Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Where We Got the Bowls

                Way back when Sam was still a diaper wearing person who toddled more than walked, he was a quiet kid. Then he stopped toddling and picked up a big boy gait, and we realized he was still quiet. Too quiet. One intense evaluation by a speech therapist later and we had our confirmation.  Sam had serious speech delays.

                I should have seen it coming. We were very familiar with speech therapists already. His older brother has a metabolic disorder that left in its wake a pretty nasty case of low muscle tone.  Having weak muscles in your jaw, lips and tongue make it difficult  to form words correctly. We spent years hanging out in the speech therapist's office, working on strengthening the muscles around his mouth.

                By the time Sam was born his big brother was speaking well and on the fast track to normal speech.

                I assumed I knew what to look for in Sam's speech development, since his brother's  speech therapist had become one of my best friends in Missouri. (We did spend a lot of time together, more than I spent with any 'regular' friends and we were both passionate about my sweet boy. There's nothing more bonding than someone loving your kid almost as much as you do)

                So when we made the big move to D.C. and Sam continued to be an easy going toddler, I was not concerned. I was watching for 'mushy speech' and I was not hearing it. I was watching for mispronounced words and I was not hearing any.

                That was the problem. I wasn't hearing anything. My baby was mute. Not exactly mute. He made sounds. But nothing close to language.

                It was when he had passed his second birthday and I realized he had never said the word 'NO!" that I became alarmed. What two year old (or eighteen month old, for that matter?) has not pounded his fist on the highchair tray and yelled NO! in the middle of dinner?

                I should have noticed it earlier. But I was watching for zebras, and antelopes showed up. Plus we had just packed up our four young children, all born in Missouri, and moved them from the only city they had ever lived in, plunking them down in the middle of the metropolis of Washington D.C. (just months after 9/11, mind you.)

                There was a lot of unpacking and signing up for schools, and figuring out the metro lines stuff going on. The fact that Sam was quiet was not noticed because he was...well...quiet. The squeaky wheel thing and all that.

                So suddenly I noticed and found the box with the address book in it so I could call best friend speech therapist back in Missouri. She confirmed my concerns and advised I get on the case immediately.

                Thus began Sam's journey with speech therapists. But this time we were not working on blowing bubbles and cotton balls to get stronger lips. We were working on finding sounds to make into words.

                We had been doing baby signs with him and they became his life saver. He could express, through basic signs, what he wanted. I was introduced to the amazing Signing Time videos. They helped our whole family, including grandparents, understand how to communicate with our youngest child.

                But part of the problem with having no speech as a one, then two, then three year old, is not being able to express how you feel. He didn't bombard me with constant questions through the grocery store, like his siblings had done. There was no discussing his favorite desires for Christmas that year. He didn't have the opportunity to question how the sky was made or why fruit loops don’t grow on trees. The basic needs were communicated but I missed knowing what my boy was thinking.

                Then one day, after months and months of speech therapy, the language started to come. Slowly, slowly we built up words into sentences and Sam started to realize he could talk. He could ask questions and state his feelings. And it was fun to see what he had been carrying around inside that head all those quiet months.

                One of my favorite moments came when he had become a  tall, confident three-year-old. He sidled up to the counter and asked for a bowl of breakfast cereal. "Me want cee-yal, mama".

                And as I poured out the frosted flakes and slopped on the milk my sweet boy looked up to me and said, oh so seriously, "Where we get dees bowls, mama?"

                All those months of silence and my boy had been wondering where I'd gotten the bowls.

                It makes me wonder what else he had been wondering, that he never got to ask.

                I met with his school speech therapist today and he is right on track. He will still receive services through the summer and then into second grade, but most people who meet him would never know he ever struggled with finding language. We feel blessed to have been able to shower him with the best specialists in every city we've lived in.

                Sometimes I think back to Sam's preschool days and wonder what treasures we missed. Sam is a very creative kid and I wonder what questions he had about the world around him that he could never ask because language was foreign to him. What magical profound thoughts circled through his preschooler brain and had no way of getting out? I will never know the answers to these questions but I am thankful anyway. So thankful that he finally did master our language and is able to fit right in to his second-grade class today. Thankful that he had great teachers along the way who brought out the best in him.

And also thankful that he made peace finally, with where we got the bowls.

Changing in the Years

In two weeks I will fill my Jeep with a few of my young adult children and we will drive to Texas for a wedding and a reunion. The bride is my niece, and the reunion was an obvious extension of her well-planned nuptials. Of course there have been the usual preparations for this trip. The haircuts, the shopping for appropriate clothes, the formalities of getting off work. But I've been doing unexpected mental preparations too.

As the weeks have flown by I've found myself thinking a lot about who I am. Who I am in relation to these people, these 4 siblings I will go spend time with and make new memories with. 

We all live in different states now. We are all in our late 40s and early 50s. We've become the adults we are going to be. We've made life choices and landed in the place life has designed for us. We are no longer 'young', with a landscape of years ahead of us to navigate. The people we were when we last shared a house together, and bedrooms in common, is on a far off horizon.

We grew up in a foster home. As in, our parents were foster parents. I mention this because, as is true with many decisions your parents make, this fact changed us as we navigated those waters. It changed us as a family, and it changed us as individuals. Sharing our home, and our parents, made us see life a bit differently than our peers who went home to regular families. I can't speak for my siblings, but after years of pondering, I know how that heritage affected me.

Another fact of our childhood is that we grew up in the Baptist church. As in, we were always in church - Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. Then youth group activities as they appeared throughout the week. Some of us (raising my hand) clung tightly to those teachings and some of us strayed a bit in our teen and college years, before circling back. But it shaped us, nonetheless.

College years hit and we scattered. The foster siblings were long gone. Mom and Dad were figuring out how to do the empty nest thing on a large scale, and how to save their strained marriage. Each of us picked a path that fit who we were, whether that be college close to home, college far away, or a short stint in the military.

In the early 1990s, we gathered when we could. We felt a common bond, having survived growing up in an unusual household dynamic. We liked beginning to know each other as grown-ups, with all the childhood baggage left behind. We still tended to follow birth order rules but it was generally comforting to see each other making our way in the world of adulthood.

We lost our mom in the middle of that decade. Way too early. It changed the balance. The hub of the wheel was gone. We scrambled to figure out who we were as a family without her. Dad worked hard to keep us connected, but the equilibrium of our unit was off kilter for a while. He remarried, with blessings from all of us, and things settled into a new normal. A less connected normal.

Decades passed too quickly. Those toddlers in the home movies graduated from elementary school and then suddenly were of driving age. We had all found paths in different directions and lives in different states. Phone calls were made from land lines until texting arrived to help us stay connected. But with the chaos of life with older kids and the complication of some major health issues in my own family, I was suddenly only seeing my siblings every few years, calling occasionally in between.

We all knew we loved and respected each other. Even if reality said we really didn't know each other that well anymore. I like to think my nieces and nephews know Aunt Judy loves them and thinks of them often, but there are no backyard barbecues to prove that anymore. I had to come to peace with the fact that I don't know how many times they've had a broken arm, or who they consider their best friend. Facebook helps, but it's not a substitute for really knowing a young person.

The past ten years I've changed a lot. Who I am, who I have become, what I believe in, have all been refined. 

I hit my early forties and realized I needed to start being true to myself. I re-thought some of the beliefs I'd held for much of my life. I mixed in the memories of the suffering I saw and heard about from foster siblings. I weighed the life stories of many people I've met in adulthood, who struggled in their own ways. Many of my childhood beliefs didn't line up anymore.

I purged some, and re-established others. I really took the time to ponder every belief I held and weigh it carefully before I added it back into the pile. My beliefs were no longer sprouted from ideals, but from real life experiences with real life citizens of the earth.

I stopped being the quiet one who just agreed so I wouldn't be forced to disagree. After feeling very pigeon-holed in high school I deliberately went to college three hours away and found my voice. I started to become the more outgoing person I had always wanted to be. I married my best friend and, with his encouragement, I have, year after year, found my stride. I've taken chances and pursued opportunities. I've chipped away at that old me, the one who silently grew up behind two older sisters with strong personalities and perfect Farrah Fawcett hair.

The hard part has been how many of those beliefs no longer line up with the beliefs I had as a 20 something.  Or with the beliefs of some of my family members. We all came from the same pot. But we all grew into individual beings. 

Formed from our adult life experiences, that were continually mixed with our childhood teachings, and sprinkled with our adult interactions.

I'm perfectly okay that all five of us might now have distinctly different beliefs. In fact, I cherish it. 

I can only hope that my siblings have also examined their lives and become the people they truly want to be. It will make them the most at peace with their future and the most content in their everyday lives. As we are all considering what an empty nest looks and feels like, knowing who we are inside is the first step in understanding where we should wander next.

I look forward to being in the same room as my Dad, stepmom, and 4 siblings. The joking and camaraderie come easily. We were purposefully raised to be kind and respectful. We practice those skills on each other. I think we all appreciate the fact that being together is so rare that it's not useful to spend our time disagreeing about things. Having lost our mother so early we are very in tune with how fragile and unpredictable life can be. It's important to make every memory count.

But I go to this reunion, and this well anticipated gathering feeling a bit fragile. I fear that I will be pigeon holed right back into that shy, quiet fifteen-year-old my siblings knew so long ago. Or that not yet refined 25 year old I see in the old home movies. 

As siblings we had our balance, and it's easy to go back there. Oldest one in charge. Youngest one still thought of as the baby, even if he'll soon be leaving his forties. But I'm ready to be seen as me. The almost 50 year old me. The one I've worked hard to become.

Until then, every sad song will bring tears, touching a nostalgic place deep inside me, as I anticipate finally spending time with my core family. My mom's presence will be felt and maybe acknowledged a few times, bringing mist to our eyes. We will all be thinking of how she would have loved seeing how well we've all turned out. She had some amazing grandchildren she never got to see.

But we'll all walk into the room with happy hearts in two weeks. My oldest sister might be a bit more exhausted than the rest of us, as she's spent a very long time getting ready for this magical wedding that will take place for her oldest daughter. But we'll all be happy to be there.

We'll spend an afternoon making an old traditional Polish dish our Grandma Johnson raised our dad on, and we'll rejoice when it turns out pretty close to the way she used to make it. Cousins will mingle and play games, being reminded that they are related to some pretty cool people. And my Dad will take it all in with a full heart.

Vows will be traded, toasts will be given, and a new member will be added to our large family. Then we'll all make our way back home. Back home to be the people we've been working so many decades to become.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

At the End of a Stack of Home Movies

I've been leading a double life lately. Most of the time I go about the regular business that makes up my world these days. On Mondays, I watch a friend's baby for a few hours. On Tuesdays, I write. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, you'll find me at the Rec Center, greeting people who come through the doors. On Fridays, I get the house and pantry in order so we can spend the weekend playing. 

But ever since a couple of small brown boxes showed up on my doorstep about two weeks ago, there have been stretches of time that I've been transported back a couple of decades. 

About six months ago I caught a great Groupon offer for transferring old media to DVD. I have moved tubs of Super 8 movie cassettes from house to house through the years and it's been on my perpetual list to get them changed over to a format I could actually look at. Most of the home movies we filmed between 1992 and 2004 have never been looked at. In 2004 we bought our first digital camera and started taking home movies on that. So the Super8 cassettes (and movie camera) just sat in tubs. 

The coupon was just the kick I needed to get that project moving. I separated my 80 movie cassettes into two boxes, so if by chance the company lost or ruined a batch, it would only be half of my collection. A few months later they showed back up at my house, along with 40 DVDs, full of their contents. 

I went through all of the footage for several reasons. One was because I really didn't remember what we had taped as the kids grew up. I didn't know what would be on those tapes, beyond the vague labels like 'Christmas 2000'. 

Another reason - I've thought about my mom a lot lately, as my nest is emptying, and I am nearing the age she was when she died. I wondered how much footage I had, or didn't have, of her. I have pictures I show my children, of a grandma they really missed out on knowing. But having them see her moving around, hearing her voice cooing at my older two when they were babies (the only time she got with my children) would help them know her in a new way. I've walked around all these years hoping, but not really knowing, that I actually had caught some of her on video. 

And of course, there is the nostalgia that comes with having kids who are almost grown. The thinking back to when they were little, and the house was chaotic in a different way. The wondering where the years went. The wanting to see a glimpse into that world, and be reminded that the days indeed were long, even if the years were short.

What I actually found on those 40 DVDs (most of them 30 min long, to put things in perspective) was not what I had imagined. 

The overwhelming feeling I had, as I chipped away at them, an hour here and an hour there, was that I really loved being their mom. I loved being home with them. As much as we scrimped and saved so that I didn't have to go back to work when they were little, it was all worth it. Our world was calm and mostly full of fun.

We spent a lot of time dancing to music, whether it be the Jungle Book soundtrack, or the Elephant Show on television. Barney was a big part of our life, as I'd remembered, but there was so little time spent in front of a television. Computers were new and fairly crude, so having 'kids electronics' meant having a play keyboard or a junior version of a CD player. 

There was a lot of time spent outside, just hanging around the swingset. Chasing bees in the grass. Pouring water through a pool toy that made wheels spin around, over and over and over. Balancing thin sticks between the rings on the swingset so they could karate chop them down. 

As much as Daddy traveled in his job as an archaeologist, he spent a lot of time with them. I have great language samples from them, at several ages, as they shared with him their latest thoughts, connected to him through a land line that connected our phone to another land line in a hotel near his latest dig. There was no face time or texts. It was just a line of little people, waiting for their turn to talk to daddy before it was time for baths and bed. 

The times he was home there was wrestling on the living room floor (three of our four are boys). Pitching baseballs and kickballs toward them as they lined up behind a cardboard home plate with a handful of neighbor kids, using our perfectly spaced trees as bases. There were chores like mowing the grass and shoveling the driveway, made more fun (and less productive) by a few little helpers with plastic replicas of his tools. 

I loved it all. I loved seeing them wearing clothes I sewed for them, my hobby for several years, as they napped and I did something just for me. I loved the simple things we celebrated, like baby brother's six-month birthday, mainly because Daddy had brought home chocolate cupcakes he'd found on sale and it coincided with someone's half birthday. I loved the secrets they thought they were whispering to me 'behind the camera' as I taped their siblings. 

"Mama, when will it be my turn?"

I loved how they loved each other.Sure,  I remember the fights they had, and the times they didn't get along, but what I see a lot in that footage is four kids who genuinely liked being together. A big sister who couldn't walk past her baby brother without touching his head and usually leaning down to kiss it. A big brother who didn't have to be asked, and rushed to a little brother's aid just because he noticed him struggling. They way they danced together, played together, shared plastic tools while Daddy fixed something. I loved every second of it.
And I can't forget the way it made me feel about my spouse, watching those memories from so long ago. To remember how much I loved being home with our kids reminded me how hard he worked to make that happen. Before we even married, we agreed that we'd both be committed to the same life priorities when it came to our kids. Even when it was hard, he never flinched. He worked hard all day, all week, then came home and consciously gave me a break, fully understanding how tiresome the 24/7-ness of being a stay at home mom can be.
Seeing how expertly he did his part in being involved in our kids' lives reminds me how lucky I am, and always have been. It's easy to be annoyed at a spouse who you've been attached to for over a quarter century. Some of the old annoying habits can creep up on you. But after watching this footage, I can't ignore all of his great qualities. It makes me want to call each of my kids and remind them how important picking the right spouse can be. 

I love the variety of houses and experiences we captured on those tapes. They begin in the early 1990s, when our oldest two were babies and we lived in a tiny one bedroom duplex while Daddy was in grad school. There are long stretches of a six-month propped in a walker and his 18-month-old big sister pushing her plastic baby stroller around the cracked driveway. We were just hanging out together, with nothing but time, waiting for Daddy to come home so we could all squeal our welcome. 

Then there were years in several houses in Jefferson City, when Daddy worked for the MO Highway Department. A couple of little houses within walking distance to his work (so we could have our one vehicle during the day to run errands). And a cute barn shaped house that was perfect for that stage of our life, where so many great memories were made. 

I have great footage of my Dad's house, before and after we lost my Mom. Running around his big backyard in the country and watching toddlers dancing to music in his living room, on the shag rug carpeting from my childhood. 

Then come the shots of the move to DC, when Daddy got his job with the Federal Highway Department. We spent a lot of time visiting the City on weekends, but all of our home movies in that year are of the time we spent in the little rental house we shouldn't have found, but lucked into. The games in the woods behind the house. The days and days of snow play when the area was hit with a record snowstorm that gave us 10 days in a row of snow days. 

Grandparents and friends who came to visit us show up on those tapes. Dancing around the living room with great friends from New Hampshire, and opening presents at Christmas with Daddy's parents. These are all such solid reminders of how loved we are. So perfectly and completely loved. No matter where we lived. 

I actually have footage of the kids and Daddy unloading one of our two minivans, as we moved into our great big Utah house, finally able to settle down for a few years. My seven year old asking where to put the boxes he's carrying in from the garage, and I say, "Mommy and Daddy's room", and he says, "Where's that?" 

A stark reminder that there was a day that the Utah house was new and the lifetime of experiences we collected there had not happened. 

Then, a few months later, some footage that surprised me. In the weeks after my amputation surgery, I spent a lot of time in bed, healing. Daddy, and grandparents, helped out with kids. Then I was up on crutches, hopping through the day's chores. But while I was spending those long weeks in bed, I had entertainment. 

I remember playing a lot of board games in those weeks. I remember finally putting together their baby books. And I remember reading lots of picture books to them. But what I did not remember were the impromptu shows that were put on at the end of my king sized bed. At one point you can even see the tip of my wrapped stump in the foreground, as I taped my newly 3-year-old dancing and playing his toy guitar. There are almost two DVDS full of the shenanigans that went on in our master bedroom, while I waited for a leg stump to heal. These shots alone made me glad I'd made the time to dive into the footage.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, there was ample footage of my mom. And it didn't make me sob, as I had assumed it would. 

The first clips I found surprised me because as much as I thought I'd never forget her voice, it was different than I remembered. In fact, she sounded exactly like me. My 15-year-old 'baby' walked through the room when her voice was on the audio of the footage I was watching. He didn't believe me, that it was my mom. He agreed I sound exactly like her. Which kind of makes up for the fact her voice was not how I had locked it into my memory. Instead, I carry it around with me. 

I have scenes where she's holding my two oldest, as newborns. She is cooing over them and fussing over them, exactly as I'd remembered. And there is a lot of audio of her voice,of her stories and comments. We didn't have a clue that she'd be gone soon, so no one made the effort to make sure we were taping her. Our goal was to tape the babies. But in the background, you can hear her. The way she talked and the way she thought is as important to me as the visual.

It's burned into my memory that she died at age 50. It seemed so young then, and seems even younger now that I'm almost there myself. I remembered celebrating her 50th birthday, and the way she didnt want that number to make her feel old. But until this week I didn't realize I had actual video footage of that party. 

I have her saying, to her children and grandchildren gathered around the table, that she is thankful to still be country dancing, and thankful to have healthy kids and grandkids. Even when she's handed the traditional black balloons, the smile shows on her face and in her voice. At one point my baby Michael sits on her lap. It's a shot I assumed we'd treasure in years to come because of how quickly Michael had grown. Not because it was one of the last videos taken of her before she was gone.

But instead of being overwhelmed with saddness, as I'd feared for so long, I was once again overcome with thankfulness. 

She was a huge influence in my life. She made her mark on so many lives. There is no doubt I miss her, every day. But life has gone on. And my goal now is that these kids she didnt get to see grow up know her a little bit better. The still pictures were not enough. Now I have video and audio to share with them. They know about this woman who made me who I am, as a mom to them. These home movies help save her memory, as only home movies can. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

A Letter to Payton Manning from a Local Seahawks Fan

Almost 20 years ago I stumbled upon a book in my local library about a football player and his football dynasty family. I was raising a house full of young children at the time and  found myself stealing away to read just one more chapter about this football player who stood for everything I believed in.

I already loved football. I'd followed a team called the Seahawks since I was a teenager. My mom had been a Cowboys fan who lived in Missouri so I figured you got to choose the team you'd love for a lifetime. The Seahawks were new and had cool uniforms so I picked them to be my lifetime team. 

It didn't matter that I'd never even been to the Pacific Northwest.

I followed them, decade after decade, and stayed loyal in spite of their usual losing record, because that's what it means to be a fan.

Then along came this library book about a football player who played for the Colts. I loved everything about his story. From the day I returned that book to the library, the Colts were always my second favorite team. Because of you, Mr. Manning.

Our kids continued to grow. We moved around the country with my husband's job. The Seahawks were always my first team but I always sought out the Colts game so I could watch you play.

For a handful of years we lived in Upstate NY, right down the road from the Giants training camp. It was fun to go watch camp every year, and cheer for your little brother. I became a brief Giants fan, mainly because there was a Manning on the roster.

Then we found out we were moving to Colorado. The land of the Broncos. The team I spent a lifetime disliking, because they were always the ones who managed to beat my Hawks on a regular basis. It would be the first move where I truly couldn't support the home team.

As we were packing up the New York house, the news broke. You were moving to Colorado too. It was enough to tear at my loyalties. I ended up believing the Broncos signed you on solely for me, so that I could somewhat tolerate living in the land of that Orange team.

A few years later we had that Super Bowl. It was a roller coaster season for me. As your Broncos advanced, so did my Hawks. My 12th man spirit rose up and took over. I wore my Blue and Green jersey (and Seahawks prosthetic leg) with pride, because I finally had a team that people feared. After 30 years of barely breaking even, we were finally, finally great. 

And in a twist of fate, we were up against that Orange team that all my neighbors cheered for.

It turned out in my favor, but made my life more difficult. I became the enemy to the Orange neighbors around me. I rejoiced with abandon, but in the privacy of my own home.

It's taken a few years to shake that feeling of needing to hide my loyalties. I am soon going to be brave enough to get a Seahawks bumper sticker for my Jeep and no longer worry about it risking vandalism as it sits in public parking lots.

And now another Super Bowl is ahead. You're going back, but my team narrowly missed the chance. I have to choose which team I'll root for. Carolina is a great team. Many say they remind folks of my team. I shouldn't be able to root for the Broncos. They are my lifetime nemisis. But then there's the complicated issue of my love and loyalty to you.

No one knows if this will be your last year. I'm leaning toward wanting you to retire, if only to spend more time with those adorable little people who run around your house. It would be a magical ending to your football career, to go out on a Super Bowl. 

You really need to win this game.

But to root for you would mean to root for that team that wears Orange. It's a tough decision for me. Put aside my pettiness and root for a guy I've followed for two decades, or stay true to my loyalties and root for the team that plays like my Seahawks?

I'm happy to report that I'm leaning your way, Payton. It is sure to be a tough game, but I have no doubt you can pull it off. You can take home that trophy and leave behind the days on the field with peace. 

I know you are swamped with preparations, from traveling west to studying plays from past Carolina games. But I wanted you to know you have a unique fan out there. One who wears her Seahawks jersey on a regular basis, but is putting aside her lifetime of prejudice against that Orange team to be able to root for you. 

At the end of the day the color of your uniform no longer matters to me. 

All I want is for the upstanding guy I've watched all these years, the guy I could fully encourage my kids to emulate, to get his ultimate reward.

I'll be watching from our living room in Evergreen on February 7th. And when you hold that trophy high there just might be tears running down my face. Seahawk loving tears. From one football-loving mama who can't help but stand behind one of the greatest guys who has ever played the game. 

Even if he does wear Orange.

With 12th Man Love,


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Heat of the Moment

I heard a car door slam so I opened the back door and looked outside. My six and a half foot tall son was digging his firefighter gear out of the back of his friend's truck. 

His friend, Harrison, is also in the local Fire Academy. For three months they have been donning the heavy, smoky gear and learning how to put out fires, rescue 'dummies', and respond to emergency calls. They are both soaking up the training, so excited to be headed into a career they love.

Harrison's dad is a volunteer firefighter in our community. The kind who puts in more volunteer hours than many people put into their paying jobs. He's a guy who will do anything for his community. His character has been passed down to his son. 

I got to know Harrison through my job at the Rec Center. Harrison's shift as the climbing instructor for the indoor rock wall overlapped with mine at the front desk. I enjoyed shooting the breeze with him on slow afternoons because he was a kid who belongs to that demographic I love - end of high school/early college. He's hungrily looking all around, seeing what options are out there for his future, and deciding which paths he should take. On top of that he's funny and entertaining and made my day at work much more enjoyable.

It was exciting to hear that Harrison was accepted into the Fire Academy in the same class as my Isaac. The roster is made up of a lot of older guys, married, with families, and having a guy who could relate to him made Isaac's first days of training a bit less stressful.

My son has wanted to be a firefighter for a long time. He has passionately dreamed of it in recent years. Immediately after finishing high school early he headed down to the fire program at our local community college, taking their fire classes. But he was desperate to get his feet wet, to study the real stuff that makes a firefighter. He wanted to run into those smoky practice buildings.

He applied for our Fire Academy last year, when he was barely 18. It's an intense year-long program that we are so lucky to have in our community. Its purpose is to train people who want to join our huge squad of local volunteer firefighters. It's also a great program for young men who want to pursue firefighting as a career. It's not easy to get a spot on the team.

Rightfully so, the selection committee took into account the number of young guys who apply for the much-coveted spots, thinking it will be a glamorous life, then drop out when the going gets smoky. They turned Isaac down and told him to come back next year if he was truly interested. They told him to get more training on his own first, to prove to them he was serious.

That fall Isaac was in the deep woods of the mountains near our house, learning how to fight wildland fires. He soaked up every bit of training he could as they set small fires in the trees, then turned around and learned how to safely put them out. He took a few more college classes, to add to his resume. Then he applied to Fire Academy again.

He practiced for his interview for weeks, studying everything online he could find related to the questions they might ask. He walked into that room, all six and a half feet of him, and trembled with nerves. And when he walked out, he was accepted.

From the very first day, Isaac and Harrison have been strongly holding their own. They never complained when it was time to put on the heavy gear and haul equipment around the practice areas. They have classroom training on Mondays and real world exercises on the weekends. 

On September 11th of this year they put on their full gear, masks and tanks included, and walked up as many flights of stairs as the first responders did in the twin towers. Then they walked a few more flights, out of deep-seated respect. They each had a laminated picture of a fellow firefighter from 9/11 attached to their coats. Isaac and Harrison were honored and inspired to be there. To be 'one of the guys/girls'.

For the past month, Isaac has repeatedly told me about a specific date in November. It's the day they officially qualified to respond to local fire calls. He's carried the dispatch radio around for a month, getting used to it interrupting the rhythm of his day. And then that day came. Yesterday.

They had a full day of live fire training. The practice house was lit on fire, pretend people scattered throughout. All day long they pushed their bodies to the limit and practiced rescuing dummies, and attacking different types of fires. By late afternoon, Harrison and Isaac were exhausted.

But they knew it was 'the day'. They knew they had finally reached the day they got to practice responding to that buzzing walkie-talkie that had become a part of their bodies. They discussed with their commanders what types of calls they could go to, and what kinds they still had to wait out. As they climbed into Harrison's truck and got ready to head home, the walkie toned out. It was an emergency call. And it was less than a mile away.

Harrison and Isaac looked at each other, both stunned that they might have their first call this quickly. The adrenaline kicked in. With huge grins on their faces, both of them knowing exactly what the other was feeling, they rushed to get their gear together.

In less than 5 minutes, they were at the scene, crawling off the fire truck in full gear, just like they'd been trained. The situation had been resolved by the time they arrived. It was a small car fire that was quickly extinguished by other responders. But it was their first call. And they suddenly felt authentic.

As I walked out my back door an hour later I saw two huge grins. I only had time to ask how academy had gone that day before I was interrupted by two young men spilling out the story of their afternoon. "We responded to our first call!" They tripped over each other's sentences. The stories spilled out. The excitement could almost be physically felt.

All that training, dreaming, choking on smoke, and pushing through pain had finally paid off. They had finally become real.

As it turns out, Harrison and Isaac now hold the record for the shortest time a 'probie' has had to wait, after being cleared to respond to calls, to reporting on a call.  The last record had been more than a day. For Isaac and Harrison, it was a handful of minutes.

True to tradition, they both headed back to the firehouse after the call, so they could give the recently used fire truck a bath. When she breaks you in on your first fire call, you owe her a good scrub down. Being the excited, yet really just giddy young boys that they are, they talked to 'her' as they hosed her off. Telling her how thankful they were that she is so reliable. And how much they were going to enjoy seeing her on calls in the future.

For the second time that day they left the firehouse. This time, they no longer left the parking lot as newbies. They had been broken in. They had joined the ranks of the thousands of hard working men and women before them. Those smiles could not be erased.

And I was the lucky recipient when they arrived in my driveway a few minutes later. It was one of those moments, as a parent, that you wish you could freeze. But even a video or photograph taken could not save this scene. It was a feeling as much as a snapshot in time.  I couldn't risk losing the energy by pulling out my camera. 

It just had to be lived, absorbed, then finally shared with you.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Saving A Life On A Friday

As soon as I pulled up to the building last Friday I knew there was a problem. Emergency vehicles surrounded the Rec Center where I work. It was a trick to find a parking space that didn’t block one of the trucks.

We have sheriff’s cars out front every now and then. Teenagers acting up. Someone trying to sneak in a back door. A random stolen bicycle. But we never have multiple ambulances, fire trucks and sheriff cars.

There was an energy in the building as I walked through the front door. Where usually I am greeted only by the front desk person I am there to replace, that day many of my managers were lingering about, mixed in with deputies and paramedics.

Not wanting to be problem, but knowing I’d need to know the situation if I were taking over the front desk, I finally got some information out of one of my bosses.

On Fridays we have many older people fill up our basketball gym, playing pickleball. It’s a popular sport here in Colorado and they rarely have low attendance. One of the players left his game and went to the sidelines, holding his chest.

Several friends came over and asked if he were okay. He assured them that he was. Said this happens every now and then. He even declined a chair to sit down in.

Then a friend who is a retired nurse walked over, took his hand, looked in his face, and yelled out, “Someone call 911!”

She saw what many of us would not see – the distinct signs of a heart that is failing.

The deputy who works at the high school next door to our building happened to be driving by when the call came in. Before our front desk guy had finished his call to 911, she was running through the front door.

When she got up to the basketball gym, the man had just collapsed.

Every person who works for our large Parks and Rec Department is required to take First Aid/CPR classes, every six months. From the director down to the part time janitors. Every single person. And this is why.

The first person to reach the fallen man was our head maintenance guy. Right behind him was a lifeguard, who heard the call from the pool. Together they started CPR. For what seemed like hours, but in reality was only a few minutes, they pumped away, keeping the blood flowing, until paramedics finally arrived. There was some delay as they figured out a way to get the ambulance to the back of the building, to avoid a large stair case inside. Maintenance Guy and Lifeguard kept pumping away.

Then the professionals took over. The other pickleball players surrounded them, making a stunned circle of witnesses.  

I sometimes grumble under my breath about yet another CPR class. It always feels like we just had them, and suddenly it’s time again. Kneeling on the floor is always uncomfortable and pretending to wrap someone’s head in gauze is only fun when you’re a four year old playing doctor. Then I hear the stats - that a large percentage of people who receive CPR don’t make it anyway. It’s easy to feel like ‘why bother?’

I was cured of that attitude last Friday. Later in the evening we got an update. The man had a fully blocked artery. He was receiving treatment and would go home in the morning. Go home. Back to his life with his family. Able to celebrate Mother’s Day with his wife on Sunday. Because a couple of people knew how to pump that oxygenated blood to his heart, when his heart was not able.

As you’d expect, the staff was pretty shaken up the rest of the afternoon. The young lifeguard was found wandering the hallway, after she handed her job over to the paramedics. One of my supervisors asked her where she was going. “Back to the pool. My shift isn’t over.”

She was a bit dazed, not sure what to do next. After you’ve basically saved another human’s life, it’s hard to transition back to regular life. The supervisor gave her immediate permission to go home, for a paid afternoon off. She definitely earned it.

There was a meeting with all of the people who had been present, who had helped, who might need some emotional support. Our maintenance guy was as dazed as the lifeguard had been. When I was able to call him that evening, to tell him the incredible outcome, he just kept saying, “Thank you. Thank you for calling. That’s amazing. Thank you for calling.”

It was a humbling afternoon. I’ve spoken to many of the pickleball players who witnessed the incident. Most of them said, “It was scary. We all knew it could  have been us.” One of those things that makes you consider mortality, and good health, and surrounding yourself with the people you love.

That notice will come around again soon. Times and dates for the next staff CPR classes will be emailed out to each department. I’ll have to double check my family calendar and find a time that fits on one of my days off. But this time around I won’t grumble

This time around I know that if I’m told that 90% of the people who receive CPR die anyway, I won’t think, ‘why bother?’ I’ll think of that man - that husband, dad, grandpa, and brother, who is alive today because someone knew CPR. He was spared brain damage, paralysis and death.
The ten percent is why we take the class. I’ll never forget that.



Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Creating A New Fan

I found David Sedaris almost a dozen years ago, when I worked in a library in New York. After reading the first book I knew I had to go find every other thing he'd ever written. I've been a fan for a very long time.

So when the opportunity came my way to see him perform in person of course I jumped on it. It was the autumn of 2013 and I took my 22 year old daughter because she would often read his books too, when I'd check them out from the library. Being a core writer for GeekMom.com, I wrote a post about my love of Mr. Sedaris's work, and in return was comped some pretty sweet tickets, just a few rows back from the stage. It was like having him in my own living room.

The best part of the night, however, was about an hour before the show. The promoter kindly let daughter and me meet up with Mr. Sedaris, for a mini meet and greet. I asked him to sign my artificial leg, the one I have been collecting signatures on for several years now. He also signed the book I brought from home. We had a quick, fun chat, then the interaction was over. We left with some pretty great memories to store in our memory banks.

This year I noticed he was headed back to Denver. I emailed my kindly rep and she confirmed that he'd be stopping in the Mile High City on his massive book tour. I wroteanother post for GeekMom, this time about how much I appreciate the way he so casually references prosthetics in his essays, making my life feel a bit more normal. Once again I found tickets with my name on them, waiting at Will Call.

This time around daughter no longer lives locally. Hubby and middle son are spending the week in Utah. Oldest son is also residing in another state. It was down to youngest son. Fourteen year old Sam. Who had never read a single thing written by Mr. Sedaris, except for the essay I read to him every December, about holiday traditions in other countries, called "Six to Eight Large Black Men". It is our version of The Night Before Christmas, just a bit rougher around the edges. And much more likely to induce a few good belly laughs.

In trying to sell the idea to Sam I said I had great tickets to a cool author's night in Denver. In a really cool old theater. Down on 16th Street Mall, where there were lots of fun stores we could poke around in beforehand. In fact, we might even splurge and get dinner somewhere downtown. I figured food speaks to the most reluctant teen boy.

"So what's it going to be like?" he asked.

"Well, David Sedaris writes funny essays, about his life," I replied. "He will read some from his books and then answer questions from the audience at the end. And it's funny. I promise."

"So, he's like a stand-up comedian?"

"Well....kinda.  Something like that..."

We left the house at 5 pm, allowing plenty of time to run some errands, then find parking in downtown Denver before the show. We picked up our Will Call tickets about 6:40 then stood on the sidewalk out front, trying to decide if we should walk around the outdoor mall area for a bit, until it was closer to the 7:30 show time, or just go ahead and find our seats.

Surprisingly, Sam wanted to go ahead and go in.  What a lucky decision that turned out to be.

As we walked into the lobby I noticed a woman who seemed to be my rep, my favorite rep, who continues to get me these sweet tickets to amazing shows. I waited for her to turn around to make sure it was her, and started to walk her way, intending to thank her for this latest set.

She turned around. The man with her turned around too. It was David Sedaris himself. It took me a second to realize it was him. I just wasn't expecting to casually run into him in the lobby. After our eyes met, his gaze quickly looked down and saw my leg. He looked back up and said, "Hey! I know you!"

It was one of those hard to comprehend moments.

"Yes," I said (I think....it was all kind of a blur).

"You signed my leg last year." I then whipped out the small manila envelope I had in my hand and pulled out the picture I'd had printed earlier that day. It's a picture of my signed leg, next to the signature page on my book where he'd also signed. My plan was that 'just in case' I had the opportunity to get a signature, I'd get the picture signed, then frame that picture to hang in my home office. It's much easier than displaying the actual leg.

I couldn't have imagined we'd accidentally run into him in the lobby.

He graciously signed my picture and as he looked over at Sam, he stuck his hand out. "Hi! What's your name?" he said.

Sam hesitated, in the way you do when you're so flustered you can't even remember basic facts about yourself. "Sam", he finally said. When asked how old he was, Sam managed to do the math correctly.

David then said, as he laughed, "Oh Sam! You need to do that again! You need a stronger hand shake than that!"

They shook hands again, playfully, but much more seriously this time on Sam's side. David chatted with Sam for a minute, telling him to be sure to check in with him after the show, come to the front of the line, because he had a special gift for him.

I had just been telling Sam, on the drive to Denver, how Mr. Sedaris is known for bringing small gifts to give the teens who are dragged along to his shows. I truly believe he's seriously under-estimating how much those teens love his shows, especially the dirty jokes part. But the kindness is appreciated.

Sam promised Mr. Sedaris he would come see him after the show, at the signing table. And then my kid who had informed me in a very strict voice on the drive down, that  there was NO way we were waiting for any signatures or any schmoozing after the show, was dedicated to meeting up with his friend David as soon as the show was over. 

No matter how long he had to wade through the crowds who were exiting the theater.

Since we were a bit early, and still floating a bit from our accidental encounter, Sam and I had nearly an hour of great chat time. We talked about a wide variety of topics, while we lounged in our seats, watching people slowly file in. It was one of those magical hours that you treasure when you're a mom to teens, especially teen boys.

The tickets were not as close to the front as the last set, but they were perfect. My seat was on the aisle, where I could stick my left leg out into the walkway. It's the seat I pick when I get my first choice at every event, so I can stretch out my artificial leg, when it's feeling a bit cramped during the course of the show. And since Sam had met with Mr. Sedaris before the show, seeing him clearly during the reading wasn't nearly as important.

After a lot of laughing and a lot of great essays, the show was over and the crowd worked their way to the exit. Sam helped me up the sloped aisle, which is a tricky thing for me to navigate, especially when I'm forced to 'shuffle' with the crowd. I'm not great at shuffling, or slopes, so together they are my nemesis. It was nice to be able to hold onto my baby boy's arm for stability, and as he helped me physically up the aisle, he helped me mentally once again try to grasp that this five foot ten inch kid is my baby, all grown up. Another treasured mother/son moment.

Just as promised, when Sam approached the table, Mr. Sedaris noticed him and stopped his book signing rhythm. He paused the next person in line and turned his full attention to my boy, who was beaming. "Oh good! You're here!" he said, as he reached under the table for his personal bag.

"Sam, do you ever dress up?" I thought it was a reference to the fact Sam had worn his favorite t shirt and hoodie to the show. But instead it was the deciding question for which gift he gave Sam.

In the end Sam ended up with a small business like card that has tiny lettering on it. All it says is "Stop Talking". He and Sam laughed about all the situations Sam could use it in, and Mr. Sedaris acted like he had all the time in the world to give my boy.

As we exited the theater I didn't want it to end. The perfect night out with my boy.

Another amazing meet up with one of my favorite authors. A beautiful cool night in downtown Denver, after days and days of rain and snow. I walked as slowly as I could down the sidewalk towards our parked car.

Sam fell asleep on the drive home. We chatted a little, but being a teenage boy, he wasn't prepared to analyze every single thing he did and didn't like about the show. The one thought he kept coming back to was, "I wonder what prize he would have given me if I said I DO dress up sometimes..." 

It's a question that will plague him for a very long time. Or at least until he has a chance to run into his friend David again.