Friday, April 8, 2016

Family living class

"I have never heard anyone say 'vagina' so many times in one hour!"

So begins my 5th-grade son's dinner-table recount of his first Family Living class. (By the way, since I was a 5th grader I have giggled at this colloquialism for sex ed lite. What the heck does it mean, really?)

"And we talked about arm pit hair and how boys get, excited... easier," he continues. I don't even know what he means by that last bit nor where to take the conversation from there, so I just keep spooning rice pilaf  into my mouth and let him continue. "It was mostly vagina, vagina, vagina. She said BABIES come out of vaginas, Mom... but I know I didn't."

Such confidence! It's true that neither of my kids came out of a vagina -- they were C-section births -- but I'm not entirely sure if his statement is motivated by personal history or denial of the entire how-babies-come-out story. But mostly I'm giggling and fighting the urge to tell him we really found him hatching from a giant alien meteorite in the park. I sense Honey fighting this same urge. 

Quite suddenly I realize the wide-eyed, anxious, very smart kindergartener is staring right in my face, hanging on every word. So I probably should tread lightly through this minefield, keep the jokes to myself. (Can you imagine that call from the school guidance counselor? Babies come from meteorites! And now all the 5-year-olds are asking very difficult questions!) Uh oh. 

Here's where my head is at this very moment, as I struggle with my giggle urge: Be cool, Mom. Don't shut this down, Mom. This is the relationship you want to have with your boys, to be able to talk about anything and everything honestly and openly. Don't mess it up with dumb jokes!

But also I don't really want my 5-year-old to know all about the birds and the bees just now. It's bad enough he already knows most of the major swear words. Can't we keep some things mysterious for a little while longer?

So I'm reeling a bit in my clumsy, fumbling where's-the-mom-manual way. I don't know what to do. Then I hear a voice from the opposite side of the table, humming a slow, low tune. It sounds like an anthem, actually, but I can't place it...until I tune in my ears and realize it's Honey singing the word "vagina" repeatedly to the tune of the Flight of the Valkyries.

I laugh so hard I spit rice pilaf. 

Then a tiny 5-year-old voice to my left chirps up: "Oh man, Happy, I can't wait until you learn about penises!"

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Beyond typical fidgets

Zippy meets me at the cafeteria door at 4:20, wide eyes and pale face. I told him I'd be there at 4:00 today but got delayed; he'd been staring at the clock for 20 minutes, waiting, worrying. When I hugged him, I could feel his little heart pounding in his chest.

The phone rings and the Rec director is talking excitedly. All I can discern is the word "thunderstorm" and my son crying in the background. He's inconsolable because he overheard an adult mention that there might be thunderstorms in the forecast. It takes me 5 minutes of me repeating "You are safe. Hear my voice. You are safe..." until he stops crying...but I know I'd better hurry from work to get to him, because he doesn't believe he is safe. He is beyond reason right now. And sure enough, when I arrive, he's sitting on a log near the door, next to a blessed 4th grader who is holding his hand and trying to soothe him. When I hug him, he melts into tears. His body shivers despite the 60 degree temperatures.

Sitting on the beach he overhears a mother yell to her child to drink more water so she doesn't get overheated. He runs to me and thrusts a water bottle into my hands, shoves it up to my mouth, and yells "Drink it, Mommy, because I don't want you to die!" 

The kindergarten teacher emails me to tell me that the accommodations we put in place for Zippy's "active body" are no longer effective. He's out of his seat every few minutes, walking around the class and talking nonstop. He puts his hands on the other children often, not in a threatening way, but almost to reassure himself that they are solid and in the same space. He wanders to the window every now and then to check the sky, to make sure there are no thunder clouds.

It's a rainy Sunday afternoon and all I want to do is read a book in a quiet room. But Zippy is literally bouncing his body off the furniture and the walls, chasing the cats until they cower behind the chair in the corner, spinning in the middle of the living room carpet and talking incessantly. It's pouring and cold outside, but we're going out there in a moment anyway for fresh air. Then we'll play a board game until he starts smashing the pieces around the board. We'll try to bake cookies or play with Legos, each activity lasting about 5-8 minutes until he's up and bouncing around again. My book sits unopened on the end table. 

Life with a worried, antsy child is not easy, but it's all we have known for the last few years. When he was younger, we assumed it was a phase brought on by transitions -- potty training, preschool, then our move. We thought he was immature and just needed to grow out of it. We have joked that Zippy is our "blurry child" because he never stands still long enough to take a photo. In fact, his nickname here -- Zippy -- comes from his abundant movement and energy since the beginning of his life. He never stops. And the more tired he gets, the more he spins. He literally spins! Until he falls to irrational wailing or crashes into sleep. At home we have found ways to add structure and security for him -- he sleeps in Happy's bed, for instance, and we tell him our daily schedule so he has a general idea what to expect. And as he gets older, we can see visibly how hard he's working every day to maintain composure. When he gets home from school, he is completely wiped out.

About a year ago, the preschool noted some unusual behaviors that seemed "beyond typical fidgets," so we called on Child Development Services for help. And so began a year of "we're not quite sure what to diagnose here, but it's definitely something." CDS hinted at all sorts of possibilities, everything from social-emotional delay to sensory integration disorder to hearing problems to ADHD to autism. Zippy has had a developmental delay IEP in place in kindergarten, but because he is academically achieving -- and way above grade level -- the school hasn't offered any additional services without us getting a medical diagnosis. I'll spare you the full details because even though I often felt frustrated, confused, intimidated, I know our burden has been light compared to what some of my friends have carried for their children. (Someday we'll talk about all that is messed up about the special ed process in public schools. And hopefully we'll be able to talk about some stuff that works, too.)

Finally on Friday afternoon, we received from a child psychiatrist an official diagnosis of ADHD and anxiety disorder. And despite learning that our child has a disability "beyond typical fidgets," I feel tremendous relief...because our child has an actual disability. His brain and body are wired differently, we know that for sure, and it's okay. Now we know what we're dealing with and we can move forward.We can help him. We can help us.

I am a worrier by nature. I come from worriers, too. But in general, as I have aged, I have been able to find ways to cope with anxiety when it strikes: deep breathing, walking, prayer and meditation, writing, talking through the options or worst case scenarios. These are all ways my adult mind deals with worry. But a small child's mind, especially one that's thinking ahead of most kids his age -- sometimes ahead of the adults around him -- doesn't always know how to cope. We're fortunate that Zippy is so verbal because he can now tell us when he feels afraid or too juiced. Now when I think back on his infancy and early childhood, the way he fought sleep or woke screaming out in the night...he's been afraid. And my heart breaks thinking about that. My stomach aches when I feel him shaking in my arms now because he's worried about a doctor appointment or has seen an image in a movie that freaked him out.

As I have sought answers for Zippy and our family (and his teachers), I have faced a lot of my own fears and insecurities: What have we done wrong with this kid? Was he in daycare too young; was he traumatized by that damn babysitter's dog who bit him? Have we been too lenient with screen time? Have I babied him too much so he thinks it's acceptable to throw a holy fit? What have I said or done to make him so afraid of xyz? Did our move really screw him up psychologically forever? Just a sampling of the questions, sometimes harebrained, that I've wrestled with this year.

I know that I am more protective of Zippy, a bit more fierce on his behalf than I am for Happy. Maybe it's because he's younger, or maybe it's because I've known from the start that there's something different about him. I try hard not to do things for him or make excuses, but I do acknowledge that we have all changed our own lifestyle and patterns to accommodate his energy and worry (before we knew how exactly to label it). This is the first time, as I process this diagnosis, that I have let myself admit how difficult it has difficult it is and will continue to be. How very carefully I choose my words and explanations when I'm around him. How many knots exist in my own neck, shoulders, stomach constantly as I anticipate the next call from school or after-care, or wait for him to melt down because we have to run an extra errand on a Saturday afternoon, or endure those stares from other adults in a grocery checkout line when he's rolling around on the floor. I am constantly anxious about my child's anxiety! Ha. How's that for irony?

So here I am, admitting that this is really fucking hard. I'm breathing out, finally, after all these months of holding it in.

But... When we stop at the cove trail so he can burn some steam and I watch him crouching over a pile of periwinkle snails, studying every bit of them and setting up little colonies so they'll be safe... When I hear him and his brother giggling over an inside joke that developed in the wee hours of the morning while they cuddled in the same bed... When his friend runs to him on the playground and they embrace and his friend says Zippy "never has to ask me for a hug because I love him so much"... When I answer 100 really deep-thinking questions as he tries to find logic in an illogical world... When I swirl and twirl with him in our living room, or when I rub his back for 20 minutes to calm him to sleep in the evening... When I gaze into those giant, soulful eyes and know that without question his heart is kind and gentle and earnest...

Over and over and over again I say thank you thank you thank you for this beautiful, bubbly, brave, brilliant person who makes every day unique and exciting and full of life and love. His brain may be wired differently, his body may be impulsive and constantly moving, but this makes him who he is. And he is perfect.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Hello, Forty

Well, hello, Forty. I'm glad you're here. Really. I'm sure others don't accept your visit graciously. In fact I've heard of a few who run, or drink too much to try to live up to their younger ways, or simply just deny your presence. I've been waiting for you. And I have no reason to be upset to see you. It's a bummer that you just missed Twenty...she came and went so quickly. I tried to talk her into staying for just one more drink. Always running, that one

You do look different than I'd anticipated, Forty. You don't eat as much as you used to -- and jeez, you eat a lot of greens! -- you exercise more...I really thought you'd be thinner. And I thought you'd have longer, tamer hair -- like maybe you'd finally figure out how to fix it so it looks, well, less poofy. On the flip side, I thought you'd have more gray in your hair...hmm, that's an interesting turn, isn't it? 

"Beer, Tori. Beer." My friend custom-ordered
this t-shirt to remind me of my youth. 
I do see a few lines here and there on your face, a couple more scars on your hands. That furrow in your forehead is fairly deep now; maybe just pull your hair across to cover it. I suppose those lines show some of the good and bad you've seen. Each line carries the memory of a smile or a wince of pain, I'm sure. 

This past year has been challenging, hasn't it, Forty? This is awkward to say, but I had anticipated you'd be wealthier. I'd assumed you'd stop buying clothes at Target, for instance, or that you'd be taking lavish vacations from time to time. Ha, I'd really thought you'd at least own a house and have a decent retirement fund! Even perhaps some money in stocks or a flush savings account. But here you are, like the rest of us, living comfortably but frugally, and not without the occasional middle--of-the-night financial anxiety. What is it they say? The best laid plans something something... You did everything right, I know, everything "they" say we should do. But you didn't know the economy would change so dramatically, that our parents' way of saving wouldn't really work for our generation, so I hope you won't second-guess your decisions. You've worked hard and tried to plan, but you also can't control everything. Now you know that. And now you know, as well, that money is only money. It comes and goes, and you know now how to get through in the leaner times. 

I definitely like the certainty in your stride. Like you know you're on the right path, finally. It's good to see such confidence. Have you learned to be still in each moment yet? We talked about this at length at Thirty's house, how it's not healthy to dwell in the past or maneuver too much for the future. Be here now. It's a platitude, you told me, but it's nice we agree that now is the most important moment, the place we should focus our attention.
The best kind of Saturday afternoon

Here's what really stands out to me today as I'm looking you full in the face, Forty: You have peace in your eyes. You like where you live; in fact, I can't believe you get to walk on the Maine coast whenever you feel like it, or hike a wooded trail. Your job fulfills your do-good-work goals (and you can walk to work most days with the sunrise over the water leading you!). Your husband is healthy, maybe healthier than ever before, and your kids are thriving. I know it's hard for you to see it each and every day, but they're all pretty great, this family you've been nurturing. You wish you had more time to yourself, I bet. But you're afraid to voice that because you know how blessed you are. I get that. You know that someday soon, because time passes so quickly, you'll have too much time to yourself. So you're still trying to find the right balance. Isn't that the way of life, though? Constantly seeking balance. (Ha! Forty! We're so wise now.) At least now you take time to jump off the rat wheel and breathe deeply. Stillness matters.

It's amazing to think we have friends whom we've known for 20, 25, even almost 30 years already. Decades. Plural. That hardly seems possible! Think of all we've been through together and apart, how we've always found our way back to each other. Such amazing bonds formed in childhood and youth. And suddenly new friendships forming with people you've known only briefly yet love fiercely. Maybe that comes with time, too, the ability to love without fear. 

I had hoped by the time we met here, though, all our friends would be leading happy, healthy lives too, free of illness and upheaval. I didn't expect to have friends our age battling brain tumors, that's for sure. Forty, we're really too young for this, don't you think? I mean, sure, we're old-er. But we're also so young! Certainly not old enough yet to face such dire, scary health situations. Friends having heart attacks, dealing with cancer scares, having surgeries to repair damaged joints. Other friends who have discovered suddenly their partner wasn't who they thought or wanted, and others fighting fierce battles for their children. I want to fix it all for each of them, for all of us. Sometimes it overwhelms. I'm seeing more clearly, though, that this is what life is about: Constant change. But more than that, it's about finding the friends on shore we can cling to when the riptide threatens to pull us to sea.

The best kind of
Sunday afternoon
And, Forty, have you seen my siblings, how they shine? Both so talented and following their passions. Both creative hard-working people, the most loving, generous folks I've ever known. They anchor me, like our Dad does, and encourage every move. We rarely speak of how much we miss Mom; the hole she left will never fill in. The closer I get to the age she was when she died, you know, the more I realize just how young she was. That's why we didn't have a big party to welcome you, Forty. I hope you understand. The big party will be when Forty-Eight arrives, because that's the one she didn't get to see. I want to meet Forty-Eight for both of us, celebrate for all who didn't or may not get there.

The biggest thing you've taught me, Forty, is that nothing remains the same. Whether it's good or bad, there is always change. Sometimes it's gradual, sometimes it's sudden, which is yet another reason to try as hard as we can to be present in each moment, to squeeze every ounce of goodness out of every day because we really never know what's coming next. 

I like you, Forty. I feel like you get me -- like maybe you've been waiting for me to arrive instead of me waiting for you. You're easy-going, firmly in the middle: Young enough to enjoy long walks and the occasional late night out with friends, but old enough to know when it's time to just climb into bed with a book. And I think other people take you more you've been around the sun enough times to know a thing or two, yet you're not yet jaded or harsh -- still young enough to show some sparkle and optimism. We're in the middle now, aren't we, you and I? Right between young and old. And it's pretty nice. 

So welcome, Forty, get comfortable. Be fabulous! Be kind. We'll have a good time together, as long as you don't mind tucking in to sleep by 9:00 on Friday nights or eating all those greens. And I'll need you to help me to remember to look around from time to time and be grateful. Even if my joints ache a little more than they once did, or the gray hairs start to sprout more aggressively. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

I believe

One of our two kids may be just pretending to believe in Santa Claus this year. It's okay. He's 10. One of these days we may have to tell him what's up. We have never made a big deal about Santa, beyond the standard traditions of sending a wish list letter and leaving out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. But I've always worried about the day he asks questions for real and I have to give him for-real answers.

So whenever my kids ask me if I believe in Santa Claus, I say I believe in everything Santa stands for, all that he means: generosity, care for everyone, magic, excitement, and love. I tell them that believing in Santa is not just for little kids but for anyone who feels these things during the Christmas season. I never really swear by all the fairy tale details, but I say instead that I've never actually seen Santa Claus in person. 

These are the things my mom said to me, and eventually I got it. I don't remember feeling betrayed or fooled; I felt loved, and I loved my parents even more when I realized the bounty under the tree each year was really from them. 

Yesterday, Happy mentioned that some of the kids in his class were teasing about believing in SC. He said he feels sad for kids who don't believe. But he said it in a way that was really asking me a question. We were out running errands at the time, buying last minute gifts and eating a nice lunch out. A lump formed  in my throat. This may be the day we talk about Santa, I thought...or maybe let's wait until January. 

We came home to a mailbox full of Christmas cards, one addressed to the boys. It was a letter from "Santa's Elf Twinkle," detailing all the excitement of Christmas Eve and the treats Santa brings back to everyone at the North Pole. Adorable. I wish you could have seen Happy's face as he read it aloud to his little brother. Wonder, joy, magic, anticipation. He ran upstairs and taped the letter to his wall, right next to his bed. 

The best part of this letter? I have no idea who sent it.

This, my friends, is the spirit of Christmas -- a random act of kindness that brings unexpected joy.

This is Santa Claus. And I believe. 

Merry Christmas! 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Christmas cookies... and other holiday tradtions that may not happen

Tommy's Park in Old Port shines bright
I sat frantically on the phone this afternoon, refreshing my browser page in an attempt to purchase tickets to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens "Gardens Aglow" exhibit this weekend. The website kept telling me that there were no times available -- how can this be? There aren't possibly this many people in mid-coast Maine who need to see holiday lights as badly as we do. Come on! If this doesn't work out, what will we do this weekend that will make us feel cheerful and special and holiday-ish? Once I got a voice on the phone, I felt even more frustrated as she told me of the parking problems and crowds; not helping my cheer levels.

Holiday traditions! We all have them. Or at least we think we do. Recently I've been feeling awful about the lack of Christmas traditions in our household. Yesterday afternoon, for instance, as we walked home from school, I asked the kids if they wanted to go to the mall to see Santa. I anticipated "YEAH! Woohoo! I can't wait!" from two glittery-cheerful little kids. But what I got was, "Nah, not really." From both of them, even the littlest one who still believes in the Big Red Jolly Guy. We haven't baked cookies this year because Honey can't eat them. And now we won't see any big light displays.

When I as a kid, we definitely had holiday traditions, and there was a lot of pressure around them. My dad is a traditions guy, like Clark Griswold. Every year, there were things that HAD to be done in order for the Mellos to enjoy the holiday season: Picking a tree from the farm, hauling it home and letting it sit in a bucket of water for a couple days before setting it up on the 2nd weekend in December, so it didn't dry out too soon before New Years. Driving around in the evenings to look at lights, usually in the same neighborhoods because the same people put up the same beautiful displays each year. Attending our friends' neighborhood dinner on Christmas Eve, then walking to church as Santa came by on the firetruck. Baking hundreds of different kinds of cookies to make baskets to take to neighbors and tins to mail to friends. Visiting Santa at the mall or local garden store, long after I weighed more than Santa wanted on his lap. Hot wassail simmering on the stovetop, Christmas CD's on shuffle in the giant Sony stereo. Gramma and Grampa arriving on December 23rd so we could take them to The Carriage House for a fancy anniversary dinner. Every year the same routines...ahem, I mean, traditions.

The Hess trucks come out at Christmas time!
We did have beautiful Christmastimes, it's true. My dad loves Christmas so much that what made our traditions special was the love and hope he shined through them. But you know the holidays that stand out most in my memory? The ones where family traditions veered slightly off course. Like the year my dad was in the hospital with a kidney stone, or the year Mom was laid out awaiting the birth of my sister; we all climbed into the big sofa bed with her big pregnant belly covered in bows while Dad handed out gifts. One Christmas we had a giant squirrel in the house, which meant no candy or cookies in the cabinets, and we came down Christmas morning to find Mr. Squirrel raging in the Have-a-Heart trap; my brother and I were convinced Santa had lured him in there for us.

One year we were in a fender-bender while on our annual drive-around-and-look-at-lights sojourn because Dad jammed his brakes on to see a particularly brilliant display. And the time he drove the van into the garage with the fresh-cut tree on the car roof...which bent up the garage door frame and scraped up the car and sent all of us into fits of laughter.

Or there was the Christmas that my Muslim friend spent the week with us, and we ran to Kmart to buy him boxes of candy and socks so he'd have things to unwrap Christmas morning like the rest of us. There was also the Christmas after Mom passed away, when we couldn't even see the tree through the mountain of gifts Dad had purchased, trying to fill the biggest hole that ever was.

As I hung up the phone today and regained my cool, it struck me: Are the best memories intentional, planned "traditions" -- forced! -- or do they just happen? Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to make everything so frigging magical? Why can't we just let it be, find the magic in each and every small moment?

I look around now and think about some of our current beautiful, memorable in-the-moment traditions:
  •  Realizing after 6 years that the Mr. Christmas ornament actually plays music and syncs the lights on our tree in time... amazing!
  • Zippy putting on the green Eagles Santa hat immediately upon walking in the door after school each day, then wearing it all night, every the happy little elf he is
  • Shitty pop-music holiday music in the background everywhere we go, until someone says "I really hate this song" and we realize we're humming along anyway
  • Hearing the incessant sound effects from the fleet of Hess trucks that came down from the attic with the decorations, mixed with giggles and singing while two brothers who are five years apart in age play together
  • The glee on Honey's face when he comes home from the mall with armloads of gifts for me and the boys...and the way he looks forward to the Black Friday circular in the Thanksgiving newspaper every year
  • Naming our favorite light installations every time we drive through town, as if each time is the first time we've seen them
  • Two cats snoozing side by side on the tree skirt, glowing beneath the colored lights...they so rarely tolerate one another, but the tree skirt is magical
  • Building gingerbread fortresses out of graham crackers on a whim after school, then playing flashlight tag outside to burn off that frosting-induced buzz
  • Little boys who get excited when they find a toy for their brothers at Walgreens or Target or Hannaford when we're out running errands
  • A civics lesson at the dinner table when Happy asked us about why so many people are freaking out in our world these days, which lead to more talk of peace and love and tolerance, which is what I truly wish this season could be about
Tradition-shmadition. Christmas is fun when we're not making ourselves nuts. We're all here together. We're healthy. We're happy. Our toes are warm and our bellies are full. I want my children to remember the moments, not the routines. I want them to have a sense of peace and calm, a season of love and giving and gratitude. And two parents who haven't exhausted themselves forcing it to be all perfect and magical all the time.