The Hardest Best Day

Kissing Thing1 goodbye two years and one pandemic ago as we dropped him off on the corner closest to his dorm was tough but good. He was doing what kids are supposed to do. He was trimming away the apron strings.

But then, yesterday, he shredded them.

He had been back for two weeks after his classes ended and then packed up and drove back to school to an apartment he’s rented for the summer. Without any prompting from his parents who would really love to spend more time with him, he’s found work and a place to live and started building an adult life.

He submitted to a long maternal hug and some tearful kisses, promised not to drive too fast and text when he got there safe (which he forgot to do, of course). It’s what he’s supposed to be doing, and, even thought in some ways it’s the hardest day of being his mom, having the proof that he’s standing on his own two feet and happy made it the one of the best.

 

Pole Beans

The boys have been playing catch and frisbee on our walks around the house in the afternoons. Lately when Thing2 reaches for a deliberately off-trajectory frisbee, it seems as if his feet barely have to leave the ground for him to grab it out of the sky. The boys adjusted to living apart when Thing1 left for school and then adjusted again when he came back for the quarantine, but, as Thing2 grows faster and taller than a Kentucky Wonder pole bean vine, there seems to be an another adjustment taking place.

Thing1 specifically asked for Thing2 to be born, badgering us for a baby brother for almost two years. When we granted the wish (don’t ask me what we would’ve done if it had been a sister), Thing1 enthusiastically stepped into the role of guardian/teacher/benevolent dictator. He helped coach Thing2’s Little League team. He alternately shushed and comforted him through colicky rides in the back seat.

Thing2 accepted the paradigm and fell into his role of hero worshiper without question or deviation—even when it bugged the crap out of his brother. It’s a tossup as to whether a baby brother or an actor dog is more dogged in their loyalty. He followed his brother from room to room, and even from hobby to hobby. If Thing1 was good at a sport, Thing2 had to give it a go. When his older brother built a computer, he had to build one too.

And then Thing1 left. Thing2 had to find a new hero.

Our youngest has used the vacuum to bond with the Big Guy over a shared love of music and cooking. He has learned how to tech-support himself on computer issues. He has nurtured talents he discovered on his own and become his own hero, and when Thing1 returned home from school early, Thing2 very much wanted to spend time with him. There were no repeats, however, of a little kid banging on his older brother’s door, demanding to be included.

In the mornings, they each go to their corners to work on their academics. We eat dinner in the den together, but after about 20 minutes, the boys go to their separate activities. Thing1 tries to stay in touch with his new college friends as much as possible, and Thing2 will geek out on the computer or come hang out with me.

The one time of day come they really come together if over the daily games of catch. Thing1 is still slightly bigger and much stronger, but Thing2 is now a teammate, not an acolyte. There’s less coaching and more rough-housing, but, despite the extra bumps and bruises, the gaps between my two pole beans are getting narrower.

Rearranging Life

Rearrangements

Thing1 returned home from college today, saddled with the knowledge that he won’t be going back until September. He’s in the same boat as millions of other college kids around the country who are rearranging their futures right now.

Thing1 has spent the past few years rearranging his future thanks to his chronic illness, but this is the first time that a nationwide phenomenon has directly impacted his trajectory. this latest crisis makes me think of all the young people who had their lives rearranged with the financial meltdown in 2008 or the aftermath of 911. Every generation seems to have its crisis that requires rearranging of lives.

Even in the absence of a national crisis, however, it seems like there’s always something that requires you to rearrange your life. A job can fall through. A spouse can become disabled or pass away, torpedoing old plans to make way for new ones.

Thing1 seems to be navigating this crisis, like so many others, with characteristic calm. There’s talk of how to stay connected with friends and finish classes online. He strategizing jobs for the next few months, trying to make the best of an unexpected and desired situation as we spend the next few weeks on outstanding home and garden projects.

I’m hoping that he’s also incorporating this detour into the bigger part of his education – the lessons he’ll need for living his life.

Shit happens. Not just stuff but serious, Grade A bullshit.

I was never very good about navigating around steaming piles of trouble until I had to get good at for a then-infant Thing1. When I had to get good at it, the learning curve was steep.

Part of me would shoulder all these lessons for T1 and T2 if I could make their lives easier. The part of me that still has scars inside and out, is grateful that they’re getting these lessons sooner rather than later and that, somehow, this seems like the better way to learn them.

What Next?

This time last year, I was holding Thing1’s hand as he recovered from major surgery and navigating an unwanted gap year. I was still working at home, and Thing2 was still getting his feet wet in middle school. They were the center of my world and the center of my life, and I thought I knew who I was – a mom, writer and artist. The last twelve months, however, have changed all of that.

When I first started this blog seven years ago, I was a work-at-home-mom. The boys were 12 and 6 and, in addition to being the center of my world, were the centers of my days. At the time, the messes and chaotic rituals that go with raising creative kids in the country were endless sources of entertaining and, sometimes, heartbreaking, inspiration for post after post. Trying to preserve the moments, I got back to drawing/illustrating and then found my way to painting.

While Thing1 and Thing2 starred in many posts, I resisted making this a “mommy blog“ for reasons I couldn’t explain then but, after this year of change, I am starting to understand now.

I changed work venues and careers at the beginning of summer. Then Thing1 left for college after a summer of work. Thing2, a case study in extroversion, waded enthusiastically into the middle of middle school, and, while they are still the centers of my life and my heart, they are not always at the center of my day. Thing1 is carving out his own life. Thing2 is working his heart out to be better than his brother at everything. I’m getting to know them both as young adults, and it is an exhilarating experience. It’s also a confusing one.

The kids seem to be forging their identities almost effortlessly. I’ll always be a mom, but with each snip of the apron strings, my ‘mommy’ days seem to be slipping away. I’m still new enough at teaching to think of it as something I do and not yet as something I am, and that distinction has, over the last few months, repeatedly prompted a question about the other important part of my life of “What do I create?” Am I a writer who paints or an artist who writes?

With our family stories evolving away from the kitchen table near the wood stove, for the first time in seven years, I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to paint. I even started taking internet personality tests (always a reliable source of wisdom), hoping the results would spur an obvious answer and direction.

Then a friend reminded me that an artist is an artist, regardless of the medium. That meant the answer was simply in getting back to creating again. The task, now, is to start with writing something – anything – every day.

I know he’s right.

I know that the act of creating will be the discovery of the next stage of life. So bear with me as I get my new bearings. All topics are on the table, and the journey has just begun.

Winter Warrior

We woke up to about a foot of snow this morning. this time last year I was at work at home mom, and The news of a snow day what are you meant sleeping in for an extra hour before logging on for work. This morning, however, my new life as a teacher at a residential school where snow days just don’t exist meant the alarm was set the night before for 5 AM. call cement rediscovering a slightly more adventurous part of myself that has been buried for a long time.

I’ve had trouble with my eyes for the last few years which has limited night driving. In the winter when the weather is bad, I tend to be a homebody at night. combine the bad eyes with a little PTSD from two winter time accidents, and I am normally just as happy to keep my car parked in the driveway and my butt parks by the wood stove for most of the winter.

Two years ago when Thing1 was sick, I had to suck it up and find the nerve to drive over the mountains almost every week and a winter that miraculously had a major storm almost every single time we drove. My concern for my son help quell my fear, but today I didn’t have a bigger fear motivating me. There was just a knowledge that our students need us to be there whether or not the weather is bad.

So I got up and showered and got the car out. I was rewarded on the way down with a glowing early morning view of the snow. I had an emergency backpack packed in case I get stuck. I have heavy duty ice and snow scraper and shovel, and suddenly I felt less like a tired and nervous middle-aged hausfrau and more like an adventurer — a winter warrior.

when I got down our mountain, the roads seemed easier to navigate. I thought about some of the women in my family who have been happy adventures as they get into their 50s and 60s and how I always joke that I want to be then when I grow up. As I pulled into the parking lot at school, accident free and wrapping up my morning spanish lesson on tape, I felt my old fears fade as I took a step towards becoming a happier adventure.

Bring in winter!

but this morning I had someplace to go .

Full Circles

I’m taking a step back from oil painting in October to participate in Inktober. It’s a good time to do some drawing, and, anyway, my studio is about to be torn apart as I claim a larger space.

Today’s prompt is “ring.”

I’m sitting in one part of a ring — on the couch with the Big Guy as I draw. I’m trying to get Thing2 to do Inktober with me, but he’s over at the piano teaching himself the Beatles song book and making our eyes sweat.

It’s almost Thing2’s 13th birthday, and I’ve been thinking about the first few minutes after his birth. I’ve been remembering that perfect round baby head and those early days when nothing seems as pure as the love that we felt for them.

Now all these years later, we know his triumphs and follies, and the love is anything but pure. It’s stronger and better because we know that each day will reveal some facet that makes it stronger still.

We are shy one kid. He’s away at college, and it’s been an adjustment. As broken bars of “Imagine” drift over from the piano, however, I keep thinking about how full our little family circle, with its faultlines and reinforcements, still is.

I sat with a student today who is trying to navigate from adolescence to adulthood with only support from the state. She has little help from the adults who brought her into the world, but her courage and determination to help people she still loves is nothing short of heroic. I know she should have enjoyed — that they all should enjoy — that same kind of parental love we take for granted, and I know the only thing I can do is support her and show her that I expect great things from her during our last few months together.

But, now, sitting on the couch as the first bars of “Let It Be” begin to echo, I think about the other things I can do, and I make a point to never take our small circle for granted.

Summer Breaks


It’s the week before graduation. Thing1 and the Big Guy are working together to disassemble a third-hand swing set that has become too tired and worn to allow even the cats to play on. The swing set arrived at the house when we did, when Thing1 was in first grade and Thing2 was on the way. This weekend, both boys are too big to use it, and watching the Big Guy and Thing1 work together as equals to take it apart and clean up the rest of the yard for next weekend is making my eyes sweaty.

Thing1’s on weekly Humira now. The levels still aren’t high enough to make a difference, and he’s using cannabis oil to handle the inflammation. I get to make the odd joke about being mom of the year for getting my kid to use pot (it’s not, it’s hemp), but it is working to a degree. He’s weaning off of Prednisone which isn’t working, still taking Lialda, which isn’t working and waiting for the next blood test to see if we’ll stick with Humira or move on to the next trial-and-error.

And he’s waiting for his life to begin.

Except a funny thing has happened in the last few weeks. In between the phone calls and the daily inquiries into his bowel movements, he’s managed to get to alumni dinners for this year’s grads. He’s helped plan and pull off a senior prank centered around screwing up a parking lot for a day. He’s scheduled a new student orientation day for college.

We don’t know if he’ll be going to college in the fall. We don’t know what his future holds. The reality is, however, even if he weren’t sick, we wouldn’t know that.

Next week his grandparents and aunt will come to see him graduate. We’ll have a small party at home with a burger bar, music and a slide show of the most embarrassing moments of his first 1.78 decades.

It’s been hot the last few days. We all laugh as we realize the snow tires just came off a week or two ago. It’s springing into summer, and, just as quickly, Thing1 will be into his ‘real’ life. He’ll take his Ulcerative Colitis with him. We’ll help him fight for as much as we can for as long as we can, but, in the long run, the bulk of the battle will be his.

Hopefully he’s heading into a long summer, but the nature of his disease is that he will see winter again. Some winters are easy. Others throw a Nor-easter at you every week until you think you’ll throw in the shovel and let the winter bury you. This winter, he learned how to dig.

Because he also learned that, for the people who can and will dig, the winter does end. It always ends.

I Know Thee

It was just beginning to snow by the time I browbeat thirteen-year-old Thing1 into a clean T-shirt and into the car last Thursday. We were headed to Hubbard Hall for a pay-what-you-will dress rehearsal of 'King Lear', and, for the first time all year, Thing1 had decided he really wanted to do homework.

“Who are you and what have you done with my son?” I asked as we got into the car. He rolled his eyes at me. Any other night, such devotion to homework would have prompted me to call a mental health professional, but we had to get to dinner before the show, and I decided not to spike the ball.

Thirteen has made Thing1 unrecognizable somedays. A winter ago on the same road, anticipating another winter Shakespeare tragedy, this same young man regaled me with the intricacies of modifying his favorite computer game. Thursday night, he kept his own council.

I asked about his day at school and got mostly monosyllabic answers to my questions. Finally, I asked the right question.

“How are you liking The Crucible?” The two of us had seen that play a year earlier at another local theatre, and I hoped the experience was enhancing his classwork.

“I'm just bored with it,” he finally answered.

“With the play?” I asked. “Or the class in general?” I thought I knew his answer. Thing1 loves math and science and considers English classes state-sanctioned torture. But I didnt know him as well as I thought.

“I'm bored with school,” he said, and my head nearly exploded with the questions that were forming. For the next fifteen minutes and then the next hour at dinner and in the theatre as we waited for King Lear to disown a loving daughter and a loyal servant only to realize he didn't understand their motives all that well, I uncovered a wealth of curiosity and dreams that my son had been quietly nurturing these last few months.

Instead of a knave bent on defying his parents' entreaties to take homework seriously, I was seeing a boy hungry for inspiration at school but determined to find it on his own if necessary. I was seeing a spark and, with it, the boy I thought I knew.

 

Just Grow

Just grow

I see him almost everyday on my way to or home from the local country store.  Clutching a newspaper purchased at the same store, running up the low, long hill at the base of our road, I know from his hair color  that this man is very likely older than I am.  But everyday I see him jogging up that hill, his relaxed smile pronounce to the world that he is not old.

He’s not the only “senior” citizen I’ve noticed lately who’s refused to retire to a rocking chair.  Mornings, I see a woman with steel grey hair and steely determination in her eyes running that road.  She keeps the same pace going down hill or up.  

I love these scenes.  I love seeing a Facebook status from a family member who may be retirement age according to some calendar but has chosen to make her own schedule while leading hiking tours in the Rockies.  I loved being part of a race whose highlights included a 92-year-old finishing a 5k for the 32nd time.  It reminds me everyday that I can choose to grow old (something I’ve been thinking about a bit more as the “change” rolls in), or I can choose to keep growing.

Un-Tunnel Vision

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I hadn’t been on a bike in 20 years and was more than a little nervous about the prospect of spending 3 hours riding on mountain trails – however flat they were.  The last time I was on a bike a motorist had literally run me off the road into a ditch, and, after limping my bike home, I stuck to walking.  But this has been a summer of redemption for me, and it would continue to be from the first 10 minutes of our journey.

Fortunately, you really don’t forget how to ride a bike, and my summer fitness plan – intended to make sitting in a standard-size train seat more comfortable – paid off once again.  The mechanics were in place, and we would be riding in a converted railroad bed, ensuring there would be no maniacal motorists.  Faking the absence of fear was getting easier as we got closer to the starting gate, and then the trail guide began giving us the rundown of the road we were about to travel.  

We were to start with a 1 1/2 mile ride through a tunnel with no light save for our headlights.  There would be several tunnels throughout the ride, and several of them had trenches running alongside them.  I listened and smiled, taking courage from the relaxed faces of my family, but my stomach was already beginning to churn.  

The safety warnings noted, we mounted our bikes and headed for the first tunnel.  Thirteen-year-old Jack and his eighteen-year-old cousin, already thick as thieves despite having only met a few days earlier, charged ahead.  Fearless but not reckless, Jack sped towards the tunnel.  I was still getting my bike lets and was happy to pedal more slowly.  The Big Guy was trailing our youngest son, and went between us.

The darkness closed in around us quickly.  Behind me I heard one of my nieces struggling with her own fears, and the mom in me slowed to try and comfort her.  Her father, however, was just behind us and, falling back on his twenty years of military-instilled discipline, barked at her to get moving.  It worked for both of us.  I began peddling and calling back encouragement to my niece. 

Jack and his cousin got to the end of the tunnel first and were waiting for the adults.  One by one, we emerged, blinking at the summer sun.  I was shaking a bit, but when I looked at my oldest son, there was only excitement and happiness with the day and the mountains around him.  There was no fear, and I could see there hadn’t been any.  Part of me pondered how he got so brave with a mother who constantly lets fear govern her life – and his sometimes.  The other part of me was absorbing his excitement.  

We snapped a few shots of cousins and then pedaled further.  Every mile featured breathtaking views and, often, equally breathtaking drops that seemed incredibly close to the road.  The further we traveled, however, the less I even felt the fears that would normally have me thinking about the size of the drops and what it would be like to fall from them.

The sun in the cloudless sky that framed the majestic peaks that surrounded us drenched the day’s palette in intense blues and greens.  It also brought everything into sharp focus.

Jack and his cousin remained in the lead the rest of the ride.  And, while he was busy growing the part of me that had absorbed his excitement and joy realized that I was busy being reborn. 

When Words Don’t Work

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We drove down on Saturday to spend the night with Jack’s aunt and uncle who live in the same town where the summer camp is being held.  Their proximity to the camp was a small source of comfort to me – I knew any real emergency would not involve Jack waiting three hours for a loved one to get to him.   My stomach still ached when I woke up Sunday morning, however.  It wasn’t the 80 degree heat at 6:00 AM that was bothering my system.  It was the knowledge that I was about to leave my first born, Jack, on his own for the first time.

Twelve-year-old Jack, excited about the week ahead at a college just the night before, was quiet when he came down to breakfast.  He ate his usual mountain of food, speaking only in answer to a direct question from me or his aunt.  Feigned stoicism has been a hallmark of his tween years, but when his little brother failed to goad him into a squabble over a Lego ship in his cereal, I asked Jack if everything was okay.

“I’m just a little nervous,” he answered, pouring a third bowl of cereal.

“You’ll do great.  You’ll do fine,” His aunt and I responded in unison, but my own worry was growing.  Was he ready for this?  I was about the same age when I spent my first summer away, but for some reason, my child seemed much younger.

The morning passed quickly, filled with a last minute haircut and shopping for toiletries.  The distraction seemed to relax him, and by the time we drove him to registration, he felt confident enough to enjoy a little eighth grade humor.

The summer camp is being held at a small college where Jack will get to indulge his computing addiction for a week.  When we got to the camp the first order of business was filing out forms and giving a deposit for his dorm key.  Paper work done, we followed paper signs with big blue arrows down the hall of the college science building toward the computer lab.

The arrows lead us around a corner and into a large room with a wall of windows.  Rows of tables weighted with the latest in computing technology filled most of the room.  As Jack noticed the games on a few of the screens and the very low-tech chess boards setup at the front of the room, he began to smile.

In less than an hour we had installed him in a dorm room and met his roommate (a one-year veteran of the camp).  We brought him back to the computer lab to say goodbyes.  Now, I was the only one feeling nervous, but it was for myself.  How was I going to spend a week without seeing his face?

All nervousness had left Jack’s face as a counselor invited him to play a computer game while he waited for the rest of the group.  I knew, for the first time, he was with other science-oriented kids, and he would be fine.  The Big Guy and I were smiling as we drove out of the college campus.

But the day’s story had just begun.

The Big Guy and I made the three hour trip home with our six-year-old.  We stopped for dinner and ice cream and settled down on the couch to try and find a new, temporary routine.  Exhaustion was helping us put the day behind us when my cell phone began beeping.  I clicked the home button, saw a Skype alert and clicked it.

“Are you there?”  It was Jack.

“Are you ok?”  I texted back.

“I think I want to come home,” he wrote.

“Are you hurt?”  I asked.  “Is anyone teasing you?  Do you feel scared?”  He answered no to my questions, and I knew he was going through what all kids experience on their first night away from home.  Making sure that he felt safe, even if he was already homesick, the Big Guy and I talked and texted him to let him know we were supporting him.

“Words just don’t help right now,” he wrote after a time.   I knew they didn’t.  I knew the only thing that would help was for him to get through the first night and see things from the fresh perspective of a seasoned camper.

Technology was a blessing and a curse in the unfolding of this story.  Once, when summer camps controlled all communications, allowing only mail and care packages in and emergency phone calls out, the parents may have been aware of the first night fears.  The ability to connect from anywhere at anytime, however, ensured that we felt his angst as keenly as he did.  As we texted good night, I also wondered if the ease of connection was less a safety net and more a crutch.

I spent most of the night with my phone on, waiting for a midnight text and worrying how he was doing.  Most likely, he’s eating breakfast right now and getting into his day, his parents once again an afterthought – as we should be this week.  I’m still watching the text screen, hoping for a positive update, but knowing that at this moment that ‘No news is good news’, is a lot more than a tired cliche.