Columns

Abby
Why would I voluntarily watch an R rated movie entitled, “Dirty Grandpa”? It’s not like the producers were hiding anything; the trailer was crystal clear about content. But, nothing else appealed to me, and one of our group was attending it alone. So, having spent most of my life surrounded by teenagers, I thought, “Please. I have heard it all and said most of it. I’ll be fine.” But, I wasn’t. In fact, I became very emotional. It was like watching modern day Sodom and Gomorrah with scene after scene of random groping, stealing, and over-the-top drug use (some consensual, some coerced/outright tricked).....everyone blameless because it was “all in fun”. And, deep inside, I sensed the crushing of a heart...not mine, but God’s. Because you see, I had forgotten that he accompanied me, and his sorrow was palpable. I abruptly left the movie, upset, and ran straight into another of our group. I wish you could know this small, great man. He has the most overflowing, reverent faith. While his speech can be compulsive, I see God in him every time we meet. On this day, and all days, he greeted me with talk of God and stars and infinite universes; everything that I had just seen was bathed clean in his light, His light. I wondered, had God positioned him there just for me? Our youngest son works for latchkey and he has become fond of a little girl; who he describes as alternately sweet, quirky and feisty. According to him, she got in trouble the other day for bullying. She subsequently isolated herself; carefully gathering sticks and moss and stones and arranging them in a tidy pile. Keeping watch, our son overheard her murmur, “I am making a fairy home for Jesus. I miss him.” Wow. Was this child instinctively seeking reconciliation? Recently, at prayer service, we discussed Jesus’ dying words, “‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness in the midst of betrayal is amazing, but unbidden forgiveness….well….that is supernatural. And, on this night, I was struck by the enormity of his words. Jesus wasn’t just referencing his murder. This was it…..THE moment…...when the smallest of slights would be regarded with the most dramatic of abuses; when time held no sway over the matter at hand. No wonder the world got dark and the Earth quaked (Matthew 27: 50-53)......had there ever been….HAS there ever been such a cataclysmic reckoning? Sins laid bare in ghostly sheets of time; forgiveness blasting out in all directions…...leveling present, past and future trespasses. I allegedly assist with a Bible study for incarcerated women. I say “allegedly” because I spend most of the time getting my own questions answered. (I think they may secretly hold the Bible study for me). For this Easter season, we studied the night of Jesus’ arrest. First, we looked at Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial, “Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:34) Then, we went on to look at that prediction playing out. Our study leader said, “I picked up on something I haven’t before in Luke 22: 54-63. See if you find it.” After a few minutes of searching, I gasped, overcome. Our leader nodded her head, skipping to the third denial, “Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. I have never noticed that…..that tiny and profound sentence..... I am still recovering. Peter. What if I had been you? What if I had had to meet those eyes, those eternal, remarkable eyes? What if I were presented with the flesh and blood of my rejection, the wreckage of my cowardice, proof of the worst in me? Those eyes searching my face, seeking not only an accounting, but a restoration….asking not once, but three times, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17); three times to counter each denial, three times to wash away my sin, to lock down my vow…..what if that had been me? What if, indeed.

Home
The packed station wagon was parked in the hot sun. Five little girls stood beside it, leaning and pacing in tight, dusty circles. Five little girls struggled to muster up some hope, “Maybe if we hid in the back, they wouldn’t notice and we could move with you?” “Maybe if we hid in the woods, they wouldn’t notice and we could stay here?” Their words trailed off; “maybe” hung in the silence. The waiting was unbearable; sad and sticky and still while the parents did one last thing and one more last thing. Finally, three little girls climbed in the car and the two left watched home drive away.
*
Why was this vacation so different? They had come here before, the kids and she, many times. They always had fun, but she had never felt so settled, so content. She couldn’t put her finger on the change and then it hit her; her husband had come with them for the first time. She hadn’t known his scent, his laugh would complete things. When had his body become home?
*
He moved away, so far away, although not really. The world seemed vast and off-center; foreign, misshapen and he was numb. What were they doing right now? Were they laughing without him? He couldn’t breathe. “Everyone has been so great.” “Who?” his mother asked. “The whole family has been texting; that helps.” “See?” she said, “Home goes with you.”
*
The feeling was worse at each end of the work day; first leaving them and then, as five o’clock drew near, their overwhelming pull. And, the oppressive fear that some obstacle, be it human or otherwise, would stand between her and her children. She tried to tell her friend, tried to put into words the sense of unreality, the orbital dissonance as she dragged herself from them only to rush back. Her friend smiled and said, “That is homesickness, silly.”
*
She would visit as often as possible, sons in tow. Her family was huge;, siblings, aunts, endless cousins. Staying connected was important and visiting with each person, precious. But there would come a moment in each visit, sudden and unforeseen, when she would jump up and say, “We have to go.” She needed to get back to her mother, to make sure she saw her enough, to fill-up on home before she had to leave once more.
*
She could tell which part of her work life a child had known her by how she was addressed. If it was by her first name they were from the beginning of her career, by both first and last, the middle, and if by Mrs., the last bit. Different things triggered her longing for each phase, a beach, a bus, a face. But the most powerful reminders were of the school she had loved; the one where her children and her work blended together under one roof and her life was seamless. That hurt the most….the fleeting glimpse of a time when home went with her.
*
Home is where the heart is. The more I live, the more I realize that home is rarely a place. Our eldest sent me an article from the NY times entitled, “A Pregnancy Souvenir: Cells That Are Not Your Own.” The article reports that scientists are able to find a child’s cells embedded throughout their mother’s body during and after pregnancy; creator and creation forever entwined. Too stunned to be serious, I responded, “I have a feeling that you and your siblings’ cells are bickering in my head, making me crazy”. But the knowledge affirms and shreds me…..Could it account for what I have felt all of these years? Remnant cells hailing each other, calling out from beloved bodies? Will we soon discover that this transcends mother and child? For I have seen it in fathers and friends…a beckoning, a homecoming. Maybe if we love just enough, our DNA shifts to make room. And, I wonder…..as God’s image is in me, am I in Him? In those quiet moments when everything is right and I still long, is that what stirs me? His hand waiting for mine?

Death Again
My mother recently shared with me how she had to tell her then-living father that his aunt had died. She said that she dreaded telling him because, by that time in his life, he “had more people in Heaven than he did here on Earth.” When she finally informed him, he had only one question…...how had the aunt died? Upon hearing that she had passed in her sleep, my grandfather replied, “That’s a good way to go.” In 95 years on this planet, he had suffered many tragic losses; this gentle, timely parting must have at least felt fair. My mother’s story made me pause, made me wonder. I have spent (most of us have spent) so much of my life clinging to what is here, to what I have, that I have failed to acknowledge the ultimate and natural thinning of people and all-things-human. Instead of accepting this tender preparation as fundamental and organic, I have historically rejected its’ power over my story or the story of my loved ones. So, I began thinking of how the elderly appear drawn to each other much like one baby is attracted to another baby. I don’t mean to compare disrespectfully, but it dawned on me that both groups have a visitor feel to them….one arriving, one departing; as if each are tethered to opposite ends of the journey home and can only find fellowship in one another. I have also noticed that as life fades into death, there is a stripping away. Time and sickness have no patience for vanity or pride and so, our essence is finally laid bare. An essence that transcends ability or possessions or beauty but can be found in our naked, unvarnished heart. A heart carried and protected by this temporary vessel; tucked in this vessel by the very hand of God. An acquaintance of mine lost her husband to cancer a year or so ago. Sometimes I go on her Facebook page and see photos of him, a lifetime of photos. I am haunted by the final ones; the ones where he is disappearing. Translucent with longing and pain, his face is shadowed by something off-camera, something that only he can see. In order to fully see it, he must let go of what this world has so lushly given him, even those who are his. Especially those who are his. My cousin’s husband gave the eulogy at her funeral (It still blows my mind that he was able to act as host, speaking with strong and eloquent words of their life and love, bringing us to grief’s trailhead like he already knew the way too well.) He told of my cousin’s devotion to her Church and to her God. Recalling final moments and memories, he stated that on the eve of her death, my cousin had received the sacrament of confession. A murmur of satisfied amazement rippled through the crowd. Her death had been sudden; had there been a distant beckoning that only she could hear? When I was a young girl, my mother took me to see the movie, Jesus Christ Superstar. As the Jesus character first appeared, I began to cry and continued to cry through the entire movie. I didn’t understand it then. I barely understand it now. But there was an air of goodbye to Jesus, a crosscurrent of sorrow and expectant reunion that overwhelmed my young heart. I know little about life and death. I am so busy rushing and accomplishing that I rarely glimpse what is here. But I am in love with this life. I think of Jesus and how his body was shattered, how his loved ones were wrenched away and how he must have felt at the moment that he shed this world. With his body surrendered, unrecognizable and useless, all that lay between Heaven and Earth was his shining, brave heart. That had been the message all along. No matter how rugged the path, let it be so for me. Let it be so for you.

Souls
I love/hate taking our children to concerts. Love….sharing their joy. Hate…..the many opportunities for screw-ups….getting lost, running out of gas, being late (a classic!). I feel like all of my flaws gather overhead, threatening to upset the experience. It isn’t rocket science; but for me, it might as well be. BUT, we have arrived at each and every concert early; early enough for my charges to storm the stage. I settle in back, ready to spend the next 3 hours scanning the crowd, reading body language, speculating about who is on a first date, Last month, we went to a concert in Montreal (Yikes!!! A veritable gauntlet!). There, I observed a young couple who I cannot forget. The jury is still out on whether this was a first date or relationship…...There was back-scratching (relationship), and pulling away (first date)..... tickling (first date), and slapping (relationship)....a kiss on the cheek (relationship) and a kiss on the lips (first date)....however, the kiss was quick (relationship). Their relationship status isn’t what haunts me; what haunts me was the young man’s bearing. Unlike the crowd’s generalized groping, this young man curved his thin body around his date but to the side, barely grazing her personal space. Every time I remember the concert, I am moved by the image of this man’s gallant and quiet attendance. What is it about the air around us? That weighted and gossamer aura that feels more us than our own body? What is it about entering that space that shifts and softens and strips away? I oversee a program that transports individuals, with supportive staff, to Psych Centers for voluntary admission. It is a tiny, lovely, mighty program. I once sat with a young lady as she awaited transport. While we waited, family members persistently called her, shaming her for going to the hospital, pressuring her to reconsider because of the stigma. The distress on her face was overwhelming. Enter the transport staff. Each shook her hand, meeting her eyes and bowing just slightly. Their unspoken message resounded, “You are safe with us.” The young lady fairly melted with relief. Before Christmas, our middle son painstakingly picked out a shelter dog for our eldest son. The dog he chose had had several homes and been mistreated. It was a perfect pick; he and our eldest son are in love with each other, and the dog is thriving. What stuns me, though, is one of our cats’ reactions to him. This cat was also rescued by our eldest son (I actually wrote a column about her) and is so timid that she will not enter our house, living in our attached tool shed/laundry room/junk room. The first time that she spied the dog through the open doorway…..well, I have never seen anything like it. She boldly stepped inside, loudly meowing for him. The dog, equally enchanted, flipped her over, nosing her. Now, every time we open that laundry room door, they lock eyes and the dance begins…...she rubbing, stretching, parading; he holding her down, licking until she finally slaps his face. Do wounded hearts have a secret signal? I worked with a man briefly when I was a new caseworker. Our lives have intersected ever since; my work life brushing against his personal one. Several times, I have had to report him. Whenever we passed in the community, there was no flicker of recognition in him. Did he remember me? Or was I merely another faceless worker who had meddled and shattered his family? Recently, I came face to face with him; he instantly dropped his eyes…Deference? Hostility? I murmured an awkward, “Hi” and he lifted his head, looking me full in the face and greeting me by name. He proceeded to visit with me as if we spoke every day. Were souls meant to be worn on the outside? So they could be glimpsed, acknowledged, before our earthen vessels interfere? I have viewed souls shining softly on the surface; rarely, but I have. More often than not, though, my eye is drawn to the negative space, the absence…...knowing that a battered spirit hides from view, fearing, and praying, that they will be seen.

Crazy Kids
Before we had children, I worked with two sisters who attended a local elementary school. They were about a year apart; one had dark hair, the other light. The girls lived with their father and he would report that the light-haired one was mouthy and belligerent. He never complained about the dark-haired one and I never heard her utter a peep. One day, I was waiting to pick the girls up by the school office. A teacher had overheard me ask for the girls and made a remark (not mean-spirited) about the dark-haired one’s behavior. I corrected her, saying that she must mean the light-haired sister. The teacher shook her head and insisted that it was the dark-haired sister that ran school staff ragged. I explained that the father was truly struggling with the light-haired sister. The teacher grinned and shared that often children switch roles between home and school; the “good” one misbehaving in school, and the “bad” one donning a halo once on school property. Fast forward. We now have children and this principle certainly applies in our life. However, switching roles between home and school is one thing…..but switching roles for each new task, request, question and barometric drop? A few years back, I wrote a column wherein I described my husband as having two personas….Husband A and Husband B. To this day, friends pick on him for that column (score!!!) Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the spawn of this man (men) would be of the irregular, fluctuating type. But whereas my husband switches between A and B (and sometimes a few extra letters just to keep my attention), I swear our children take up the entire alphabet plus a few Japanese symbols added for bonus. It’s not just that each of them has a particular footstep….they each have a particular footstep, door slam and stair-leap for every mood change. Of our children, the eldest and the youngest are definitely the most predictable and steady, but even they are a well of belly-dancing, feministic, sarcastic, tolerant, placid, assertive, shy, brave, awkward, graceful, playful, responsible contradiction. And, that is just one of them. Thus, even the ones I can count on, I cannot count on. It makes for interesting conversation when my husband (both A and B) and I try to plot outcomes with if/then flowcharts and resource guides drawn from past behaviors: Husband: “___________ said he’d bring the lawn mower to the shop for me.” Me: “He said he will, but he won’t really. Ask_______.” Husband: “But, he’ll gripe about it.” Me: “Yes, but he’ll actually do it.” Husband: “I don’t know whose pants these are so I’m going to put them in ____________’s basket.” Me: “No, put them in __________’s basket.” Husband: “Why? Are they his?” Me: “I don’t know, but if they aren’t, ________ will return them. ____________ will wear anybody’s anything and keep it for life.” Husband: “True. But at least he’ll have clothes on…..and they won’t be mine.” Me: “I’m going to ask _____________ what happened to the car.” Husband: “Don’t ask __________. She’ll just lie and warn the others. Ask _________.” Me: “He’ll just lie too.” Husband: “Yes, but he won’t warn the others.” Total Drama Island has nothing on the White family. Really, I should have forecasted this. I grew up with a woman who had five children, three foster babies, moved every few years, organized bridge parties, BINGO, put herself and all of her children through college after she was widowed, established a successful career late in life and still cannot find her glasses. There are some things that our children are constant about, things that we can rely on like oxygen…..they all think I am looking specifically at them when I am angry, they all will commit murder for the front seat, they all think that I favor everyone except them and scheme to suck joy exclusively out of their lone life. And, regardless of circumstance, benign or life-threatening, they will each stop to assess for accuracy, tone and “fairness” (my personal favorite) in my handling of any matter, from choosing a restaurant to who gets the solo seat in the lifeboat. I guess that’s something, right?

Old People
It’s funny….. caregiver is such a deceptive word. Well, maybe not for everyone, but at least for me. I have spent my life in the business of people; teens, babies, hurting families. And, on top of that, my husband and I have cluttered our home with five gorgeous, wacky, needy, mercurial offspring. I suppose you could say that I specialize in others. This paints a false picture, though; one of long-suffering sacrifice. While that could be true for me on occasion, for the most part, that is not so. In the tangled, complex power of “helping/mothering”, it is seeing my reflection in another’s eyes that mainly motivates me. The first time that I noticed my self-absorption was at our wedding. I had been to a bazillion weddings and could recite the vows from memory. But, the only meaning they had held for me was how close we were to the reception…..until it was my turn. All at once, I was overcome by the depth and intimacy of these eternal words. Why had I not noticed? Because it hadn’t been about me. Even the object of my caring is compromised. I had no interest in dogs until we had one. And, when we got one as a newly married couple, I could think, talk, dream of little else. In my work life, I noticed the treatment of a family’s pets more than that of the children. I would go to movies and become teary-eyed at the smallest story-line involving any creature that closely resembled a dog. Watching Jurassic Park, I equated all of the dinosaur sounds and movements to our new puppy. As soon as we had our first baby, however, dogs became passe and babies were my passion. Likewise, as my children grew, my vision was blocked by anything that wasn’t related to their age brackets (Luckily, we had enough children that my interest was fairly wide). Working in schools fed this focus by allowing me to weave home and work tightly together. This was great until my children hit adolescence, and the pain of what they were bearing echoed the pain of my work people too closely; the weight nearly crushed me. The elderly have definitely been the hardest growing edge for me. For years, I worked beside a woman who loved the elderly. Her aunts were aging, and she would stop to assist any senior citizen, no matter what the task, no matter whether she knew them. Unlike myself…..who would screech past these frail and ancient creatures while they drove, walked and talked too slow. I would haughtily declare to my gentle and shocked co-worker that old people should not be allowed on the road or in the grocery store until working people were done using them. Now, here I am. Here I am with my own elderly…..elderly who are bewildered by their breaking bodies and cloudy minds, struggling to resist the void and to remain central to their own story. I watch impatient people hurrying them along, doing it for them, over-speaking them, when all they want is a moment. Just. A. Moment. And, suddenly my heart quickens…..suddenly I hold doors, help with shoes, respond to this aging population like they are important, like we belong to each other. Because finally, we do. I’m not saying that I never give, never step outside myself to sacrifice. I am just not gifted at walking in other people’s shoes. Or, maybe I have ADD when it comes to love. So, God sends me reverse guardian angels….not commissioned to protect, but to show…..masquerading as scarred children, battered women and failing old men, dragging me into their experience. The price of these passages? Nothing much really. Only my heart. The other day, I was in the check out behind a tiny old lady and her daughter (I think). With trembling voice and hands, this small woman fought to manage her own transaction, to hear the clerk, to fumble through her wallet for correct change. Murmuring (To herself? To me?), “I am so sorry.” Before I had the chance to second-guess myself, I responded loudly, “Take your time. I’m in no rush.”

Lives
I fall in love way too easily….. not the crazy obsession I feel for our kids…..nor the romantic, googly-eyed love I feel for their father. I mean the odd over-attachment that I develop for salespeople, 1-800 operators, bus drivers…..anyone who crosses my path and unwittingly becomes mine. This belongingness only intensifies when I believe that that person needs me; then the binding is inextricable. Encountering people whose sphere I have left, visiting places that were once my own is shattering…..ghostly impressions and murmuring memories haunt me for days. My love of people is often remarked upon, as if this quality indicates goodness. I think it indicates narcissism. Connecting with others feeds a need in me, for attention, validation. It is my addiction, my idol. When our middle son was young and we would vacation, he would get unbearably excited and, then, unbearably sad. He would pause the fun and worry, “I will be sad when this is over. And, it will go by too fast.” I fully empathize. Whenever I face long-awaited seasons, Christmas, summer vacation, dread paralyzes me. It is always the same; my head fills with two, repeating thoughts: “I am so scared, God” and “I’m sorry”. I have no idea why. I do know that the fear of having something finite is an ever-present ache. Maybe maturity will mean accepting that endings and love are a package deal. We are approaching a crossroads. The life that my husband and I built is quietly dismantling. Children are leaving, parents are aging and the tempo slows. Songs on the radio remind me of former loves…...babies, toddlers, ways that seemed so permanent, so certain. I walk old halls, stumbling upon sights and sounds that threaten to drown me with memories of us all together, always together. Awash in images, I whisper, “Do you remember God?” There is a part in the movie, Nell, where the Jodie Foster character squats down on some stones and looks out over the water. She is grieving her dead, twin sister. Her longing is palpable; this scene personifies loss to me. Recently, I traveled to my sister’s and, for the first time in over 20 years, I traveled alone. The implication was not lost on me. What was lost on me, however, was how close I would be to my childhood town. As I drove, the flat landscape that I am accustomed to twisted into a steep and dense countryside. The roads, narrow with hairpin turns and blind curves, seemed unsuited for bike rides and barefeet and adventures; but I knew better. The dark woods rustled at my homecoming. Hesitantly, I typed my childhood address into the GPS. I began to navigate, slow and reluctant, and realized that I didn’t need directions. These ancient paths were inscribed on my heart and I could feel the shatter starting to build. I passed our bus stop, the lily patch where I wet my pants, the corner where I discovered morning glories, the hill where I swung way too high on a tire swing, Artusa’s rock where battles raged and the streetlight where evening games commenced. Houses were familiar but none drew me. The little girl that I was was not to be found inside. She was in the forest digging in swamps with pudgy, curious fingers, climbing boulders and trees with short, sturdy legs. I wondered if her DNA, her footprints could be found in the yards she had cut through? Her home had been outside. When had I forgotten to remember that? At each landmark, I prayed, “Do you remember God?” Jane Fonda is quoted as saying, “....by the time you get to the Third Act…….you find yourself circling back to the girl you were to start with, and you know her for the first time.” One final turn around the neighborhood and my soul cried out for that little girl; the one in the shadows, the one with wide eyes and an unguarded heart. I wanted to protect her, shield her from the profound confusions to come. But, the time for rescue was over. All I could do now was return to her. And, never, ever let her go.

This Life
I fear the beginning of things….even things that I want, conversations, movies, love-making, writing …..I back away from the jumping-off point, as if I might be swallowed whole, absorbed by the experience, inaccessible and invisible, terrified that I may never breathe again. I have often wondered why the hardest tasks seem to come when we are most worn out. Why do we test wrung-out children after a school year of challenges and growing? Furthermore, how do frazzled teachers gather their energy for one last push? Are they any less tired? I guess it wouldn’t make sense to test at the beginning of the school year, before the knowledge is acquired. But, everyone would be a lot fresher. Parenting is similar, right? Delivery follows labor, and critical teen years come when we have little left to summon (and when our kids are pretty sick of us). Would a reversal help? A restructuring? Nah, we’d kill each other without those initial years of bonding. Several months ago, my husband and I attended his promotion ceremony. We didn’t know until it was too late that our children could have come. Whereas it was disappointing that they didn’t see their father honored, there was something poetic about our aloneness…..because as we release child after child into the world, our “us” is swiftly becoming “just us”. While other, attending families corralled and soothed babies, for the first time, I didn’t long for ours. How hollow. I have carried that ache for so long, I don’t know who to be without it. When I was a new mother, I remember being sad that my mother only got to be the grandmother. Didn’t her part-time status make HER sad? Wasn’t she jealous of me? Knowingly, my mother said, “You’ll understand when you’re a grandmother…..you’ll be different then; you’ll be ok with handing them back.” Mentally, I scoffed at her; not possible. I barely recognize myself these days. I am very into comfort; I am very into me. The nurturing and caring that I once poured into our beautiful brood, I now pour into myself. I am not proud of that; neither am I ashamed. As with any human journey, ours’ has been a messy one. We have loved each other and hurt each other and changed each other and I thirst for recovery. Right now, I want to dwell in what just took place, the storms, the abatements…...the brief, bare sigh that separates first steps from leaving. I want to sit on my heating pad, wrapped in soft jammies, surrounded by warm lights and towering book piles, immersed in the things of our history, and remember; reverently remember. It’s funny. I am not scared of this beginning. Oh, sometimes I panic and I want it back, our life, the main story, the cast, the crew; sometimes I am paralyzed by how fast it came and how suddenly it went and how lost I am. But, I am not scared of this hushed and healing season, this silent salute to the glorious story that just rushed past me….this life and these lives that have left my heart laid open and my soul gasping for breath. I think of Robert Frost’s poem, Birches, “I'd like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate willfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth's the right place for love: I don't know where it's likely to go better.” My beginning over would be a simple replay; with these same loves wrapped in identical moments, knowing that all that has happened is all I ever wanted, but more so; more profound, more tragic, deeper and greater than the sum of its’ parts. But, instead, I will be content with my supporting role, this afterglow, where the story is mostly told and a scarred and lovely ever-after beckons.

Swan Song
Recently, our youngest and I were in town and I was absently greeting passersby. He wore a bemused expression: Me: What? Him: You need to move; start over in another town. You’ve completed this one. You know everyone, and you’re playing at 99%. You’re just running around now. Shortly thereafter, he was practicing driving and his speed was inconsistent. I gently reminded him that he needed to pick a speed, any speed, but preferably a speedier speed. Him: It’s fine. I’m driving like a mongoose. Me: You don’t even know what a mongoose is. Him: True. But I’m sure he’s easy on the gas. Meet our Finale, our Swan Song. The child born against all odds; completely unexpected. When we discovered that I was pregnant with him, our 5 year old declared, “How will you ever watch 5 kids in this big house?” Amen, bro. I had no idea. Why is it that one moment can stretch on forever, but 17 years flies by? Illogical. Yet, here we are….at the crest of our Final Goodbye. Memories rain down, threatening to overtake me…..our impossible baby sharing thoughts and dreams, but only if we would meet face-to-face; our elfin toddler, speaking as if God were right beside him, awakening a long-ignored hunger in me; our ambidextrous Kindergartener seeing me outside his classroom, waving like he’d captured me, the force of his joy offering a glimpse of his soul; our chatty five year old playing on the soccer field, baffled that his teammates would not stop to visit, commenting, “they only care about that ball”; our quirky adolescent discovering song after song, insistent that we search for his heart, our hearts, in every lyric; singing with a reverse gulp, like the air was desperate for each note, not the opposite; and our senior, waiting for the bus, glancing back at me, his soul flickering across his face, one more time. Our miracle. The night before his final, first day of school, we found a picture of our eldest son helping him off the school bus on his first, first day. That same son messaged me from his new home, “I can’t believe I’m not going to be there for his last first day”. And, I realized for the upteemth time that this baby was never mine; he is the family’s. I remember him kissing each person in the house before he would lay down, how I never worried about his safety because no matter where he was, 4 guardians herded him, chided him, were awed by him. Somehow, he gathered this jumpy crowd around him, settling us down. This column would be hollow without their voices: His 28 year old sister: He is perfectly and purely himself. I want to be him when I grow up. 23 year old brother: He hasn’t lost his sense of wonder. He can do anything. 21 year old brother: He doesn’t let what other people think bother him. He is so confident. 19 year old sister: He is everything I’ve ever wanted to be. He isn’t afraid to be himself….he is so amazingly smart and unlike any other person I have ever met. My primary response to our children’s senior year has been panic…...What haven’t I taught them? Do they know how to put out a grease fire? Use bleach appropriately? Out of nowhere, I become Heloise, thrusting the most mundane of tips at them…. a last, lame lecture. With our youngest, though, my focus has been on filling myself, soaking up any last message that he might have for us. I have learned that miracles come in all forms….in everyday things, like clouds casting a cross or needed words uttered at the exact right moment. And, sometimes, a whole life shows up…..an extra life, in converse sneakers and skinny jeans, crowned with a bolt of hair and almond eyes. Sometimes, a very special spiritual guide is required; one brimming with puns and curiosity, strolling through a warp-speed world, listening and singing and drawing us to our own, shimmering transparency. What to do with a miracle like that? I, for one, will follow the beat of his drum, step for step, finding my way home.

The '80s
I’m not a fan of the early to mid 80s; actually, I avoid anything pre-1988. I have no trauma to confess, no person to blame; just an almost decade-long memory of being trapped inside a prickly, unmotivated teen/young adult’s mind….haunted by restless, depressive thoughts. I’d like to pass one the reminders. I went to college not far from here, and I swear, whenever I drive past my school, 80s music follows me. All of the radio stations in that area are tuned to the same weird, Stephen Kingish, let’s-torture-Mary time warp channel; add to that a recent resurgence in 80s’ music and I am saturated with unwelcome nostalgia. It’s worth noting that the music my siblings mocked me for listening to (they labeled it “Bubble Gum”) is now considered classic. How did that happen? More importantly, are they discussing how right I was? I find it incredible how close music and memory are tied; how songs can bring me back to a single moment or to an entire decade….. the soundtrack of my life. “American Pie” is vinyl seats and dark green moss. It is fireflies begging to be captured, and stank swamps teeming with life and death and frogs….. racing for the Good Humor truck, watching thunderheads gather over distant hills, and endless sleepovers after sticky, summer days. “Easy Come, Easy Go” and “Julie, Do you Love Me?” are the world of barbies and scanning every room for spots to set up “houses”......flopping down on scratchy braided rugs to watch “Bugs Bunny” (brandishing requisite carrot) and “Planet of the Apes”..... when neighbor kids and candy occupy our every, waking thought. “The Monkees” and “Last Train to Clarksville” are sisters and friends, lip syncing and fighting over who gets to be/marry Micky Dolenz and seeing who can make a Reese’s Cup last longest on the walk back from downtown. It is showering in rain gutters and attending our father’s funeral. Then, the Era of Tragedy, with songs like “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” and “Run, Joey, Run”..... playing 45s with cousins and infinite board games that conclude in angry flips of the board…..it is frostbite from ice skating on anything remotely icy (yes, even sidewalks) and sunburns from swimming anywhere all day long. And, then, nothing…...My life on hiatus…..caught in a cycle of sleep and anger, overwhelmed by relationships and tiny, daily interactions that make my soul retreat, for a nap or a year. It’s funny. The only time that I have ever recorded music was when I had started dating my husband. I wasn’t sure that we’d marry, but I realized something was happening, something that I would want to remember, no matter what. How did I know?….Was it the steadiness of his gaze? The measured way he took in the world, took me in? How he made me think of gallantry and courting? Or maybe it was just his unbelievable warmth that prompted me to record the songs I was falling in love to. Consciously or subconsciously, I knew that I never wanted to forget this wakening. So, I don’t listen to 80s music, for the most part. That is true. But every once in awhile, a song comes on …..one that I heard while still shrouded inside myself, inside my fortress... that sings of certain longing…. A melody that I heard in the Before, before I knew of claiming glances and icy silences and relieved homecomings, of reluctant and helpless “I love yous”, of wounds bound with well wishes, with sacrifice…..before I saw my children held by their hero, held in tender embraces that would triumph over pride, reach across any rebellion. I hear the lyrics that barely penetrated my then-bleak existence and look backward with these eyes, bearing our love..a flawed and imperfect union that does not loosen, that fiercely gathers me and ours against the darkness and tries once more. I carry this love into a world of good times and bad, sickness and health, riches and poverty. It is my opus.

Moments
I have written many times about our eldest son’s premature birth…..about our stay in the NICU, the needle sticks, the IV, the respirator, the medical decision to defer eating in favor of breathing. Through it all, I only cried once; and that wasn’t even because of his suffering. My breaking point? Finally feeding him. I trembled and sobbed as my husband and the pediatric nurse mopped my face with tissues; the nurse laughing, “Oh sure, now you cry!” It wasn’t until we finally had him home that my emotions completely kicked in. For the first two weeks, all I did was cry. In fact, I cried so much that my tears soaked his clothes when I held him. Safe from needles and tests, cuddled with unlimited feedings, I could release. In facing any emotional passage, sad or glad, I can never predict my response. Certain that I would bawl my eyes out at our wedding, I waterproofed everything and then never shed a tear. I did not cry at our oldest son’s high school graduation, yet wept uncontrollably when I handed his medicine over to him. I stood stone-faced at the funeral of my friend’s son, but when she and I finally sat down to talk, my teeth chattered and my body shook. The one determining factor for my hysterical versus frozen reaction seems to be the availability of tissues. If there are none, I will come unglued and resort to random clothing items for handkerchiefs, mine or other people’s. These past six months have been the most hectic of our life, hands-down. Our baby stage, with an 11 year old and 4 children under the age of 6, had nothing on this crazy helter-skelter present. As the people we treasure transition in a flurry of endings and beginnings, our house is wrecked with foot tracks and suitcases; some coming, some going. For the first time in 30 years, my fingernails are bit down to nubs, I am not sleeping (and I always sleep) and I am completely disconnected from the significance of all that is happening around me. I have lost count of who is doing what, saying what and feeling what; there are too many dancers with too many steps and, dazed, I sit out. I suspect that God mercifully distracts me from the enormity of what I am passing through. Rushing from prom to graduation to nursing home, the stain on my dress, the lateness of my arrival protects me from feeling the raw power of what is happening, lest I be crushed. I will need the rest of my life to feel what I have not felt these past six months, to process these last, climactic scenes. And, even then, I think I will just scratch the surface. When I initially searched for a column title, my dear friend suggested, “And, then there are moments.” I loved it, but opted for “Love Stories” because it was simpler. Right now, I would like to make her title my theme song…. because moments, the moments that we allow, that we lay claim to, say the most about us. And I am missing mine. In the midst of the chaos that is my current reality, I am on a 10 second (or 10 day) delay and only blearily conscious of the aftershocks. I need a reminder that tucked inside this hecticness, buried beneath the hubbub is everything that matters, the essential beats and barest breaths of this life, my life…….a husband bending down to catch his father’s whispered fears, a grown son asking, “Aren’t you going to eat with me?”, a young daughter, so excited about her new college surroundings that she squeals at the sight of a squirrel like it was some exotic animal, two sons tenderly delivering their precious grandmother to her new home, those same sons tending a brother’s bittersweet departure while he holds his mother in a crowning still of rapprochement, and a stepmother, sitting with her grandson and son-in-law, watching a familiar and lovely belly-dancer fill the stage with spinning light. And, then there are moments…….oh yes, there are.

Allergies
An orthodontist once told my parents that they should never have reproduced. Ok, that may be an exaggeration; but he did say that their mouths were ill-suited for offspring. My mother’s jaw was small and my father’s teeth were big (or vice versa) creating dental crises borne to this day. A few years back, the dentist looked in our middle son’s mouth and declared, “Those are the biggest teeth I have ever seen!” I grinned and he murmured, “Oh, right.” Our oldest son frequently thanks me and my husband for the catastrophic health history that we have afforded him and his siblings. He is referring to the genetic biggies lurking on both sides: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer. Concerning; but the more pressing issue is the complex combination of allergy/asthma features that coat our home with a thin layer of mucous. What I am not allergic to, my husband is, and our parenting has focused primarily on stemming the flow of phlegm with any treatment, procedure and voodoo that we could unearth. I don’t think of our children as sickly; which certainly bespeaks idiocy. When our eldest son was an infant, he had had enough experience with medicines that he could discern dimetapp from tylenol. If he saw the purple stuff, he opened up; if he saw red, he battened down the hatches. I mastered pinning flailing baby arms while prying open locked lips before the 4 month check-up. One year, our children took turns being sick from November to March without a break…...no lie. For goodness sake, we are so allergic that our dog was on Benadryl! So, in case you too suffer from Allergy Denial, I am sharing this official assessment tool. Let’s begin. YOU MIGHT BE AN ALLERGY MOM IF YOU HAVE:
used the hem of your shirt to wipe your child’s nose. heard a cough or a sneeze and demanded, “Who was that?”, knowing that the answer would determine your next step, including but not limited to: administering extra medicine, spending the night in the ER, never sleeping again, and missing so much work/school that there is no hope for recovery.
• become an expert on the Fifty Shades of Snot.
• feared going mad from the endless coughing, choking and snuffling of your children. >br/>• started to tremble at the sound of the nebulizer (plug-in machine used to directly inhale asthma medications) because you know it signifies the beginning of Allergy Season.
• thought everyone knows what “nebulizer” means.
• sat in public and evaluated the quality of a nearby stranger’s cough, daydreaming about what medicines might work…..most of which you have in your purse.
• agonized over what is more important: housecleaning so your child can breathe? or playing with your child?
• become immobilized by the aforementioned dilemma and done neither.
• spent years debating the merits of dehumidifying against vaporizing, medicating on a preventive basis and having zombie children or medicating on an as needed basis and inviting infection, protective therapy versus exposure therapy (living in a bubble/living in the ER), choosing between medical neglect (sending them to school sick) and educational neglect (knowing they will never see the inside of a school if you wait until they are asymptomatic).
received daily ratings from family, coworkers, passersby and inner voices of how wrong you are with each of the above mind-numbing decisions. YOU MIGHT BE AN ALLERGY KID IF YOU HAVE:
• rearranged play to accommodate the nebulizer.
• felt affection toward the nebulizer.
• thought everyone had a nebulizer.
• hit your head, puked or got a blinding headache from uncontrollable coughing…..sometimes all at once.
• shoved tissues up your nose to plug the tide.
• forgot said tissues and walked into public sporting them.
• never known the comfort of bubble baths, feetie pajamas or fleece because of that insidious archenemy, eczema.
• become so accustomed to throat swabs that the doctor lets you do your own.
• known as many descriptive words for coughs as Eskimos do for snow. Our children are blessed/saddled with a unique blend of DNA. And, as they bring home beautiful, smart mates, I am certain that they have learned from our mistakes. Their choice of sweethearts is clearly based on lung function, dental compatibility and sound lineage. Clearly.

Lives
I fall in love way too easily….. not the crazy obsession I feel for our kids…..nor the romantic, googly-eyed love I feel for their father. I mean the odd over-attachment that I develop for salespeople, 1-800 operators, bus drivers…..anyone who crosses my path and unwittingly becomes mine. This belongingness only intensifies when I believe that that person needs me; then the binding is inextricable. Encountering people whose sphere I have left, visiting places that were once my own is shattering…..ghostly impressions and murmuring memories haunt me for days. My love of people is often remarked upon, as if this quality indicates goodness. I think it indicates narcissism. Connecting with others feeds a need in me, for attention, validation. It is my addiction, my idol. When our middle son was young and we would vacation, he would get unbearably excited and, then, unbearably sad. He would pause the fun and worry, “I will be sad when this is over. And, it will go by too fast.” I fully empathize. Whenever I face long-awaited seasons, Christmas, summer vacation, dread paralyzes me. It is always the same; my head fills with two, repeating thoughts: “I am so scared, God” and “I’m sorry”. I have no idea why. I do know that the fear of having something finite is an ever-present ache. Maybe maturity will mean accepting that endings and love are a package deal. We are approaching a crossroads. The life that my husband and I built is quietly dismantling. Children are leaving, parents are aging and the tempo slows. Songs on the radio remind me of former loves…...babies, toddlers, ways that seemed so permanent, so certain. I walk old halls, stumbling upon sights and sounds that threaten to drown me with memories of us all together, always together. Awash in images, I whisper, “Do you remember God?” There is a part in the movie, Nell, where the Jodie Foster character squats down on some stones and looks out over the water. She is grieving her dead, twin sister. Her longing is palpable; this scene personifies loss to me. Recently, I traveled to my sister’s and, for the first time in over 20 years, I traveled alone. The implication was not lost on me. What was lost on me, however, was how close I would be to my childhood town. As I drove, the flat landscape that I am accustomed to twisted into a steep and dense countryside. The roads, narrow with hairpin turns and blind curves, seemed unsuited for bike rides and barefeet and adventures; but I knew better. The dark woods rustled at my homecoming. Hesitantly, I typed my childhood address into the GPS. I began to navigate, slow and reluctant, and realized that I didn’t need directions. These ancient paths were inscribed on my heart and I could feel the shatter starting to build. I passed our bus stop, the lily patch where I wet my pants, the corner where I discovered morning glories, the hill where I swung way too high on a tire swing, Artusa’s rock where battles raged and the streetlight where evening games commenced. Houses were familiar but none drew me. The little girl that I was was not to be found inside. She was in the forest digging in swamps with pudgy, curious fingers, climbing boulders and trees with short, sturdy legs. I wondered if her DNA, her footprints could be found in the yards she had cut through? Her home had been outside. When had I forgotten to remember that? At each landmark, I prayed, “Do you remember God?” Jane Fonda is quoted as saying, “....by the time you get to the Third Act…….you find yourself circling back to the girl you were to start with, and you know her for the first time.” One final turn around the neighborhood and my soul cried out for that little girl; the one in the shadows, the one with wide eyes and an unguarded heart. I wanted to protect her, shield her from the profound confusions to come. But, the time for rescue was over. All I could do now was return to her. And, never, ever let her go.

1,000 Slashes
Death by 1,000 slashes. At Christmas-time, my sister used this expression to describe someone who was suffering. I needed her to explain its’ meaning; death by a relentless parade of seemingly insignificant events, with no defining, fatal blow. The person is crushed by sheer accumulation. The phrase stuck with me. Being in a child’s world (both at home and for work) allows me a fine and fragile view. I am haunted by a lifetime of funny scenes and wrenching confessions, often embossed with Evil: In my school position, a young child who I had been counseling arrived with a tiny waif in tow; she had huge eyes in a thin face. The young child introduced this new girl, saying, “Can she talk to you? She has feelings too.” The new girl gulped a breath and blurted out, “Everyone hates me.” I asked who hated her, kids? Grown-ups? Family? With a solemn nod, she replied, “The whole planet.” We talked about this for awhile and then she frowned and said, “I think about my eyes.” Sensing my confusion, her friend translated, “She thinks she has pretty eyes.” A few years back, a little boy told me that his mom slaps and hits him. Then he chuckled, splaying his hands wide for emphasis, “But the worst…...the worst is spitting in the face.” This same boy asked me who God is. Fumbling, I said that God made us and loves us all. A pause. “Does he love mommy?” I nodded. Satisfied, he declared, “I’m going to tell her that.” And, then there was the little girl, homeless and dwelling amongst predators, who, upon hearing that my young son needed stitches, drew in her breath and said, “I am sorry, Mary White; that is terrible.” When our kids were small, they were quite precise about their boo-boos. If I had not witnessed an injury, they would act it out, miming the fall or bump until they were assured that I fully understood what had happened. If I tried to kiss the offended area and missed, they would insist on a redo until I hit the exact mark. And, a nightmare’s grip could only be loosened by the sleepy retelling of the dream to myself or their father. The recent addition of our son’s puppy simultaneously fascinated and depressed our middle beagle-dog. One day, while chasing each other, our middle dog fell and struck his side against the edge of a concrete slab. Uncharacteristically, he yiked. I went over to comfort him as the new puppy bowled into him. Our middle dog snarled and then looked back to me, hurting. The puppy renewed the attack; hurling his small body against the older dog’s bulk. Our middle dog proceeded to alternate between snapping at the puppy and leaning in to me. He was determined to get his due. I used to have a guinea pig named Daisy in my office. Sometimes kids would hold her while they talked to me; usually she just hung out. One young lady remarked, “Daisy holds a lot of secrets.” Was she referencing me? If there is something special about me (and sometimes I think there is), it is that I am a collector. I collect stories. The movie, Reign Over Me, tells of a man who is disabled by traumatic memories, prompting this quote,“ I can be patient, Charlie, but you need to tell someone your story. It doesn't have to be me, but someone.” I used to think this was only relevant for other people, other families. Over the past few years, I have begun to face how deeply it applies to me and mine. Is despair merely an unheard story? A dishonored, disregarded wound? Until attention is paid, will we replay the scene? Cut? Hide? Throw rageful fits? Because broken does not always look like broken…..broken can look furious and frightened and hateful. Broken can go stealth and morph into physical pain. Life by 1,000 slashes…...that is my story. Few are mine to claim but I tend them carefully. I cherish and hate this lovely, heavy blessing. 1,000 stories. 1,000 people who have laid my heart open and made me real.

The Draw
I love changing diapers; there are few things so obvious and concrete when caring for a baby. I might misinterpret the hunger cry for a sleep cry; I might cuddle when an out-of-reach toy is desired…...but soiled diapers? I can see what needs to be done and I can do it…….satisfying. Our babies’ poop did not stink…...well, not exactly. It smelled, but I didn’t mind the smell. Other people’s kids….different story. I would get a whiff and think, “What is WRONG with that child?????” But ours? Never. It touches my heart that my stepdaughter’s diapers did not offend me; an obvious sign that she was mine from the get-go. For me, it is always interesting to watch members of the same family interact; the way they move around each other, adjusting in unconscious ways to accommodate the other. A well-worn dance. I remember going away with my childhood family after I had married. I was surprised to find that I was more accustomed to my married families’ steps than my old families’ ….at some point, I had begun orbiting a different home. One night at Bible study, our pastor’s daughter came looking for his help with a computer issue. Upon seeing each other, their faces lit as if answering a silent call. They reached out and instantly entered a private circle…...an unspoken circle knit by infinite moments, sewn into a quiet and stunning knowing. In our home, I can tell by subtle morning sounds and non-sounds who is in a good mood and who is not. And, just the other day, I said to our middle daughter, “Here, smell my new perfume.” She put her nose to my arm, shrugged and said, “You smell like “Mom”. You always smell like “Mom.” I once worked with a young teenager who was quite spicy…...she wore black, read edgy, dark books and regarded adults with open disdain. When I was introduced as a school counselor, she looked me over, remarking, “I will NEVER talk to you.” She maintained her mature composure; until the day I saw her with her mother. I almost didn’t recognize this soft, uncertain girl…..the one clearly seeking her mother’s approval. I know that I am most “me” when I am with my children. It isn’t that I feel at home with them; they are my home. The good is that they see me at my most unplugged, true self. The bad is that they see me at my most unplugged, true self. For years, I believed that I could choose what I shared with them. I believed that I could protect them from my anxieties, my crazy thoughts. But, recently, I have noted pieces of me, hidden pieces, borne out in them. My friend shared an article on generational trauma with me…..it spoke to this truth in a forgiving, matter-of-fact way. It explained that our children see through us no matter what; see our history, our fears, written in an ink uniquely visible to them…...many times, they see through the veil of our non-reaction, our silence, but they always see. And, in this shadow, they still grow. I pray that, like a ripple, my failings lose power the farther they get from the origin; so that the fallout fades to a barely measured lap. That is my hope…...a better d ay for our children. I may have already shared this story but when our youngest daughter was born, the nurses were cleaning her as the doctor pressed on my stomach. It hurt but I didn’t cry out. In the background, our daughter cried, intermittently. My friend marveled, “Mary, did you notice? She cries each time he hurts you. She stops when he stops.” This may have been the first time I realized that the umbilical cord tugs both ways. Is that the longing we feel? The gentle pull of Heaven? Of home? About a year ago, my cousin and I were talking of many things and she shared this quote with me, ““Nothing will surprise us more than when we get to heaven and see the Father and realize how well we know Him……..” Amen.

Rose
Our family is allergic, to everything. Early on, we made a preemptive strike against allergens by declaring our home pet-free. All pets would have to be relegated to outside. Enter Stage Right, Rose the dog; a black and white pile of fur, neuroses and eye boogers. Rose was lonely, so we added Hope the cat, then Buster the beagle, then more cats and guinea pigs. My brother loves to say, “You have more pets than anyone I know who can’t have pets.” Rose’s life ambition was to get inside. She peered in windows, snuck on our baby-laden van and even breached the school bus. As a toddler, our youngest would begin any venture outside braced for her assault, protesting, “No, Rose”. Once, as I watched TV, I sensed movement. Rose was slowly army-crawling across our linoleum; the door had been ajar and she took her shot. She didn’t think I would notice. Rose and Buster’s relationship was mysterious; they both took turns wearing the Alpha Mantle. Rose was the unwilling target of Buster’s enthusiasm…..his repeated nipping left her with bald patches. However, Buster was banned from her kennel….mostly. Once in awhile, he would stage a coup and commandeer her sleep space. But, food was a constant. Rose loved her food, Rose loved Buster’s food and it was the one area where she maintained dominance. She would puppy-guard both dishes, forcing Buster to “steal” scraps. Rose was Buster’s mother-figure….. lover/buddy/nemesis. If Rose went to the groomer, Buster would wait by the mailbox, chastising her with sharp barks once she returned . An overnight stay at the vet’s (because I ran her over; long story) elicited longing howls from Buster. On the occasions that Buster was alone, all we had to say was, “Where’s Rose?” and he would fetch her. Rose struggled with weird health issues and chronic pain. I cared for her in my busy, vague way; fully aware that she deserved better. Recently, her weight and mobility plummeted alongside her hearing and eyesight; she would bark in the exact, opposite direction of a noise. Rose had stopped going for walks with us; she was so slow and moved with such pain. A month ago, Rose insisted on coming for an evening walk, matching us step for step. She never recovered. Two days later, I found Rose trembling violently. Over the next 24 hours, she kept disappearing; behind a wood pile, next to the woodline. Buster would lead us to her, barking angrily at her. Wherever she lay, she was encircled by a path beaten-down by Buster’s pacing. Initially, Buster preserved their Alpha dance. I made a special bed for her; he laid on it. I gave her an extra dish of water; he drank it. When we hand-fed her, Buster crunched his dry dog food with exaggerated indifference. Time slowed; talk centered around, “How’s Rose?” and “What should we do?”. The children slipped out to visit her and our middle son and his girlfriend came home from college, just in case. On her last day, Rose laid by the road. I put soft food beside her. She ignored it. I knew that Buster would jump at the chance to eat it. I looked out later and saw Buster guarding Rose; the dish was full. I prayed for Rose to die. I didn’t want a hand in this. But, finally, I scheduled the procedure. At the appointed time, people arrived from all directions. Soft, aching texts lit my phone from the ones who couldn’t come, “I wish I could be there”, “Hug her for me.” The procession assembled. On our way, the youngest children attended Rose while Buster (for unknown reasons) sat on her. We arrived and our middle son, flanked by his girlfriend and my husband, carried Rose into the small room. We all followed, touching her, waiting. I felt disconnected, removed from the quiet sobs, fixed on her cloudy eyes. Was this her time? I had made it so. Our middle son whispered, “Love you Rose.” She left us. Buster lives inside now. The only time that he is out is when we are gone. Upon our return, he cries inconsolably; what a vast and lonely world without your mother/lover/buddy/nemesis. After the burial, I learned that Buster never left Rose’s dead body. My husband found him sitting in the van, keeping watch. For me, I am suspended between grief and regret, frozen. I want a wrap-up, a take-away. This is what I have so far: Rose lived and she loved, and we did her death proud. Maybe, for now, that is enough.

Alice
I first sensed the temporary nature of parenthood soon after our eldest son was born. Having shared my mother’s babies and then my stepdaughter, I had hoped that I would finally have someone all my own. I was back at work, trying to sort through my feelings, when I said to my boss, “I feel like he is on loan to me.” My boss smiled and replied, “He is.” While our children were small, we loved to wish on stars and, often, I would wish aloud for whomever was with me. I would say, “I wish I had a child who…..” and then I would go on to describe that child. They loved it. One night at bed-time, I was watching the stars with our middle daughter. She whispered, “I wish I had a mother with black eyebrows and brown eyes and the biggest smile ever.” I sounded beautiful. In my home, I am accused daily of playing favorites. Naturally, the alleged favorite is never the accuser; it is always the other guy. My stock answer is my mother’s stock answer, “You are each my favorite, just in different ways.” Recently, our middle daughter shot back, “Really? Then, what makes me your favorite?” Gulp. Startled, I mumbled something about getting back to her. Adolescence is tough; always has been. But, in this era of 24/7 coverage, our kids are fed minute by minute updates of their life story, complete with rewrites and commentary. The process of reconciling their identity with the voting public can be a soul-tearing experience. Somewhere in the hustle and bustle of planning and driving and overcoming, our middle daughter has begun her senior year of high school. As I write her goodbye column, I fear that my voice will merely add to the confusion. So, I ask you, little one, to step back with me…...to a quieter time, a time before things were overwhelming…….before the spectators gathered…..to a place where anything was possible and love was certain. Close your eyes. Do you remember? Star light, Star bright, I wish I may, I wish I might…...I wish I had a little girl who:
pressed her face against mine while we lay sleeping
wanted nothing more than to tag along
knocked on the bathroom door, first thing, just to say, “Good morning, momma”... complete with squeaky voice and squinted, sleepy eyes
made the comfiest beds
left love notes tucked on scraps of paper, plastered across mirrors, written on my hand
broke into galloping dances of sheer joy
belted out nonsense songs from her car seat to make us laugh
furiously dragged a fish tank three times her size to prove she didn’t need my help
buttoned, snapped, zipped, tied, used the potty and rode her bike without instruction
licked her finger primly before turning each page as we read aloud and thanked me every time I corrected her pronunciation
privately bribed her classmates with gum if they were struggling to “be good”
laid beside our dog on the cement porch to give him company
woke with crossed eyes and hit the side of her head to uncross them
played alone outside every morning, singing and talking and twirling her pink umbrella
walked with a gliding, smooth walk (unless angry….and then that would be a choppy, scary walk)
crashed against my office door, insistent eyes barely visible above the window’s edge, struggling to get inside
shared gifts and money and matching UNO cards with a triumphant bestowing
saw behind the event, behind a person’s words, with laser-like intuition
knows (and has always known) that love and laughter in a trailer trumps shiny things stored in a mansion You are way more than I see. You are way more than I know. Do not give anyone’s voice, even mine, greater power than your own, greater power than God’s. But before you wend your way into that waiting crowd, look through my eyes, one more time. Are you my favorite? No. You are my wish; the wish that I now grant a lost and longing world. They will be so blessed.

GPS
Is it normal to harbor ambivalence toward a GPS? Out of sight, my feelings for our GPS are friendly…..sort of bemusement mixed with contempt. I think things like, “Wouldn’t it be cute if the GPS adopted the accent of whatever state/country that it passed through?” and “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we kept missing turns and getting lost and it finally gave up on us and gave us the silent treatment?” How adorable. And, “Wouldn’t it be divine if we named her (Gladys) so she felt part of the family?” But, it is when Gladys is on the clock that things get complicated. My husband is mystified by Gladys; in fact, he tries to outsmart her. When presented with an Estimated Time of Arrival, he smirks and says, “We’ll see about that.”. He takes the ETA quite personally; it is a challenge, a gauntlet that is thrown down in the face of his very manly driving. Time and time again, he is thwarted by our GPS/genie; reaching our destination precisely at her predicted moment. I swear I can hear Gladys chuckle. Subsequent to any trip, my husband can be seen pacing with furrowed brow. Muttering, he ticks off points on his fingers, quietly cataloging the various factors that should have foiled Gladys’ calculations: traffic vs. no traffic, varying speeds, his own Mario Andretti racing moves that would baffle any mere machine. And, therein lies the answer. I believe that Gladys is much more intelligent than my husband allows. Sure, she calculates miles and rerouting; but I also think that she has become attuned to the strange traveling patterns of our family circus. For instance, she knows that ; At mile 15, Princess Pee will panic that she “might” have to go to the bathroom as she has drank at least .005 ml. of liquid. STOP 1. At mile 36, we will slow down to yell at our middle son who keeps rearranging his 6 foot frame in a 2 foot space; trying to curl up in his seat like a Newfoundland on a child’s lap, jostling people and luggage and drinks each time he shifts. At mile 50, someone who did not go to the bathroom at STOP 1 will need to go. This will most likely be a male child, who may just want the chance to pee outside. STOP 2. Mile 100 brings the fun task of rearranging everyone either in the interest of “fairness” (why does she always get the middle seat?), mind-numbing bickering or a karate fight that has broken out between eldest son and middle son causing my husband to alternately yell and laugh, thereby causing erratic fits and starts (of van and passengers). STOP 3. Miles 120 thru 200 are fairly quiet, with the older boys having finally pushed and fluffed and readjusted until they are sleeping on each other. During this time, our youngest son is typically harassing Princess Pee, laying his head by her ear and quietly and unceasingly murmuring to her. The words are indistinct, but he maintains a constant and droning monologue of private conversation. She makes half-hearted attempts to shoo him away, while looking pleased. Sometimes they hold hands. Mile 201, there will be an explosion of some type…...sometimes hunger, sometimes irritation, sometimes a son-who-shall-remain-nameless demanding to be let out to walk the rest of the way as he cannot possibly take this family’s noise while he is clearly trying to sleep. When we travel without my husband, Gladys has a lot more variables to plug-in. Her formula for time must include an increase in sudden pull-overs to yell, many u-turns and sporadic meltdowns into hysteria (me). Desperation does not bring out my pretty side. I become enmeshed and needy, sensing Gladys’ judgment as I take the wrong exit ramp. If she does not speak for long stretches, I retreat into petulance, longing for just a word of encouragement. When she repeats the same direction over and over, I yell back, accusing her of thinking me a moron. Uh-oh. Gladys and I might be in a relationship.
In my life, I am oblivious to the inevitable. I move along, trail markers plainly alerting me to what lies ahead and, yet, when I arrive at the destination, I am unprepared. Just as the low, heavy ache of Summer should be divined from Spring’s shy rituals, I feel that I miss life’s cues …...like I am walking backwards, unaware of the cliffs behind me. When our middle daughter was newborn, she slept beside us in a bassinet. She was a still sleeper, never squawking or shifting. At five months, she began fussing in the night. I wondered if she was crowded in her bed and I decided to try her crib; her crib in an entirely different room. Separate. From. Me. What was I thinking? Her very first night in her own room, she slept through till morning. I panicked. I didn’t really want this to work! What is that saying? You rarely know when you are doing something for the last time. When our kids were small, we needed a van for family travel. At each unloading, I would attend the vehicle’s side door, offering help and mediating squabbles. To an outsider, our van probably resembled a clown car as wiggly body after wiggly body emerged. One day, we disembarked at my in-laws and I didn’t wait. I headed inside ahead of everyone. As I was discounting my unease, our middle son sadly observed, “You’ve never done that before. You’ve never gone ahead of us.” A new era. But, the moment that forever altered my concept of time and seasons had to do with my stepdaughter, our eldest. There certainly had been warning signs, times when I should have realized where we were headed…..like when my friend pointed out that our daughter’s jeans had become high-waters because I refused to acknowledge that she was getting bigger. Like when she got her license and went to proms. Like when, with a winter’s stark and brilliant sunset for a background, she solemnly announced that she’d be leaving for college in July, instead of September. Like when she sat on the graduation stage, expressionless; till she saw her father making bunny ears behind her stepfather’s head and broke down laughing…..and then broke down crying. Like when I attended her other family’s graduation party and, afterward, our own, which was held just hours before her departure for college. Resolute, I clung to my denial….. right up to my husband putting his hand on my shoulder and whispering, “She has to go now.” Finally, it hit me. My poor husband held me as I sobbed way too loudly, “No! It isn’t time yet! There’s a few minutes left!” As I backed away from this looming edge, desperate, guests stepped aside…..trying to give us space, shielding themselves from our family’s first breach. When I got married, one of my friends sent me a haunting card. I cannot remember the exact wording or the author but it went like this, “And so, I sit on the stoop, a cup of coffee in my hand and I say the word, ‘wife, wife, wife.’” Isn’t that reality? The way our story changes with a mysterious, imperceptible crossing? How we go from single to married, son to orphan, life to death in a second’s frozen pulse? How our world, our identity, shatters with the slowing of a heart or the beginning beat of one? Our middle son just got his first adult-owned pet. As I help care for the puppy, trying to honor our son’s instructions, I recall my Aunt’s anxiety about watching her grandchildren; nervous because, if she failed, she would be the inflicter of her daughter’s wound. I never understood that; but I do now. Now, I grasp that the loss of my son’s pet would be exponential; my heartbreak blending with his through infinity. And yet, how equally boundless to weave our love toward something; losing sight of where the thread begins, but knowing that this small creature is the draw. For me, it foreshadows an awaiting horizon….one that hides, readying to shake me, growing inside my stepdaughter’s beautiful belly.

Tim Tebow
As mom, I struggle with when to push our children and when to stand back. Whether urging them to play sports, continue music lessons or try new foods, I rarely find the balance between encouraging and pressuring. When I err, it is usually on the side of too little; missing that mark when a boost becomes the game-changer. Our youngest is a Rubik’s Cube freak . Recently, he attended a cube tournament, as spectator only. Held in a quiet, dimly-lit auditorium, cubers were informally clustered throughout the room, absently solving puzzles as they conversed . Official tables with official speedstack timers and official judges lined the front. My son and I chose seats in the back. On a break, a woman with a kind face and perfect body (you gotta hate that) approached my son, “Are you competing?” He shook his head. She smiled sweetly, “You don’t want to try?” He shook his head. Minutes later, this same woman returned with a young man. She said, “My son was scared at his first tournament too. I thought you should meet him.” Before I knew it, this young man had escorted my son to the Official tables. I helicoptered in, scanning for my son’s discomfort. He was completely absorbed. He sat down at a speedstack. The young man pointed and talked as my youngest nodded. Finally, with no judge and no audience, my son completed a practice run. His expression was priceless. From then on, he alternated between competing and joining groups of cubers to share tips and trade cubes. Amazing. I wonder what my late-in-life salvation has been like for my family; to have me go from taking the Lord’s name in vain to worshipping, it must be quite the switcheroo. After my baptism, my husband asked, “So, are you like born-again or something?” I responded, “Umm, I guess so.” Overall, my family has been sweet and supportive. But sometimes, the children protest, “Why do we have to go to church? Forcing us will make us hate it.” In trying to sort this out, I think of caring for our children on a daily basis. Sometimes I balk, doubting my own capability or simply being lazy. But then I consider the child and suddenly the work becomes about the person I love and not about the chore. And, so it is with God...love’s story is always about the Author and His readers. Just like earthly relationships, a love affair with God has many dimensions. Prayer and solitude with God are precious…...but, we are born gatherers….we gather at NASCAR and celebrations and tournaments. And, we gather at His feet. God doesn’t tell us to come together because of His need. He’s God. He tells us to come together because of ours. Church lets us see His hope magnified in and through each other. There was a time when we only met God in a tabernacle, a “portable dwelling place for the divine presence.” Jesus changed that. Now, we are the tabernacle…. if we accept. "This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31: 33. So, children, why do I make you go to church? Why do I leap, one more time, into the no-man’s land of pushing too hard yet not quite enough? Because in the miniscule time that I have left with you, I want you to meet my Lord...to hear me speak of Him in the same way that I speak of you, not arrogantly, but with ease and intimate joy. I want you to witness faith that is life-saving and contagious, better than any cancer’s cure. And I pray to show you living that rests on Jesus’ word, not man’s; living that cannot be contained to a day or a building, but that ferries God out into the world. So, children, I don’t call you to go to church. I call you to be His church.

The Natives
I stand at the entrance, tentative and unsure. I have never been here before and I make no sudden moves. I do not know the terrain; I barely know the language. The color of their history, the texture of their sorrow is foreign to me. I will step carefully, trying not to crush what is still whole, what works. I am here to sort through the wreckage; to retrieve the broken pieces and form them into a new and different landscape. Everywhere that I look, there are eyes…...peering out at me. Hostile eyes, wounded eyes, eyes with the tiniest flicker of hope. Each pair silently reproaches with the same questions, “Will you tear down what we have worked so hard to gather? Will you be the help? Or the final blow that destroys us?” I have no answer. I will move hesitantly among the bodies. I will assess the fallout…….clear and open wounds displayed with pride; secret, private wounds guarded with fearful care. The clutter must be cleared, the air cleansed so that I might view the remains, what needs tending. I must proceed with utmost delicacy so that I do no harm. I do not know if I can do this. Reluctant and curious, they will let me in. For the moment, they still have a choice. I will see that some see me as better; some will think that I think that I am better. And some will sense the truth….that I am merely a broken representative from mankind, weighted with my own past, my own missteps. A few will reject my words before they are even uttered. A few crave my words and pray that healing might be found somewhere in the message. They have done this before; I am not the first. Their lives bear scars from those who went before me. I will have to be so cautious. I will ask my questions and inwardly catalog the damage; hoping beyond hope that I have enough to give, that I will not give up and that the tip of the iceberg will be all that there is; but knowing that that is rarely the case. This is my temporary home. I will taste it and breathe it for a time. If I am blessed (and cursed), I will share their view. I will live here, my life on hold and my heart held hostage; an ambassador from some phantom other side. I will offer my hand and my soul and I will pray that, when all is reckoned, the footprints I leave will be a gentle press and not a fierce slash. But, I know this…..like the link between a butterfly’s flutter and a hurricane, I cannot enter a family without leaving a mark. I cannot enter without being revealed, without being altered, myself. And, so it goes…..I am at the threshold of a child’s life, a family’s life. If I am to help, to truly help, I must venture in. I hold up my hands in surrender and say, “I come in peace.”

The Burden of Gratitude
My friend, Jill, loves it when I tell the story of how we first met. As my fifth grade year began, I sat alone at my desk; brand-new to my school and to the North Country. I was numb with uncertainty. Suddenly, Jill popped up and asked, “New girl, do you need some paper and pencils?” With a huge smile, she held out some supplies. I was home. It’s funny, though. The thing that stands out most in my memory is Jill’s overflowing spirit. When she tells the story, however, the thing that she remembers is my thankfulness. It is interesting to me that Wikipedia makes a distinction between gratitude and indebtedness, “Gratitude is not the same as indebtedness. While both emotions occur following help, indebtedness occurs when a person perceives that they are under an obligation to make some repayment of compensation for the aid.[7] The emotions lead to different actions; indebtedness can motivate the recipient of the aid to avoid the person who has helped them, whereas gratitude can motivate the recipient to seek out their benefactor and to improve their relationship with them.” Years ago, the teenaged population that I served frequently used the expression, “How does it feel to want?” If someone had a treat and the others were teasing that person to share, the treasure-holder would reply, “How does it feel to want?” Most times, this response was playful. But, the exchange always made me uneasy. All of these teens wanted something…...food, a home, a father or mother, a sense of belonging and to witness that longing mocked, however innocent, broke my heart. For those of us who have made a career of helping, the notion of thankfulness is frequently a hot topic, demonstrated by the following, oft-heard quotes: “She should appreciate...”, “I wasn’t looking for a thank you, but….” and (my personal favorite), “After all I have done for them”. It as if we believe that those who come before us, seeking service, are obliged to proffer just the right amount of gratitude before we comply. We then measure that gratitude to determine how we will mete out the aid….unreservedly or with judgment. We forget, sometimes, that compensation for most of our duties comes in the form of a livelihood. Even when our position is voluntary, I think we overlook that “freely given” is the hallmark of volunteering. We also often mistake silence for thanklessness. But, when need and longing are consistently tied to a place of shame, a part of us closes down. Our soft, hopeful center becomes crusted with what we owe. Lives bowed under the constant weight of debt for the most basic of human dignities can quickly run dry of gratitudes’ wellspring. We know that appreciation makes life richer. There is no better view than the one focused on blessings. But that default cannot be programmed for someone else. Owing is a contract that is externally set and linear. Genuine thankfulness is an echo that starts in the deepest, best part of the human connection, where love and faith grow. Between blessed and blesser, a note is struck, beginning a harmonious song-in-the-round that, when perfect, blurs the melody’s origin. In that divine strain lies God’s true intention. If someone is broken by the weight of indebtedness, a new song must be tenderly sown into their heart; a low and building hum that honors their beauty, their worth until the rusty core of gratitude cracks open. Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was told the story of Jesus…...a story of sacrifice that seemed to imply an owing. My answer? A begrudged, “Well, who asked him to?” I had not signed up for this. But, as I stayed a skeptical and watchful distance from the greatest blessing ever told, a chord of wonder sounded. In the shadow of creation, at the foot of love, I whispered, “This is all for me? Without me even asking?” Just as many years ago, a little girl shone her light on a trembling outsider, so I take the battered, outstretched hand of the one who first delighted in me. And, finally, I give thanks.

The Interview
Years ago, I was told that a student had called me a snob because I had a new car. Boy, was I irritated. Every time I passed “Jane Doe”, mean, mental music played as I growled under my breath. Some time later, I pointed her out to another staff person; I scoffed, “That Jane Doe called me a snob because of my new car. I don’t even have a new car!” The staff person glanced over and said, “That’s ok. That’s not even Jane Doe.” I often confused my job as caseworker with that of PR agent. If one of my families was being judged, I would share a sweet story about them. I loved this part of my work…...bearing witness to tender, funny moments and preparing the way for understanding. I have been blessed to work as a helper to people. Mostly, I am mindful that, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Where I lack compassion, however, is with my peers; people I believe to be “like me”..... as if suffering has favorites. There is a couple that, until recently, I had neatly categorized. The husband is younger than me and I had him tucked under the heading, “Goofy-younger-brother type” who married “nice, pretty woman.” Together, they “had it all”; which was unacceptable. My view first shifted when I heard the whisper, “infertile”. As we popped out baby after baby, this couple was enduring the tortuous gymnastics of fertility testing and treatment. My narcissistic self was sorry and removed them from the “Golden Couple” shelf. Just as time and hope appeared to run out, I glimpsed the wife at a distance, heavy with child. I was absentmindedly happy for them. Seasons passed and I would see this couple with their baby….and then toddler...and now, school-aged child. Each time I saw them all together, each time they spoke of her, I was struck by their manner. They seemed caught off guard, stunned….. as if the wonder of finally having a child never faded….never. A year ago, we had dinner with a bunch of people, including this couple. It was near Valentine’s Day and the husband was recounting their courtship. He said that he married his wife two days after her divorce was finalized. As he spoke, there was a look on his face that I can’t explain….an expression so touching; I couldn’t shake it. For the past year, that look has haunted me and I knew I would write about it. When the time came, I asked this couple if we could meet. I wanted to confirm what I saw. I went to their home and first they told me about their daughter…...the time, the pain, the final surrender and then, a baby. I asked the wife, “Does your daughter know about this?” Something caught in her and, after a beat, she replied, “You mean that she’s a miracle? Yes, she knows.” And, then I asked for their story. Once again, they traced their steps to the proposal and wedding, both happening within forty-eight hours of the divorce. There, on the husband’s face, was that same look…...of pride, of triumph, disbelief. And, sorrow….a wistful ache that he could not define for me. I replayed this scene, over and over; trying to place the sorrow, trying to understand why this couple moves me so. And, I think I finally have it. For whatever reason, I sense that this couple fully gets the hair’s breadth of missed chances. In the whirl of daily living, I believe that they never lose sight of the alternate ending ….. of a life without the other, without their miracle child. This column was supposed to be about assumptions; a message that I felt needed to be shared. But, as so often happens when I write or pray, the essential message somehow circles back to me…..to my unsuspecting heart. In honoring another’s journey, I realize that the story I need to learn is my own. I pray that I find wonder.

Jacob and College
Our oldest son was in second grade the first time that he spent a night away from home. As he left, I realized that our children had never been apart for a night. My husband and I had been away from them, but they were always together. Moreover, our two oldest boys shared a double bed. This would be the first night that they slept solo. I remarked to my husband that while losing us would be tough for them, losing each other might be worse. Many of you know that our middle son has left for college; what you may not know is that this was our first “drop-off”. My stepdaughter was brought to college by her mother and stepfather. Our oldest son commutes from an apartment attached to our house. So, this delivering of our offspring was new. It touched my heart to know that we needed two vehicles for the process; not because of possessions but because of the number of people wanting to accompany him…. and wanting to snoop. As our grim convoy traveled to his abode-to-be, the foreshadow of a whole lot of missing prevailed. I reminded myself that we were blessed to be losing him only to adulthood. Upon arrival, the first thing to be set-up was a gift from our oldest son; a console designed for antique Nintendo games. These games were a huge part of our kids’ childhood. Throughout the unpacking, people took turns playing the system, delighting in the bits of nostalgia. Cries of “Do you remember this?” and theme music that was the background for a million family moments resonated a little too deeply. The full circle of it made me edgy. Our Black Comedy was underscored by hyper bodies running hither and yon, screaming excitedly as they explored their brothers’ home. A Greek Chorus of oohs and awws could be heard at each discovery. The bedlam served as a marked counterpoint for my husband’s silent determination to untie, set and perfectly position each item as he purposefully delayed our departure. At the height of his compulsion, I heard our oldest son laughingly protest, “Dad, I think he can open his own razor package!” As sick as it felt to abandon our child to the unknown, I did not anticipate the ensuing, sorrowful hangover. For me, the hardest part has been witnessing our other children grapple with the void. Our youngest ones certainly talk more now that there are fewer voices; but that doesn’t fully make up for the looks on their faces as they find items he has left behind or as they factor his absence into our daily life. But, our oldest son is the worst. Enroute to his own college, he stops to check on his brother. After each visit, he comes home with a list of things that he believes his brother needs. When I encourage him to let his brother tough it out, I have to remember that I am not the one who is living a daily goodbye. I am not the one who has to drive away over and over again. Our oldest son said to me one night, “It is just so hard to leave him.” And, in a heart-wrenching Facebook status, he wrote, “I miss my brother.” I remember the first time we visited my stepdaughter after she had moved out. I got lost in her new city (of course) and finally parked in frustration. As we walked and coordinated by phone, I suddenly heard her shrieking. Looking up, I saw her leaping and jumping far-off. She had caught sight of her siblings. She had spied home. When our middle son started high school, he said to me, “Soon, we will be adults.” I loved how he viewed his siblings and himself as one entity. An “us” rooted in time…..a time to play, a time to hurt, a time to fight and a time to carry each other. What happened to one shaped the other, for better and for worse. As one more member of their “us” ventures into the world, I know that their sounds will echo in his home; their life will echo in his heart.

Walking
The principal of a boy who was failing last year now posts each of his good marks on her bulletin board for all to see. He is presently on the honor roll. The counselor to a child who has not passed any class in several years takes their counseling time to tutor her, gives her organizational tips, posts her passing grades, and gives her stickers for completed homework. This student is excited about learning, reportedly for the first time. She is also passing her tests. A boy who was a constant discipline problem last year gave one teacher a particularly hard time. He stated that he hated her, and her class. One week last year, for whatever reason, this boy behaved himself. The teacher called home to let his frustrated parents know that he had had a good week. The boy was floored that the teacher would take time out of her day to give a good report. The boy did an about-face, had no more behavioral issues in that class. In fact, the boy now claims that this teacher is his favorite, and he just might want to teach like her someday. Posted tests? Stickers? Positive behavioral reports? Surely, I must be talking about elementary students. But, I am not. I am talking about high school students, and in fact, some upperclassmen. And, I am talking about some adults who took the time and made the effort to reach out, to reach them. I am talking about some adults who recognized despair when they saw it, who recognized drowning, and who threw out a lifeline of interest and hope to save them. There are some people who are reading this column, right now, who are thinking the word “enabler”; who believe that children should take responsibility for their lives certainly by or in high school, who believe that children should work hard and behave, who believe that they can do that all on their own. And, many can. But there is a population of teens who for a myriad of reasons aren't ready to shoulder responsibility yet. Maybe there is a temporary glitch, such as a death or a divorce that erodes the child's ability to carry on. Maybe there has been a lifetime of neglect, and the child never got the teeny, tiny building blocks that make independence possible. Maybe there has been a trauma, an addiction, a depression that shadows the child's ability to take up their own cause. Or, maybe, no one has ever shown them how to.......whatever. Organize. Communicate. Yell for help. Believe that they are worth someone's time. I don't know. But, what I do know is that we, as adults, never get to quit. We don't get to decide that we're done because this teen is just lazy, or because it's too late. Just like we don't give crawling babies a shove when we think it's their time to walk, we need to coax and cheer, and hold on until our young adults are strong enough to take that first stumbling step. I believe it is in each human's nature to achieve and master. And if they are not achieving and mastering, then something is in the way. And, it is our job to find out what that something is. It is our job to help them to get strong, to help them believe in their strength, and to then remain behind them in case they fall. Is that enabling? I don't think so. I think that's our job. Because, guess what, if they could do it on their own, they would. If they could do it on their own, we'd be out of a job....as parent or teacher or whatever. How do I know? I know because I was one of these teens. I know because I still need a hand to hold, someone to show me how, and some praise now and then when I get it right.

Parent's Love
When one of my sons was going through a difficult time, my brother had some advice for me. He said, “Do you know what he needs to hear? He needs to hear that you love him, that you love him every second of every day, no matter what.” Well, I mentally rolled my eyes. I knew that without a doubt my children were clear on my unconditional love. And, as I put my conflicted son to bed that night, I sat on the edge of his bed and looked in his face, “You know I love you, right?” My son grinned and nodded. Then, I pushed a little further, “ You know I love you no matter what, right?” My son literally rolled his eyes, and said, “Yes, mom”, in an impatient, “Oh my gosh”, tone of voice. Then, I went for it, “You know I love you every second of every day, right?” And, before my eyes, I watched my son's body relax and his eyes fill with tears. Relief flooded his face and he hugged me fiercely. I guess my brother was right. My kids' aren't perfect...probably hard to believe, but very true. They make mistakes, some minor, some bigger. And, it makes me wonder. What is the mark of a good parent? Is it that their child never gets into trouble? Is it that they never try drugs? Always get As? Choose a sensible and lucrative career? How do we measure the success of our parenting? I don't know if you've read Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. But in this story of a school shooting, the shooter's mother self-analyzes, “It was easy to be proud of the kid who got straight As and who made the winning basket......Wasn't it just as telling a mark of motherhood to see how, from this awful moment on, she behaved?” Now, thankfully, I have never had to face this extreme of a situation. And, I pray no one ever has to face this dramatic test of love, again. But the concept of loving during hardship draws me. In another incredible book, Parenting Teens in a Confusing Culture , author Mark Gregston gives all of us a great catch-phrase to use with our youth. He tells his own children and the children he works with, “There is nothing you can do that will make me love you more. There is nothing you can do that will make me love you less.” Mark argues that our love needs to reflect God's love for us...a love that is inarguable, constant and non-negotiable. He also argues that we absolutely need to hold our children's feet to the fire with accountability, responsibility for their actions, and consequences. But our love for them needs to be unshakable....and they need to know that it is. In my own home, when children have erred, I have caught their father holding them as they cried, purposefully picking on them to let them know he still loved them, and even outright saying to them, “I don't like what you did, but that doesn't change how I feel about you.” In those moments, he is my hero. As he loves our children without reserve, I fall for him harder than ever. When I was a new mom, I had lots of ideas about what makes a good mother and how that can be proven. I have judged other parents' styles, nodded knowingly when one of their children got into trouble,and made ignorant remarks about what I would “never” do, being the great mom that I am. But after many great mom days, and even more lousy mom days, I would humbly like to change my tune. I would like to address all five of my children with something I desperately want them to know: “You have all made mistakes. Some mistakes were just dumb, some I probably contributed to. But, n all the mistakes you've made, in all the mistakes you will make, I have never, nor will I ever, be ashamed of you. I might not like what you did; I might even hate what you did. But I will always, from the bottom of my heart, delight in you, in your presence in my life. I will always introduce you to people with pride for who you are and what you mean to me. You are the loves of my life.....for better, for worse. I love you every second of every day, no matter what. And, guess what? If my very imperfect self loves you that much....how much more is the perfect, endless love of your Creator, your Father in Heaven? I can only reflect the tiniest speck of that truth.” If I can convince them of that, I think I'll have made it.

My Husband>
It's funny. When my husband and I attended Pre-Cana in preparation for our wedding, there was an ancient (probably my current age) deacon who spoke to our group. He and his wife had been married about 25 years at the time, and I'll never forget his words. With quiet joy on his face, he said, “You think you're in love now? Wait half a lifetime....you have no idea.” Well. I would love to report that my eyes filled with tears, and my heart melted. But, those were not my reactions. My arrogant, conceited (silent) response to these touching words were, “Well, yeah. You have to feel that way. Your options are pretty limited; who else is going to want an old, dried-up man? It's a good thing you're married.” Romantic, right? In the first year of our marriage, my husband and I watched the film, 'Ghost', together. Like many others, I bawled my eyes out at the scene where the two main characters reach across the boundaries of life and death to touch each other one last time. Many years later, I watched this same film all by myself. I thought, “I'll be fine. It's not like I'm watching it as a newlywed; I'm sure my reaction will be much less intense now that we're settled.” Oh, sure. I was right that our love had changed, and that I was no longer looking through the lens of fresh love. This was much worse. I was now looking through the eyes of someone who had loved another human daily, minute by minute, disappointment by disappointment, discovery by discovery, and mundane, exquisite moment by mundane, exquisite moment. I have to tell you, this discovery freaked me out completely. I had no idea until that experience how very deeply I had fallen for my husband. I had no idea how boring, everyday tasks and incredible, miraculous firsts had bound me so very tightly to this man who can excite me and infuriate me in the very same second. If I felt this way about him after only a few years of marriage, what good could come of it? Whatever ending played out in my head, my fragile heart seemed doomed. This past summer, our family camped at Meacham Lake. On one beautiful afternoon, I watched an older couple walk through the campgrounds, hand in hand, engrossed in quiet conversation. As they walked, gorgeous, muscled, bikini-clad, young people swirled in their vicinity. The couple appeared oblivious. How could this be? How could it be that in a society that so values youth and hardness and perfection, an old, soft love could be more interesting? I don't get it. Don't get me wrong. I know that my husband still notices beautiful women with hot bodies. I have no illusions about that. But, for me, the true miracle is that he still looks at me that way. I asked him once, “Who would've thought that one day you'd be trying to get lucky with a 45 year old woman?” He made a face, and I think he said, “yuck”. But, then he looked at me in a way that clearly belied that word. I don't know. It seems that as we get older, somehow I become more beautiful, more desirable to my husband. I look in the mirror, and I see someone much different than who his eyes reflect. As he looks at me that way, I wonder, are the memories of a younger me, a stronger me superimposed on my features? Or, are the scenes of our life together playing across my softening, wrinkling face? When he looks at me does he see our children, our struggles, our fights, our make-ups, the moments that we stood behind each other, the moments that we faced something that seemed impossible and yet made it through? Is that what he sees? And, you know what really scares me? If I love him like this now, how will I feel after another 20 years? I'm afraid I have no idea.

My Cousin
When I was 10, I had a small dog named Sammy. I'd raised him from a pup, and there came a day when we had to make the hard decision to put him to sleep. I can remember it was the middle of summer, in the middle of a heat wave. The night that we made this decision, my mother and I slept on the floor in one of the cooler rooms. We didn't usually sleep together, and to this day, I'm still not sure whether she slept with me to stay cool, or because I couldn't stop crying. It was a surreal experience, and I can remember dozing off, waking up to talk and cry some more, and then dozing off again. We laid there in the dark, me sobbing, her comforting, the conversation soft and unhurried. I remember telling her that I was never going to get another dog, that I was never going to get hurt like this again. I can remember telling her that it wasn't worth it to love something and then to lose it; it was a raw deal. Her answers did not come easily, but she asked me, “Would you trade all the times you had with Sammy, if you'd known how it would end?” I don't even remember my reply. But, I remember her telling me that I certainly could choose to live all alone and to never love, but asking was that the kind of life I wanted? So, I made it through that tragedy, went through some tough teen times, moved out, fell in love, married that love and proceeded to have a bunch of kids. I guess my heart had healed, and I'd forgotten my plan to be loveless. This past week, I lost my 46 year old cousin. She had a heart attack. A cousin's death might seem insignificant to some, but for much of my youth I'd lived right across the street from her. I'd spent as many moments with her as she would tolerate. On summer days we'd swim all day long, not even stopping for meals. On summer nights, we'd play ghost in the graveyard with neighbor kids and other cousins. We took our baths together, counted each minute on long Christmas Eves together, slept at each other's houses, went with each other on shopping trips and vacations. I would love to say that we were best friends, but I was never sure. She was close to so many people, I never really knew where I stood. But she certainly was my best friend, my mentor. She did everything before me, college, work, marriage, children, losing family. She could always explain life and people to me. Even when she moved away, she remained my touchstone. So, my cousin has gone on before me. And, she leaves behind countless friends and family who are crushed by her loss. A bright light has gone out. And, I've made a decision. I'm done. Before you jump to the conclusion that I am suicidal, I fully intend to keep on living. I love naps and food and beaches too much to miss out. It's love that I'm quitting. My poor heart has packed it's bags and is hailing a cab. If this is the way the story ends, I'm not interested. I look ahead at the next 40 years, and I think, is this the beginning of the end? Who will I lose next? If I am so broken by losing this beautiful, indescribable cousin, what will happen if I lose my husband, my mother, another best friend, or God forbid, my child? I've had a peek at the future, and I'm out. Trust me. I know how wrong I am. I'm the first to tell kids that there is nothing riskier than love, but nothing better than putting our hearts out there. I tell them how life isn't worth living without love. And, I believe that. But, I'm thinking, why can't I just wait for heaven to love? Can't I just go on hiatus? That way, I can have my loved ones forever, and never lose them. Robert Frost said, “Earth's the right place for love.” Is that so? How can I convince my sad, lost heart? As sorry as I feel for myself, and as sorry as my cousin would feel for me, I know she would not stand for this. The last time she saw me, she told me she didn't believe that hell was fire and burning, she believed that it was the absence of love. And, for her, that was the worst threat there was...no love. Love was as essential to her as water and air; she lived love. But, I don't know if I can do this without her leading me, teaching me how to be brave.

Love
In all my years of raising children and talking with children, you can imagine that the subject of romance has come up a time or two. And, while I certainly do not profess to be an expert in the love department, I would like to share some thoughts on this complex, heart-rending, life-defining subject. This particular theory came about after many, many sessions of teens lamenting their many, many deficits and their plans to morph themselves in order to win the loves of their lives. While this might be considered a feminine tendency, boys are just more quiet about it. I can't tell you how many times I have listened to a beautiful, sweet, talented, smart young lady slice and dice her body and personality, “If I could only lose 10 pounds”, “If I was taller” “funnier” “more outgoing” “had longer hair”.... For boys, it is more about accomplishments and “if I was more buff” “had more money” “had a great car” “was better at sports” …... These conversations trigger memories of my own journey as I tried to don the right female costume, tried to mix the right combination of “shy girl” “feminine girl” “tough girl” “cool chick” and “dumb bunny”, as I tried to make my legs look thinner and my eyes look bigger. It took me years to understand that the best costume I could wear, the only mix that mattered, was me. Is it possible to save our youth some heart-ache by sharing our discoveries? Or do they have to sharpen themselves against the same stone that we did? I'm not sure, but this is the lesson I try to share with my charges. We cannot approach love as we do applying for jobs or succeeding at sports. Love is thankfully not only for the bold and the beautiful. Love is for each of us, and there is someone out there looking for exactly who we are. The trick is finding the someone who wants exactly what we have to offer, but who also is exactly what we had hoped for. And, therein lies the rub. I liken love to favorite snacks. If I am craving, let's say, cheese and crackers, there is no hot fudge sundae, no matter how wonderful, that will satisfy that craving. There is nothing wrong with the hot fudge sundae. In fact, it might be the best sundae ever made. But, it is not cheese and crackers; and no matter how hard it tries, no matter how many adjustments it makes, it never will be. Rejection is not about the sundae's failure; it is about someone craving an entirely different snack, an entirely different creation. And, that hurts, but it is not condemnation. It is merely the understanding that someone else will come along who is dying for that certain cheese with that certain cracker. So often, especially with youth who have never dated, they become convinced that there is no one who craves them. I have to remind them that there are probably lots of people who want them, but who they don't want back. Which makes love complicated. Because if a hot fudge sundae wants a plate of cheese and crackers, but the plate of cheese and crackers really only wants sardines, it could take awhile to find true love. But, I believe, in most cases, find it we will. In this world, love is truly the great equalizer. In this world, we truly can have it our way. And, it might be a way that no one else wants, it might be a way that no one else can understand. We might search the world over for just the right hamburg, with just the right amount of pickles, mayo and onion, or we might opt for a jelly omelet. Oh,sure, there most likely will be compromise involved in our choice. We might have to get used to the taste of mustard; we might have to learn to overlook that the omelet is over cooked. But on this beautiful planet, there truly can be someone for everyone. The trick is in the waiting. The trick is in defining which snack we are, discovering which snack we crave, and rejoicing in the perfectly, imperfect blend.

My Cousin

Lot's Wife
I really am quite ridiculous. I find this to be true in many areas of my life, but none more than the dramatic, in the moment quality that I seem to have retained from my teen years. I wonder sometimes if that's why I feel such an affinity for teenagers, such a deep understanding for what they go through. I don't believe I've ever really moved beyond that stage, that “what I'm feeling right now is forever, nothing will ever change and I will never get over this” stage. And, then when things do change and I do recover, I am shocked and unable to apply the lesson to the next crisis. For instance, if my husband and I have an argument in the morning, I truly believe that I cannot possibly make it through my day without resolving the issue. I truly believe that I cannot function until I see him again and work things out. As I drive to work, the endless day stretching ahead of me, I sincerely contemplate whether I should take the day off; what use can I be in this state of mind? And, as I drag myself through my workplace's door, someone, a child or an adult, speaks to me, asks me how I am, engages me in problem-solving or compliments me, and suddenly, I am reborn. It is as if they wash the previous black mood away, erase my slate and draw an entirely new emotion. What is that? In the moment? Co-dependent? Bi-polar? Whatever you call it, it doesn't seem healthy. And, seasons. Oh my goodness, seasons. As each one leaves, I am forlorn, lost, grief-stricken and I honestly believe that I cannot be happy until that season comes again. I have forgotten that I felt that way for the last season, and the one before that; you can imagine how devastating the day after each Holiday is for me, only 364 more days to go. As I pack away Christmas ornaments, Easter decorations, Halloween costumes, I am overwhelmed with a sense of loss and purposelessness. What will I do until that Holiday comes again? And, don't even get me started on wool socks. Yes, wool socks. When the weather finally turns warm, and everyone else is celebrating, I am mournfully packing away my wool socks as if I will never need them again. How ever can I get on without my faithful, comfortable feet coverings? When I was very little, the idea of eternity freaked me right out. I used to wake up in the night, and ponder forever and ever with no end. The idea of endless time would short-circuit my poor brain. I would invariably wake my mother, and share my terrible, crushing fear with her. And, she, so wise, would say, “Now, Mary. Don't you think that babies inside their mother's bellies are just as scared? Don't you think they'd like to stay right where they are? But look what happens....they're born and it's wonderful out here. Of course, you're scared of what you can't see. But you're just like that baby, and it'll all work out.” And, that would tide me over until my next panic-attack. You'll be happy to know that the forever thing doesn't scare me anymore. The idea of unlimited time with loved ones, no rushing, no schedule appeals to me now. But I am worried about one thing. I am curious as to how my in-the-moment tendency will play out when faced with the after-life. If I am ever so blessed as to be facing Heaven, I worry that I might get so caught up in saying goodbye to this life, I might not be able to let go. Will I move forward toward the light, toward the beauty, toward all the eternal possibilities? Or will I, like Lot's wife, be so mesmerized by what I'm leaving behind, that I'll stand still, forever frozen in that backward glance?

Life
A few of my children and I went to a concert recently. My son, who is a drummer, was thrilled to buy drumsticks with the band's name printed on them. After the concert, he looked at me with his mild, sincere gaze and said, “I wish I could get these autographed.” I looked toward the front, and there was a clear path leading to the stage. I looked back at my son and said, “Honey, I doubt we'll be able to find anyone from the band.” He smiled at me in his accepting way, patiently waiting for either answer, yes or no, probably expecting no. I sighed. The two of us rushed toward the stage, missing a band member by a second, as a security guard chastised me with a disapproving,“Ma'am.” We retreated. When the kids and I were in Washington D.C. on a family vacation a few years ago, we had walked more than their young feet and my old feet could bear. I murmured more to myself than to them, “We could get a taxi, but I'm not sure how....” Before I could finish my sentence, four children had rushed to the curb and enthusiastically thrown 4 arms into the air, confidently 'hailing' our cab. I meekly followed. Anyone who knows me would describe me as outgoing, and I am. But, what most people don't know is how shy I can be, how timid, how afraid. I would no more rush a stage or hail a cab then kiss a pig. I am a sitter, a reader, a watcher, a tuck myself away because I'm afraid of new things kind of person. I don't appear that way, but I sure am. Luckily, I am drawn by my family, pulled by the loves of my life. If not for them, I truly believe I would have stayed on my couch, reading great books and watching awful TV for much of my adult life. I want my children to know of their gift to me. I want them to know how they have called me out, made me engage in life, engage in their lives, made me grow. Before they came along, I didn't even believe in outside. I could sit through any season, any weather, snuggled inside oblivious to the world around me, safe inside my own cocoon. Because of them, for them, I needed to go outside, to find beaches, to learn how to camp, to face my homesickness and to travel. Because of them, for them, I needed to be a joiner so they could become boy scouts, guitar players, horse riders, basketball and soccer players. I needed to move beyond myself and join a church so they might have the chance for a relationship with God. I needed to face my fear of confrontation and stand up for them, question the teachers and the doctors, sometimes defend them against unfairness; all of which challenges me beyond anything I've ever known. I am still such a work in progress; I can't even tell you. I am still scared a good deal of the time, unsure almost all of the time. But, I am in the outside world, now. They have drawn me into their crazy, busy, frightening, beautiful, brimming lives, and I am present. I have done this because of them. I have done this for them. But, in the end, somewhere along the way, it ended up for me. Somewhere along the way, in living for them, I began to live for me. I found my curiosity, my wonder in this amazing world, in all the amazing choices and people and sights and experiences. Somewhere along the way, I found God. So, to those I gave life to....thank you. Thank you for giving me mine.

Last Look
When I was an impressionable young teenager, I watched a high school production of Our Town by Thornton Wilder. There is a scene in that play that haunts me to this day. The scene is where the dead main character, Emily, can come back and relive one day of her life. She chooses to come back for her 12th birthday. As the Emily Spirit relives that day, she is struck by how unconsciously people go about their lives, how ignorant of each moment, of life. There is a millisecond of time where the Emily Spirit begs her mother to turn and look at her, to really look at her. The mother continues to go about her morning chores, and the Emily Spirit, in defeat, chooses to return to the dead. That scene is frozen in my memory. Whenever I think of life and love, that scene replays itself in my mind....as a reminder, a warning, a premonition; I've never been quite sure. But, I believe that my fight with time began the moment I first saw that scene.....a fight that has plagued me, that has motivated much of my living, so much of my mothering. When our first son was small, just weeks old, I stayed up late to watch a movie. He slept on the couch beside me. I remember looking at him, and thinking, sincerely, that I would never be lonely again. I would always have him with me, no matter what I was doing. But, there was something in that feeling that unsettled me, that nagged at me. I couldn't explain the dread. A few weeks later,as I rocked our son, reveling in his scent, in the feel of him, realization hit me. All at once, I knew that someday he would leave me, that someday I would have to let go. I called my mother, sobbing uncontrollably, as I tried to explain to her what I was feeling, “I can't let him go to college, Mom. I just can't.” My mother patiently tried to put me back together, telling me that I had a long time yet and that he would wean me. With each of my babies, I would return to work and be in shock. I couldn't fully comprehend that I was choosing to physically leave these creatures, to separate from them. My mind would feel thick and foggy at the unreality of it all. It made no sense to me that people kept living and laughing when clearly there was an emergency at hand; a mother had unnaturally ripped herself from her baby...how could the world keep turning? Other people told me....they told me, over and over, how fast it would all go, how unaware I would be and that suddenly the time to let go would force itself upon me, and I would have had no warning, no time to prepare. And, so I lied to myself. I told myself that I'd be different. I told myself that I would concentrate really hard, that I would focus carefully on each second. I promised myself that I would look at my children, that I would treasure every sound, every experience. And, by so doing, I might cheat time. So, I organized my schedule accordingly. While I continued to work full-time, I made sure that I had no activities outside the home. I avoided adult parties, made excuses to invitations, joined nothing, and made my husband feel like a villain for asking me out to dinner. When our eldest son entered school, I stubbornly refused to calculate his graduating year. I believed that if I didn't know which year he graduated, it might come more slowly. During our summer vacations, I wouldn't count down our remaining time-off for that same reason. If I was oblivious of time's march, maybe it would be oblivious of me. Well, despite all of my manic efforts and obsessive techniques, here we are. It is our eldest son's senior year. And, besides being unable to maintain such intensity during the frantic teen years, time has found us. Sometimes it feels OK, sometimes even good. I am thrilled to know this fine, young man, and I am excited at the adventure that awaits him. And, I am happy for the world. He will bring good to it. But, many times, I am not OK. Many times, I can't breathe, or think, and the panic suffocates me. And, I pray for weaning or to not love him anymore so it won't hurt so bad. Or, for time to relent, to slow, to obey me, and to give me just a few more seconds to look at him, to really look.

Husbands
I think I might be a bigamist. I have only ever had one husband, but I swear to you, there are two adult men living in my home. They are never in the same room at the same time but I interact with each of them everyday. They even look alike. I never really know which one to expect at the end of a hard day's work. I just know that they will both show up in my home, each claiming to be my husband. So, to makes things clearer for myself, I have named them Husband A and Husband B. Please let me share a few scenarios so that you too might get to know them. Husband A is polite and gentlemanly. He endeavors to teach our children manners such as chewing with closed mouths and no double-dipping. Husband B sits on our kids and farts. Husband A is a germophobe. He cringes at the mere mention of baby and/or pet poop. Husband B is comfortable sprinkling doe urine whenever necessary. Husband B is rugged. He hunts, fishes, can build anything and is stereotypically macho. Husband A has called me at work asking where the sewing basket is so he could fix our daughter's favorite dress. He is also the preferred hair-brusher for both girls. Husband B can shoot, gut and cook animals and fish. Husband A drove 25 miles to get a wounded, stray cat put to sleep because he didn't have the heart to shoot it. Husband B complains about the amount of laundry 5 children and a wife can create. Husband A has so many clothes he's had to infiltrate my closet for space (and he wears a uniform for work). Husband B looks at me like he's never seen me before when I ask him to bring our children somewhere, unexpectedly. Husband A would spoon-feed me when our babies were young and wanted to be nursed at our meal-time. Husband B claims indifference to our pets. Husband A sneaks cans of tuna to our oldest cat.....he's afraid she's too thin. Husband A pontificates on how he will never allow our children to be spoiled. Husband B gets up at 4 in the morning to hit Black Friday (before work) to guarantee our children's most wished-for items. Husband A feels it is unreasonable to expect him to help with the morning rush if he's worked the night-shift. Husband B leaves work from the night-shift to golf. Husband B has been oblivious to me being sick for days at a time....often stepping over my inert body. Husband A wakes up at the exact hour (with no alarm clock) that I need pain medicine when I've thrown my back out or had a new baby. Husband A's dresser drawers are filled with clothes that are precisely and carefully folded. Unfortunately, Husband A cannot find this very same dresser as Husband B has completely covered it with “stuff”. So as you can see, my home-life is confusing and ever-changing. In fact, when I reviewed this column, I had to wonder if I shouldn't have added Husband C and D. Bottom-line, I never know which man I will be consulting, and sometimes I think I'm talking to Husband A when mid-conversation I find I am talking to Husband B. Yikes. Men.....too bad they can't be simple like us.

Gratitude

A bunch of kids and I were talking one day. We were talking about how parents perceive teens. A young man spoke up and said, “Ungrateful. They think we are ungrateful.” He paused, and then added, “I'm very grateful. I know how lucky I am. But I feel like telling my parents,'if that's what you think, stop giving me stuff'; heads nodded all around the room.

Gratitude. Are kids ungrateful these days? I don't know. I know that when I put up a cheap, hand-me-down basketball hoop in my office, I was asked over and over, “Who's that for?” And, when I told the students it was for them, the overall reaction was happy disbelief, “You got that for us?” And, when one of the latchkey ladies returned from being ill, I was witness to a fifth grader racing down the hall to hug her, exclaiming, “I'm so glad you're back! What's our snack today?” The joy on her face couldn't have been brighter if she'd won the lottery. And, my own children....when I buy their favorite snack, I know it's not the snack that pleases them; it is the fact that I remembered, the fact that I singled them out, that I noticed them.

I have a lot of thoughts, a lot of questions about gratitude. But, my biggest question is this: if we expect our youth to be grateful, where are they learning it? Are we showing them how? Do they even know the words that show gratitude? Are we waking up each morning delighting in the clean air we breathe, the water that springs from our faucets, the plants that push through our earth? Are we really seeing our families, really seeing how gorgeous they are, and telling them how lost we would be without them? Are we appreciating their efforts more than their performance? Or, are we bemoaning how little money we have, how many aches and pains, how much stress? Where, exactly, do we expect our little ones to learn about grateful hearts?

When I was new in the kid business, a co-worker and I used to pick up teens for meetings. We had an old, beat-up station wagon that we'd use for these occasions. On one such outing, one of the shyer teens sighed and said, “Someday, I'm going to have a car just like this one.” I looked around, sure she must have seen a sports car passing by; but, no, she meant the rickety station wagon. I see her now tooling around in a much nicer car, living in a nicer home, owning her own business. And, I wonder, does she remember? Does she see what she has? Or is gratitude a state of the heart, a state that transcends circumstance?

It is easy for me to be grateful. I have never wanted for anything. I have the husband I want, the children I dreamed of, the perfect job. I have this column that feeds my soul, and gives release to my cluttered thoughts. My children have never been hungry, never needed medicine that I couldn't buy. And, I wonder. If my loved ones were taken tomorrow, would I still have a grateful heart? Would I still be able to discern peals of laughter, haunting music, touching stories, in the midst of my sorrow? Would I be able to reach out to others, and find joy in the world? I hope so.

A friend of mine teaches nursing students. At the end of each week, she tells her students how grateful she is for them. How grateful to know them, to teach them, to be a part of their life. If she's away on a Friday, the students know that she'll call them before the end of the day with her message of gratitude; they wait for it. Can you imagine? Can you imagine if we all modeled gratitude like that? If we all took the time to say thank you to our spouses, our kids, our co-workers, our clients for just existing? If we all lead our children in living a grateful life, minute by glorious minute?

Dogs

The children and I had an interesting conversation a few months ago. They started comparing themselves and our family to dogs. It was fascinating to see what matches they came up with, and, for me, it led to some interesting thoughts about who we are in public and who we are for real.

After much discussion, we decided that the baby of the family would be a light golden retriever in the dog world. Our youngest daughter would be a blonde Cocker Spaniel, and our middle son would actually be my mother's crazed, jumping, licking, handsome Chocolate Lab. Our oldest daughter would be a long-haired Afghan Hound. And our oldest son? We could not find a dog-match for him. We had to consult the feline community to hook him up as a regal Persian cat.

And, then, the talk turned to my husband and me. Uh-oh.

At the supper table, we agreed that my husband would be a Great Dane. He wasn't happy about this, “I wanted to be a Newfoundland.” We all shook our heads, and I unwittingly offered, “No, you're not laid-back enough to be a Newfoundland.” My husband's face fell, “I'm laid-back.” The children and I howled. We laughed and laughed, as my poor husband kept protesting emphatically, “I AM TOO laid-back.” Well, I should've known he couldn't let it go.

He came home from work the next day harrumphing at us, and at the supper-table, he announced, “I asked everyone at work today, and they all agreed that I'm the most laid-back guy they know.” He looked both pleased with himself and disgruntled at his unappreciative family. It broke our hearts, but we had to laugh hysterically at him again.

This brought me back to when my then 7 year old daughter was in a school play. The children and mothers were all hanging out back-stage, and something was said about me. One of the mothers remarked, “Why, I can't imagine you ever being mean.” The other mothers nodded in agreement. My beautiful, loving daughter stepped-up, and in her sweet, squeaky voice said, “Oh, she can be mean. Trust me.”

Not long after, my oldest son made a remark about me never laughing. I couldn't believe it. Me, not laugh? I often get in trouble at work for laughing too MUCH. What did this say about my children's mom? Was I joyless? Depressed? It took me awhile to sort it out, but I concluded that this remark merely revealed that I was comfortable. To me, it meant that when I was with my family I could just be me....I didn't have to be funny (and they tell me I'm not), didn't have to perform, didn't have to be.....anything other than just plain me.

What is it about us humans that changes who we are once we enter the public realm? If we truly were dogs, we'd be the same no matter where we went (public licking baths included). Why do we act so completely different once we are at work, at church,with friends? Is it only our families who truly get to know us? Is that an honor or a burden? I guess that probably would depend on the day.

You might have noticed that I've left off which dog my children voted I would be. You already know that I'm mean; to that you may add that I apparently would be our family dog, Rose. Rose is old, lame, pudgy, and she has a sweet, pretty face. She has an unseemly affection for sitting on basketballs (my children assure me that I don't remind them of her in THAT way). She is obsessively-protective of our family, and my middle son says that her joy comes “from just watching us and being with us.” Yeah, I guess that's about right.

Daughters

My 16 year old son came home the other day. He looked exhausted and completely drained. I asked him, with compassion, “How did it go?” His reply? With a grave face, he wearily shook his head and said, “You have no idea.” I sympathized completely; he'd taken his 13 year old sister for a “brief” shopping trip.

When we contemplate girls, the old saying “sugar and spice and everything nice” usually comes to mind. I think for most of us, we focus on the “sugar” and the “nice”. In my daughter's case, at least, one would be seriously mistaken to overlook the “spice”. Nestled among three boys, and with a sister 9 years older than herself, my daughter's place in the family has evolved (my oldest son says “morphed”) over time.

When I was pregnant with her, I consulted my doctor because she wasn't moving much. When she did move, the motion was strong and certain. But, the time between movements was far lengthier than I was used to. My doctor set me up on a monitor to make sure everything was OK; thankfully, test results were favorable. When she was born, and I could observe her outside my body, I discovered why the movements were so infrequent. Sleeping, she never moved. At all. She stayed in the same exact position for hours. But, when she did reach or grab or flail, her limbs were powerful.

As a toddler, she would often disappear on us. Our search would be frustrated by the fact that she made no noise, whatsoever. Inevitably, we would find her tucked into some shadow, some corner, completely still, with a knowing grin on her face. And as she learned to talk, her impact on our family intensified. I will never forget the time that she was trying to get my husband's attention. She sat in front of him, her tiny self curled at his feet. In her even tinier voice, she repeatedly said, “Daddy? Daddy? Daddy?” Finally, in a sweet, yet confident tone, she sternly called out my husband's first name. Startled, my husband looked down at her, torn between anger and awe; he replied, “Yes?”

In this emergent stage, driving with her became a minefield. In the cocoon of her car seat, she would order , “No music!” I would turn the radio off. Seconds later, she would insist, “Music on!” And, don't even get me started on her requests for heat and air conditioning. My hands shake at the mere memory.

My oldest son asked me the other day if I thought she might be a mutant of the former, fairy-like creature that once graced our home. My theory? In all her stillness, in all her latency, she has been gathering power. Slowly, remarkably, the forward momentum of her life force has snowballed until it, many times, overshadows the rest of us. While tiring, the good news is that the sugar has grown along with the spice. While she might declare, dictate and dominate, she does so with the most generous of hearts. As she takes, she also grants. Even in a fury, she is the first to help. She is the first to share what she has, whether it be treat or adventure; the offer springing from a joyful, energized place.

She is the first to notice someone's pain or despair. Her warm, kind heart seeks out need, gently laying her tender healing upon it. I am happy to report that there is a fierce and mighty love in the eye of her storm.

We have a picture of our daughter when she was about two. She stands astride a toy motorbike, dressed in a white, lace-trimmed nightgown. She has the sweetest smile on her beautiful face. Just a moment before I snapped her picture, she had summoned me, demanding that I move the motorcycle, as her nightgown was caught beneath it. For me, that image sums her up......gown-clad damsel, yes. In distress? Never. Hurtling forth on her trusty steed, ready to conquer her world.

Christmas

Christmas-time. Merriness. Magic. Miracles. Every year I search for Christmas; most years I find it. And, the last two years, I have found it in the oddest place. I have found it in a store. And, I have found it with the most extraordinary people, my family.

These last two years, two opportunities have been added to the White family Christmas tradition. And, both happen in the exact same place. My husband's co-workers donate money to buy presents for several needy families. And, my husband donates us to shop for these families. Now, I hate shopping. Despite this, my husband loads us up, and off we go to the store for a Christmas adventure. It is a hectic, frustrating, agonizing adventure, and we (even I) wouldn't miss it for the world. For my husband, he gets to play his favorite role, Santa. For my kids, they get to be personal elves for unknown children. And, me? I get to witness the very best of our family. I get to watch each child, poring over their list, muttering to themselves, deciding and comparing to come up with the best possible package for their charges. I love seeing them spend more time on each small present than they ever spend on choosing something for themselves. I love hearing them talk all the way home, “Did you see what I picked out for that kid? Do you think they'll like it? I wish we could be there Christmas morning to see them open it!” Such care and concern for a total stranger. Christmas.

And, for the past two years, I have signed our children up to ring the Salvation Army bell at this same store. I take them one at a time, and for two hours they are captain of their own, personal Christmas adventure. And, each of them does it so different. Some are shy, some shake/scold the bell vigorously at non-givers, some use the bell as a sword, lunging at the automatic doors to make them open. But, they all watch and learn. They learn from the shaky old woman who slowly and painfully opens her purse to take out that crumpled dollar, and then needs help to push it in the slot. They are in awe of the young children who shyly approach the bucket, downcast eyes peeking at us, glowing as they place each coin in, one at a time, overwhelmed by their own power, the universal power of giving, possibly their first experience as giver. And, they each meet my eyes when they see someone who is clearly poverty-stricken reach in their pocket for some change to give. Somehow, in those two hours, I watch the lessons and the giving swell inside them and become even more. One gives their own money to the bucket, another helps an elderly woman with her cart, another gives their super bouncy ball to a child who clearly covets it, and another thinks of the perfect gift for their grandfather, a gift which will require additional funds from their own pocket. And, me? What happens to me? As I watch these beautiful children witness these miraculous events, I find, even for just two hours, my judgment and impatience slipping away. For just two hours, I think I might become a little more of who I was meant to be.

And, just as so many years ago a child arrived to change this world, I find my world changed, my world illuminated by these angels born unto me. And, I know, somewhere, that swaddled baby is smiling down at us, and for a split second, we get it. We are Christmas.

Changes

When my husband and I were creating our family, we felt smug in our decision to have a bunch of babies at once (OK, some of them were a decision; some just kind of appeared). Anyway, we couldn't imagine setting up all that baby furniture, organizing all the baby toys and baby clothes, having the baby, putting all that stuff away, taking it back out, having another baby, putting it away, etc. We also couldn't fathom NOT having a crowd crawling all over us, inspecting us and playing with each other, napping with each other, being each other's playmates. We turned our noses up at the idea of “spacing”, and thought, “Now, what fun would that be?”

Well. Well, well, well. We also never imagined that those same,squirmy, playful, tiny bodies would turn into gargantuan, hulking, hormonal, ADHD masses that could not share the same space without an ensuing wrestling match. Where we once were a lively, little parade, we became a lumbering pack of noise and chaos. Please (for my sanity), let me share more of these unforeseen repercussions.

When my children were small, we traveled in a huge, box-shaped red van. As we bounced along, they often peppered me with questions. For instance, I might be asked:

Child in Middle Seat: “Why did that guy wave one finger at us?”

Me: “Um, I think that's how they wave in his country.”

Child in Back: “What?”

Me: “She just asked me a question.”

Child in Back: “Oh.” Pause. “What'd she ask?”

Me: “She asked about a man waving.”

Child in Back: “Oh.” Pause. “What'd you say back?”

Child in Front Seat: “She said that's how people in that guy's country wave.”

Child in Back: “Oh.” Pause. “What guy?”

Which is why I think every van should come equipped with a bullhorn; so the driver could effectively share any conversation/question that is currently on the table.

This scenario has shifted somewhat. Now, all at once, all of my children are out of car seats, and all are plugged into their own, personal music system. Which makes for strained conversation. For instance, now as my children file into the van, I might say to myself:

Me: “He should be wearing a jacket.

Then Me, (screaming): “SON! YOU SHOULD BE WEARING A JACKET!”

Which might garner a vague shrug and smile as my musically-overwhelmed child tries to avoid communicating with me.

Often, another child will then yell (still plugged in, mind you), “SHOULDN'T HE BE WEARING A JACKET?” Sigh.

Another of these unplanned, collective transitions is the family movie. When the kids and I used to watch movies together, every head would turn toward me the minute something unexpected or questionable happened in the story. As appointed expert, I would pause the movie and explain to the group what had just transpired . Now, suddenly, I am watching most movies on my own. On my own until the climactic scene, when stray kids suddenly pop up, demanding recaps of the first half of the movie.

And, public events. When did sitting anywhere near me become a social death-blow? I used to have to fight everyone from trying to climb into my seat; now, I have a whole row to myself.

One more thing. I had no idea that this gang of loving, babbling, drooling babies would, en masse, decide that they do not like me. I did not realize that couples who “spaced” their children might also be spacing out the stages of disdain and contempt, so that there was always someone still on their side. I strongly suspect that my kids held a secret meeting where they decided I was the enemy, and their father, THEIR FATHER????, was the cool one. Who would've thought?

Is there any comfort left for me, you might ask? Well, they still fight over who my favorite is. It's not much, but I'll take any scrap I can get.

Bodies

It was the middle of winter, a few years ago, and a young teen had the chance to go to a luxurious hotel with her family. They planned on swimming in the indoor pool and lazing in the hot tub. The problem? The young girl had a boyfriend who was very concerned about other young men seeing his girlfriend in a bathing suit. Certainly, this young lady was, and still is, beautiful. But it got me thinking.....he worried about people viewing her body, but what about hearing her laugh? Or witnessing her kind heart? Did that worry him? Or were those qualities irrelevant?

Now, I am no stranger to jealousy. I have spent many a moment dancing cheek to cheek with the green-eyed monster. So, I fully understand fearing that a loved one might be lured away. And, I am definitely well-acquainted with judging a book by its' cover. In my life, I have misjudged many an individual by their looks; either thinking there is more to them because they are attractive or thinking there is less because they may not be. But, listening to this girl speak of her boyfriend's fears really got to me. Why is it that we put so much stock in the one thing we have so little control over and the one thing that is so very temporary? From what I can tell, these bodies are much like cars....time does not increase their value.

This may seem weird, but sometimes when I see an especially lovely woman, I secretly wonder if she has better “equipment” than I do. Some women seem to be on a whole other plane of beauty and femininity; I can't believe we share the same mold. While some women's packaging is clearly more Lord and Taylor's, I suspect mine came from Walmart.....and the clearance aisle, at that. Early in my marriage, my father-in-law quoted a vulgar saying (unfit for Family Page) that comforts me in these self-loathing moments. Basically, the quote surmises that anatomically all women have the same parts. And, that makes me wonder......if we all are pretty much the same model, human forms that are either male or female, with limbs and hair and facial features....what sets us apart from each other? If every outer shell follows a similar pattern, why did my husband pick me over a more upgraded model? And, as time ticks by and our bodies shift and change, why are he and I still drawn to each other?

In pondering this, I realized that so much of our temporal world is based on …..just that, the temporary. On close analysis, it appears that what we value is rooted in our 5 senses...what we can hear, see, touch, smell and taste. Isn't that where our money goes? Our time? To things we can hold in our hand and put through physical tests? Don't we assess other people's success by what they own, their clothes, the size of their house, their paycheck? At the end of the day, is that how we weigh our loves?

It is amazing to me how much of our world is given to the outer us; how much time I worry about my hair and whether my clothes make me look fat. What if we took all the money we use to make our outer selves beautiful and used it to change our hearts? To study forgiveness? To cultivate generosity? To pay for the therapy that will make us love better? To develop that which is impossible to touch, but so essentially us?

I have loved my husband for 22 years now. And, I would be lying if I claimed that I only love the inside of him. So much of what I feel for him lies in my senses, his smell, the press of his body as we sleep, how much I love to look at him, to hear him laugh, to taste his kiss. I could even go on about his mind....the fine, inquiring way that he thinks. But, the thing that has captured me, the thing that sets him above all others is his heart, his pure, incorruptible heart. There is a line in an Eagles' song, Lying Eyes, that pulls at me, “On the other side of town a boy is waiting with fiery eyes and dreams no one could steal.” That is the boy I will meet in Heaven, the boy I chose so many years ago. No amount of time, no earthly, physical force can take that from me. That is forever.

Big Calf

There was a child crying one day. Actually, it wasn't really crying, it was more like wailing. My friends and I were standing nearby, trying to decide how to help. Out of his earshot, my friend quietly said, “I know what my mother would've said. She would've said, 'Oh quit your crying, you big calf.' Laugh? Boy, did we ever. And, we wished fervently that she were here so she could take care of things.

It got me to thinking about how I've changed as mother over the years. If that had happened 15 years ago, I would have been horrified. I would've wondered how anyone could be so cold, so unfeeling, so non-supportive. Now, I just wondered how soon I could use that phrase. So, I'd like to share with you some comparisons between new, righteous mom and old, tired mom...let's see where you fall.

Then: I treasured those moments (mostly) when my babies woke in the night. I looked at it as one more opportunity to spend some quality, one on one time together.

Now: The only time my children are brave enough to wake me is when they are sick. So, sometimes, if I know they are ill, I have to preface their bed-time with these heartfelt words, “Please come get me if you need me tonight, and I promise, I will try not to be mean to you.”

Then: I would become infuriated at my husband when he'd demand, “Why is there 'stuff' (edited for family page) everywhere?” I'd snap back, “They live here, too” and remind him that his table saw and golf greens' lawnmower were a little less appropriate to have in the living room than their toys and coloring books.

Now: I walk around the house picking up 'stuff' (again, edited for family page), muttering under my breath (or yelling), “Where does all this stuff come from? Do you people gather it at landfills, and dump it here in MY house?”

Then: When faced with conflict or decisions, I patiently(mostly)gathered input, carefully explained the outcome and reasons why, helped process feelings and comforted disappointed souls.

Now: Now, I find myself making grand announcements like, “Listen up, everyone. From now on, I don't want to hear what anyone thinks about anything. I want everyone to accept my final answer as final; I am no longer explaining anything. In addition, there will be no more expressions of negative feelings in this house. The only words that I want to hear are 'Yes, mother, you are always right', and “Thank you.”

Then: I carefully combed through each book bag, read each notice, admired each piece of artwork, noted every spelling test.

Now: I ask things like, “Do you have a book bag?” and “You are still in school, right?”

Then: If a child and I were in conflict, I would carefully prepare what I wanted to say to them, designing my words so they deftly explained my concerns with little damage to their psyche.

Now: We have conflict everyday, and I've actually come to enjoy it. There is no preparation, no thoughtful, psychologically-friendly statements. I find that leaning into the anger is far more satisfying.

Yes, I have changed over the years. I have become impatient, short-tempered and selfish. But just so my kids know, they are the joys of my life, they are my masterpieces, and I wouldn't trade one minute of one day with them, for anything. And, now, only I get to bawl like a big calf. Ha.

Being Cool

Like many of us, there was a time when I strove to be cool. I don't know that I even qualified what “cool” might be; but I certainly put a lot of energy into being “it”. I think my vision entailed being liked and admired by everyone, never having a hair out of place, never doing anything embarrassing, and always knowing the right thing to say. Over the years, not only has my vision of “cool” changed, but my desire to belong to that club has faded, and I really don't think it's just sour grapes.

When I was first married, my friends and I devised what we called a “cool committee”. The committee consisted of the three of us, and our job was to define “coolness” and to vote on who fit the definition, and who did not. After hours of consideration and discussion, we decided that a “cool” person is someone who 1) is attractive (not model gorgeous, but okay to look at), 2)has a strong moral code, but is not preachy, 3) is intelligent without being over-the-top brilliant 4) has a certain aloofness that inspires the “awe factor”, but who is not cold and finally, 5) has a certain charisma that makes their presence at parties a coup, and friendship with them, a victory. We then spent hours presenting celebrities, family members, friends, and the ordinary passerby for consideration of the coveted label. And, just to give you a taste of our results, Tom Hanks made it, Billy Joel did not (too moody and unpredictable).

As you might imagine, not too much time had passed when my friends and I inevitably turned the “cool” lens on ourselves and each other. While my friends had trouble meeting my eyes when we discussed my eligibility, and while they politely denied the obvious, I discovered that I was not, nor had I ever been, “cool”. It seems that #s 4 and 5 are my downfall. While I might have some small claim to charisma, my nervous desire to please blows any shot at the “awe” factor out of the water.

I don't know that I can impart to you the freedom that came with this revelation. As my friends tried to downplay the discovery, once faced and accepted, I wanted to celebrate. It was kind of like the liberation I found when I was pregnant. The expectation for style and good looks seemed much lower for pregnant me; hence, little pressure. With my new “uncool' identity, I no longer had to keep up the pretense of 'coolness'. I wasn't; and without a personality transplant, I never would be.

So, here I sit at my nerdy laptop, being very “uncool”and loving it. As I navigate my day, I know I might trip, I most likely will be unzipped at some point, I will stutter and spit for sure, and I could possibly sport a booger or two. But, it doesn't matter. The race was run, and I lost....miserably. While all those “cool” dudes and dudettes are clinging to their crowns, I have nothing to lose. I can just sit back and enjoy the trip.

A New Life


In a time of “Say Yes to the Dress” and “Bride Wars”, where expense and size are equated with value, I want to tell you about the wedding I attended last month. There were no limousines, no waiting staff. The only caterer was a volunteer, and the food and wine were made by the bride and groom and their family and friends. The dresses and jewelry did not cost thousands of dollars, but were painstakingly hand-made by the bride's mother and grandmother. The flowers were donated and arranged by the groom's mother. There were no beauty technicians....only the bride's mother and friends. The atmosphere was informal, joyful, and glitches were laughed off.

This was my stepdaughter's wedding. Her wedding to her best friend and faithful companion. And, while there were many moments that I could write about, moments of unselfish sharing and love, the moments that stand out for me are the ones that I learned from, that forced me to move beyond my own, teeny agenda, my own inconsequential worries and face the magnitude of the day, the magnitude of my love for this young woman, and the magnitude of a much greater love.

On the morning of the wedding, I was to bring my younger daughter to the bride's apartment to get ready. As I had our only vehicle, and my husband and sons were imprisoned at the hotel, I planned on dropping my daughter off at the building's door and hurrying back. However, my youngest daughter was nervous, and she asked me to walk her in. We entered the apartment and my stepdaughter stood in the middle of the kitchen. She had on shorts and a t-shirt, and her hair was wet and tangled. I asked her how she was doing, and she said, “Mary, I have a headache. Can you make me breakfast?” Well, I am ashamed to say that I almost refused. I didn't want to leave the men stranded at the hotel, and I felt torn. But, how do you refuse the bride? And, how do you refuse the bride who has asked you to do nothing else? So, I faked it and said, “Sure, what would you like?” My stepdaughter asked for her favorite item on my very limited menu, french toast. And, as I prepared her breakfast, it hit me. Like a hundred other times, I was making french toast for my stepdaughter. But, this time, I was making it on her wedding day. This was my small part. And, I could cherish this memory forever.

Later in the day, as my husband and the boys and I got ready for the wedding (and were rushing, of course), my phone rang. On the other end was my stepdaughter's unusually strained, stressed voice, “Mary, can you and daddy bring my step-dad's clothes to my apartment? He's been helping get everything ready, and he won't have time to go back to the hotel.” So, I told her “no.” I told her we couldn't possibly, that we weren't even ready yet.....Just kidding. I swallowed the lump of tension in my throat and told her we'd be over. And, we all jumped into our clothes, grabbed the step-dad's clothes, jumped in the van and hurried to her apartment. We screeched into a parking spot right across from her place, and lo and behold, she emerged. Just like in the movies, she came out of the door, all by herself, without attendants, a vision in white and jeweled-blue descending the steps for us alone. She was so beautiful. And, guess what? My husband teased her into riding with us.....and that is how we unexpectedly got to escort our fairy princess to her wedding.

I had gathered from different conversations with my stepdaughter that God would not be attending this wedding. While my stepdaughter and her now husband are respectful of my faith, and while I try not to push my belief on them (I said try, OK?), she was clear that this wedding would not be about God's blessing, only the state's. So, I was shocked when the “officiant” kept referring not only to God, but to Jesus. And, I was even more shocked when the “officiant” passionately talked about the holiness of marriage, and asked for God to bless this couple. After the ceremony, my brother clued me in that the original justice had been unable to attend, and this woman had been a stand-in.

And so, I of course had to tease my stepdaughter about the irony. But, in my heart, I knew what had happened. God, on his throne, could not have missed this day. He could not resist the sincerity, the devotion of this young couple. And, he needed to be there. He needed to put his hand on this special union, on this couple who know that people and family and experiences are what matter. And, so he had disguised his love. He had hidden it in a breakfast, in a wardrobe malfunction. He had come dressed as an African-American minister, who cried when she read the vows. The vows of a couple, who whether they know it or not, reflect his plan for love.

My Daughter

My 16 year old son came home the other day. He looked exhausted and completely drained. I asked him, with compassion, “How did it go?” His reply? With a grave face, he wearily shook his head and said, “You have no idea.” I sympathized completely; he'd taken his 13 year old sister for a “brief” shopping trip.

When we contemplate girls, the old saying “sugar and spice and everything nice” usually comes to mind. I think for most of us, we focus on the “sugar” and the “nice”. In my daughter's case, at least, one would be seriously mistaken to overlook the “spice”. Nestled among three boys, and with a sister 9 years older than herself, my daughter's place in the family has evolved (my oldest son says “morphed”) over time.

When I was pregnant with her, I consulted my doctor because she wasn't moving much. When she did move, the motion was strong and certain. But, the time between movements was far lengthier than I was used to. My doctor set me up on a monitor to make sure everything was OK; thankfully, test results were favorable. When she was born, and I could observe her outside my body, I discovered why the movements were so infrequent. Sleeping, she never moved. At all. She stayed in the same exact position for hours. But, when she did reach or grab or flail, her limbs were powerful.

As a toddler, she would often disappear on us. Our search would be frustrated by the fact that she made no noise, whatsoever. Inevitably, we would find her tucked into some shadow, some corner, completely still, with a knowing grin on her face. And as she learned to talk, her impact on our family intensified. I will never forget the time that she was trying to get my husband's attention. She sat in front of him, her tiny self curled at his feet. In her even tinier voice, she repeatedly said, “Daddy? Daddy? Daddy?” Finally, in a sweet, yet confident tone, she sternly called out my husband's first name. Startled, my husband looked down at her, torn between anger and awe; he replied, “Yes?”

My oldest son asked me the other day if I thought she might be a mutant of the former, fairy-like creature that once graced our home. My theory? In all her stillness, in all her latency, she has been gathering power. Slowly, remarkably, the forward momentum of her life force has snowballed until it, many times, overshadows the rest of us. While tiring, the good news is that the sugar has grown along with the spice. While she might declare, dictate and dominate, she does so with the most generous of hearts. As she takes, she also grants. Even in a fury, she is the first to help. She is the first to share what she has, whether it be treat or adventure; the offer springing from a joyful, energized place.

We have a picture of our daughter when she was about two. She stands astride a toy motorbike, dressed in a white, lace-trimmed nightgown. She has the sweetest smile on her beautiful face. Just a moment before I snapped her picture, she had summoned me, demanding that I move the motorcycle, as her nightgown was caught beneath it. For me, that image sums her up......gown-clad damsel, yes. In distress? Never. Hurtling forth on her trusty steed, ready to conquer her world.

A Day in The Life

I believe that mixed feelings are the hardest to manage....give me a strong hate or a straight repulsion any day. It's when

emotions become mish

moshy that I stumble.....when love is coupled with hate, need with shame, empathy with contempt.

In counseling kids, I find the murky situations the most haunting. I'm not saying that clear abuse is easy to handle but at least

the options are clear;

the feelings simpler. It is the family whose loyalties are ever-shifting, whose love is regularly mixed with fear and disappointment that I think is the most difficult.....all the more for the children. I think true despair lies in confusion...

Billy could hear the bus driver shifting gears as the bus headed down the hill toward his trailer. Billy still hadn't decided

whether he was going to brave Middle School today or not. He had woken up late and didn't have time to shower. Not that it mattered much. It was the end of the month, and there wasn't any soap

left. But, Billy usually washed-up with hot water. At least, there was hot water here. When they'd stayed in the village, the hot water tank hadn't worked and

there was only cold water to bathe in.

Billy looked down at his jeans. He'd done his best to wipe off the mud splatters last night but all he'd succeeded in doing was smearing the dirt around. Billy sighed. He could choose between these jeans or the ones the cat had peed on. If he went to school, he'd have to wear these. He

hoped his mom could get

Rick to take her to the laundromat today. She'd been begging him for a week.

I think for all of us, it's easier when the villains are clearly marked.......

Bathing in cold water had been the only downside to living in the village. They had moved there when Billy's mom finally got the courage to leave Rick. She had found an apartment that was within walking distance of everything they needed. There were

even coin-operated washer and dryer machines in the basement of their building. Billy could walk to school and he joined the soccer team. Billy's mother had looked for work when

they lived there; it was the last time Billy had seen her excited about anything. She had trudged to every store within miles, gathering applications, and bringing them home to have Billy and his 16 year old sister, Kayla, help her fill them out. She

faithfully returned each one, asking the kids to pray that she'd get hired.

Billy's mom journeyed back to each store,

week after week, checking to see if they needed her.

Isn't it comforting to think we know the answers? To tell ourselves that we are better, that we would never let ourselves get that desperate, that

beaten down....

Finally, one manager explained to her that without a telephone, without a reliable way to reach her, she probably wouldn't get hired. Billy's mom had stopped

job-hunting that day. It seemed to Billy that the fight just left her.

How we would find a way to provide for our children...

Billy thought that they would have stayed living in that apartment, but garbage pick-up wasn't included in the rent. His mother didn't have money to hire a garbage man and they didn't have a car to go to the dump. The garbage pile grew, and other

tenants started to complain about the smell. About the same time

that they received their eviction notice, someone turned the family in to Children Services and Billy's mom had called Rick.

How we'd never let anyone control us, walk all over us.....

So, here they were, again, out in the country and dependent on Rick for any kind of transportation. Billy's mom never talked about working, anymore. Billy

knew she didn't feel safe leaving Kayla and him alone with Rick, even if she could find a job. And, how would she get there?

Rick ranted on and on when he needed to bring them anywhere; he'd never bring her to work everyday.

I know kids who would live at school if they could, who would forgo school vacations to remain safe and fed and stable. And, I know kids who want nothing more than to stay in the safety of their home, away from the stress that comes from standing on the outer edge of a community . But, it's the kids who are torn between the two worlds, who find pain no matter which way they turn, who are faced with no haven....these are the children who break my heart....

Billy could hear the bus pulling up to the driveway. He started to put on his wet sneakers. They never seemed to dry from the slushy walk up and down his driveway. He knew they smelled and it would be worse after he had gym today. He wished his

mom could buy him some socks.

Children who are branded by the adults' choices......

Billy looked out the window at the bus waiting for him. If he went to school, at least there would be food and he wouldn't have to listen

to Rick swear about lazy kids all day long. Billy wished Kayla was coming, but she was having her “monthly” and there weren't any “feminine supplies” for her to use. When Kayla was

with him, Billy didn't mind the snotty comments about how cheap soap is and the whisperings about cat pee. But, today, Billy would have to face that by himself. The bus driver honked.

Who are not faced with decisions of good or bad, but only that which is more bearable.....


Anti-Race

From the very beginning, our children have loved anything video. I have a photo of our oldest son, barely one year old, holding an unplugged paddle as he reverently watches my husband play video games. He never tired of it and he would bring his favorite games over to my husband, tugging on him to play for him. Still fairly non-verbal, he could imitate each players' sounds and movements. When our second son was born, he joined in as spectator while his older brother

and father played the games together. He loved watching just like our oldest son had and, as he grew, we fully expected that

he'd start playing the games

himself. But every time he was offered the chance, he'd blush and shake his head in shy refusal.

It wasn't until I was on maternity leave with our last baby that I finally figured out his reluctance. Our oldest son had entered first grade by then, so I would

spend the day with the new baby and two toddlers, one of whom was our second son. Without his older brother and father home, our second son began

playing the video games on his own. But each night when our oldest son and my husband returned, he'd immediately turn the controls over to one of them.

We'd all try encouraging him to continue playing but he'd defer to the others saying, “That's OK; they do it better.”

Well, I finally put it together. He felt inferior and he wasn't going to put himself out there when he'd have to play in front of better players. My heart broke for

him. So, I took him aside and I explained to him that it didn't matter how well he played, it only mattered that he enjoyed playing. And I could tell that he really wanted to believe me, but his own feelings of failure would shut him down each time and he'd give up. In desperation, I told him the story of one of his relatives,

a female relative who had run track in high school, who never missed a practice and who always came in last, for every single race. Who kept practicing regardless. Now if this was a movie, she would eventually become a champion. But it's not a movie.

It's life. Which is sometimes even better. Because on one

of her last races, she came in second to last for the first time. And, do you know what happened? The crowd, comprised mostly of the runners' relatives who

had been to almost all of the races, began cheering as she gained on the last runner and over took her.....began cheering and clapping just for her. Not because she'd won, but because she'd stuck to it, because she'd never given up. And because she wasn't afraid of losing, only of not trying.

So, I told my son this story and I told him that we hadn't had him so he could be a clone of his older brother.....we'd had him because we needed him, just as he

is and for all the qualities that he alone brings to our family.

Why is that we hold people to the same standard? The same standard for achievement? For beauty? Why is thin the only way

to be gorgeous? Why is the

honor roll only obtained through high grades? Shouldn't there be an honor roll for someone who works really hard? Or who is consistently kind? Whose

measuring stick are we using, anyway? And, why are we measuring people at all?

You're probably wondering how it worked out for our son. I can't pretend that my answer was a cure-all. I'm sure there are still times when he feels insecure,

less than. But now in his fifteenth year on this beautiful planet, I think those feelings have become manageable. I believe for the most part he's able to remind

himself that life and love don't have to be a race. In fact, as he was arguing with his older brother a few years ago, my heart soared when I overheard him say, “You're not smarter than me. You're just different.”

It makes me think of the Henry Van Dyke quote, “Use what talents you possess for the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” I hope I can teach all of my children that....that being number one is only one of about

a billion things to be...that in order to hear everyone's song, our

world needs to slow....to treasure the prize that is essentially us, with no comparisons, no contest, just love; abiding, glorious love.

 

 

Girls

I feel that young women have changed a lot since I was one. They seem more fearless to me, less ashamed. They no longer obsess about an errant bra strap.

They wear clothes that accentuate their bodies instead of hiding them like back in the day. Whereas I had little knowledge of

what I looked like, these girls are unabashedly aware of themselves. They can accurately and objectively name their physical virtues as well as their flaws. They are also more comfortable with bodily functions. They publicly talk about peeing and, instead of nearly fainting from “the vapors”, they openly “cut the cheese” like their male counterparts.

I'm sure anyone could argue this apparent “progress” either way. Someone more conservative might say that this female generation has lost respect for

themselves, that they have no boundaries. As a general rule, I don't agree. While I certainly don't support girls “letting it all hang out” for everyone to see, I also would not want them to revert to the days of self-hatred and one-size-fits-all. One of the advantages, I believe, of this generation is that girls of all sizes see themselves as worthy of attraction. I feel that they have a broader appreciation for individual and diverse beauty.

But what has remained constant, I find, is the burgeoning sense of power a young female feels as she discovers the effect she has on the opposite sex. As young girls explore romance and dating, I think the fact that boys/men are physically attracted to them can be quite confusing. Very often, I have young women come

to me wondering why, if a boy wanted to kiss them, does he not want to date them? Like many of us did/do, they spend energy and time believing that physical contact equals interest. And sometimes, they interpret the physical contact as confirmation

that they are beautiful and desirable, maybe even more so than other women simply because a boy/man desires them. They make

the serious mistake of accepting sexual attraction and/or sexual activity as a symbol of their worth,

as a statement of their importance and identity.

When I talk to these young ladies, I flashback to my youth. I want to be able to share what I have learned with my much younger self, to save myself all that

time and misdirection and energy and skip right to the truth, to where I am now. But what would I say? How would I break through my younger self's

ignorance? I guess I would start by saying how easy it is to garner sexual interest. I would tell her/me that anyone can elicit attraction. It's an inbred hunger.

That's not the tough part. The tough part comes after. The tough part isn't capturing a man's attention, it's keeping it. The real measure is something so simple,

it's easy to miss....it's merely the whole picture. It's the picture of a man who is curious, not just about your body, but about

your heart and mind and soul. It's the picture of a man who continues to want to know you, who can't forget you, for the rest of his life. It's the picture of a man who, in the midst of fights and celebrations and bad breath and laughing and babies and hard days, still wants to lay beside you each night, still finds home in your bed.

And it's the same for a man. Throughout our marriage, there has been many a time that my husband has been flirted with or complimented or hit on. And when

he gets full of himself over that, I remind him that I have always felt that way about him. I have always thought he was yummy

and worth it and what I wanted, everyday, at his best and at his worst, every moment. Now, that is something.

So, girls. Kissing is the easy part. But it's the kissing after a thousand days of love and hate and silences and soul-baring that make it real. It's the years of

moments strung together, moments of him still trying to impress you, trying to please you.....cleaning up when he knows you can't do one more thing, planting a secret garden that you've always wanted, supporting you when he knows your scared to death, showing up where he doesn't want to be just for you, renting a limousine because he knows you've never been in one......that's something to be proud of.

 

 

Remembrance

Sometimes I feel that all of my different jobs, all of my different roles have merged into the singular mission of Self- Appointed PR Agent for kids. Now no child has ever asked me to do this, so maybe they’d rather I just hush. But having lived among the natives, it feels wasteful to hoard all that inside information. So until they officially ask me to step down, I will try to be a worthy ambassador…endeavoring to be a voice for kids, hoping to influence foreign policy.

On that note, I would like to speak today about what kids want……not like “iPod-want”, but down-deep, in the core of their soul, want. I think most of us

would agree that the basics of food, shelter, clothing, safety and love must come first. But beyond that, what? What are our kids seeking? What needs can we meet that are true and dark and deep, that are hiding beneath the surface of asking for things?

When our babies were small, I can remember the amount of energy and effort we exerted trying to translate baby talk. We, my husband, relatives, babysitters, even strangers, would try again and again to discern what “phpppt” might mean in relation to the world. And, each baby would patiently and calmly repeat the same word over and over until we finally gleaned what they were trying to tell us.

I will never forget a day in July of 2005. Our youngest son, who was 5 at the time, stood in Wal-Mart, surrounded by myself, his siblings, my mother and

two clerks. With his then-lisping speech, he tried to tell us about a CD he wanted to buy. We thought he kept saying that the featured song was “Glide”. He

even acted-out the picture on the CD cover to help us narrow it down. He'd put his arms behind his head and say, “He's lying in grass like this.” The clerks

were kind as they helped us search each CD, looking for the word “Glide” or the guy with his arms behind his head. While I believe most adults would have

been frustrated at the many failed communication attempts, our son was thrilled to have so many people taking him seriously, taking his interest seriously. The clerks even opened a couple of CD's so he could sample songs we thought might be the one. Finally, someone (probably a sibling) realized that our youngest

was saying “Collide” and we were able to locate the right CD. To this day, I love that song. It brings back the image of that small, unwavering boy surrounded

by baffled, devoted adults.

At what age does that process dry up? At what age do we stop trying to translate children's thoughts and feelings into something we can understand? Do they

shut us out? Or do we shut them down? I know that the teenagers I have counseled don't care if their parents agree with them. They don't even care if their parents let them do what they are asking permission to do. They just want to be heard. They just want someone to take the time to dig through their surliness

and sarcasm and nonchalance to get to what they are really saying. Even to try and fail. Not much of a change from those mysterious babies.

When our second son was in third grade, he was best friends with a thin, frail girl. Every day as I packed his book bag, he would ask me to put in an extra sweater because his friend got cold in the cafeteria. He'd ask me to pack snacks in his lunch just for her. And at the end of the year, she ran up to me, crying, because she was moving and she wouldn't be back. She handed me a folded note and in it she'd written, “Please don't forget me.” To this day, I treasure that crumpled, pain-laden piece of paper. Somehow throwing it away would betray her.

To be remembered. How important is that in the life of each child? I had a young lady recently tell me that her third grade teacher always greets her by

name, even though she is now out of school. She can’t believe the teacher still remembers her. When I told her former teacher this, the teacher's eyes filled with tears. Who could know that something so small could mean so much?

Years ago, I left a satellite position in my kid’s school to go back to the central agency. Even though it was my choice, I was heartbroken. Besides being near

my own children, I had worked with many other students for 6 ½ years and I knew I would miss them terribly. I left and the world kept turning, the school kept functioning, kids kept learning and life moved on. Walking through those same halls to drop my kids off at their classrooms, I felt like an awkward guest. It

seemed that my time there had been erased, like I had mattered to no one. Until one day. I was standing at my son's locker and next to us was a young girl from his class. She wasn't one for social pleasantries or even smiling. I never thought I had mattered to her and I was floored when she turned and glared at me, slammed her locker and muttered, “Why'd you have to leave?” At some point in my work, I had made her feel heard, I had made her feel memorable, and on

this day, she returned the favor.

 

 

Respect

As a parent, there have been many times when I have been flummoxed.... times that I had no idea what to do or where to turn. And, certainly, I am never as

much at a loss as when I am fighting with my kids. But, not too long ago, I identified an arguing style that stumped me not just as a mom but as a human.

A few years back, I noticed a pattern in the way two of my children fought with me. When I would approach them with something that I believed they had done wrong, they would turn the tables. In a brilliant quid pro quo move, they would list all of their grievances against me, including, but not limited to, the way that I was currently correcting them. It took me awhile to discern this pattern and it took me even longer to put my finger on why it was not OK. After all, I am sure

they had valid points…..who knows my flaws better than my kids?

But, then I got to thinking about it. If a trooper stops me for speeding, I don’t usually take that opportunity to tell him that I don’t like his tone much. And, when my boss corrects me for being late, I don’t find it the proper venue to tell him that his game is off in a certain area. Why was I letting my kids do it?

So, we had a small meeting. And, I told them that while I certainly treasure these nuggets of truth, I felt they needed to wait to share when they were no longer in trouble I informed them that it seemed a little fishy that every time they did something wrong, I ended up on trial. I reminded them of what their father says, that

the measure of a man is how he handles his mistakes….admitting them, taking responsibility for them, making amends for them.

And, that took care of that….really. My children still find fault with me and they still delight in shining a spotlight on my defects, but they have stopped using my weaknesses as a defense strategy. Which leads me to a bigger question….how often do we as humans deflect ownership in just this way? How often do we

turn the situation into an examination of the accuser instead of our own heart? Or excuse our actions because we are stressed? How common is it to search for someone who has done something worse, as some twisted justification for what we have done?

Since this realization, I feel that my perspective on relationships and wrongdoing has matured. Whether I am counseling a child, dealing with my own children or wrestling with personal demons, I try to ask one question first, ‘Did you do something wrong?’ No excuses, no minimization….'Were you at fault in any way?' Because in the end, we only have control over what we bring to this earth, what we contribute. We may be hurt by something someone said, we might be devastated by abuse we’ve suffered and, while that is sad and worthy of honor, it does not give us the right to do wrong. Isn’t there always a reason to drink, to hit, to cheat and to wound? How broadly do we really want to define self-defense?

Listen, this world is not a fair place. We are not a fair people. But aren’t we obligated to maintain a standard for what is right? Don’t we have to avoid a tit for

tat world? Otherwise, we could end up like the married couple in Urban Cowboy who keep upping the ante of hurt until they each have affairs (affairs they

clearly don’t want) just to win the battle of who inflicts the most harm.

I find it upsetting when people, especially adults, say, “If you respect me, I will respect you.” How do we judge who deserves respect? And, where will that

start, or end? At a dirty look? A verbal slur? A crime? Is that how we want our world to turn? I will be nice to you only if you are nice to me? Can you picture

the chaos and the pain? Even our legal system does not allow me to steal because I have been stolen from or a rapist to rape because he or she has been molested. Can't we address the behavior without destroying the human, either in word or deed? Can’t we protect our society without perpetuating abuse?

What would it be like if we just decided to respect, regardless of how we were treated or of who we were facing? What if we held people’s feet to the fire but

still spoke to them as if they mattered? If we modeled standing strong without becoming the bully? What kind of world would it be if we all, without exception,

laid down our defenses, our excuses and our pride and strove to treat everyone as if they were valuable, precious beings? Imagine.

 

 

Grooms

I was not a summer bride. I was a muddy, chilly, long-sleeved spring bride. However, we all know that summer is the season for weddings and newly-married bliss, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to address the male half of these unions. Using a female's perspective, I'd like to talk with you, for a moment, about what not to say. I'd like to share some tips that might help you avoid turning your blushing bride into a red-faced, seething, often silent,volcano.

First of all, I would like you to know that my husband has said some very beautiful things in our courtship and ensuing marriage. He has told me that I have the sweetest expression in my eyes, that marrying anyone after me would be anti-climactic and, when faced with images of hot, young bodes, he has turned to me

and whispered, “I'm more into the mature type these days.” Good stuff. But, in the many years that we have lived as one, he has also fumbled, nee dropped, the ball on many occasions. As he is my only reference for husbands, I am forced to use him as an example (darn).

On one of our first dates, my husband introduced me to his then one year old daughter. As we were driving away, discussing how cute and advanced she was,

he turned to me and said, “I hope she's not gorgeous. I hope she's just pretty, like you.” And, just recently, I overheard him bragging to our sons, 'You should have seen your mom when she was young; she was really cute.' Gentlemen, I think they call that damning with faint praise, or prior praise or something. Avoid it.

When you are dealing with attractive women in your proximity and the green-eyed monster rears its' ugly head, it is imperative that you not defend yourself

with statements like, “Oh, she would never be into me.” Or, “She's got a boyfriend/is married.” We don't want to think that we got you by default. We want

to believe that, presented with the choice of any female in this world, you would choose us. We want to believe that we are your own personal Helen of

Troy, your Juliette, or more currently, your Bella.

OK, now we will move onto the pregnancy issue. As seen on TV, this is a complicated maze fraught with pitfalls. Please, try and keep your wits about you.....if you ever have to follow a comment with, 'but you're pregnant', know that you are sunk. Acknowledge that when you comment that a female golfer's legs are '

even bigger than yours', you might have some sucking up to do. What floors me about this last remark isn't really the content so much as my husband's insistence (to this day) that it was a perfectly fine thing to say, 'because you were pregnant'. Silly, silly man.

While we are on the subject of pregnancy, it's OK to state your preferences about the baby, like how tall you want him/her to be, what desirable features

and/or talents he/she might inherit from you. But when you declare that you 'hope the baby has blue eyes or green eyes, really any color except that plain

brown', you might want to make sure that your brown-eyed wife is somewhere out of earshot.

My cousin and I both began married lives around the same time. Over the years, we have had about a bazillion conversations concerning our respective

husbands and their foibles; most of those conversations have involved a lot of head-shaking and helpless laughter. One of the funniest (and most true)

observations she has shared with me was a comment her husband made after they had fought. When the active arguing was done, he turned to her and,with

utmost sincerity, said, “You know, if anything ever happened to you, I wouldn't marry again.” My cousin looked at me with her dead-pan face and said, “I know he didn't mean that in a good way.”