds while it registered in his brain.
“Shit!” he exclaimed as he moved the blanket back and slowly sat up. “I was supposed to meet Ella.”
“When?” I inquired.
“Right about now,” he said.
He’s never been late to pick up his girlfriend. Since he started dating last spring, I’ve learned a great deal about my son and how he conducts himself in matters of the heart. He is considerate, continually thinking of what she might like and dreaming up creative ways to show he cares. He is flexible, willing to rework plans to make the most of their time together. And, he is timely. Usually.
“Text her and tell her you overslept because of your mouth. Tell her you’ll be there in a half an hour. Grab a quick shower. You’ve got this,” I told him.
I knew he was worried. He doesn’t like to be late. Once when he was three, in an absent-minded parental state of exhaustion, I got on the highway to take him to school. Problem was the highway was in the opposite direction of school. He noticed immediately and told me I was going the wrong way. He began to panic, fearful that he would be late, that his teacher would be upset with him, that he had ruined his perfect attendance record. I spent the fifteen minutes rerouting to get him to school apologizing, explaining there are dozens of different ways to arrive at the same location and assuring him it would be fine. When we walked into school, he ran to his classroom. I heard him loudly tell the teacher, “I’m late because my mom went the wrong way. ” Subtle.
At 9:45 I heard the door to the garage open, so I went to say goodbye. He was showered and ready to go, but I noticed his thick hair was uncombed and unruly.
“You didn’t fix your hair,” I noted.
“No time,” he said.
“Nuh uh,” I replied. “You have twenty seconds to fix yourself. Stay right there.”
I dashed off to get the hair cream and reappeared in seconds to help him tame his mop. At the time, it occurred to me maybe I was overstepping my bounds, being too motherly to someone who is no longer a kid but an eighteen year old with a car and a girlfriend. Then I shoved that thought right aside because sometimes it’s good to have someone around to help you out in a rush. Everyone benefits from a little help sometimes, and it’s good to understand that. The devil is in the details. That is the kind of thing I want him to remember as he crosses this bridge from youth into adulthood.
“If you’re going to make a girl wait for you, it’s good to make sure you’re worth waiting for,” I told him as he got into the car.
Many times as a much younger woman I sat waiting for a guy who was late. Many times said guy showed up just as he was, not the least bit concerned about his disheveled appearance or apologetic about his tardiness. The boys who weren’t like that are the ones who stand out to me now. The ones who took a minute to throw on an attractive sweater rather than the crappy, acid-wash denim jacket they wore to school. The ones who bothered to put on a cologne they knew I loved. The ones who showed up with a flower they’d grabbed at a gas station convenience store. Those guys were the ones who made me feel special, the ones who were worth waiting for. I like to think my son will be one of those someday, even if he needs some guidance to get there.
I saw the above passage in my Facebook feed yesterday and promptly copied and saved it because I love it when other people write my feelings succinctly and turn it into an inspirational post so I don’t have to.
Before having children, I heard myriad dark tales of the harrowing experience of raising teenagers. Having eons ago been a teenager myself, I recalled the endless battles with parents, the scramble to balance friends and boyfriends and homework and extracurriculars and part-time work and social activities, and the confusion surrounding figuring out who I was and what I was supposed to do in life. I remember that time as exhausting and exhilarating, a period of self-development precariously balanced with self-loathing.
When my sons, now 18 and 16, were toddlers, I could not wait for them to get older. I longed for a time when I could understand what they wanted and discover who they were. And, through the infinite magic of time that speeds up as we age, I arrived here more quickly than I ever imagined.
While my parents struggled with their teenagers, I’ve found mine to be 10% terror-inducing and 90% delightful. Letting my son drive off at 6 am with his brand-spanking new driver’s license to head to the mountains for a hike, well…that’s terror-inducing. But waking up the next day, pulling up Google Translate on my iPhone to start brushing up on my French for an upcoming trip and finding my sons have been doing the same, well…that’s delightful.
My sons have brought out both the best and the worst in me over the years since they arrived and made us a family. Fortunately, as I have aged, I have relaxed a bit, which has made experiencing my sons’ teenage years more filled with laughter than fraught with frustration. If you get out of your kids what you put into them, I must have given my all.
When you become a mom, everything changes. Your life is no longer wholly your own, a fact both awe-inspiring and terrifying. Little eyes are making mental notes of your example right at the moment when you are most exhausted, stressed out, and unsure. It’s not fair. Still, we try to do our best, especially when our children are young. For example, when our sons were small and learning to speak, I gave up swearing. Well, at least I tucked my offensive wagging tongue back in my mouth for about eight years when they attended Christian school and I didn’t want my words to come back to haunt me with their teachers. (On a side note, my youngest did go to the principal’s office in kindergarten for exclaiming a hearty son-of-a-bitch when he didn’t get to be the first kid in the reading teepee, but he overheard Sawyer say that while we were watching LOST. That one’s on you, ABC.)
As my sons aged and we moved away from the Christian school, I eased back into my potty mouth persona. First, I stopped substituting cheese and rice for Jesus Christ and crud for crap. But each swear word is a gateway drug for another, more foul word. Soon, shoot became shit and dang it became dammit. From there I went to the hard shit, right to the mother effing F-bomb when the occasion warranted. I mean, when the Costco rotisserie chicken you planned to serve for dinner slips out of your hand like a soapy kid in the bathtub, you have every reason to cut your tongue loose right before you look around for witnesses, invoke the 5-second rule, and toss that puppy onto the cutting board where it was headed in the first place. Who could blame you? Sometimes the situation deserves a meatier expletive.
Today, my friend (and fellow potty-mouth mom) Lynne sent me this article with a link to the new ad from Kraft released in time for Mother’s Day. In the ad, Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, covers creative substitutions for swear words because, well, moms are expected to set a good example for their kids. In the midst of raucous children interrupting her video and the all-too-common experience of stepping on rogue Legos, Melissa offers examples of ways to curb your swearing with more colorful expressions that aren’t verboten expletives. The ad is funny and honest. It hit close to home for me, as I imagine it will for millions of mothers everywhere.
My husband is not a fan of my swearing. He came from a home where his parents rarely, if ever, swore. In twenty four years, the only curse I have heard from either of my in-laws is an occasional good grief from my father-in-law which, let’s face it, is more of a charming interjection than a curse. Steve would like me to stop swearing altogether. My potty mouth bothers him, and I get it. But, dammit, after years of curbing my own behaviors and words for everyone else, from my parents to my sons to my teachers to my sons’ teachers to pretty much anyone who is not me, I am sick of pretending that you are only a good woman, a lady, when you eschew foul language. While I appreciate other’s reasons for not swearing and I honor their choices, I can’t get behind it in my own life. I am clever enough to cease use of inappropriate words in inappropriate situations. I often avoid swearing in my blog posts to prove that I have good judgment occasionally. But, our boys are about to turn fourteen and sixteen. If they aren’t hearing these words from me, they sure as hell are hearing them from their teenage friends or the television. No point in worrying about what language they might pick up. There are so few perks to getting older, but one of them should be the ability to say whatever you want under your own roof without censure. Steve, if you’re reading this, I understand your concerns, but I gotta be me.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I would like to give a shout out to the moms I know whose foul mouths make me smile, from my friend, Colleen, who runs Personal Paper Hugs, an online store filled with cheeky cards she creates (add it to your Etsy favorites here) to my Queen Bitch, Leanna, whose daily language so closely mirrors my own that sometimes it’s hard to tell which comments are from her mind and which are from mine. I owe a lot to the fearless, mouthy women who raise me up with their honesty, the women who make me feel normal. There is too much unsolicited advice about what defines a “good” mother constantly weighing us down. We spend far more time berating ourselves over what we perceive as parenting foibles than we do acknowledging and appreciating the dedication, resolve, and sacrifice we make daily for our families. Sometimes we even beat ourselves up for letting a couple choice words slip in front of our children. We’re human. It’s about time give ourselves a little leeway to act human, even if we are also mothers. To all you moms out there who curse (on occasion or perpetually), remember that even with the naughty words you are amazing, vital, and, above all, doing a fucking great job. Your kids aren’t going to be derelicts simply because you pepper your life with a few not-so-creative word choices. Sometimes a well-placed curse is the only thing keeping you from losing your proverbial shit. Motherhood is hard. Expletives may be required.
Today’s photo is courtesy of my son. This is one of the thank you notes he wrote to his great aunt and cousin. Yes. He is 15, and this is his note. In addition to his ADHD, he also struggles with dysgraphia, which means that he has trouble putting thoughts on paper, battles with grammar, punctuation, word spacing, and spelling, and has nearly illegible handwriting. You can imagine how much he loves that I compel him to pen handwritten notes for gifts. This is why his last notes were completed today, nearly a month after the holidays.
Over the years I’ve learned to let go of my expectations for his notes to be neat. I’ve pushed content over form. It’s required a lot of deep breathing for the editor in me not to be hypercritical and to accept things as they are. I used to get all bent over the quality of the penmanship and grammar. Now I simply insist that 1) he spells the recipient’s name correctly and 2) he offers some personal information about the gift other than a simple thanks.
As I was reading over Joe’s notes today, this one made me giggle.
Dear Aunt Bobby and Mary Lynn,
Thank you for the toy train in a tin, 50 dollars, and the Peanuts puzzle. I was pleasantly surprised by the train. It reminded me of my childhood. It was also fun doing the puzzle. I can’t wait to see you again.
On Christmas Day when he opened the train, he put it together in the living room. Then when his brother opened his same set, the two of them attached their two small sets to make a larger one. And there they sat, watching it run around, a scene out of their days with Thomas the Tank Engine. After family had left, they took the tracks downstairs where they reassembled them and played with them some more. Joe did remark that day that the train was surprisingly one of his favorite gifts. Now we know why. It reminded him of his childhood.
I love that my 15 year old is maturing and now looks back on his younger days, seven or eight years ago, with misty nostalgia. And I love that things like this continue to make every day with my sons time that I too will look back on and remember fondly in the not too distant future.
Our oldest son chose for his elective this past quarter an astronomy class. Faced with the athletic, artistic, or intellectual, he will nearly always choose the intellectual. I was thrilled when he told me his choice because I too am fascinated by space. As an English major at the University of Colorado, while most of my friends chose Geology for their science requirement, I elected to take three semesters of astronomy…two towards my credit requirement and an extra, upper level course (pass-fail, mind you, because math is not my strong suit) for my own intellectual curiosity.
Joe, being Joe, has spent the entire quarter memorizing facts and statistics about the planets and their moons. Because astronomy is his last class of the day, he often spends our drive home burying me in astronomical facts about the size of planets and the death of stars. Yesterday, though, on our way home he casually mentioned that there was a field trip to the observatory that he might attend because, well, he hadn’t been keeping up on his nightly sky observations and, well, he could get credit in place of the work he hadn’t completed if he spent two hours at the observatory Thursday night.
He told me he wanted to use the large telescope, but he also admitted that he would really rather stay home and binge watch Netflix. I told him it was his choice. It’s his grade and his transcript, after all, and we made the decision to let him be in charge of his fate starting with his freshman year. He’s 15 and we’re not going to babysit him and his school responsibilities. I don’t check the online grade book. I don’t know when his assignments are due. We are not choosing his college for him if he decides to attend college. And I will not be one of those parents calling his professors to ask them for assignment extensions for my son.
Tonight at dinner he seemed committed to going and asked if we would drive him to Observatory Park. On the way there, though, he began lamenting that he hadn’t finished his homework earlier in the week and put himself in the predicament of having to give up two hours of free time on a school night for more school-related work. It was mostly cloudy, light flurries falling on and off all evening, so there might not be much to see, which meant two hours sitting in the observatory listening to lectures without having the occasion to use the telescope at all. The homework assignment didn’t even count for that much. There were myriad reasons not to go. He was counting them off.
We arrived a bit early and sat in the idling car while we waited to see what he would do. As a couple cars opened their doors and spilled their student contents onto the sidewalk, we suggested that he could hop out and catch up with his classmates if he didn’t want to go in alone. He paused for a while, deliberating. Finally, the car door opened and from the back seat we heard, “I really don’t want to do this, but I need the credit.” And with that, he stepped out, closed the door behind him, and walked away, only looking back towards us once before disappearing into the dark park along with the other teenagers.
Parenting is hard. You want your child become successful. You think you might know the best way to make that happen for them. The truth is that the most important thing you can do is let them make their own choices and mistakes, while you sit quietly with your fingers crossed hoping you gave them the right tools for the task. Tonight as Joe loped towards the observatory, I felt fairly confident about his chances of becoming a successful adult. He’s figured out the toughest part about it already: sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do even when you really don’t want to do it. I might be speaking too soon, but I suspect he’s going to make a fine adult. It seems to be in his stars.
Against my better judgement, I joined a book club today. I swore I would not do it again, but when the opportunity presented itself I found myself unable to say no. The book that pulled me in? How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Like many people over a certain age, I was raised by parents who expected me to pull my own weight from early on. They didn’t hover or harass me to ensure I was doing my job as a child and a student. I was expected to work hard, earn high marks, and contribute at home. They didn’t make me breakfast or fix my school lunch. They didn’t know I was eating Suzy Q’s and french fries when they weren’t around because they weren’t obsessed with my nutritional intake. They didn’t ask me about school projects. If my chores weren’t done, I was grounded. If my grades fell, they didn’t know about it until the report card showed up and then there would be consequences to bear. When my own sons arrived early and small, I started down a different path than my parents traveled. I was actively involved in every aspect of their young lives and I always knew what was going on with them. When Joe started his freshman year this August, it at last hit me that I have four years to turn this kid I manage into the kind of human who won’t need to call me to fill out paperwork in a doctor’s office, remind him of his phone number, or prepare food other than microwavable, plastic trays Yakisoba. Yikes.
The bookclub book, written by a Stanford University’s dean of freshman for helicopter parents invested in getting their kids into Ivy League schools via endless hovering and helping their children with grades, extra curriculars, and volunteer hours over more practical life skills like actually managing themselves, seemed like something I should read. Not necessarily because I am that helicopter parent. I’m not. My sons’ diagnoses with developmental and learning disabilities quickly curtailed my grandiose dreams of them attending Harvard and then perhaps Yale Law. Sure. Those things are still possible for them. Statistically speaking, though, those dreams (already a long shot for the brightest of typical children) become an even more unlikely possibility for my sons dealing with ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia. All the hours and dollars I invested in those Baby Einstein videos could not have changed my sons’ brains. They are different, and I now can honestly say I am grateful for that. I’ve also found peace with the notion that they may attend community college or trade school instead of a traditional four-year university. And they may need to live in my basement a bit longer than my friends’ children as they mature and find their own path. It’s all good, though, because their issues have forced us all to be more resilient, more patient, and more understanding of the uniqueness of each person’s life path.
Even with all this, being the parent of children with “issues” has required a different type of helicopter parenting. I’m not pushing them regarding straight A grades or sports scholarships or college-application-worthy community service because the mere act of keeping up in school is hard enough for them. My challenge with helicopter parenting comes from years of having to be their voice surrounding their disabilities. Once you accept that your child is not typical, your job becomes finding ways to make them feel typical. Your days are spent creating a level playing field for them so they have the opportunity to experience the same feelings of success their peers experience. You take on tasks they might do themselves if they were a more typical child. You fill out their forms. You set up timetables for their school projects. You manage their schedules and make sure they get places on time and with the right materials because you know it’s hard enough for them to remember to put on two socks and clean underwear. And sometimes it’s hard to know when to back off and let them fall again once you’ve worked so hard to lift them up.
Because of my divided attention, I let go of some things I might have otherwise insisted upon if my sons were more typical like I was. I’ve been a little lax about regular chore completion. Luckily for me, despite my lack of regular follow-though on chores, my kids often remind me of my short-sightedness and present me with situations in which I must rise to the occasion. Last week, Joe saw that I was preparing a skillet dinner (you know…one of those dishes where all the ingredients touch each other) and he promptly lost his shit. He yelled that I had “ruined” dinner by allowing pieces of potato to mingle with pieces of sausage. Oy. The minute those words came out his mouth, I felt sorry for him. I blinked a few times and told him to leave the room. At that moment, he caught on to his colossal error and apologized for being an unappreciative creep. After a deep breath, I told him that I had a solution to his meal problem. I was going to offer him the opportunity to plan and prepare a few dinners so he can better understand what it is like to try to feed four people with different food issues. (While hubby will eat anything, Luke eschews veggies, I am currently gluten, soy, and dairy-free due to food sensitivities, and Joe is not a fan of meat.) Good luck, buddy.
Tomorrow night is Joe’s first dinner night. Tonight he gets to research and plan his menu. Tomorrow after school I will take him shopping and leave myself available to field recipe questions and provide help with cooking utensils. I’m a little nervous about what I may end up having to ingest as part of this lesson in adulthood, but I have to admit that I am kind of excited too because this step is right in line with my book club read. It’s a growth opportunity for both of us. And it’s appropriate and right on schedule at a time when Joe is both capable of taking it on and in a safe place for a lesson because, if the meal goes south, we have peanut butter and jelly on hand that he can prepare instead. If you want to raise an adult, you have to be prepared for some missteps. As a teenager, I once made a batch of brownies using Pompeii Olive Oil (not even extra virgin) in place of regular oil. We all gotta start somewhere. Today, I start letting Joe learn what it is to be a functioning adult. I bet he’s really sorry he didn’t keep his mouth shut last week.
Back to school has changed me. When my sons were younger and full of ill-advised helpings of sugary treats with food coloring, I could not wait for the school year to start. Sure it would mean I’d have to wake up early, cart them across town in my SUV school bus, and go through the dreaded rigamarole of homework, but the house would be quiet all day. I would have time to myself again. I’d be getting my life back, jumpstarting my summer-neglected workouts and my writing, and revisiting my peaceful hours in SuperTarget wandering the aisles of things I didn’t really need but felt helplessly attracted to all the same. Lately, though, my mood about back to school has gone from Yippee to Oh crap.
I was perusing my news feed this morning and found myself buried in a wave of photos of moms jumping for joy (quite literally in some cases) at the prospect of divesting themselves from their offspring for six hours each day. I was that mom once, gleefully depositing my children at school before heading for the hills for the first transcendent hike of fall, feeling liberated at the prospect of rediscovering the me I had left behind when school let out in spring. So while I scrolled through the endless display of children in first-day-of-school photos this morning, I remembered all too well that joy of potential freedom. I just didn’t identify in quite the same way.
My sons start 7th and 9th grade next week. And, as enticing as the notions of getting our house and my life back on track are, I feel like the mom dreading dropping her child off at full-day kindergarten for the first time and acknowledging the impending loneliness. My buddies are leaving me. It’s an end-of-days feeling. I spent my summer staring wide eyed at my sons, floored by their minute-by-minute growth both in height and in maturity. They are the same kids who once left me for kindergarten, but they are so much more now. They are their own people. They are no longer mine. And it sucks. Well, it’s great and amazing and incredible and awesome and it still somehow sucks. Life is weird that way.
When I decided fifteen years ago to quit working my paying job and focus my plethora of natural energy on my infant son, I didn’t give much thought to where it would lead me. I only knew that I had a newborn who seemed hell bent on never sleeping or napping or giving up colic who would probably drive me to an early grave if I attempted to maintain a career and figure out his sleep schedule if he even had one. He didn’t. I had no idea where this journey would take me. Today, though, as I sit here contemplating back to school with a middle schooler and a high schooler, my chosen path makes sense. All the sleepless nights, endless testing, and struggles to figure out how to help them, all the missteps, flubs, and pitfalls of parenting, all the little milestones, the small steps forward, and the minuscule personal triumphs, they were all worth whatever sacrifice I made in savings, earnings potential, and career advancement. I’ve got the tears of gratitude to prove it.
How lucky am I to have had this experience, to have been able to stay with them, suffer alongside them, search for solutions with them, and monitor their progress? To have been able to catch them in the first few minutes after their school day and see their disappointments and triumphs before they faded? And how fortunate am I that I have had them for 13 and 15 years and been able to witness their transition into actual human people when some parents are tragically robbed of that opportunity? I have no idea what path I will take if I get to see Joe graduate from high school in four years. No clue what career I might find or how I might re-enter the workforce after a 20-year hiatus. No sense of who I might yet become. All I know today is that I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now. I don’t just love my children. I actually like them, even when they are acting like little creeps with skills I am positive they honed while watching me not have my best moments. I’m going to miss them in the coming weeks when I am once again wandering aimlessly through SuperTarget in a dress rehearsal for my life without them. Still, I wouldn’t take nothing.
Parenting is sticky business. There are days when I am acutely aware that I may not be cut out for this gig. Those are the days when I blow my parental gasket and slam doors and caterwaul with unbridled enthusiasm at my children over socks left on the floor right next to the laundry bin or half-empty cartons of yogurt stuffed behind a couch cushion. Those are the days when I am the very definition of insanity, once again doing the same thing that has failed before to achieve the desired result. Then there are the days when, through the grace of some unforeseen divine intervention, I pull it together long enough to do something that is nearly the right thing in the right situation. Like, for example, on the day when my fourteen-year-old son came to me fresh off watching a PG-13 comedy video on You Tube where he learned a new word, a word describing a sexual act that makes many grown adults shudder (or tilt their heads not unlike a cocker spaniel after hearing a word unfamiliar to their floppy ears). On that day I managed to swallow my shock long enough to offer a generic explanation of said act hoping to delay for him what would be an eye-opening if not wholly disturbing Google search on the NC-17 subject matter. On the days like that one, when I manage to keep my wits about me, I celebrate the alignment of the stars and enjoy it because I know moments of parenting clarity have, in the past, been few and far between, and my next ill-conceived, epic, parental meltdown could be right around the corner if I get too cocky.
A couple of days ago, my youngest son presented me with an opportunity to rise to the occasion again. After doing some more unboxing and cleaning in the basement family room the boys have designated The Teen Zone, I turned on one of those flameless, scented candle warmers to try to defunkify the place in their absence. (Teenage boys are smelly.) Not long after they had returned from a friend’s house, a panicked cry emanated from their space. Through a pained whimper I managed to make out phrases like “this is bad” and “oh no.” You know those moments when you think your child might be bleeding profusely and there is a fear of what you might find when you come face-to-face with them? That’s where my brain was. My son was about to present me with a mostly severed appendage or a head wound so deep I would be viewing his bony skull. When he made it to me, though, I could see no visible signs of trauma. Simultaneously relieved that he was okay and terrified at what that meant with regard to his cries, I asked him what was going on. The words came through breathless cries…spill, wax, accident, sorry, mistake, carpet, bad.
Now, this house is new to us and we have been working to make it our comfortable home for months. And, to that end, we had the worn basement carpet torn out in mid-January and replaced with fresh, super plush carpeting that is a bit like walking on heaven when your stocking feet touch it. As Luke and I hit the threshold of the family room, I could see why he was panic-stricken. Directly in front of the bookshelf where the candle warmer sat, still glowing innocently and without any sign of guilt or remorse, there was a sizable splattering of eggplant-colored, cinnamon-and-vanilla-scented wax. A flurry of words escaped my mouth, most of which were interrogatives and none of which (surprisingly enough) were screamed, but I never listened for the answers because I knew none of them would help. I knew I needed a minute to get my mind in order before I said or did something I would regret. I turned and walked up the stairs, Luke trailing on my heels. He kept talking and explaining while my mind reeled and I muttered my disappointment quietly. I got to the door of my room.
“You stay out here. I need to be alone for a minute,” I told him as I began to close the bedroom door behind me. “Don’t touch the wax. It will only make it worse,” I added as an afterthought as the door clicked solidly shut.
I paced for a minute trying to get my bearings. I whipped off a quick text to a good friend to get my feelings off my chest silently. Luke just spilled purple candle wax on a big spot of our basement carpet. Huge stain. Heartbroken. I took a deep breath. The one thing I knew for sure was that the mess would set with time, and I didn’t have the luxury of a full-scale devolution into parental disgust. Through the door, I could hear Luke talking to himself under his breath. I knew it was an accident. I knew he was simultaneously horrified, frightened, and wondering if the $100 he had earned at the craft fair would get him very far in his soon-to-be life as a hobo. I stood for a moment registering his feelings. Suddenly, I wasn’t an angry parent freaking out about a stain on recently installed carpeting. I was in Luke’s soul, scared and sad and feeling worthless. How many times had I been in his shoes, wondering what punishment would be meted out after my colossal error in judgment? My heart ached for him. I opened the door.
“Come on, Luke. Let’s see what we can do.”
A text came through from Heather. Try ironing it out? Put a rag or old t-shirt down and then iron over that. Medium heat. Then try rubbing alcohol to get the color out.
It sounded like a plausible solution. A quick Google search yielded the same advice. Luke, desperate to make amends, asked how he could help. I had him fetch items for me while I labored to free the new carpet of its unwelcome waxy coating. As I worked, I talked to Luke and reminded him that we all do things like this. Accidents happen. Most of them matter very little. I could see him begin to relax, his hobo life fading into the background for the time being. Little by little, after some icing, scraping, ironing, and blotting, the wax seemed to be coming out. I began to exhale too. This might be fixable after all. After about thirty minutes of triage, the carpet looked only slightly stained. I was hoping that some form of chemical solution could ameliorate that condition. Sure enough. An hour after the tragic incident, the carpet looked nearly uniform or at least good enough that someone might not even notice if they weren’t directed to search for a stain in that area. The carpet, Luke, and I had all survived, only slightly worse for the wear.
In the past, I’ve been too quick to anger in situations that warranted no anger at all. I’ve cried over spilled milk. I’ve fussed over holes in new jeans. And I’ve had full-fledged tantrums over doors left open while the heat was on inside. But as time with my sons living under our roof dwindles, I’ve become more aware of how big my “little” meltdowns can feel to my sons and how little even the “big” things in life are in the grand scheme. If our carpet had been permanently stained, would that have sucked? Absolutely. But I’ve been thinking about how much worse things would be in my life if I had created a situation in which my son no longer felt comfortable coming to me when things went wrong. I know I was that kid…the one who was afraid to be honest about accidents and mistakes. The one who would rather hide things and lie to escape censure. The one who spent far too long avoiding challenges, afraid to make a move lest it make me appear foolish or, heaven forbid, human. As an adult, I continue to work to overcome these fears and embrace my humanity. I’m not sure what grace intervened Sunday when Luke came to me, but all week long I have been hearing the phrase “wax on, wax off” from The Karate Kid in my head. Mr. Miyagi has been speaking to me, reminding me that patience, presence of mind, and repetition are the keys to success. My ability to go more slowly, tread more lightly, and think more carefully in difficult situations with our sons is improving. I have hope that these skills will someday transfer to other situations in my life as well. I’m not quite skillful or patient enough to catch a fly with chopsticks yet, but I’m feeling a bit more Miyagish with each small parental success.
Few things are as burdensome to a child with dyslexia as required reading. At least, this is what I have discerned over years of working with Luke and watching him battle with text. Because the only way out is through, Luke has to work twice as hard as typical children to make half the progress in reading. With a couple years of personalized instruction in decoding (phonics for children with dyslexia) and comprehension, he has made huge strides. He has jumped four grade levels in reading in two years. He is now a sixth grader reading at fifth-grade level. Things are getting easier, but they are still not easy.
And so, reading continues to be Luke’s least favorite activity. It’s the last bit of homework he chooses to attack each night. On the rare occasions that I can convince him to read aloud so I can track his progress, I swear the process is more difficult for me than it is for him. He is painfully slow, stumbling over words most children his age would not blink twice at. He continues to interchange “what” with “that” and “why” with “who” often enough that I find myself unable to follow along with the story in places. But, along he plugs, undaunted, while I do my own decoding to keep up.
For a couple months now, I’ve watched Luke carrying around this hardback book and pulling it out during his reading period. I never really thought about it much. I knew the title, had a vague idea what the story was about and that his teacher had chosen it for him, and that was where my brain came to rest on it. It was a book about a soldier in Afghanistan who felt compelled to save the stray dogs he found there. And it combined two of Luke’s favorite topics: war and puppies.
The other day, a little disheartened to see him still lugging around and reading the same book, I asked him about it.
“Luke…how many pages do you have left in that book? It seems like you have been reading it forever,” I said.
“About fifty, I think,” he replied easily.
“How long have you been reading that book now?” I asked.
“Since October sometime, I think. I can’t remember.”
“What page are you on?” I inquired.
“249” came the reply.
I sat with this number for a while, letting it slowly seep its way into my understanding like water filtering into sand. Two hundred forty-nine pages. Two hundred. Plus forty. Plus nine. Holy crap. That is a lot of pages for Luke.
“Can I take a look at it?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, handing me Pen Farthing’s One Dog at a Time. All 308 pages of it. I flipped to the book’s center expecting to see a slew of photographs. There were none. Next, I paged carefully through the book. Twenty five chapters. Twelve point font. No drawings. No graphics. Adult vocabulary. War theme. Full of acronyms, foreign place names, and soldier-driven terminology. Then, it hit me. My eyes grew wide. This is a grown up’s book.
“Luke, this is a serious book. I’m really proud of you for sticking with it,” I praised.
“I’ve been going extra slowly because I want to make sure I’m not missing anything,” he told me.
“If you’re going to have this book at home over Christmas Break, I’d like to read it,” I told him. “I’m thinking we can share it and then when we’re both done we can have a book club meeting about it. Maybe we can go to Red Robin, just the two of us, and talk about it?”
“Sure,” he said. “It might take me a little longer to finish it, though,” he acknowledged.
“No worries,” I replied as I handed the book back to him so he could finish up his required twenty minutes of painstaking work.
I stood there, watching him for a few minutes, reveling in how tough he is. He is a warrior. Every day as a student he goes into battle, fighting to size up, outmaneuver, and slay the beasts that would diminish his opportunities for success. He knows more about himself and about what he can and cannot do than most adults I know. He struggles. He problem solves. He strategizes. He adjusts. And, most importantly, he perseveres. While reading a 300-page book at 12 might not be a tremendous effort for many children, it’s a Herculean task for Luke. So, I hope you’ll excuse me if I appear to zone out while you remind me again about your child’s sixth consecutive semester on the Dean’s List. I mean, that’s great and all, but my dyslexic son is nearly finished reading a three-hundred page book without pictures. Clearly, I win.
Ever since the tragic events in Paris last Friday, my mind has been tempest tossed. Coming immediately on the heels of the deadliest bombing in Beirut in 25 years, the senseless murder of innocent civilians in the City of Light was a tough blow, the second poignant lesson in the fragility of life in two days. It seems I can’t sift through the news anymore without reading about another heinous act. While I know that countless acts of murder, rape, and violence have been perpetrated for as long as humans have existed, the constant barrage of stories about the dark side of humanity elucidated by the news media over the Internet and forwarded around the globe via social media can take a toll on even the most hopeful souls.
As a mother, I have struggled with what to share with my sons about these events and what example to set for them with my words about them. When they were younger, I cautiously shielded them from gratuitous details about natural disasters, shootings, and suicide bombings, proffering just enough information to make them aware but not enough to cause them sleepless nights. Parenting is a non-stop balancing act, and I regularly walk the high wire between too much information and not enough. Our sons are 12 and 14 now, plenty old enough to be aware of world events and form opinions about them. At school they watch news clips from CNN, an education I am grateful for because it provides an opportunity for open discourse at home about the world. I welcome the invitation to engage with our sons and answer questions and concerns as they arise. I like to think that in doing so my husband and I are raising informed, thinking, and engaged citizens of the world.
Today, during my daily run through of my social media news feeds, I read that governors of 27 states have declared they will not welcome Syrian refugees due to security concerns after the Paris attacks. I scratched my head. Regardless of the fact that states do not have the right to refuse refugees our federal government chooses to accept, I marvel at the naiveté of leaders who presume that refusing refugees is the surest way to keep their citizens safe. But many people in this country harbor the illusion that security is an entity we can guarantee and enforce because, well, we’re the United States of America, dammit. But we can’t. We never have been able to and we never will be. We can’t stop bad things from happening. Bad things are as certain as the sunrise, and security is merely an illusion we cling to as a means to mitigate our fears.
I live in Colorado, one of only seven states that has said it will welcome refugees displaced by the atrocities in Syria, which have left over 250,000 civilians dead and nearly half of its population of 22 million seeking a safe haven elsewhere. While many are against this, I am pleased with our governor’s proclamation. I don’t believe that turning away victims of terrorism will keep us any safer than we are now. Could an ISIS sympathizer be among the refugees who end up in Colorado? Probably. There have already been arrests of suspected ISIS militants and supporters in the US, and there is no reason to imagine we will be able to stop more from seeking to harm us if that is what they intend. Even our best attempts at national security will leave unexpected holes for terrorists to slip through. We are not capable of squelching every plot. We didn’t foresee the attack on Pearl Harbor or the attacks of 9/11. Is that a reason to turn away hundreds of innocents who are displaced and suffering, seeking a better, safer place for their family? I don’t think so. I like to think that we are a better nation than that.
The truth is that life is tenuous and fraught with peril, and there is little to nothing we can do about it. This is what I tell my sons daily. You could lose your life to a terrorist suicide bomber in a crowded cafe or to a mentally disturbed individual in a movie theater, to a drunk driver on their way home or to an incurable cancer. You could be the healthiest person out there and keel over from a heart attack. You can do everything right, take all the proper precautions, but you will still fall someday. Not one of us is getting out of this life alive, and we can’t guarantee that security to our children either. But the legacy we leave with our actions can and will make a difference in the lives of others. I would like my children to witness from me love, generosity, and bravery in the face of life’s sometimes scary realities rather than fear, isolationism, and cowardice disguised as protectionism. I would rather my sons learn to take a calculated risk for the sake of goodness than to shun others for an imagined sense of security.
Right after I read that article about the governors unwilling to welcome refugees, I found this video of a Parisian father and his young son being interviewed at the site of the Bataclan attacks where citizens were gathering to leave flowers and light candles in memory of the lives lost there. The father tells his son that there are bad people everywhere and that the flowers and candles being placed are there to protect him. I won’t lie. I get weepy every time I replay that video, and I have watched it at least a dozen times already. In the most beautiful way possible, this father is teaching his son that bad things happen but we don’t need to fear them. We need to accept them, focus on the good we can do, and go on with our lives. If we operate from a place of peace and love and hope, we are freer from fear than if we barricade ourselves in to hide from it. Fear can become an inescapable prison or our impetus to live in the present.
I showed my sons the video of that father because it speaks more eloquently about security than anything I’ve seen on the Internet since the attacks on Beirut and Paris. I’ve felt my heart shrivel as I scanned comments from friends about why we should not open our nation and our hearts to those who seek peace because we might regret it. While I understand their concerns, I can’t believe that this is what we have come to. We citizens of the United States forget how fortunate we are to be here and the sacrifices made by previous citizens that afforded us the luxury of birthright and the illusion of security. We forget that most of our ancestors arrived on these shores disillusioned, frightened, and clinging to hope promised by a lady standing in a harbor, the same feelings the Syrian refugees now hold. My husband and I are supporting our governor as he opens the doors to our incredible state. We are talking to our sons and teaching them that the inscription on Lady Liberty does not have caveats. It’s not “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore but only if they aren’t coming from a war torn Middle Eastern country or from a south-of-the-border neighbor with drug problems because we don’t want any of THOSE.” We are telling them that life is scary. Bad things do happen. But the more good we put out into the world and the more we focus on that, the better things will become. My silent parental prayer today and every day is that our sons will grow to love this world despite the negatives and to live boldly in it without fear for as many days as they have.