Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's What You Do

Sometimes people ask me how I coped so well when I had my leg amputated. How I picked up and went on with life, adapting where I needed to and remaining optimistic about the future. The quick answer that rattled around in my head was "It's wathcha do."

It's what you do when life hands you a deformed leg that slows you down and makes keeping up with your young kids impossible. It was really the only choice once I saw what great options were available in prosthetics. I geared up mentally and tackled the problem head on. The alternative was to whine and fuss about how I was handed a bum limb and make everyone in my life suffer as much as I did. That didn't seem like an option I'd want to choose. Living life to the fullest with a new bionic leg seemed like more fun and reworking my daily life didn't seem like that big of a deal once my leg was gone. So it all boiled down to," It's watcha do".

It's not uncommon for people to ask me how in the world Jeff and I balance life with two full time working parents and four kids, three of them teenagers. How we keep everyone fed and clothed and delivered to their respective activities. How we keep them all up to date on shots and yearly physicals and dental appointments and thank you notes to the grandparents. Again my answer is "It's whatcha do."

Fortunately our children joined the family one at a time and with each one we adapted life to make room for one more. Even though having four sounded scary when we had three, by the time our tail end baby was six months old we couldn't remember life with only three. You watch their personalities unfold and adapt your parenting practices accordingly. You stay organized, you stay in tune and in contact with each of them, and you do your best to raise them one day at a time. Whether you choose to have one child or five, tackling each day as it comes is a natural coping mechanism. It's whatcha do.

I have several friends who have had major health setbacks. Head injuries and debilitating issues with organs that failed and bodies that broke down. Each of them has amazed me with their bravery and determination. I love talking to them about how they adapt their lives and keep going. They make plans for the future and remain optimistic about what's ahead. I have no doubt that if I asked any of them how they do it, how they keep moving forward and keep the smiles on their faces, they would give me similar answers. And it would all come down to, "It's whatcha do."

You hear the diagnosis and you hope and pray for the best case scenario. You cling to the idea that you will be the one in a hundred who recover fully or end up with a normal life span. It doesn't seem unreasonable to believe new cures will come down the pipe and new medicines are being developed every day. You take the endless pills, endure the painful tests, show up for daily rehab appointments and take each day as it comes, feeling lucky you got to wake up again. It's not a hard choice to make because it's just whatcha do.

I recently read a book about a child who survived the Nazi concentration camps. He was a spoiled child with wealthy parents and had not a care in the world. Then in one sweeping day his life changed. His family was stripped of all their worldly possessions and became wandering refugees hiding in barns to avoid capture. He spent the next three years enduring the camps, the starvation, the abuse and the frost bite. And he kept going. He kept hoping it would all end some day. He held tight to the hope he'd see his parents again. He had very little to live for and yet he did. He clung to every shred of life he could muster up. I am sure I could not be as brave or strong. But I think I can predict his answer if you asked this man, now sitting in a law office in Washington D.C., how he did it, how he never lost hope and never gave up. When he forgot what milk and hot food tasted like, what made him keep plugging away? I know what he'd say. If you're lucky enough to wake up in the morning you do all you can to live. To survive another day and hope the future will be better. It's human nature. It's whatcha do.

No matter what life hands you, no matter how painful or sad, you cry the tears, you punch the bed pillows, you scream at God if you have to, and then you keep going. You plug away and do what needs to be done. No matter how hard it is, you take each day as it comes and you hope with all your heart that this is just a small chapter of your life and things will be better in a few months, or a few years. You go on and tackle life. You don't give up because it's not really an option. Surviving and thriving sounds like the better way to go. So the new day arrives and you greet it with new hope.

It's just whatcha do.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

How Many is Too Many?

Sometimes it humors me when people ask my opinion about how to decide how many children to have. I have four children. I mean, isn't that kind of like asking a drunk man how he decides when to stop drinking? I guess it must seem like people who didn't stop at two offspring must have some good reason why they kept going and people new to the parenting job want to know those reasons. The question has been thrown my way many times through the years and my answer has changed about as many times as I've visited that hospital delivery room.

When I was in college I still believed in fairy dust. Surely that's how you knew which boyfriend should turn into the lifetime mate. When the engagement question was on the horizon but the fairy dust was nowhere to be found I sought the advice of a friend who was a decade older than I was.

"There's no fairy dust, Judy," she said flatly," there are just good life choices and bad life choices. You have to be compatible, but beyond that you need to weigh the benefits versus the drawbacks and make the best choice you can for yourself and your life goals."

Her words were life changing. They helped me make the right choice for a husband and then the advice slowly oozed over into our decisions about family planning. When the time was right we dove in headfirst, greeting our daughter Meredith one cold day in January. Just after she turned one we went back to the same hospital room and brought her home a brother. As our doctor said, "Matched set. Girl and Boy. The million dollar family."

We took our time, raising them as Irish twins and enjoying every step along the way. Our days were full of Fisher Price and potty chairs and everything seemed very balanced and comfortable. One parent for each toddler when we roamed the zoo trails and no need for a big minivan when their car seats fit well in the back seat of our Mazda.

But both Jeff and I knew we were not done. We both came from families with five children and knew we would have a bigger than average brood ourselves. We had agreed on that before the engagement ring even went on my finger. Sooner or later we had to decide that it was time to start over.

Meredith and Michael were four and five when Isaac joined our family. They were old enough to not feel threatened by his arrival and took to their older sibling roles with ease. We quickly settled into a new routine with one baby in the house who had four people meeting his every need.

By this time we could see that we might not match our parent's bravery. Five kids seemed like a lot. Probably too many for us and the life we imagined for our kids. But in many ways having three didn't feel like quite enough. It was good, comfortable, balanced in its own way. But we had reservations about saying we were completely done.

Isaac had been born with some medical problems that were genetic and put any future children at risk for the same problems, and possibly more dangerous ones. It made the decision even harder. In the weeks and months that we weighed the question, my mind kept coming back to a sweet note I had gotten in the mail when Isaac was a newborn.

An old friend of ours, who had two teen age children, sent a gorgeous baby card and in her congratulatory note had said, "I am so happy for you! I always wished we'd had three but we never got around to it." Her words spoke to me deeply. I didn't want to write a version of that card to a friend someday…"I wish we'd had four, but we never got around to it." It helped me see very clearly that I really did want one more baby. Medical risks or not, I knew in my heart I would always regret not having that 'one more'. I would always feel like one of us was missing.

It took longer than we expected but finally, finally, Samuel joined our family, when Isaac was gearing up for kindergarten. He dodged the medical problems bullet and our grateful little family felt complete.

The decision is different for every woman, for every couple. We have friends who are very happy and content with their one child. We also know many families who chose to have a van full, like we did. Families come in all shapes and sizes. Numbers don't determine their quality, love does. Being wanted and needed and loved is the most a child could ask for.

So when friends ask me, "How do we decide how many kids we should have?" my long answer can go on for hours. But my short answer is simple. No regrets. Look at your life, your dreams and realities, and make the decision that is right for you. But never make a decision that you know will have you looking back, years from now, and saying, "I wish I'd had just one more."

I Close My Eyes

When I was a child it used to bother me when singers on TV and soloists in church would close their eyes as they belted out their song. I didn’t understand it. Were they tired? Were they afraid to look at the audience? I assumed they were somehow embarrassed, and it did not occur to me until I was nearly grown, that emotions and feelings could run deeper when the windows to your soul are closed.

I have just recently come to realize how empowering it can be to block out the world in this simple way. Through the first thirty years of my life I was uncomfortable closing my eyes in public. It made me feel vulnerable. I couldn’t keep track of what was going on around me. Surely people would think I was loony if I made this a common practice. About the time I quit worrying about what people thought of me I found the therapy of the closed eyes.

It began on my bike. I was at the gym; riding my heart out, legs pumping, sweat pouring. I am very aware (and not surprised) that I get a lot of looks at the gym. I am the only one there with an artificial limb and it intrigues people. It doesn’t bother me, but it does distract me. Purely by accident I happened to close my eyes one day, mid bike ride, and discovered that I could escape to the inside of my thoughts with this simple gesture.

The music on my headphones became a personal concert, just for me. My sweaty neighbors on the treadmill no longer existed. They could look all they wanted, at my robotic leg, and I would never know. I got lost in the music and felt my body relax into the rhythm of the ride. I concentrated on listening to my body, now that I was quiet enough to hear it. I was in tune with the deep breaths my lungs drew in. I concentrated on using different muscles in my legs with each pedal stroke; first working out my ankle, then calf, then thigh.

My mind was floating by this point, free of all the life distractions I normally let in while on the bike. Suddenly Lance was beside me. We were on a French hillside, and we were pushing ahead towards the Eiffel Tower. I made my legs push so hard they burned. But I couldn’t let Lance out-pedal me, so I pushed harder. In the end, I think I beat him.

And when I bravely opened my eyes again, re-adjusting to the reality of the gym, I felt cleansed. My mind was free of clutter; my body was exhausted with a cleansing sweat. I felt empowered, not vulnerable.

The feeling came back a few days later, after a hard day of micro-managing a house full of children. I escaped for a few seconds, to my bathroom in the back of the house, and after doing the business that drew me to the room, I reached for the cloth to quickly wash my face. As my eyes closed, to welcome the cool rag, I let them remain closed for just a few extra minutes. Instinctively I drew in a deep breath. Naturally I let it out slowly. It felt so good I did it again, all while still blind. In a few short minutes I was a new person. I was a transformed mom. I had my bearings back and was ready for the next challenge. For less than two minutes I had blocked out the world, descended into deep-cleansing land, and had come back re-born.

I am thankful for my new understanding of how to get back to myself. My only regret is that I could not have found it earlier. But maybe I had to first come to this place in my life where what everyone around me thinks holds a lot less weight. That change, in itself, has cleared a lot of the junk out of my attic. But the stresses that come in everyday life, especially through years with little people in the household, can pile up rapidly, and soon over power. I am pleased to have found this simple gesture that can so quickly center me once again. It is a gift I will pass on to my children, by example and instruction. My advice to them; don’t be afraid to close your eyes when it is not yet bedtime. You might be pleased to see what you can find inside.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

I See Her

(My dad, mom and mother in law, with my two oldest, a year before she died.)

It is cold, it is raining, and I am huddled by my minivan, pumping gas. I avoid watching the pump, knowing the outrageous escalating numbers will only bring down a perfectly pleasant day. I watch the traffic flow by on my right then peek at my boy in the back seat, content with his new Happy Meal toy. My head turns to the left and I catch a glimpse of a woman inside the gas station store. My heart seems to stop. I can’t find my breath. The cold pump nozzle begins to shake in my hand. The woman in the store looks just like my mom.

She walks like my mom. She is small and stout, with over-permed curly hair the same color as my mom’s. She is carrying a huge soda refill cup exactly like the one my mom had. But there is no way she is my mom. My mom died thirteen years ago, and I’ll never see her again.

And yet I do. I see her all the time.

It never occurred to me, in the desperate grief stricken weeks after her death, that she was not truly gone. My brain worked hard to understand how she could be perfectly healthy, settling into her new role of grandma one day and collapse on the country dancing floor the next. It didn’t compute that she could leave this planet when she had just turned 50 and was in the best shape of her life. I tried to make peace with the finality of the casket, the gaping hole in the ground, and what the backhoe did once we all left the cemetery. I assumed it all meant she was gone, forever gone.

But then came the dreams. They were vivid and real and I would wake up confident that my old life was back in order. One was so ridiculous, that we dug her up after six months and she was still alive in the casket, so relieved we had saved her, that rational minds would dismiss it. But my irrational longing for her secured its validity and I was heartbroken when I awoke to find it was not true.

Just months later I began to catch other glimpses of her. Like the gas station sighting, I suddenly saw a familiar face, a familiar body type, down the aisle from me at the grocery store. For a split second I knew it was her. Then reality reminded me of the truth. A car passed through the intersection while I waited for the light ahead of me to turn green and I swore the woman behind the wheel was my mother. It was as if my heart were convinced that she was still out there, somewhere, just waiting to be discovered.

In the passing years I began to see other signs of her. I looked down in a quiet moment at church and her hands were in my lap. The wedding ring on the left hand was the one my husband gave to me so many years ago, but the folds and wrinkles of the hands were definitely hers. I realized that wrinkles on my hands are one of the few signs of aging I will not fight. So much of her is gone from me, but the wrinkles in my own hands will always be there to remind me of those hands that cradled my newborn daughter's head and wiped away tears when she learned this child had been named after her.

Two years after her death I began a part time job and I got to work with her. The first co-worker I was introduced to was my mother’s age, my mother’s body type, my mother’s nurturing personality, and unbelievably shared my mother’s name. I looked forward to going to work on the days that Jane and I worked together. For two years I soaked up her loving nature, re-living glimpses of my mom.

My children are becoming teenagers now and I miss her on a whole new level. She would love the stories my sisters and I have about the joys and challenges that we are witnessing from the other side of the generational gap. She has been gone a long time and has missed a lot of my life and my children’s lives. But somehow I still feel her and sense her presence.

As another Mother's Day rolls around I will celebrate with my children. I will send a card to my mother in law. And my heart will ache for my own mother, gone now for so long. I know I am a better mom because I miss her. I truly understand how much a mother means to her children. And through the years I have seen that she is not fully gone. She is around me, encouraging me and nurturing me, in the most creative ways. I cannot hug her and I cannot call her on the phone when I think of her in the middle of the day.

But I am thankful, so thankful, that at least I can still see her.