Friday, September 30, 2016

Jukie's Surprise

I never look forward to IEP meetings. I don’t know any parent who does. IEPs are the annual meetings where we review our child’s Individualized Education Program at school. The entire school team of teachers, counselors, and specialists convenes to discuss a child's progress, to set goals, and to craft a plan to provide services. These IEP meetings can be tough for all sorts of reasons, partly because they remind us how different our children are from what is considered typical. The reviews, the assessments, and the test scores don't often fill parents with cheer. The meetings always run long with a lot of discussion, and they can become contentious when parents and school districts disagree about the best standard of care and support for a child with a disability. Many parents walk out of such meetings feeling weary, dark, and even bleak. That said, Jukie has always loved school. And the folks at his school have always loved and supported Jukie. We have confidence in his educational team and enjoy hearing sweet and silly anecdotes about our boy.

When we walked into Jukie’s IEP meeting yesterday, the smiles of his team filled the room. As soon as we sat down, his teacher began raving about Jukie’s progress at school. When we heard that Jukie works independently so well now that he needs little direction or supervision with his school work, I shot Andy a look, and he knew I was thinking: “our Jukie?” We titled our book about our boy Where’s Jukie? in part because we needed to know his location at all times. We liked to track him the way a meteorologist tracks a hurricane. For many years in our house, his only “independent work” was destructive.

We were pleased to learn that not only did our maturing boy meet most of his previous year’s goals, but he actually exceeded them. At one point, his occupational therapist casually mentioned, “…and his handwriting is improving.” I shot Andy another look, and as the room was noticing this silent exchange, I had to share: “I’m sorry, his HANDWRITING? Andy and I are having trouble believing that.” Jukie doesn’t write or draw or color or anything like that as far as we had ever seen. “Would you like to see a video?” she asked.

Yes. Yes, we would love to see a video of Jukie’s “handwriting” in action. The OT handed Andy her iPad, and we watched as Jukie stood before a large dry erase board and slowly wrote the letters j-u-k-i-e. Our boy Jukie wrote his name. We were stunned. You can imagine what happened next. I began mildly sobbing. Then Andy teared up. The principal ran to the next room for a box of Kleenex, and almost everyone in the room needed a tissue.

I looked across the room at Jukie smiling broadly. As we communicate intuitively, almost telepathically, I sent him my thoughts: you can write your name! What else can you do? What else do you know?

After the meeting, Jukie took us on a tour of the new playground equipment at his school. I took a photo so that I will always remember the day we learned that Jukie can write his name. And as I write this, I'm left to wonder what messages our boy may be preparing to share.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Goodbyes are Hard

Goodbyes are hard. Rituals and transitions can stir an intense and broad range of emotions. Such was the case when I dropped my firstborn off for her first year of college. I found myself simultaneously feeling elation, hesitation, sadness, excitement, fear, and grief.

Sitting among fellow parents gathered in Eaton Chapel to hear an address given by Scott Bierman, the president of Beloit College, I glanced around, looking for clues on the faces of the other parents. Were they having as much trouble keeping it together? The afternoon's speakers heightened our emotional intensity, reflecting poignantly about this time of transition for all the families who had gathered together. President Bierman described dropping his own daughters off at college. Then the Dean of Students Christina Klawitter asked the incoming first-year students to consider their parents' perspective, to let their parents baby them on that day, just one last time, "if your parents want to make up your bed for you today, let them. If they want to fold and put away your clothes, let them." Half an hour earlier, I had made up Geneva's bed and filled her dresser drawers for her. She had let me.

Judging from the anxious questions posed on the Facebook group for parents of Beloit student class of 2020, I had not been alone in my obsessive focus on making sure my daughter had everything she needed for college. One parent asked, "will my child need to bring an ironing board, or will those be provided?" My favorite response to that was, "my daughter has never ironed??" One could just imagine the college presenting each incoming student with an ironing board, along with a poodle skirt and, for the young men, some Beloit cufflinks.

Someone else wanted to know if her student should bring a landline phone. I believe every child arrived at college with several devices to access the internet and/or make phone calls. Come to think of it, do millennials even make phone calls? Maybe that same mom could have responded, "my daughter has never made a phone call??" I laughed at some of these posts by the other eager parents of freshmen, but I know that I also got carried away with “Operation Have Everything Ready and Perfect to Launch Boonie.” The night before dropping her off, I stayed up late doing laundry so that she would arrive with no dirty clothes. Was that necessary? No, but it felt good to me, and I was having trouble sleeping anyway.

The day began with Geneva tiptoeing into my bedroom. "Are you excited?!" she whispered. I don't know too many days in life more exciting than the day one leaves home and starts a new life. When Truman came out of his room, he was dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a tie. He felt the occasion called for formal dress. I wasn’t aware that he had even packed a tie.

Living in the idyllic college town of Davis, California, I've experienced the arrival of incoming freshmen students for years. Even if I didn't have a professor husband, I couldn't escape the impact of arriving students each fall. In Davis, they make themselves known by their unsure and unsafe bicycle riding. Once while I was circling a bicycle round-about, a student cut right through the center while looking straight at me and yelling his warning to "look out! I don't know where I'm going!" I was annoyed at the time of the collision, but now I can't help but see these students as I see my own daughter. Like the students at Beloit College, the UC Davis freshmen seem so much younger than they once did. As Andy says, the students get younger every year.

After the president's welcome, Beloit hosted a dessert reception on the quad. The welcoming committee of students lead the dancing and frisbee-playing, and we sampled the tasty treats, enough to feed a small army. Beloit administrators were using sweets to soften the sting of our goodbyes. Looking around the crowd, I saw such a mixture of reactions. Some students (including mine) were dancing with their parents. Geneva yelled, "Mommy! It's that song you love!" I smiled thinking three thoughts: dancing is joy; It's hard to feel sad when you're dancing, and families dancing together are my favorite to watch. Alongside the musical merriment were more subdued parents and students looking overwhelmed and anxious, quietly talking or staring at the grass, some already crying. I understood that reaction too.

We parents had been given our gentle orders: after dessert, it was time for hugs and kisses and teary goodbyes so that our "children" could leave us to have their first dinner together in the dining hall. I thought back to the first day of kindergarten when we had surely all gone through a similar process, kissing our fresh-faced, sweet-smelling sweetie pies goodbye and turning them over to teachers with sympathetic smiles who knew that parents needed as much encouragement on that first day as the kinders, sometimes more. If we pulled off goodbye then, we could manage today, too.

I think that Geneva may have been the last to enter the dining hall that evening. She left us walking backward, waving non-stop until she reached the steps. Then she turned and disappeared into the hall and into her new life.

As we make our drive back west, each passing mile takes us farther from our girl, and reinforces the new distance between us. And although I'm feeling predictably sad, I'm surprised with my overall sense of contentment and resolution. With the goodbyes behind us, we shift our focus forward, as always. This time of transition, of beginnings and new directions, reminds me of my own first days in college. I survived, and so will she. We left Beloit ready to trust her professors and other college leaders. I eagerly anticipate texts and photos and even sometimes a phone call from my millennial. I can't wait to hear all about her adventures.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The MRT: Our Massive Road Trip

Last spring, I told my 10-year-old son Truman that our family of five and our English bulldog would drive from California to Wisconsin to deliver his big sister to her first year of college. He jumped out of his seat, exclaiming, "Cool! A Massive Road Trip!" Almost immediately, he began setting aside books, DVDs, and favorite toys for our MRT, as we came to call it. "I don't know if I have ever looked forward to anything as much as I'm looking forward to our MRT this summer," he told me one day.

Truman has big plans and dreams. He draws blueprint designs of houses he wishes to build and inhabit. His career plans waver between architect, comedian, and president of the United States. So although his elevated MRT expectations added yet another layer of complication to my family's preparation to launch our firstborn child over 2,000 miles from home (to say nothing of arranging all of the logistics), I told him that I was ready to embrace his infectious enthusiasm.
As a family of writers, even we feel unequipped to describe the emotional roil of Geneva’s coming exit (or “Gexit”). Instead we busy ourselves with to-do lists -- MRTs take a lot of planning, and so does packing for college. She has enlisted my help to decide what will make the cut and travel across the country to her cramped dorm room. Her childhood bed still sports the floral Laura Ashley comforter I bought for her when she transitioned to a big-girl bed at the age of three. Later, when I see that she has tossed her oldest stuffed animal in one of her college boxes, I know that "Birdy" will provide comfort for my girl who still has one foot planted in childhood.

Standing in the doorway of Geneva’s bedroom, surveying the inadequate boxes and the chaotic panoply of clothing, books, and pastel stuffed animals that surround them, I wonder if I taught her everything she will need to know to manage on her own, or even if I have prepared her enough. As a mom, I hope I have learned why and when to let my kids stumble, to hold back from rescuing them. No one tells us how hard it is to watch our kids struggle. 

Loading the minivan the night before leaving on our MRT, I arrange all of Geneva's boxes and suitcases like a Jenga puzzle. As I see the few more stuffed animal friends she has added to her overcrowded bench, I hold back tears. I have to keep it together; the time for crying will come later, in a different state. On this emotional marathon, I'm going to have to pace myself.
Day One
Day One of the MRT exceeds Truman's expectations: "Being in a plane for 12 hours, that's cool, but being in a CAR for 12 hours...that's aMAZing!" I think the rest of us had a somewhat less exhilarating experience, but we welcome the boy’s eagerness. Our bulldog Dilly is thrilled to join us, resting on the floor in her dog bed, confined between Truman and his big brother Jukie. Everyone has books and podcasts for entertainment, with Jukie loving his new MRT books so much that he doesn’t once ask for his iPad.

All that reading must have been exhausting, for Andy and the teenagers sleep through much of Nevada, as I wish I had. Although Nevada is not my favorite state, on this trip we did enjoy a pelting Nevada rainstorm, with the negative ions making everything outside smell refreshingly inviting. I find it pretty wild to hop on I-80, which cuts right through our hometown of Davis, drive from dawn to dusk, and then arrive in Salt Lake City, a world away. We Californians are surrounded and spoiled by natural beauty, but the rugged mountains and salty moonscape of Utah have their own magnificence.

By the time we arrive at our hotel, we are all tired, hungry, and still on West Coast time, so we go for a swim in the indoor, heated pool: the perfect antidote to MRT fatigue. Just when I finish congratulating myself for planning the perfect place to spend the night, I discover that the nearest restaurant is 15 miles away. Whoops! We eat MRT chips and salsa and cookies for dinner. No one minds.

Day Two
After 21 hours of driving, no kid so far has asked, "are we there yet?" Truman requests a grand announcement upon our arrival into every state. We have driven up and down the Left Coast, but during our kids' first trip through the mountainous west, we are adding to our lifetime list of U.S. states visited (a thing we Americans do).
I myself wasn't a fan of driving adventures when I was a kid. I remember scorched and cramped station wagons, and plenty of bickering. No doubt a backseat DVD player and air conditioning would have improved matters considerably. In any case, this MRT feels as much about the journey as the destination. When the scenery is as gorgeous as it is during this second morning in Utah, we blast music that matches what we are seeing. During our private minivan Fantasia, each breathtaking sight or episode has its own soundtrack.

We start with Bruce Springsteen, with me recalling his concert at Soldier Field in Chicago the summer before I left for college in Ohio. I remember the overcast sky, and the wind whipping my hair as we waited for Bruce to take the stage. Later, Wyoming calls out for Bob Marley, and I think about how he got me through college. In the afternoon, somewhere in Wyoming, my husband Andy shows just how much he loves me when he agrees to "let" me play the Dixie Chicks (immediately grabbing his earbuds for an audio book). As we reach South Dakota, only the raucous “brass house” instrumentals of Too Many Zooz will do.  Better than coffee.
Truman fancies himself a presidential historian, so you can imagine his excitement to check into the Roosevelt Inn in Keystone, South Dakota, next to Mount Rushmore. Across the street from the Inn I spot something called the “National Presidential Wax Museum.” Perhaps Truman will volunteer to be a docent?
Amid the excitement, I am keenly aware that the glorious togetherness of our family of five changes (via temporary diminution) in one week. I feel a bit as I did during each pregnancy, in touch with every feeling. Living in this state of awareness and nostalgia deepens our interactions and compounds my already profound love for my family. Who knew that was possible? Despite the Pixar DVDs and the mountains of books around them, the kids are just as mindful and aware of their surroundings as I am. I know they will remember this time and this trip for the rest of their lives.

Day Three
There's nothing like driving for two days straight to make one appreciate spending a day off from the road with no agenda other than simply to wander around, and to look up. If I had no compelling reason to get to Chicago quickly, I would love to spend a week in the Black Hills National Forest exploring the caves, the waterfalls, the trails, and even the wineries. In the morning, we walk the trail along the base of Mount Rushmore, and stare right up the presidents' nostrils. Truman turns to me and says, "You know, 90% of Mt. Rushmore was carved with dynamite." You don't say.   

Later in the afternoon, Geneva and I take our Dilly for a walk, and are approached by a bunch of bikers in town for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Placing helmets on their bikes, they walk across the road and ask if they can pet our dog, and then immediately start baby talking as Dilly rolls over onto her back to accept the bikers’ affection, her over-long tongue rolling out of her smiling mouth. That night, just after our agreed-upon bedtime, and after I have shushed the bookend kids for giggling too loudly up in their loft, we hear booming thunder that we initially mistake for more revving of Harley Davidson engines. Lightning flashes light up our rooms, and rain pelting our windows lulls us to sleep.

Day Four
By day four, with the exception of Truman, we have grown tired of all-day drives, and just want to arrive at our destination: my mother's house outside of Chicago, 90 minutes from Geneva's college in Wisconsin. After a breezy two thousand miles, we hit our first stretch of traffic, and none of us has any patience for it. Stopping for dinner a couple hours from Chicago, we all move more slowly than we did back in Utah. Dilly, who loves to jump in the car with every invitation, regards me with disgust and refuses to get back in the car. No one blames her. We are ready for this leg of the trip to be done, and to spend a week in my hometown.
Late that night I find myself driving the familiar streets of my childhood, reflecting upon the state for which I left everything I knew. Following my poet-scholar husband to Davis, I made the right choice. Like many Californians, I can't get enough of the hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline, the cool, foggy NorCal winters, the hot, dry summers with chilly night breezes, the wine, the redwoods, the Sierra Nevada, breathtaking Lake Tahoe, the world-class public universities, and the progressive politics. But I think most of all, I love the people, with their generosity of spirit and general goodness. Californians have a reputation to live and let live, and I think it's well deserved. I can't imagine living anywhere else.
Nevertheless, as much as I love life in my adopted home state, I will always feel pulled back to my roots in and around Chicago. Each time I return, I'm reminded of all that I didn't even know I was missing. Waking to early morning bird calls, I remember the morning music of my childhood, the distinctive and glorious cacophony of insects and birds each evening here in the Midwest. "What is that SOUND?" Truman asks when we arrive late Monday night. "Bugs," I tell him. "Is it like that every night?" He wonders how he will sleep through that unfamiliar racket. I open the window above my bed, and sleep like a baby.
Truman has now flown to Chicago a few times, and he loves the city, too. The first time he saw the Chicago lakefront, he couldn't believe the wonder of having an "ocean" right on the edge of a city. "It's a lake," I corrected him. His expression suggested that he didn't believe me. "Where's the other side?" he asked.   

I'm eager for my California girl to discover this other world, to fall in love with everything that I also love and now miss about life in the Midwest. She will learn to appreciate fall as a true season, filled with color and those first, crisp autumn days – "sweatshirt weather," we call it. She will discover the magic of those first flakes of snow, likely falling sometime around her birthday in the first week of November. She will experience the misery of winter lasting way too long, and then treasure all the more spring's eventual arrival. Californians take a lot for granted (the weather, for starters). The four seasons must be experienced to be appreciated.
I remember my own early days at a small, liberal arts college and hope that Geneva feels less overwhelmed and experiences less homesickness than I did. And although she tells her dad and me nearly every day how much she loves and values us, I know that living without us for the first time will fill her with gratitude for her parents. I remember that feeling.
Waking early on my daughter’s last day before college, I check in on my three children, sleeping in their separate beds in their grandmother’s home. Geneva is clutching Birdy, and perhaps her last day of childhood. I anticipate the campus hand-off of the next day. Here we are: 18+ years of parenting all leading to this moment. Soon the family will kiss our Geneva goodbye, turn around, and start the MRT back home, leaving her to find her own way, and leaving us to find our way without her. 

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.