Monday, August 1, 2016

The Dividing of Our Grief

Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief. 

~ Marcus Tullius Cicero

I've never seen a tighter sibling bond than between these two. I don't know how they are going to manage without each other.

Truman has been reminding us that he is in “countdown mode” for Geneva's departure for college on Friday. Over the last couple months, when the house had been particularly quiet, I would look for Truman and find him planning and making surprise gifts and cards for his sister. Now he has amassed quite a collection of drawings and letters, which he has asked me to “wrap all fancy” for her. He spent the weekend helping her organize and pack up her childhood and deciding which of her treasures made the cut to take to college. Several times I heard him say, "No, Boonie, you're probably not going to need that in college, and besides, space in your dorm room is limited." I enjoyed watching the baby brother assume a supervisory role, and Geneva didn’t seem to mind.

While Truman focuses on his sadness and grief during this transition, Geneva's sense of loss mixes with a whole lot of excitement. From the moment she stepped foot on Beloit's campus, she knew that's where she wanted to be — she can't wait! Still, I see her ambivalence about leaving each time she hugs her brothers. And while she's always been affectionate with her dad and me, I've noticed an increase in hugs offered this week. This is a week for hugging.

And what does Jukie make of all of this? I wonder if he understands that his sister is moving. And everything will be different. "Boonie is moving to college," I tell him. He smiles and shakes his head no. When she gifted a prized item to him, Jukie solemnly carried the stuffed animal off to his room. He slept with it all night.

Our upstairs hallway and one bathroom are filled with the chaos of half-packed open boxes. Winter boots and sweaters, usually worn only when visiting Lake Tahoe, will become staples of Geneva’s daily Midwestern winter wardrobe. She doesn’t think she’ll mind the cold. (She has no idea.) And I’m excited for her to discover life in a different climate. I’m excited for her to discover a new life on her own.

Although Truman has his own bedroom, he usually prefers Jukie's top bunk, as he likes company at night. This week, Truman has taken to sleeping in Geneva's room with her. She tells him that she will miss him most of all, and I know that's true. 

The poignancy of this time is almost too much for my mommy heart, but I'm grateful there's so much love to prepare to miss.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Life out Loud

Many of you know that our boy Truman struggled with something called Selective Mutism from the ages of two to six.

More than mere shyness, Selective Mutism is an extreme form of anxiety which renders kids unable to speak in social settings. With regard to what Truman named his “talking problem,” our boy never spoke a word to any adults outside our immediate family: not his grandparents, aunts or uncles or his teachers during all of his nursery school and kindergarten years. To his few close school friends, he spoke readily. At home he was a silly chatterbox, goofy and rambunctious, filled with life and laughter. He never stopped talking!

In public, he was a different boy; his face frozen with fear, his expression became flat. I remember his mouth would remain tightly shut until he felt the need to say something that couldn’t wait for home, and then he would whisper the words into my ear. It broke my heart to see this boy lock his emotions and thoughts away inside with his voice. He had so much to say. “I want to talk,” he would say. One morning over breakfast he told us, “I always talk in my dreams.”

The summer before beginning first grade, Truman spent a week at Camp Courageous, a therapeutic camp designed to help kids with Selective Mutism find their voices. The camp incorporated a form of exposure therapy where kids slowly increased their speaking, raising their volume along with their comfort level while losing themselves so much in their engaging camp activities that the words began to spill out. At least that’s the way it worked for Truman.

Positive reinforcement at the camp was integral and constant. While working for prizes and stickers, kids played games like Red Light / Green Light, and Telephone. They were distributed irresistible walkie-talkies. One day, dogs came to camp, and each child read to his or her dog. Toward the end of the week, the campers had progressed enough to dine together at the Old Spaghetti Factory, where each child summoned the courage to voice their menu preference. On the last day, the kids celebrated with a swim party with so much noisy fun that no one would have guessed the struggle the children had in common. Amazed and misty-eyed, we parents watched in disbelief.

Three weeks after attending camp, Truman began first grade with a surprise for everyone: the full use of his voice. Few at school had even known what he sounded like, and at first, little heads whipped around as kids realized the new voice they were hearing was Truman’s. “You TALK now!” they exclaimed. Oh, he talked. Imagine the feeling of liberation – he unleashed that sweet voice! By the end of the first week, his teacher told me, “Truman is now the loudest kid on the playground.” He started receiving regular corrections for talking out of turn in class. He couldn’t shut up, and everyone was thrilled.

Our family lived through that life-changing week four years ago. This week he has returned to what is now called Camp Out Loud, this time as a role model who wanted to show the campers that full recovery is possible. I can imagine the sense of comfort and inspiration the young campers feel to spend time with a kid who understands their struggle. When I dropped him off on the first day, I stuck around for a few minutes and watched the campers silently interacting. (You'd be surprised how well kids can communicate without their voices — Truman himself used to be an accomplished mime!) Observing one little girl nervously whisper to a young camp assistant momentarily triggered my Mommy PTSD; the memories and worry and feelings of helplessness resurfaced in an instant. I would have thought those feelings were tucked further away.

Truman has looked forward for months to returning to Camp Out Loud. He can relate to these sweet campers who are learning to find their place in the world. Only another child who has lived with Selective Mutism can fully understand the struggle, and he remembers well how he felt locked in his silent world. I used to say that camp gave Truman back his voice. But that’s not quite right. Camp provided the structure and opportunity for Truman to face his fears – the courage was all Truman’s.

On the drive home, I asked Truman how this camp changed his life. “If I didn’t go to that camp, I might still be a shy kid with a talking problem,” he said, his young actor’s voice confident and strong.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Warrior Woman

Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

William Shakespeare

Looking at this girl's sweet smile fills me with mad respect and admiration for the way in which she handles adversity, so I feel compelled to give her a big shout-out. Life throws Geneva more than her fair share of challenges. Keeping it simple, her latest trial includes a recent diagnosis involving her blood not clotting as it should, leading to anemia and weekly infusions of iron. Her extreme anemia makes it difficult just getting out of bed on many days. But even if her day starts with me ripping off her covers and nearly dragging her out of bed, she keeps going, so eager to make the move to her Midwestern college digs. She leaves two weeks from today for college. Nothing can stop her.

A few weeks ago, I started calling her a warrior. And then she told me that her favorite high school (Drama) teacher always called her Warrior Woman. That makes me smile because I see how she truly knows my daughter, and that this teacher's love, kindness, and mentorship meant everything to her. 

Geneva, my Boonie Boo, you are a lesson in resilience. Your determination is inspiring. You will not let adversity keep you from pursuing your dreams and your passions. I want to remind you that so, SO many people love you and have your back, especially your mom, as I will always be your #1 fan. You’ve got this. Go take on the world!

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Sea of Crazy Hats

Some mornings when I drop off Truman at school, I feel a wistful tug at my mommy heartstrings, sensing the sweetness and the poignancy of each fleeting moment in time and an awareness that such moments soon blend into days and into years gone by.

We grown ups can forget how hard life is for kids, how big the world seems, and how lost on the playground kids can feel.

Sometimes Truman gives me a hurried look just before turning away, and it really gets me: I know he's preparing to face the trials of his day. I hope that he will recall the pep talk I gave him on the ride over and remember that he's strong and brave. Sometimes I’m thinking about the bad dream that woke him (and then me) in the middle of the night and our ensuing snuggle; I hope that sense of Mommy comfort resides somewhere deep within him when he needs it most.

This morning, I watched him check for rain and then earnestly adjust the three hats he wore for Crazy Hat Day. He slung his Star Wars backpack over his shoulder, and as he headed for class, I noticed that his pants seemed barely to reach his ankles. Suddenly, his legs seem way too long for his frame. When did he become so lanky?

I know all too well what monumental developmental changes lie ahead for my sweet boy. And I'm bracing myself for the metamorphosis of adolescence. We can't stop time, but I feel it slowing down a bit when I tune in and pay attention, savoring a hug and a sweet glance over his shoulder on a Friday morning just before my boy disappears into a sea of crazy hats.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Forest in the Trees

Each year on Jukie's birthday, we focus on spoiling our boy silly. Nothing makes Jukie happier than spending the day hiking through the woods with his family. If there's mud involved, so much the better! 

Jukie doesn't understand birthdays. He understands life's simple pleasures. We always strive to make Jukie laugh — and on his birthday, it's a day-long endeavor. He's used to lots of attention and affection from all of us, so he takes our additional focus in stride. We chase him till he squeals in delight. We offer countless hugs and kisses, and bake his favorite cake. And we always take our nature boy into his element so that he can run free, picking up sticks and communing with the forest. His middle name is Forest.

Today our sweet boy turns 15! We started his celebration early yesterday at Point Reyes National Seashore, hiking the Bear Valley Trail, a path that runs parallel with a winding creek. The fog surrounding the mountains and the meadow at the summit of our adventure made the place seem other-worldly. In a way, we felt that we had entered Jukie's world. 

Jukie sang his Jukie song in the car all the way to the coast and all the way back. Happy birthday boy. Mission accomplished.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Full of Beans

Last night at our favorite Mexican restaurant, Jukie made some new friends while Andy and I ordered our family's dinner. It was one of those times when I thought Andy had Jukie, and he thought I had him. It turns out that Jukie had himself, and that he was making an executive decision to expedite his eating. 

We found him sitting at a table with another family we had never met. He was smiling broadly, stuffing himself full of their beans and chips. Perhaps I should have apologized even before laughing, but the warm reception from his new friends let me know that Jukie had just made their evening. Jukie has a way of making people's day. 

Our eventual apologies were met with hugs and more laughter. This family clearly enjoyed Jukie's company and repeatedly told us that "he is a blessing." After we returned to our table, the mom appeared at my side with a plate full of sliced oranges. In their short exchange, she had quickly determined Jukie's delight in such an offering. What fast friends, I thought — she already knows the way to Jukie's heart. Andy ran out to our car and grabbed a copy of "Where's Jukie?" for this family who had just lived through an example of our book’s title. 

I'm struck by the way in which Jukie brilliantly busts through social norms and expectations and brings out the best in nearly everyone he encounters. We'd never have met this sweet family had Jukie not cozied up to their warm welcome and delicious food. And I'd love to hear the retelling of this story from the other side.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas Wonder


In the days leading up to Christmas, Truman locked himself in his bedroom for hours, warning us not to enter, lest we spoil the holiday surprises he was creating for us. Although I wanted to sneak a peak, I stayed out of his space and only glimpsed piles of wrapping paper and ribbon while walking past his door. He was clearly putting a whole lot of heart and soul into his creations. 

On Christmas morning, Truman could hardly get ahold of himself — he couldn't wait to reveal and distribute his gifts. We all squealed with laughter as he passed out portraits he had drawn of each family member. How funny they looked with his rudimentary skills, like inadvertent caricatures, yet he still nailed each of us. He also made us "Human Trading Cards" with our vital stats. On his sister's, he labeled her skills: "Writing, drawing, and being loved."

And my favorite. He composed a poster board-sized card which made me cry and bust out laughing all at once. He is such a sweet soul, a deep thinker, and so crazy-funny. 

 "Dear Family, You are the biggest part of my life. You encourage me to write great stories. You help me do the right thing. You guide me through the path of life until the path of life can guide me. You are the greatest, funniest and most exciting people in my life. You tell me I will do great things in my life. I am writing this with a pen I got last year for Christmas, so please accept this gift for Christmas.

Dear Jukie, You can't read, so someone will have to read this to you. You are the best brother ever. The fact that you are different can be a good thing. You can't talk, so you can't say anything bad to me. You can't understand some things, so you don't know that George W. Bush was once president. 

Dear Daddy, You are the kind of guy who notices things. You share my interest in history and in reading. You said you did not want any stuff for Christmas, but I got and made you some cool stuff anyway. You are the smartest person in the family, even more than me. Merry Christmas! 

Dear Mommy, If I need someone to talk to, you are a good person. You know what the family needs, and what it doesn't need. I'm glad you are my mom, and I am glad you take care of the family.

Dear Boonie, I am glad I got to write my Fairfield report on you. Just imagine if my report were on New York. I would not be surprised if you ended up illustrating a famous book one day. I really hope you like this card." 

On the inside of the card, he drew a blueprint of our dream home, which includes both a museum and a research room, as well as a sleepover room and a playroom, a movie theater, a library, an indoor playground, an East Wing, and seven bathrooms. 

Truman helps me recognize every day that we're living in a sweet, golden stage of his childhood years. I love 10. And I'm soaking up every moment, every hug and every kiss. I love his wisdom, his wit, and his amazing sensitivity.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Anticipating Santa

Truman and I get into Christmas in a big way. We always put up the outside lights the day after Thanksgiving; I climb the ladder while Truman detangles the lights from below. "That looks great, Mommy! I like how high up you're getting them!" he says. We stand back together, Clark Griswold style, and then turn on the lights. They're not so impressive really, but we still oooh and ahhh over them. 

Having the lights up makes Christmastime feel official. We can begin working our way together through favorite Christmas movies. We can fill the house with Christmas carols and the scents of pine and pumpkin spice. And we can start making handmade cards for our members of the family who are scattered across the country. 

When we come inside to decorate the tree, Geneva and Jukie each put an ornament or two on the tree, but mostly they watch Truman and me handle the decorating. This year, Truman found a weird, fuzzy, oval-shaped Santa face in with the holiday stuff and hung it on the wall. "That was a gag gift, I tell him – a festive toilet seat cover." He doesn't care. We left it on the wall, where now it's a perfect complement to the tree and the stockings hung from the fireplace. 

I came down the stairs this morning to find that Truman had written Santa a letter. I love that my boy is a believer. "Dear Santa," he begins, "I'm sorry I didn't send this to you. But there was so much going on that I forgot. I have been good, and so has everyone in my family. I made a big wishlist online, and I will read ten things from it." He goes on to list the highlights from his list, which range from biographies of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, to a fart blaster megaphone. (Shhh! Uncle Paul gave him the fart blaster. Of course.)

Long after the Christmas presents have been forgotten, Truman and his siblings will remember their enthusiasm for preparing the house for Santa and other December visitors, and the time we spend together as a family during every winter break.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Where did the time go? Geneva at 18

Yesterday my girl turned 18. Eighteen! It feels like a moment ago that Andy and I were passing her back and forth, desperate for sleep and needing relief for our tired arms, hoping her newborn wails would cease.

"Bay G," she called herself as soon as she could talk. Geneva seemed too formal a name to call our Baby G., and in our house we're big on nicknames. "Boonie" soon eclipsed Baby G. She's still Boonie in our family and to those closest to her. Her friends have chosen their own name for her — they call her Viva. I smile each time I hear it. It fits. 

The other night over dinner, a friend observed how fortunate we are that Geneva never went through an insolent stage. It's true. Although she struggles with challenges that can make life hard for her and for us, she seems to have skipped that ill-mannered, petulant period for which parents brace themselves. Instead, her words for us are filled with gratitude and grace. She tells us that she loves us several times a day. She's generous with hugs, and still reaches for my hand. 


Parents discover that the days are long, but the years are short. I want to slow time and consciously absorb each sweet moment, especially during this year of "lasts" with our girl before she leaves the nest. My photographs attempt to freeze her in time, or at least preserve her forever in my mind at this age. Maybe she understands this need; most of the time she's patient with the camera. 

All that, and she's got mad style.

Happy birthday, Boon! We love you, Bay G.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Perpetual Privacy

Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.
~ Francis Bacon

When your daddy’s a poet, you often tag along to his readings. The venue of last weekend’s performance, the cramped cellar of a California foothill winery, may have appealed more to the grown-ups than to our boys. Nevertheless, because of Jukie’s strong bond with his dad, wherever Andy goes, Jukie goes. I bet Jukie has attended more poetry readings and spent more time in art galleries than any other kid in northern California.

Jukie loves a novel experience, so on this day, he happily hopped out of the car in sunny Placerville and eagerly entered the cool, tomb-like cellar room. Towering wooden crates filled with wine bottles lined the walls. Candlelight and a few antique lamps dimly lit the room. “How cool – it’s like a dungeon,” Truman announced. Jukie spied a plateful of cookies and swiped a few before anyone noticed. Grabbing a water-filled goblet by the stem and sitting down, he was ready for the entertainment.

When Andy stepped into the light and began reading his poetry, Jukie soon joined him, settling on a nearby empty stool. Always curious, and never self-conscious, Jukie was coaxed to action by the intimate setting (and by the unclaimed stool). Part of the fun of watching Jukie interact with the world involves watching him respond to the slightest notion, or the most subtle inspiration. Perched next to the racks of wine bottles (what could go wrong?), Jukie surveyed the room to see what Daddy saw.  

Sitting up front, and unable to intervene without making a scene, I relaxed and watched the show along with everyone else. Younger brother Truman shot me a worried look. “Daddy’s got this,” I whispered. Ever the unflappable pro, Andy continued his reading while handing Jukie his water glass, guiding him to choose a seat and to remain seated. He occasionally held Jukie’s hand or placed a calming palm on the top of our boy’s head. Andy did what he does while multitasking on stage: he read poems, made quips, and put the room at ease, all while expertly soothing and directing his boy. What a pair these two make – the distinguished poetry professor who teaches literature and writing, this poet laureate who crafts words into art, and his sweet, angelic boy who giggles unaccountably, and who cannot speak.

Robert Frost said that “poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” But what if there are no words? When I behold my mysterious, silent boy, I wonder about the poetry locked in his beautiful mind. I wonder how Jukie processes the world. Does he speak silently in his head, as all of us do? He understands our words, but does he think in words? Or does he think in pictures, as Temple Grandin says she does? Do our words translate into fleeting pictures in his unique and marvelous brain?

Sometimes at night as I tuck him into bed, I wonder if Jukie speaks in his dreams. Can his brain “unlock” while in a deep stage of sleep? I wish that Jukie’s dream state could let him speak freely, the way that he sometimes speaks to me in my dreams, when I’m lucky. He runs and laughs and goofs around just as wakeful Jukie does, and then the words flow from him, as if requiring no effort. Sometimes I notice myself hearing his impossible words and then wake unwillingly, keeping my eyes shut, clinging to the dreamy engagement for as long as I can. I want to remember everything he has said to me. 

Aching to hear his words, I envision his unconscious mind traveling down the hall during the wee hours of the night and meeting up with mine.  At times like this, I wish to jump back into the dream so that I could ask him questions. What makes you laugh so heartily and suddenly, and seemingly without cause? Why do you sometimes burst into such heart-shaking and unprovoked tears? How can I help you when that happens?

So much of your day is so peaceful and unhurried. What are you thinking about as you watch the trees sway in the summer breeze? What do you see in those clouds you study? What are your greatest desires? How I wish I could interrupt your perpetual privacy for a moment, and hear your spoken thoughts. My son, can you tell me that you love me? Just once? I promise that I will hold onto it forever.