Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Defying Gravity

This past Sunday I took my twelve-year-old daughter, Geneva to see her first Broadway musical: Wicked. Having heard so many rave reviews, and knowing the powerful message behind the well-known song “Defying Gravity,” I had for years wanted to take my tween daughter to see this show, an enchanting spectacle that taught us both some important lessons just as Geneva is about to start junior high school.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Wicked is an alternate take on the story of The Wizard of Oz. In this version, we follow the lives of Elphaba, (the play’s green protagonist, and the future Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (the popular Good Witch) from Elphaba’s birth, through the two women’s first meeting and initial mutual dislike, their later friendship struggles, and then their closeness and eventual rivalry over the same man, a prince named Fiyero.

Geneva and I went to San Francisco to see the show with our friends Connie and Claire, another mother/daughter pair, just as Connie and I are preparing to release our precious girls to the new world of junior high school. As we quickly approach that first day of school (tomorrow!), I imagine that Geneva is feeling a combination of excitement and uncertainty (I know I am). All summer long, we’ve been preparing for the big first day. We’ve shopped for clothes and shoes befitting a middle-schooler. I offered to purchase her a new backpack, telling her that I had heard rolling backpacks weren’t “cool” in middle school. “So what?” she said. “I like mine.” Geneva and I have mapped out and practiced the two mile bike route, organized a bike pool (safety in numbers!), and I raised her bike seat to accommodate my girl’s longer legs. She and her brothers and I have wandered the empty school grounds, peeking in classroom windows and wondering which locker will be hers. Her new lunch box hangs in the hallway pre-filled with surprise treats and a note. And throughout the summer, I have watched her blossom into a most beautiful, confident 7th grader. She still has one foot planted firmly in childhood, but more and more this summer I have seen her traveling on a journey towards the woman that she will become.

When I think about what she truly needs to thrive in her next phase of life, the tumultuous teen years, I hope that I have helped to cultivate in her a strong sense of self. I want Geneva to continue to think for herself, to feel confident in who she is, and to follow her own desires and dreams.

Certainly, Geneva has experienced her share of adversities in her short life, all of which have helped make her poised and resilient. As a kindergartner, Geneva once told me that her dangerous peanut allergy made her feel like an alien. I can imagine that having a brother like Jukie makes her feel a bit alien as well. The five of us do stand out in a crowd. In our family, we talk about feeling like we live in a different world, in a different reality from most people. The kids in our house feel much more like Elphaba than Glinda, and they’ve made their peace with that.

I found myself reflecting on this feeling of outsiderhood that all tweens and teens know, for throughout the first hour of the show, I was struck by how much Elphaba reminded me of Geneva. Elphaba is smart and thoughtful and brave, qualities exemplified best by the first act’s beautifully written final song, “Defying Gravity.” Eager throughout the first act to hear this uplifting song, I squeezed Geneva’s hand as Elphaba began to sing about wanting to follow her own heart, taking a leap of faith, and trusting herself, without concern for others’ rules or opinions :

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same

I'm through with playing by

The rules of someone else's game

Too late for second-guessing

Too late to go back to sleep

It's time to trust my instincts

Close my eyes

And leap...

It's time to try defying gravity

I think I'll try defying gravity

And you can't pull me down

Geneva’s eyes grew large and misty. Goosebumps covered my arms. As we watched the singing Elphaba take to the air for the first time, Geneva and I were both transfixed by the beauty of the harmonies, the lyrics and the staging. Sitting next to my girl, and feeling such pride in her and confidence that she will continue to defy gravity as she navigates these coming challenging years, I couldn’t stop my tears.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Back to School

Perhaps every mom wonders where the time has gone as she watches her children grow, develop, and reach and pass milestones. Many parents of kids born with SLOS were told that their children likely would not survive infancy. So for these parents, each milestone is sweeter. While Jukie’s body is uncharacteristically strong for a child with SLO, his delays are “global,” so we watch him closely. We notice, savor and celebrate each new development.

Tomorrow Jukie begins 4th grade! Maybe because 4th grade brought big changes for our daughter three years ago, I feel as though I’ve been busily preparing for this momentous transition all summer long. Last week, I took him for a back-to-school haircut. This morning, I laid out his first-day-of-school outfit (including a tee shirt that reads “heroic”). His backpack, fully stocked, sits in the entryway awaiting his chubby little arm. My little Jukester will happily run to his familiar school bus driver tomorrow morning. Jukie loves adventure. And for him, school is full of adventures. I can always tell he had a great day when he arrives home covered in dirt and paint, and full of smiles.

But there is another side to our kids’ growing up. It is bittersweet. Just as the highs feel higher with our Jukie, the worries feel more significant. To me, Jukie seems at once “big” and also still baby-like in his perfect, sweet simplicity. Mothers’ instincts are to protect their cubs; I could not feel more protective of my special baby bear. Needing round-the-clock supervision, Jukie is 100% vulnerable. He will (and has) run out in traffic. He will eat anything which appeals to him, food or otherwise. Given the opportunity (like his mom’s turned head), Jukie will wander off. Once, when I told him that we could not go to the park, he climbed our fence and ran a mile away to the park he wanted to visit. He has more determination than common sense.

My protective feelings for Jukie also can make accepting his development a bit complicated. His dad and I looked at each other today and said, “4th GRADE?!” Is Jukie really entering 4th grade? We feel partly incredulous, as Jukie seems to transcend “grade.” We recall his sister Geneva’s 4th grade experience: the curriculum (studying the State of California), the change in emphasis from learning to read to reading to learn, and the longer school day. Of course, none of the typical 4th grade curriculum has anything to do with Jukie’s school experience. Jukie walks his own path and attends to a curriculum written expressly for him. (And there are benefits, as well: we won’t have to help create a
3D model of a California Mission this year!)

On this last day of Jukie’s summer, I reflect on how far he has come in nine years. As his mommy, I see even his most subtle areas of growth. This summer, he learned how to pump his feet while swinging. His receptive language continues to develop. (I’ve learned to watch what I say unless I want Jukie to act on something he may have heard me mention.) And I’ve watched a new level of maturity develop. Jukie seems older, calmer. Even his hand feels bigger in mine.

Tomorrow as I wave to Jukie from the curb, I know that I will feel that first day of school pang of excitement mixed with nervousness for my big Jukie-boy. I am so proud. Jukie is my hero.