The First Thing

The First Thing

About five years ago I was invited to lead a drawing workshop for a group of teenage boys recently arrived to this country as refugees. I had never taught anybody anything and knew nothing about classroom management. I understood the workshop would be an education for all of us, but some of the lessons of that day have only recently become clear.

The boys were attentive and engaged with the workshop. By the end of the class, they had filled the pages of the sketchbooks I’d brought with drawings of trees and garden statues. As their confidence grew, some of them began to sketch their lives as refugees.

Those very personal drawings often depicted experiences no human, especially no child, should ever have to endure. When I got beyond my outrage at the thought of a child having to hide from people with machine guns, however, I wondered if the resilience of these boys was the most valuable lesson I would take home, but my education was only beginning.

A few years later, I began working with students with complex trauma. Many of the students came to us through the juvenile justice or foster care systems after experiencing years of assault or extreme neglect at the hands of parents or trusted caregivers. Some students tiptoed into the program, scanning every room they entered for threats and jumping at the sound of a torn piece of paper. Other students raged against their lives with profanity and destruction.

These kids take months and years to navigate far enough around their trauma to be able to build their futures. Some never get around it, and, when I first started this work, I wondered how the boys from the workshop who had survived war circumnavigated those memories, seemingly, so much more quickly.

When Thing1 was born, I morphed, in the space of 36 hours, from an ambitious, tech-driven programmer to a bowl of pudding that wanted nothing more than to hold my child until he no longer wanted to be held. At the time, the Ferber method was still very popular, but something felt very wrong about not picking up my child when he was crying. I asked a social worker friend if I should just have Thing1 ‘tough it out.’

My friend put her hand on my arm and said, “Rachel, the first year is about establishing basic trust.”

I never forgot that. Establishing and keeping trust with Thing1 and Thing2 became my parenting touchstone.

Studying education, I read Erik Erikson, the psychologist who promulgated the stages of psychosocial development starting with that first year or so of basic trust. It was bias confirmation, but, as I met more children healing from trauma, I wondered if the loss of trust reset those stages of development. 

Last year I drafted my family into a 5K to raise money for charity. The race, an hour away from our house, gave me a chance to talk a family member and child psychiatrist about the different trajectories I was seeing.  I asked him if the breaking of trust by a parent or trusted individual such as a teacher or police officer cause a more profound or permanent trauma than experiencing atrocities by people who make no secret of their bad intentions.

He didn’t a quick answer for that question. He didn’t have easy answers to the more difficult question of how we help people recover from that trauma. I still suspect there are no easy answers to either question.

Working with children who have been betrayed by people they should be able to trust has brought the lessons from the workshop full circle, showing me that rebuilding a life is begins by addressing the first thing all humans need– the ability to trust.

Better than Before

Better than Before

The girl had received bad news for the umpteenth time in the last few months. Her sobs of despair reverberated down the hall as she asked the powers that be, “What’s the point?”

“You’re the point!“ The cosmos answered in the form of a lanky young man charged with keeping order the school. “People like you are the point, “ he repeated. “Don’t you know that you all make us better?“

I smiled as I leaned my head towards the doorway to listen from my classroom. I was on standby for hugs and comfort, but my young coworker was already working his magic. And, as he elaborated on the ways our students make us better, I thought about how Thing1 and Thing2 have done that for me every day over the last 19 years.

Just before Thing1 was born, I still didn’t have a handle on my bipolar disorder. My depressive episodes sporadically threatened jobs, and manic phases spurred spending sprees and other self-destructive behavior.

But then Thing1 happened, and I knew I had to be better.

“Every day I go home after work and think about how to be better,“ my coworker said to the girl who was now listening quietly. “You do that for all of us.“

I thought of all the ways I have tried to be better for Thing1 and Thing2 over the years. I thought of the therapy I’ve sought and the examples I’ve tried to set.

Then I thought of all the ways our students spur me to be more organized, to learn more, to be better for them. It made me smile as I thought of how no matter what we will ever do for our own kids or for the ones we take care of during the day, we will always owe them far more for every day making us a little bit better than we were the day before.

Commando Parenting

Commando Parenting

I always said if any kid of mine where is the teeniest bit artistically inclined, I would encourage the heck out of that inclination. Thing2 is, and I do, but I swear that if there is a God up there, he or she has finely honed sense of humor.

I was a slob as a kid. I collected everything and threw away almost nothing. I had drawings on little scraps of paper and stole my mom‘s scissors for drawings and creations. She never expressly said she hoped I’d have a kid just like me, but I think in the back of her mind she must’ve known that it be a pretty good revenge.

She’s getting it.

Thing2’s room has gone from being inspirational to hazmat training ground. His creativity has gone high-tech, so boxes of pencils, markers, and half-filled sketchbooks share space with a DIY Recording studio where he swears he’s going to make animated films to make George Lucas drool. It’s also filled with empty popcorn bags and scraps of paper and – you guessed it – Mom’s stolen scissors.

I have drawn several lines in the sand to get him to clean it. Carefully delineated boundaries worked beautifully with Thing1, but, despite his volcanic colon, he can be pretty obsessive about keeping his space organized. It took only one full-scale clean out of his room to help him make the jump from messy tween to fastidious young adult.

One thing I’m finding about artistically-inclined offspring, however, is that simply bulldozing the room doesn’t get the point across. It just creates more canvas. So I’m taking a new tactic today.

As I carried out a little clutter control this morning in the rest of the house, I noted that my creative kid had left “his” iPad and ten-year-old computer in the living room, presumably after shooting footage for a fan-fiction movie he’s been scripting. The iPad is old, but it still works so it wasn’t going into that sty of a room where we might invent the first human to iPad virus. I decided to hide it in ours until the room gets clean.

Hiding precious objects gets rooms superficially clean quickly, but today I mean business. I want it actually clean. On my next trip back to the living room, I picked up the laptop to find a hiding place for it. I had almost passed his room when I thought of the perfect place. I went into his room and moved some of the carnage away from the bunkbed. I put the laptop in the safe little nook behind the bunkbed and then put the carnage back.

I figure about 4PM, I’ll either be up for parent of the year or getting a visit from child protective services — right after he hears he can the laptop back when he can find it.

What Kind of Mother

What Kind of Mother

It’s two day before Thing1’s graduation. I’m on hold with the pharmacy for the third time this week trying to find out what’s happened with the most expensive of his five prescriptions. The insurance company won’t approve an increased dosage.

I’m scrolling through Facebook while I wait, stopping to like a friend’s post about a daughter’s scholarships or add a frowny-face to a post about a shelter dog on ‘death row’. I’m thinking about Plan B and C, including a three hour drive to Montreal to buy the temperature-controlled drug there. 

The hold music is still playing as I pause at a picture of a crying toddler. I click on it and open the article.

The boy in the article has been recently separated from his immigrant mother. The article doesn’t mention if they entered the US illegally or were seeking asylum, only that he is traumatized and that his mother is now incarcerated several states away. I break a strict self-imposed rule and scroll to the comments below the article. There is outrage at the child’s situation. There is also indifference and even smug vitriol cast at the mother and, by extension at the child on whom our government is visiting this psychological trauma, for his mother’s ‘sin’, a misdemeanor at worst, of crossing the border.

The pharmacy customer service rep returns and pulls me back to my current battle, which suddenly seems almost insignificant. I harden my heart and head and click the back button, for now forgetting the child and the hundreds like him.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” she says, her voice almost robotic. “The insurance company has denied the claim again.”

“Well can you at least send out the original prescription?” I ask. “He’s getting way behind now.”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” she says again. “The old one was canceled with the new one. We’ve sent it back to the hospital to reauthorize.” 

I want to ask her if she worries about job security if medical marijuana – a derivative of which we are on now wholly dependent to stop my firstborn’s internal bleeding – ever gains real traction. Instead I thank her for nothing, knowing I’m being rude for no good reason and with no expectation of an improved result. I call the hospital as soon as I hang up. 

The nurses – there’s a special place in heaven for them – are already faxing and calling and liasoning between the doctors and the ‘experts’ at the insurance company (there’s a special place for them too). The nurses inform me that the insurance company’s chief pharmacist denied the new dose again, and they are appealing the denial a second time.

By Friday afternoon, company is due to arrive for Thing1’s graduation. I finish most of the cleaning and sit down to call the hospital before the weekend starts. I sit on hold, thumbing through the Facebook feed on my phone again, smiling in spite of my frustration. Images of kids smiling at parties and beaming parents flood my feed. I know they have their worries too, but, for a moment, I feel like I’m looking through a window at another world.

Stories of children being separated from parents also appear. I don’t click on the articles; I’ve just heard their stories on the radio. A father, separated from his young son, has killed himself. Mothers in detention are being told they may never see their children again. Today, knowing I can do nothing, I choose to be blind.

The nurse picks up and tells me the insurance company is still stalling. My son is now over a week behind on the main medication he needs to know will work before he makes too many plans for fall. 

Saturday I tune out, focusing only on our small family celebration. At noon, our firstborn, my baby crosses the great divide from high school to a world that expects something of him. It is a huge step, and I constantly think how fortunate we are to have been able to travel toward and cross over that divide with him. Now, increasingly, he will travel independently. 

Once, I thought this part of the journey would be like ripping a band-aid off of an unshaved leg. 

Before Thing1 was born, I did not want kids. I was a wretched sinner. I had fornicated. I had lied — to people I hated, people I loved, to myself constantly. I had been guilty of almost every deadly sin. I was selfish. I was the worst candidate for a potential parent.

Somehow the miracle of my son happened. It would trite to say that he saved me, and he didn’t. He instead brought out a best part of me that I didn’t know existed so that I could be there to save him if the need ever arose.  

When he was first born, in my dreams, the need always arose. Shortly before I went back to work my dreams became colorful scenarios of someone pointing to my past sins. A judgmental family member or actual judge would tear him from my unfit arms, a rhythmic, colicky cry providing the nightmare’s soundtrack.

Initially, I thought these dreams were more selfishness — the fear of losing the one good thing I had ever been a part of making. Eventually, I began to see my anxieties about losing my child were really about the fear that my earlier sins, in the form of karma, delayed ‘justice’, or just incompetent mothering might threaten his foundation, that the sins of his mother would be visited on him.

Tuesday is Thing2’s last day of school. Our older son’s case is still under appeal. The three of us decide to go to lunch rather than wait by the phone. It’s a perfect Vermont summer day until we get back to the mailbox where we discover the first denial letters, signed by the insurance company’s chief pharmacy officer. 

I call the hospital for a status report. As I wait on hold, I google the pharmacy officer, a woman I discover. Knowing it’s psychotic, I get on Facebook, stalking the woman who’s denied my child’s prescription. I find her profile easily, discovering a professional portrait and a few snapshots of her with a little girl, maybe her daughter. 

I want to message her, to ask her what kind of mother can look at my seventeen-year-old’s charts and deny his chance at health. How can she be so blind to his condition?

The nurse returns and informs me that the doctors have conferred with the insurer for yet another review. We’ll know more Wednesday morning. 

Wednesday after lunch I start my daily calls. Our son is anxious to go back to work. Three weeks without his medication, however, are causing a backslide, despite the cannabis oil on which we’ve pinned too much hope.  

But I still have hope. I have a Plan B and C through Z if needed, and Thing1 knows it. That knowledge is letting both of us see his future through an optimistic lens. 

I keep Facebook open for a few more minutes after I hang up the phone. Graduation photos still appear in the feed. So do more articles about children being torn from their families in the name of national security. 

I click on a few, avoiding the comments, focusing on the families, on the children. I mull over a new Plan A, then Plan B to help safeguard those futures. They are not my children anymore than my son is the pharmacy officer’s child, but they are someone’s children. I still don’t know exactly how to help, anymore than I know if we’ll win our second appeal, but today, as I wait, I refuse to be blind.

Negotiations

Negotiations


Since he could crawl, Thing2 has been chasing after Thing1.

Thing1 played in Little League. Thing2 cheered for four seasons straight, mangling his brother’s name at top decibel. Thing1 started playing golf, Thing 2 held the flags. Thing1 wanted to be alone, Thing2 had to be next to him and even on him.

Thing1 was about four when he began begging us for a baby brother. He didn’t want more playdates, and he definitely didn’t want a baby sister. He even accepted that, eleven years ago, Thing2 was the big present that Christmas.

He was very serious about his responsibilities as his big-brother. He read to Thing2 and held his hand on the jungle gyms. He made sure that I didn’t pick any outfits or Halloween costumes that violated the boy code of ‘not-too-cute’.

Seventeen years later, Thing2 is still chasing after, but for the last few years Thing1 has been wanting ‘space’. Often their relationship is like watching a match chasing a long fuse, and the match has been burning hotter as he realizes his big brother is about to put some serious geographic space between them.

This afternoon, after a morning of working together with the Big Guy in the yard, Thing1 grabbed his keys and golf clubs to go to the free course at the park.  Thing2 watched him and retreated to the couch to work on a script. Thing1 noticed his brother sitting in a dark corner on a sunny day, knowing I had to work and that Dad needed to rest his bum knee.

“Get up off the couch,” he ordered. Thing2 started to object, but years of hero worship, like any cult, is hard to fight.

“Why?” he asked instead.

“You’re coming with me,” Thing1 announced. “It’s too nice a day to sit inside.”

The Big Guy and I looked at each other. Thing1 is very serious about his golf time, especially since his hair-trigger colon has kept him off the fairway all spring. The last time the two tried playing together, three-year-old Thing2 had rearranged all the flags on the practice putting green so they ‘lined up’ and Thing1 had sworn he wouldn’t have him as a partner. 

But, as we get the house ready for graduation, Thing2 pitches in with as much vigor as his taller but somehow not-as-much-older older brother before they head out for a fun afternoon together and without parental supervision.  They both seem to understand that something was being renegotiated for the better.