In It Together

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My sons are the center of my life.  They are the center of my husband’s life. 

Today, Congress began changing the future drastically for my eldest son by endangering his ability to obtain insurance when he is an adult. 

Today Congress rolled back Obamacare, and with it, protection for millions of people with pre-existing conditions (replaced with high risk pools).  My son is one of those people. He was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder (a lifetime diagnosis) that requires medications that would be unattainable for us without insurance. 

He’ll be a man soon, and, again – through no fault of his own –  he may find it more difficult to get coverage or possibly even job, since he will have to evaluate the laws in each state and not every employer will want to cover hires in his situation. It will  Even so, he’s lucky compared to the millions of Americans who will lose insurance outright. He’s still on our insurance plan, and we’ll keep him there as long as the law allows.

Jimmy Kimmel hinted at some of this the other night in his emotional monologue. He briefly touched on the fact that, prior to the ACA, a child like his would have reached his lifetime insurance cap before he left the NICU. If that child had appendicitis, or a broken bone, or cancer, that cap would have left many parents bankrupt at best or burying their child at worst — even if they had insurance.  

I have thought a lot about those other parents in the months since our son was diagnosed. When we get our meds, I silently thank our company for making it possible and then shake my head that anyone in a country as rich as ours might have to watch their child suffer or even die.  I shake it when I wonder how many people die prematurely because they don’t have access to the same healthcare we do, and I wonder how we benefit as a society from treating children and poor people like disposable objects. 

I call my representatives. I donate. And I shake my head. But today I’m done shaking my head.  I’ve thought about moving our family back to a country with stronger healthcare, but I’d still be shaking my head at the drugstore, wondering how people back home were managing without access.  

So now I’m still calling my representatives and donating, but I’m also looking for new ways to show solidarity with my son and with all the other people who are being pushed out in the cold. Because, as Jimmy Kimmel so beautifully stated, “We need to take care of each other.”  

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Yours, Mine, Ours

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For some reason I had a lot of gay friends in high school. It wasn’t something I planned or even thought about until senior year, when a number of friends started coming out.

Homosexuality was not an issue prior to that, and my friends were my friends. Who they loved would never became an issue for me.  They were wonderful people before they were out, and they were (and are) wonderful people after they were out.

Those relationships stayed close beyond high school and brought new friendships with them.  It never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about having a lot of gay friends because that was what I knew.

Most of my close friends had relatively supportive families when they came out, but over time I heard horror stories of people being shunned and even threatened with violence by their own flesh and blood.  I knew of at least one friend who was beaten up simply for ‘acting’ gay even before he himself had seriously contemplated who he was.

It wasn’t until I started dating more that I realized that some people really did have a problem with homosexuality. Some of the objections were religious, but more frequently, there seemed to be an unfounded fear of unwanted sexual advances (ironically often in men who themselves were aggressive with me).

I ended relationships when it became clear that the man I was seeing would never accept my friends.  For a long time, I believed my own intractable position was founded on the fact that my friends were a non-negotiable part of my life, but as I’ve married and we’ve gone our own ways geographically, my feeling is stronger.

It wasn’t until I had a son who defied convention with his tutus and fairy wings that I understood why it had mattered to me so much back then that any companion be accepting of my gay friends.  But when my unconventional son began asking to wear his rainbow wig to the diner, the empathy and love I had felt for those people crystalized.

It wasn’t just acceptance of my friends, I had wanted. It was the assurance that if any child of mine was different, a future husband would respond the way the Big Guy does — by asking if our different child wants to wear his superhero cape with his wig.

It hit again Sunday when the news came in from Orlando, and I read of a mother reading the last texts from her son, knowing he might be dying and that his last moments were filled with terror.

It hit because as a mother I knew that the last thing she probably cared about at that moment was who her son loved.  The only thing that mattered was that she wanted him to be safe so that he could love.

I knew that could have just as easily been my kid who had wanted acceptance and freedom from fear.  It could be your kid that was refused housing or service or even medical care. It could be any of ours that was in that night club in Orlando, murdered for the crime of loving someone.

I don’t know what the future holds for my unconventional son, and it is not our job to project an orientation on to him. It is our job to make sure he knows that our love doesn’t come with conditions and to work for a world where everyone’s kid can be honest about whom they love without fear.

Town Meeting

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I had the picnic basket packed with pasta salad, cheese and crackers, and watermelon by 7PM.  We had an hour to go.  It was a only a five minute drive to the church yard, but we’d need to get there early to find a good spot.

When we arrived, the unofficial meeting was just coming together.  There were dozens of young faces – some just a few months into this world.  There children born on the other side of the globe lolling on picnic blankets with kids whose grandparents and great-great-great-grand’s built this town.  But, while the faces are different, the feelings of the attendees – unlike on official Town Meeting day – were very much in sync.

Everyone, regardless of how they felt about the latest stop sign or school budget line item, greeted their neighbors happily.  Some had brought dinner. Others brought dessert.  In front of the congregation was what looked like a laundry line, draped with colorful sheets.  It looked like the make shift stage Thing1 and Thing2 had created under our swing-set a few years ago.  

By the time the sun dipped behind the mountain at the edge of the field, the meeting was ready to begin. A wiry man with a snowy white beard walked to the center of the lawn making introductions and as he left the grassy stage, players bearing elaborate marionettes glided into view. 

For the next two hours, we watched field in front of the mountain darken, with the only light coming from lamps clamped to teepees at each side of the stage.  The players and puppeteers told tales of foolishness, mercy, greed, and, finally of one of those rare but wonderful instances of man’s humanity to man.  

The last story of a lifetime of generosity and love ultimately benefiting the generous concluded with the illuminating of paper lanterns constructed to look like houses. The puppeteers dimmed the stage lights and soon, the only sight was the tiny houses against the mountain and the only sound was the rushing river nearby.  And the only thing we knew for that moment was the peace that we were unconsciously sharing with everyone in that field.

That moment was a gift from the players.  It was also a gift from the Arab and Jewish storytellers who gave these stories to their children and to the world. As our moment of peace came to a quiet end, I thought of their descendants a half a world away, locked in endless conflict and, gazing at the stars, I wished peace for both sides – for their sakes and everyone else’s.  I wished for us to remember that, we all have an inheritance like this – one that could unite us more than we allow it to us divide us if only we’d claim it.  

It’s only a wish,and, as John Lennon said, I may just be a dreamer.  But I didn’t imagine these stories or that moment.

The Path Taken Together

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“We are now arriving in Rugby.  Rugby, North Dakota,” announced the conductor over the loudspeaker.  “For those of you who don’t already know, Rugby is the geographical center of North America.”  My two adult dinner companions and I looked at each other and smiled as the youngest of our party, six-year-old Thing2, absorbed the information.  It was the first time he had been silent since we had been seated with the Boy Scout troop leader and den mother.  

The train may not have reached the geographical center of North America at its appointed hour, but the dining car staff was a model of down-to-the-minute efficiency.  Feeding 400 people in two hours required military precision and, as in our case, sometimes seating strangers together to ensure every booth was used to its fullest potential.  

I had seen the Boy Scout troop board the train earlier in the day.  We had just reached the border of North Dakota when the uniformed flotilla of teenagers marched past us and then forgotten about them – a tribute to their chaperones’ ability to keep a dozen boys in line for hours on end – until the seating hostess put me and Thing2 together with their leaders.  

Twelve years of living in a very small town has not undone my urban-cultivated and media-nurtured policy  of never talking to strangers.  However, for Thing2′ – born and bred in the country – strangers don’t exist.  As soon as we sat down he began chattering with our companions, asking about their badges and where they were going.  

Sociability had been his hallmark for the past two days of our cross country train trip, and it kept him happily busy as he played with other children and introduced himself to friendly passengers in the observation car.  He showed neighboring passengers the pictures he was taking and cooed at babies.  He chatted with a friendly Amish woman about her dress (which he found beautiful).   And, as he got to know people from all walks of life, so did I. 

Now, as we sat with our companions from the midwest, I thought of the pundits and pollsters who love to claim that Americans are completely at odds with each other – divided by region and class.  Listening to the troop leader talk about changes in North Dakota topography and things that were high in the minds of his neighbors, I was reminded that there were probably more shared values on that train than insurmountable, opposing ideologies.

We may have had different boarding points and destinations, but we were on the same journey.

Lettuce Listen

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Today I hustled. I fed. I chauffeured. I walked. I shopped. I chauffeured some more.  I prepped.  I cleaned.  I chided.  I sat at a desk in a windowless office watching the light change as clouds softened the sunlight hitting the door.  I messaged.  I read and typed.  I focused and tinkered.  I emailed people in Hawaii and Maryland.  I ran.  

When evening came, I washed and peeled and chopped and cut and cut until I noticed I had one more thing to wash and cut and walked through the door into the rain and out to the garden.  I walked to the middle of the deserted plot and knelt down to pick some lettuce.  I plucked, and as the raindrops softly plop-plopped on my bare shoulders and rat-a-tatted on the lettuce leaves, for the first time all day, I stopped thinking and working and hustling, and I listened.

Heroes Begin at Home

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When our twelve-year-old, Thing1, was about four, he began begging us for a baby brother.  He didn’t want more playdates with other boys, and he definitely didn’t want a baby sister.  Fortunately, we were able to deliver on his request two year later, and, even though we couldn’t take credit for Thing2’s gender, Thing1 was perfectly happy to go along with our contention that Thing2 was the big present that Christmas.

Thing1 took his big-brother responsibilities very seriously.  He read to Thing1and 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’.  It didn’t take Thing2 long to decide that his older brother was a hero.  Six years later, Thing1 is learning that no good deed goes unpunished.

The two of them share the same wants these days, and the perfect harmony that characterized their early years together goes off key with increasing frequency.  They still share a bunk room, and, for a time, I thought the close proximity was the primary cause of their constantly overlapping material desires.  But the other night, as the Big Guy and I orchestrated the circus that is homework hour at our house, it became apparent that it does’t always take the opposing forces that lead to conflict don’t have to be equal in size or determination.

The increased expectations and volume of homework this year drove Thing1 to study at the desk we put in his room two years ago.  Thing2, however, still needs more supervision if we want his 20 minutes of homework done before eight o’clock at night, and we’ve designated the kitchen table as his study space.  Anything can draw our happily distractible six-year-old away from his studies, and, if we don’t keep a close eye on him, we know we’ll find him in the bunk room pestering his older brother.

Last week I had a chance to watch this ballet once more.  This time, however, a different angle made it seem like a completely new production.  Thing2 had just been restored to his chair after bouncing around the house, showing us his afternoon artwork.  Thing1 had the door to their room closed.  Hoping a little music would help Thing2 concentrate, I hit play on If I Fell, one of his favorite Beatles’ songs.

My plan backfired immediately.  Thing2 began singing, revealing that he wanted to sing Beatles at the school talent show.  The love song ended, but instead of bending his head to his work, Thing2 hopped off the chair and ran to the bunkroom, calling to his brother through the door to let him know about the talent show plans.

“Leave me alone,” Thing1 yelled through the door.  “I’m trying to work!”  I ordered Thing2 back to his seat and opened the door to let Thing1 know yelling at his brother should be reserved for actual crimes.  He came out to defend his reaction and, after we discussed the right tone to use with his parents, Thing1 trudged back to his desk.  Thing2, watched the exchange and hopped up again as soon as his brother began his retreat.  It was like watching a match chasing a long fuse.

I got up to pull my first-grader back to his homework before a fight broke out, but when I got to the door of the bunk room, Thing2 was hanging on the back of his brother’s chair, arms wrapped tightly around Thing1’s neck, consoling him while revealing his talent show plans.  Thing1, still miffed, was trying to write while ignoring the stranglehold, but then I saw him pat his baby brother’s hand.  At that moment I knew he also realized that this wasn’t pestering.  It was worship.  Sometimes it hurts, but even when he’s trying to find breathing space, Thing1 seems to understand that being someone’s hero is not just a responsibility; it’s a gift.

I’m Not Tired

It’s after nine and too late to start another movie. Six-year-old Thing2’s dance has devolved from frenzied leaping and spinning into climbing onto and sliding off of the couch, but he is not tired. The Big Guy puts in the Sound of Music, fast-forwarding to the end of the intermission.

The music swells, and Thing2 twirls on the floor before climbing up to snuggle between me and his older brother who has sandwiched himself next to the Big Guy on a sofa meant to hold three thinner adults. There’s another slide-and-climb maneuver before Maria is told to go climb her mountains, but by the time she returns to the von Trapp embrace, Thing2 has settled into mine, his eyes closing for a minute.

“I’m not tired,” he breathlessly exclaims through what I could have sworn was a snore as he shakes himself alert. He explains he meant to laugh and then sneezed. There’s another slide-and-climb. Baroness von Schrader is dumping the captain about the same time Thing2 begins examining my hand that’s holding his smaller one. Then with a burst of energy, he rolls from sofa to momma, clinging to me like a baby chimp. “I’m not tired,” he mumbles as he closes his eyes and, looking more two than six, finally surrenders.

Maria is singing in the background about nothing coming from nothing, and, as I savor this moment that is becoming all-to-rare and wonder what the heck I ever did in my own wicked past to have earned it in the first place, I am anything but tired.

World, Meet Boy

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I’m leafing through the pages of my sketchbook looking for a blank sheet.  There are mostly hastily penned doodles for blog posts.  But here and there and there again, there are drawings made with a different scrawl.

There’s a picture of a guitar, the heavy lines suggesting an energetic hand behind the pencil. Below the guitar is scratched the name of the artist whose painting inspired the sketch.  The letters are rough and just slightly clumsy.  On the next pages are renderings of places and even faces I recognize.  And, throughout the strong, impulsively laid lead lines, I see my six-year-old son’s spirit.

His art is like him – uninhibited and full of adventure.  And, like his physical presence, his etchings are talismans of joy.  They are hope in an often hopeless world.  They are a promise of his future, and the affirmation is a priceless powerful drug.  

There is little daylight between his youth and his joy right now, but I know that rarely does that carefree exuberance survive adolescence or maturity.  While it thrives, however, I will nurture it.  The day will come when the lines will become studied and serious.  For now, I’ve pressed these souvenirs back into my sketchbook, saving his spring like a dried daisy to be rediscovered on a colder day when it’s needed most.

A Moment on the Soapbox

I spend Inauguration Morning 2013 trying to write and thinking about inaugurating another diet for the umpteenth time.  (There have been multiple first diet days since the first of this year.)  It seems an strange day to be dwelling on something so mundane.  It’s MLK-day after all.  Our country’s first African-American president is getting worn in for the second time.   And yet, somehow, letting the mundane absorb the three members of our family who got to stay home for the holiday is oddly appropriate.

I’ve lived on two other continents in two different hemispheres.  Thanks to my parents’ wanderlust, I had the opportunity – at a young age – to see how bad it can be but also how the good we have isn’t necessarily isolated.  We got to plenty of countries where elections happened peacefully and where political debates are lively.

As youngsters, however, my sister and I also had the chance to travel and live in South America at a time when election results were often in dispute and transfer of power wasn’t always peaceful. Widespread poverty (and depending on the year, dangerous conditions) was a common symptom of the political instability, and I have memories of walking with my mother in Lima, Peru and noticing many beggars parked between street vendors.  My parents still maintain the friendships they made there, and I remember hearing occasionally of one friend or another having to leave the country quickly even after a relatively peaceful election.  It was anything but mundane.

I thought of that today as I took the kids to Bob’s Diner in Manchester Vermont for a treat.  Always hopping, it was a mob scene on this holiday morning.  The bulk of the dining population was of the tourist variety, but – as always- there was variety.

There were well-heeled flatlanders in perfectly coordinated ski pants and jackets sitting shoulder to shoulder with burly plow drivers in their customized jackets.  There were Obama stickers on pickup trucks and Ron Paul and Romney stickers on slick new SUV’s from ‘down south’.  There were T-shirts with slogans ranging from the peaceful to the political to the profane, and it was just another Monday at Bob’s.  Even after an election season completely characterized by cynicism and bitterness, even in the face of an increasingly strident debate on gun rights (and privacy and religious rights), this confluence of humanity – with its politics on its sleeve in some cases – was not only civil, but jovial.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that the Tree of Liberty would need to be refreshed with the bloom of patriots.  I don’t question his courage or passion for his country, and I know he and his suffered to sow the seeds of our liberty.  I also don’t think those words were written without an understanding of their potential consequences.  But Jefferson did come of age in an era when duels at twenty paces were still considered a reasonable way to settle a dispute.

Now, when I look at events around the world and see the human consequences of refreshing each country’s soul by pitting citizen against citizen, I know there has to be a better way.  And, listening to one of Bob’s cheeky waitresses cheerfully debate the issues of the day with a hot-headed regular, hearing their banter rise above the clattering of dishes and cries of ‘Order up!’, I realize that we have it, and it starts with hotcakes and coffee and a side of home fries.  It may be mundane, but there’s something to be said for that too.