Saturday, December 22, 2012

Invisible Fame

I got the news as an afterthought. Sam's drum instructor had emailed me about a lesson related matter and at the end of his message added "by the way, I'm playing with a band at Little Bear tonight."

I love going to Little Bear. It's an old biker bar, set in the middle of our historic mountain town in Colorado. You can almost always find live music there. Local musicians often grace the stage. Sometimes they're really talented. Sometimes you just have to appreciate their deep passion for music.

I love any excuse to head to Little Bear. Every visiting relative and friend gets dragged down the street to spend some time there with us. The pizza specials mid week draw us to its old wooden front porch, a cheap way to watch live music and fill up teen boys.

There was no doubt we'd go see Dean play with his band at Little Bear. The hiccup we hadn't counted on was the fact that after 8 pm they don't allow anyone under age 21. Our normal visiting time was before the later crowed rolled in. It hadn't occurred to me that my middle schooler, who spent a lot of time at Little Bear, would not be allowed in.

The kind bouncer at the front door let the holiday spirit rule his decision and let us in 'for just a few songs', once he heard that Dean was Sam's teacher, and we were there to see him play live. We stood to the side and watched the band rock out a few classic rock tunes. Sam got to see this guy who is usually giving him instruction, as he got lost in his own element.

He got to see what the end result of all those Tuesday afternoon lessons could lead to some day.

It was time to leave. We'd seen our 'couple of songs' and we didn't want to outstay our welcome at a place we frequent. We filed out the big old wooden front door and gathered on the huge front porch, covered in Christmas lights. It seemed such a shame to leave, when such an amazing band was on stage.

I asked Michael if he'd mind taking Sam home and come back later to pick up me and Jeff. It was the perfect chance for a spur of the moment date night. My agreeable  boy was fine with the plan and quickly added, "But HAVE to do me a favor!"  

I was surprised by the excitement coming from my normally stoic boy. "The guy from Burn Notice is in there! He walked right by us! Could you please get a picture of him for me?" This request, coming from a kid who is normally irritated at mom's eagerness to take photos.

Michael is not easily impressed. He doesn't excite easily. But this was the guy who starred in a show he religiously watched with his best friend in New York, before we moved out to Colorado last year. It was one of the few shows he invested his time in, and he could hardly believe the guy had just walked by us as we casually stood around in Little Bear, watching Sam's drum teacher play in a band.

Jeff and I made our way back in, paying the cover charge as legitimate guests this time, and found a table near the stage. Behind Jeff's head I could see the guy, sitting at a table with friends. He looked like a regular guy. A guy I'd pass in Safeway and not realize he was the guy.  But this guy meant something to my, to my young adult son, who was days away from leaving to start his grown up life in the military. The guy suddenly mattered to me too.

The venue was intimate. Maybe two dozen people filled the tables and bar around us. I just didn't have the heart to bother this poor guy, who apparently was on break from filming and trying to enjoy a night out with friends. I've met celebrities before, and know that most of them are pretty gracious when it comes to fans approaching them in public. But this just felt wrong. I wanted the guy to have a night out, enjoying a rocking band at Little Bear, without some old woman harassing him for a picture.

So I did the cheater thing. I pretended to take a picture of Jeff, catching the guy in the background. It was dark. There was NO way I was going to use a flash. It's the best I could do. You can see from the picture that one of the guy's buddies was on to my game. But I'd love to tell Buddy that it was just a quick picture. And ultimately I was trying to leave his friend in peace.

After my cheater picture I sat back and enjoyed the show. I watched four guys, who live in my town, pour their hearts and souls onto that stage. During the first break  Dean came out from behind the drum set and sat at our table, telling us funny stories about his years traveling in bands. He told us about his fellow musicians on the stage, and how talented they all were. The kid playing electric guitar was in his early 20s, getting a college degree and playing band gigs in his free time, but had talent that was unbelievable. 

Then suddenly it was time for Dean to crawl back behind those drums and start the next set.

And as they rolled into their first song I started to wonder about fame. Much like the line from the movie Notting Hill, I believe celebrity is really nothing. You know, in that scene where Julia Roberts is cowering in Hugh Grant's book store saying, "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her"? In that same scene she also says something like, "The fame thing. You know it's not real."

 It's something that's discussed and analyzed but doesn't really have bones. It only exists in perception.

What is it that makes the man sitting behind us at Little Bear, hunkered in a dark corner so he's not spotted by crazy fans like me, matter more than the 24 year old kid playing his heart out on the stage in front of me? There is immense talent in both men. One has his face on billboards and television commercials, the other will pack away his guitar after this show and head back to college classes. No one will apologetically ask for his picture.

I work in a public venue. I greet people as they come into our local Rec Center to work out or take fitness classes. Sometimes I play a game where I pretend that each person approaching my desk is a 'celebrity'. I treat them like the world has bestowed this invisible blessing on them and the paparazzi are waiting just outside our doors, hoping to catch them sweaty and rumpled after their latest fitness endeavor. Because it really is just a way of approaching the people you come across in the world.

The magazines and newspapers are somehow in charge of telling us who deserves to be showered with respect and extra favor. Sure, many celebrities are immensely talented. But so are many of the people you pass every day. You just haven't been shown their talent in a Hollywood way.

This week, through a casual conversation, I learned that one of our gymnastic instructors at work is a professional artist. Some day he hopes to make his living creating art, and do gymnastics as a hobby, not the other way around. I thought about that conversation for several days. It made me wonder how many other invisible celebrities I am surrounded by every day. 

Then I happened to share some space with a guy who even my hard to impress son was in awe of. And in the same night I was moved by some music played by some guys who may never grace the cover of Rolling Stone. And it all came together.

Talent and passion are not things we can measure and place definite value. Networks of powerful people are in charge of deciding who we adore and idolize and dream of meeting. When, in reality, there are people all around us who deserve respect and awe. The woman standing in line at the grocery store who paints amazing landscapes. The man pumping gas next to you, who takes breathtaking photos of his grandchildren. The shaggy headed teenager who can write poems that would make you weep.

And, oh yeah, that kid standing front and center on the stage at the local bar, caressing the neck of that guitar like he has legions of fans waiting just outside the front door.

Unexpected Perfect Day

It turned out to be one of those really amazing days that sneaks up on you. 

I got up early, got Sam off to the school bus, saw Jeff off to work, then sat down at the computer to catch up on writing, facebook and email. I got a few things done then suddenly remembered I had signed up for CPR training at work that morning. They were meeting in less than a half an hour.

I quickly dressed then rushed off, down snow covered roads, then icy sidewalks, bursting into the warehouse classroom with just a few minutes to spare. Looking around, I realized I was by far the oldest one there. The room was full of life guards and ice rink employees, all kids who were my son's age. I sat down in the back row, filling one of the last empty chairs. I wondered which of those teens was going to roll their eyes when they were forced to pair up with the lone old lady. Then, suddenly, three more people came through the door. All older than me. My day turned on a dime.

Through the next three hours I once again practiced pressing on the chest of the large stiff mannequin who has fewer lower limbs than I do. And I made new friends. I got to know the director of our Rec Center Play School a bit better and found out one of the senior aerobics instructors is actually my neighbor. She's a lovely woman I hope to know better in the future. I glided over those ice covered sidewalks, back to my car, with a smile on my face.

It was a bright sunny day, the kind that makes Colorado the tourist's dream. 

I drove to Wal-Mart to pick up a few groceries and some last minute gifts for my children, taking the time to appreciate the mountain views that border my every day roads. Every year I find myself putting off buying our family presents until all the long distance boxes are mailed and holiday cards stamped. It felt good, and mothering, to finally bring home treasures for my own babies.

As soon as the pile of bags were unpacked and hidden until wrapping could commence, I jumped back in the car and headed to the Middle School. Sam's sixth grade band was playing a small holiday concert in the lobby of their school. I stood, with Jeff by my side, as we soaked in the fun of holiday music played by energetic 12 year olds. I took only a bit of video, when my percussionist boy started having just a bit too much fun with the maracas in their rendition of Jingle Bells.

Michael, who had been down in Denver, making last preparations for his leave to boot camp next week, surprised us all, as he walked through the school doors. His meetings had wrapped up early. The smile on his little brother's face, as big brother offered to take him out for a milk shake, just the two of them, was enough to make my whole day.

Jeff and I headed off for home, having some nice, uninterrupted adult conversation. He settled in with a library book (a rare treat for him) as I cut up tomatoes and onions and spread the counter with a Mexican feast. 

A short time later, the boys came home, full from milkshakes but hungry for 'real food'. Isaac had shown up, home from skating on our local town lake, and we all gathered in front of the big family TV with our plates piled high with nachos, tacos and enchiladas.

For an hour and a half we laughed at scenes we've seen hundreds of times - we had our traditional viewing of the movie Christmas Vacation. Michael, now an adult himself, saw things he'd never seen before, with new grown up eyes. Sam saw silly things he'd forgotten about from last year. That movie, once again, brought our family new belly laughs and new memories.

And then, because the day had not been perfect enough, a few hours later we headed to our little mountain downtown. Sam's drum instructor was playing with a band at Little Bear Saloon, the biker bar that is our favorite family gathering place. On its tiny stage, the drummer's spot literally built with milk crates, with random bras draped by the dozens in the rafters over the band's heads, my boy got to see his instructor in his element. The same crazy guy he meets with every week, now under spot lights, lost in the rhythms of some classic rock songs.

The bouncer was nice, letting our 12 year old in for just a few songs, when the policy was no one under 21 after 8 pm. We all filed out after two songs but I wasn't ready to leave. Michael agreed to take Sam home, and come pick up the old people later, so that Jeff and I could steal an unexpected date night.

We popped back in the door, paid the cover fee this time, and found a table not far from the stage. For the next four hours we got to be us again, just a couple of crazy college kids who have big dreams they hope to live out together. It was easy to forget the house full of kids and responsibilities that waited for us once the clock passed midnight. The band was great, the Dr. Pepper was a perfect mix. My musician husband listened with different ears than his musically challenged wife, but we both enjoyed the music in our own way. 

It was gravy on the day, that Sam's drum instructor, who I now consider a new local friend, came over to our table at every break, and shared funny, interesting stories with us about his long history with all kinds of music and bands.

It all ended as the place cleared out and we, alone, watched the last song the band cranked out. It's a whole different experience to have a band personally interacting with you, playing a private concert in a public venue, at just after midnight on a Friday night.

We stepped out onto the old wooden porch to wait for Michael's taxi service. We could see down the short block that makes up our tiny historic town, to the bank clock that read 10 degrees. A red fox dashed across the parking lot across the street, disappearing over the snow bank that led him back to the woods. And then our warm minivan drove up.

The night was over. The day that started out in that oh so ordinary way was winding down. A half an hour later I was snuggled under a pile of warm blankets, drifting off to sleep. 

So incredibly thankful that sometimes the best days of your life creep up on you without warning.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Finding Peace in Sadness

The recent shootings in CT will bring back painful memories to many people. Hundreds of people in Aurora Colorado, just down the hill from my home, will have flashbacks as they relive the horror of the night their movie theater was terrorized, and their friends and neighbors lost their lives. Farther south in my state, many families in Columbine will once again relive the horror of their own high school massacre, 13 years ago, and remember the ones they lost that day. Many others will carry the trauma of their experiences with them for the rest of their days.

Like most moms across the country, I couldn't control the tears when I heard about the room full of kindergartners who died yesterday. It's really too much for a brain to comprehend and my heart goes out to that community, who will be in the process of burying their loved ones for weeks to come. When your child dies, it's already a nightmare. When you have to arrange your child's funeral around those of 17 of her classmates, it's too awful for words.

But the moment I really lost it, the picture that struck my heart with physical pain, was the picture that showed up on the front page of my Denver Post today. I briefly saw it on the news reports yesterday but never let my eye rest on it. It's a picture of a line of children, hands on each other's shoulders, being led across the parking lot by a very calm and composed police officer. Their teachers follow behind, getting directions from another officer. A little girl in a blue shirt seems to be weeping, lost in the anguish of the situation.

This picture hit me so deeply because it took me back to a time when a gun in the community rocked my own world and put my children at risk. We had just moved to the Washington D.C. area and were settling in nicely when the sniper started shooting. For three weeks we heard constant reports about who had been shot and where they thought he might be headed next. Several locations were very close to our house.

We locked ourselves inside, ordering groceries to be delivered, paying the delivery man an extra tip for risking his life. Doctor's appointments were cancelled. There was no fort building in the back yard, which faced the woods. Every errand that was necessary found me sitting at stop lights, eyeing the perimeter, watching for any spot a sniper could be hiding.

But the hardest part of the equation was keeping my children safe. At the time, my children were 10, 9, 6 and almost 2. Three of them attended school. Not knowing how long the sniper attacks would last, they couldn't be kept home from school. Instead we had to adapt. I made them wait until the bus showed up on our street, then let them make a dash for its wide doors. Once they got home, we found indoor games to play, and tried not to let them see the TV news, with the latest report of the sniper's last kill.

In a parent-teacher conference that fall my son's teacher told me something that made me weep when I got home. She told us that she was doing all she could to keep our son safe. His class met in a trailer that required an outside walk to get to the main school. Their playground was surrounded by woods, which officials were telling us was the sniper's favorite hiding place. My son's teacher was a first year teacher and her greatest fear was that one of her kids would be hurt while under her care. She took her job very seriously. So, it turns out, every time she was required to take them on the 30 yard walk from their classroom to the main building, she'd made up a game they could play.

It was called 'Dance Club'. Once in their orderly line, their teacher told them that to get across the courtyard they were all required to bob and weave and do their best dance moves. She presented it like a fun, silly game, to get their wiggles out. In reality she was doing her best to keep them from being shot in the head.

One of the other tips we were getting from officials was 'not to be a good target'. Never stand still outdoors, especially near wooded areas. I later learned my husband often 'danced' around while waiting on his subway platform at certain stations. He never stood still, and most of the commuters around him did the same.

On the ride home from school that day I couldn't stop picturing the line of 9 year olds, my son in the middle, dodging and weaving, every time they had to make the short hike to the lunchroom and music class. The scene that most likely resembled the picture on the front of my newspaper today. And I could almost sense the way their pretty young teacher held her breath, until the last one ducked into the school's back door. 

It reminded me of the pressure she was under to keep a whole classroom of children safe. I sat at home, worried about their safety under my care, thankful when they were 'safe' at school, not taking into account what it took to keep them safe at school. My son's teacher, fresh out of college and eager to make her mark in the world, had the lives and futures of 28 young children on her shoulders every single day. If something happened to one of her students, she would be living with it for the rest of her life.

Throw in a sniper who just might be setting up his gun in the woods behind her classroom and I have to wonder if she ever slept more than two hours during that three week period.

I went home from that teacher conference and wept. I wept for my babies, who deserved to live in a world where they could go outside to play and not fear being executed. I  wept for a school full of professionals who took my child's safety very seriously. Teachers, many with children of their own to worry about, who go to school every day and not only worry about each child's academic level, but is ready to defend his life if necessary. And I wept with gratitude for my son's teacher, who not only made up a clever diversion that could have saved his life, but presented it to him as a game, so he never even knew he was in danger.

Way too many lives were lost yesterday. Teachers, school professionals, and way too many little children who were still counting down the days to Santa's visit. 

But the professionals in that school did everything they could to protect every single life they could. I wouldn't be surprised if we find out soon that individual adults lost their lives solely because they were trying to save the lives of those around them.

Whoever turned on the intercom, so that every teacher, in every classroom, could know there was evil inside the school walls and do whatever they had to, to protect their students, saved countless more lives. The death toll, as horrific as it is, could have been higher.

This is why I will not be afraid to send my children back to school on Monday. Because I know I am sending them into a place filled with teachers and staff who would do anything they had to, to keep them safe. We can talk about making new security rules, installing metal detectors, having more safety meetings...but when it comes down to facts, I believe in the adults who surround my sons when they are in school, and know they care about more than what his GPA happens to be.

There will be another school shooting in the future. That's the reality of this world we live in. It might be soon, it might be in five years. But the odds that my child will be in that school are slim. If I really think about the odds of my child being killed in school, the statistics tell me to worry more about their car ride home from school. If I pair the odds of them being shot by a lone gunman with the fact that they are immersed in a protective environment when they enter those school hallways, I can send them to school with peace in my heart.

Our family has personally felt the terror of a bad guy's gun in our community. Every story of another shooting will touch us deeply. But what I can do today, to keep myself from sitting in another pile of tears, is to pray for the grieving families, maybe send a little more money to the Red Cross, and say a second prayer of thanks, for the teachers who saved lives yesterday and the teachers who would save my sons' lives in an instant, if they were called to action.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Keeping My Heart Full

Wednesday, November 28, 2012.
 All 'four' of my boys.

One week ago I sent her off.  My oldest child. My only girl.  Last year she moved out to Colorado with the family. Then she realized that, at her age, family is great, but friends are better. She missed those NY friends she'd left behind. If she was going to carve out her grown up life, she needed to do it in a place where she had a social life beyond watching Red Box movies with her little brothers on a Friday night.

Six weeks before she turned 21, she piled the bare necessities in her old Buick and set off across the country with her best friend, who had flown out from NY to join her. For three days they lived the script of a teen movie. Two crazy kids exploring the roads that led East. They stopped in Kansas and ran across a corn field. They rode the tiny elevator cars up to the top of the St. Louis Arch and took pictures of views that went on for miles. With a few White Castle burgers as body fuel, they hit the road again.

She's there now. She's unpacked and already started her new job out there. Our relationship now is a series of texts and an occasional Skype session. Just because she's settled doesn't mean I don't miss her any less.

Today, a week after I launched my first child out into the world, I welcomed another one into my home. He's not really 'new' around here. He's the boy my own sons love like a brother. He lived around the block from us in NY, his backyard catty-corner to ours. My boys were very familiar with the path that led from his house to ours, and I was very familiar with his bright smile hanging around my house.

He's skied with our gang, one year breaking his wrist on their first run of the season. He's plotted and planned with my sons, in great detail, how we will all survive the zombie apocalypse that is coming sooner than you know. He's blessed us with personal concerts, playing his electric violin in my living room as I sat back  and listened in awe.

Five minutes before I pulled out of our NY driveway, getting ready to drive my three boys across the country to their new home, we snapped pictures of Justin, with his three departing brothers. Then he skateboarded down our driveway and made his way home, as our car crept slowly behind him. It was just too painful to finally let him stay, as we were the ones to go.

And now finally all my boys are reunited. Justin has come to spend the week with us. The boys have mapped out every day of his visit, squeezing in as much as possible. There will be ski runs, for sure. But there will also be a lot of just exploring Colorado. Driving through our old mountain downtown, and circling our lake as the ice slowly freezes over. Showing him all of the trails and parks he's only seen in facebook pictures until this week. Driving him to our favorite places in Denver and in the process sharing a lot of laughs, making a million new memories.

Tonight, his first night back in our fold, we are headed to Little Bear. It's a very old biker bar in our tiny downtown. There is a small elevated stage where a local band will play tonight as my boys scarf down the pizza special. There's no doubt we'll all have a good laugh (again) at all of the random bras that hang above the stage, remnants of wilder nights from the past. It's our favorite place to go hang out when special people are in town. 

And Justin qualifies.

Having Justin here doesn't make me miss my girl any less. It's just a different kind of complete. My house is full today. Boys are everywhere. Jokes are being thrown around freely. Food is being sucked out of the back corners of my pantry. The whirlwind won't end until we drop him off at the airport next week.  I still miss my girl. But for a brief time I have my other boy back.

And it feels good.

Finding My Way Back

My wonderful family, the day before Thanksgiving 2012

So it's been a bit crazy the past few months.

I've neglected this blog. Although it's something I regret, I don't know if it was avoidable. Part of the purpose of this blog was to post the parenting columns I used to write for our NY newspaper. I loved the deadline that forced me to, as my writer's group in NY used to say, 'get my butt in the chair'. Every week I had to come up with just under a thousand words, talking about what was going on in our little world of parenting four growing kids. It forced me to journal and I love going back to read those entries. 

Then I suddenly stopped being so diligent. The newspaper job went away with the news we were leaving town. It's kind of impossible to write a local column when you no longer live in the state. 

Over the course of 2011 we moved across the country to Colorado. Yes, it took a full year. A year full of glitches and frustrations that I was not unhappy to see turn into a different year. I was much more fond of this present year. It's hard to believe we're about to move into 2013, which will officially be our second New Years celebration in Colorado.  

This new year brought many changes, life speed bumps that kept me from this blog. Some good. Some not so good. Health issues. Graduated kids and their changing life plans. New jobs to adapt to. Finally permanent housing to move into, with boxes to unpack, bedrooms to be personalized. Then there was the completion of the book.

This book that I've been writing for over eight years, about the journey to being an amputee mom. The life journey that led me to beg every doctor I could find to do me a favor and cut off that old mangled foot. Then finding one who had the trust that I wouldn't sue him. Then the amazing new life I got to discover with the help of a prosthetic foot that did so much more than my old flesh and bone foot ever could. 

That book. 

The one that sat in my files and got some attention every now and then. A tweak here. A bit of editing there. Changing chapters, re-writing like crazy. Sending the partial manuscript out to willing friends and adjusting things with their suggestions. Minor changes, major overhauls.

For eight years.

In January of 2012 another stone was laid in the path that led to finally finishing my book. I checked out a new book at the library, as I often do. This one was about a breast cancer survivor. I love a good memoir and this one inspired me, once again, to pull out my own manuscript.

I emailed the author, to tell her I loved her book. She emailed me back the same day. Through a series of communications she strongly encouraged me to get my book going. She'd self published her book, originally, and later it was picked up by a publisher. I was intrigued.

The more research I did on self publishing, the more I began to see a home for my manuscript. The publishing world is changing quickly. Self publishing is not the scarlet letter it used to be. If a book is quality, it will be paid attention to, self published or not. I dove into more research, even as I was still unpacking moving boxes
Then another stone fell in my lap. A friend I'd known well when we were children, showed up on facebook. In a few get-back-acquainted messages she mentioned she'd be interested in looking over my manuscript. She had a journalism degree and was open to giving me a few pointers. 

A few pointers turned into a six month long, practically full time adventure. She dove in with gusto and polished that manuscript until it finally felt just right. 

Our goal was to get it published by August 1st. We only missed our deadline by a month. Summer slipped away in the midst of fact checking, line editing and final reads. Then suddenly it was in my hands. This book I'd worked on for so many years. The picture that graced the cover was taken by my husband, a month before we published. My author photo was taken by my 11 year old on the morning that my editor friend insisted she needed one to add to the! 

Anyone who has written a book knows that the publication date is just the beginning. For the past two months I've been knee deep in marketing. I have sent out fliers to every friend who offered to post one. I've also sent out large batches to Orthopedic hospitals and rehab facilities. I want this book in the hands of anyone touched by amputation. It's the story of how losing a limb can be a good thing. It's a story of hope, and doing all you can to get the life you really want. 

I bought the domain name and built a book website, loading it with essays about elective amputation, links for amputee support, before and after pictures, and links to buy the book ( I've sent out news releases to many newspapers, magazines and talk shows. I've had a few good newspaper articles written, including a front page story in my childhood hometown paper. Two weeks ago I was in my hometown and had a very successful book signing. Yesterday I got an email telling me my book is now shelved in my local library, a fact that gave me great joy. Next week the TV station in Columbia Missouri will run a piece about my book and my amputation decision. Slowly, slowly the word is getting out there. 

But on the flip side of my life, my kids keep growing, things keep changing around here, and I feel a deep need to start documenting it again. If nothing else, for my own peace of mind ten years from now, when my house is eerily quiet and I wonder where all the chaos went. 

The book marketing will continue. But so will my job as being mom to these kids, wife to this man I share my life with. Two days ago we celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. Tomorrow is my 46th birthday.

It's time to once again start documenting this life we've created, and write something that's not necessarily related to 'the book'. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Birth of a Book!

So, it's coming soon! After working on this manuscript for eight years, the book will finally be in my hands in a matter of weeks. I apologize for neglecting this blog for the past few months. I've been knee deep in kid issues and editing issues. I hope to get back here soon.

But for now, keep your eyes open for the release of my book "Just One Foot".

You can see photos from my journey and find resources for amputees at the book's website -

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

For Two Weeks Mine

They arrived on a flight from San Francisco, two young faces, with slightly nervous smiles. The airline escort walked them out of the plane, handed me the paper to sign, and suddenly they were mine.

Not forever mine. But for two weeks mine.

These two children, my niece and nephew, who I somehow love as deeply as my own, even though I have never spent more than two days a year with them, were finally going to hang out with my family and make some real, lifetime memories.

They were both born in Wales, the country their mama calls home. My husband’s brother was wise enough to marry her, after finding her to be the lovely mix of kindness and fun. She’s the perfect kind of sister to me, all the good stuff and none of the childhood sibling baggage.

When she gave birth to Tiger, just months after I’d had my fourth child, my heart literally ached to see this child. I often received photos in the mail, of a round faced cherub, and wondered if I’d ever get to know her, really know her. I signed every card and email with the words, “tell her Aunt Judy loves her…”

And then, after a couple of years, just ‘tell her…’

A few years later a preschool Tiger got a brother. He was named Soul, a name that suits him perfectly. The day he was born his daddy called us from Wales, having just come home from the hospital after a long day filled with labor and birth. On the way home he had stopped by the pub for a minute, as any good Welsh would do, whether born there or just transplanted. So by the time he called us he was a flying just a bit, high on new life and magical moments.

His brother, my husband, was at work, with the time difference and all, so I was blessed to be the one who spent the next hour on the phone, hearing Soul’s daddy gush about how good life was, how amazing having a son felt, and how incredibly much it made him miss his own dad.

It’s a phone call I’ll never forget. One of those moments frozen in time, when you know as it’s happening that this is what life is all about. Ever since that day I’ve felt a few notches closer to this brother-in-law, because he chose to share that one special day in his life with me through a very long distance phone call.

As my niece and nephew grew up in the Welsh countryside I sent them cards and packages. Their mama sent me pictures of them camping on the beach and attending local fairs. Their little bodies grew into taller bodies and their baby faces became those of full fledged children.

Occasionally we caught up with them in New Hampshire, when they’d make a rare flight across the pond to visit grandparents and we could manage to get there ourselves on the same days. I took a zillion pictures of them, in those brief snippets of together time, knowing they would change so much before I got to see them again.

Then four years ago we got great news. The whole gang was moving to San Francisco. We lived in New York at the time. They were still three thousand miles away from us, but at least we didn’t need passports to go see them anymore.

Two years ago they came to visit us in New York. We spent a few glorious days showing them our world and soaking in all the hugs we could.

Two months ago my sister-in-law called and asked if they could come stay with us in our new home state of Colorado, while she went back to Wales to see her family. I jumped at the chance. Finally an opportunity to know these two children I have adored from afar…really really know them.

Nothing makes you know a child better than being their surrogate mom for a few weeks. There’s something priceless and intimate about being the one in charge of what they eat, how often they brush their teeth, and how they’re doing emotionally once they start getting the homesick blues.

They are eleven and eight now. The perfect ages to be independent, but still blend in with our busy household. There are no diaper bags or naptimes. Just big kids who can hang out and find their own fun when nothing is planned, and also appreciate the times when we do take an afternoon to go exploring.

Yesterday my son Isaac and I went to the airport to pick them up. After paying our dues by standing in line at the check in desk, then making our way through security with my metal leg (that always attracts attention from the TSA officials), we found ourselves standing at the arrival gate.

And then there they were. A bit taller than the last time I’d seen them, but the faces were still so familiar. Just like any mom (or aunt), I could still see every year of their growing-up faces… the two year old face, the four year old face…mixed into their smiles.

I signed the airline paperwork and we were on our way to baggage claim. It was such a joy to see these two kids, who are so photographically familiar to me, fall in so easily with my tall teenager. They became instant siblings.

We rode the tram to the other end of the terminal and stood together, sharing jokes and stories, as we watched the baggage carousel go round and round. On the drive home we stopped for a burger and an Icee, then made our way out of a scorching Denver, up to our mountain town where the temperatures are ten degrees cooler and the heat is chased off by random mountain breezes.

The afternoon was spent trying out their new world. They jumped on a trampoline with my other kids and the assorted neighbor kids who stopped by. Soul couldn’t get enough of the ninja warrior salmon ladder my older son built a few weeks ago. He also found a new use for the circular bike track my boys dug into our back yard. Forget the bikes, Soul likes to run it, hopping  through each bike jump on his skinny, nimble legs.

I love their in person smiles. I love their energy. I love their stories, of life moments I missed out on but can still experience, through their lively sharing.

Like their first day in the U.S. public school system, after attending a small school in the Welsh countryside. A new president named Obama had been inaugurated the day before. Their new classmates were hopping with excitement, the word “Obama” thrown around loosely. Tiger had no idea what, or who, an Obama was. She guessed it was maybe the principal’s name. When the class assignment was to write about how they felt about Obama’s inauguration, she had to ask for help from her new teacher.

Or when, in their first few days in America, they went as a family to Target, to get some furniture for their empty rental house. Before the shopping trip was over Soul had become separated from his family and a full Code Adam was announced. All doors were locked, every department searched, until my four year old nephew was once again found and reunited with his family. It’s a moment I’m sure Tiger will never forget.

Of course Soul’s first impressions with this new country were a bit more preschool boy oriented. He clearly remembers the small frog they found, clinging to the wall of his new bedroom. What more could a boy want in this new country, but a new bedroom that included hopping wildlife?

I had good intentions of getting them to bed early, on their first night in my care. They were both operating on very little sleep, from early morning flights and insomnia inducing excitement the night before. But when darkness fell, they were not ready for sleep quite yet. After an afternoon full of jumping on a trampoline surrounded by new friends and familiar cousins, it was time for a game of night time tag.

It gets very dark around here at night. So dark that my son nearly ran over a small deer when he was ‘it’ and quietly stalking around the outside perimeters of our house. I sat inside, writing at the computer, surrounded by darkness myself, as every light in our house had to be off to get the most serious effect for the game. But the sound of squeals and giggles lifted me.

This is what I’d waited for, for so many years. To have these two specific children under my roof, becoming real family with my own children.

Eventually everyone settled down into beds, and I’m sure the sand man came just minutes after I’d given the last hug and left their room. It was a full day, after all.

A day full of finally knowing these children I love like my own.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Year We Survived

The day before school started, he walked into her classroom and shook her hand for the first time. Two weeks before, he had taken a bad skateboard fall and ended up in the hospital with a concussion and a broken wrist. He had a fresh cast on his arm the day he signed the enrollment form to start Wilmot Elementary.
One week before, he had driven across the country with his mom and two brothers, making their way from their old home in New York to their new one in Colorado. Life seemed upside down and fractured, since their house on the East coast hadn’t sold and their family was forced to move in shifts. He was a bundle of nerves and anticipation as he crossed into her fifth grade classroom for the first time. Her mega watt smile and friendly disposition put him at ease.
He had no real home, on the day school started. The temporary lease on a tiny condo across the street from school still had fresh ink, and Colorado life was on hold until the New York life could be wrapped up. The teacher knew of his details and kept a close eye on him the first few days, and weeks, as a favor to his mama, a woman she’d only met once.
The teacher’s own mama heart scooped up this nomad child and made him feel welcome. More than half of his classmates had shared classrooms since kindergarten but he wouldn’t know that until much later. The climate she encouraged was one of inclusion and looking out for each other.
The boy’s mama moved back to New York and left her boy with the cast to live with his daddy and high school brother. His oldest brother had been dropped off at college just days before school started. Another bit of fracture to add to a fifth grader’s list.
Through September and October he struggled in the temporary furniture-bare condo home, missing his mama, way back in New York. He snuck into his tiny bedroom closet and called her on his cell phone, asking her every day when she’d be coming back to be with them. When he’d tell her he often cried himself to sleep it broke her heart. Trying to find ways to comfort him long distance, she’d send emails to his teacher, asking her to give him a proxy hug and make sure he was okay. The mama grew to trust that the teacher was doing exactly that.
As weeks went by the boy got outside a bit. He visited bike parks with his dad and rode mountain trails with his big brother. Even through all the feelings of loss…lifetime friends he’d left behind, the family pets who were still back East, and the comforting sense of having both parents in the same house…he started to fall in love with Colorado.
The names of new friends started to cross his lips. As he’d chatter about Windham, and Luke, on his nightly calls to his mom, she started to relax a tiny bit. Making friends is one of the first steps to feeling at home.
By the end of October his mama finally (finally!) drove that two thousand mile road again, this time bringing a special cat and dog with her. Life became a bit more crowded, as another person and two animals moved into the tiny space, but the boy relaxed a bit, finally having, at least, both of his parents at the dinner table each night.
The routine of school continued. Books read. Reports written. Homework done, then signed. His mama spent her days trying to keep the long distance house in order, while making their temporary quarters as homey as possible. She saw the notes that came home in the backpack, about helping with this school project or that one, but the day to day survival took up most of her time. No one at the school, and most importantly, the teacher herself, never judged, and only encouraged. The mother was deeply grateful.
The semester changed. A new year brought new changes. A move to a more permanent house and finally all of the boys belongings showed up from far away. By the end of February his sacred Legos were once again scattered across his bedroom floor and his old familiar favorite clothes were being pulled out of boxes. Homework continued, school activities continued, and the boy started to feel more settled. Loved by a large family at home, taught and nurtured by a big hearted teacher at school.
Every time his mom stopped by the school office, to sign him out for visits to the dentist, she was met with smiles. You see, the fifth grade classroom that had been the boy’s sanctuary for the unsettled months he’d lived through, wasn’t the only place in that building where love and laughter flowed freely. The boy’s mom began to look forward to every trip through those school doors, as she knew her spirit would be uplifted by the beautiful souls who sat behind the front office desks. This place called Wilmot had a knack for attracting the best of the best.
Spring brought many school events that everyone else seemed to be familiar with. The boy’s mom would drill her boy for information he’d learned at school, and scour his Friday folder for explanations of the next big festival or school dance. Being new in a school district means having to try twice as hard to just figure out what everyone else already knows.
Many times the boy’s mom would call on his teacher, through a quick email, asking for more details and clarification. Every email was met with patient explanation.
Spring brought two big events for the boy. One cold sunny afternoon his beloved old poodle got to come visit his classroom. After promptly leaving a ‘deposit’ in front of the school (she was a nervous girl, after all), she quietly walked through the brightly colored hallways and promptly took her place in front of his class. Cell phone pictures were snapped left and right as dozens of hands patted her curly head. The boy, who had grown to feel very at home in his fifth grade classroom, was thrilled to be sharing his life’s best friend with the people he saw almost every week day.
A few weeks later the school talent show was announced. The boy was immediately ready to share his talent of song, even though the talent bucket wasn’t a deep one. His mother was a bit worried, then a lot worried, when he announced he’d also be wearing a full body morph suit for his performance.
More emails to the teacher, who promised she’d help in any way she could. These desperate emails had a different tone than the ones from Fall, when it was all about keeping the boy comforted until a mother figure could show up. These emails were more about wondering where the line was in protecting your child from laughing peers versus letting him find his own way. And although the teacher’s own child was just a toddler, she had lots of older kid experience, and successfully assured the mother that all would be fine.
And, amazingly, it was.
The teacher’s mother skills were once again brought to the classroom when the boy’s fluffy old dog suddenly died one weekend. A week after a good check up at the vet she heaved her last breath, with the boy holding her head in his arms. It was another devastating blow to the boy, one that once again needed home and school support.  The mother didn’t hesitate to email the teacher. She kept her mommy eye on the boy, as she taught math and science, and assured the boy’s mom that he was holding his own at school.
Then one day, not even a week after his lifetime best friend died, the boy was just too sad to go to school. The grief was too big, the pain grasping too tightly on his heart. The mom made one of those hard decisions and kept him home, emailing the teacher about the ‘real’ reason for her son’s absence. Instead of judgment or  criticism, the teacher emailed back, saying she completely understood, and at the end of her words she included, "Please don't ever apologize for parenting your son. We will soon be a distant memory for him; he can make up school work. He can't make up mom and family time, especially if that was what he was needing. Thank you for loving your son."
The mother was deeply touched and grateful.
And then the end of the school year arrived. The teacher announced she’d be moving from the fifth grade classroom to the second grade classroom. Either way, the boy would be moving on to middle school and rarely be exposed to her stabilizing force anymore. She’d move on. He’d move on. Both to find new adventures and new challenges.

The night of the fifth grade graduation the mom and the teacher both had tears flowing down their cheeks as the slide show flashed pictures of smiling babies who had turned into mature young students. The mom’s tears continued as the lights were turned back on, as she tried to contain all the gratitude and love that had slowly accumulated for the teacher, after nine long months of transition and neediness, laughs and smiles.

But that’s the problem with teachers. The really good ones just do what they do, day after day, caring and encouraging and loving, and never ask for praise. And the moms and dads who really need them to branch out beyond teacher duties feel bad asking for anything more. But really good teachers never flinch at such requests. They never hesitate, saying, “Of course!” sometimes even before the request is fully voiced.

Because they are people first. They are moms and dads first. They bring to the classroom their big personalities and their optimistic views of life and they pour them into our children. Fueled by an occasional mention at a graduation ceremony or a teacher appreciation day, they plug forward.

As this school year draws to a close, this year that was the single hardest year of my son’s life, I am more grateful than I can adequately express. For a teacher who recognized my son’s need, then recognized mine, and did everything in her power to help us both. She will always be one of the shining stars when I think of my son’s childhood.
The teacher who pulled us both through.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Deep Loss

Grief is hard. I was aware of this fact long before today. It first hit me, in a small wave, when my grandfather died. I was in middle school and it bothered me that the whole world kept going about its business as we rode by in the Lincoln Town Car, on our way to put my loving, fun grandpa in the ground.
Then I felt it in a life changing way when my mom died. I was in my mid twenties, with two very little children. She was healthy one day and gone the next. I never knew what true grief was until that second day.

It’s a blessing and a curse that my own children have not known much of this thing called grief. We lost a hamster or two back when they were in elementary school. There was a lot of crying, many nights of having trouble getting to sleep because they missed him. But back then they had no idea what real sadness meant. Today, they know.
On Friday our curly haired family dog got sick and was gone within 24 hours. She’d just been to the vet on Monday, our first visit in this new state. It was a visit to just get her in the system. She hadn’t been sick. We talked about her minor ailments - a fatty tumor that was growing on her shoulder that our NY vet had found to be benign, and some patches of skin where she’d lost her hair, probably from the extremely dry Colorado climate.

Our new vet, Dr. Amy, lovingly sat on the floor next to her for the examination. She gave her treats in between her yearly shots, and made her feel like the queen my kids believe her to be.
Then Dr. Amy got real. She explained to me that Kylie was in great shape…for a dog her age. But the reality was, she was at the top of the charts when it came to longevity for her breed. I had noticed that chart on the wall when we first came into the room. It was hard not to notice that Kylies age put her in the ‘extremely geriatric’ category.

Of course we knew she was old. But loving a dog makes you wear blinders sometimes. Most of us assumed we’d get a few more years, maybe even five, if we kept feeding her the right foods and kept her active. My oldest son even admitted that he’d signed her up for the ‘Never Going to Die’ club. He’d also signed up his 84 year old grandpa while he was at it.
Dr. Amy lovingly gave me the facts. Even being in good shape, a poodle just doesn’t live to be 14. Even 13 is a stretch. Kylie was twelve and a half. Those numbers hurt my heart.

That night as we sat on the back porch having our first barbeque of the season, I told the kids what Dr. Amy had said. There was some joking around, because that’s how teens handle hard to hear news sometimes. My oldest son, who is weeks away from leaving for the military, wondered if he’d have to get a phone call about her passing, and how it might be awkward, being surrounded by all the guys in his Army unit. We made plans for things we could do with her, to make her life more enjoyable for the short time she had left.
But I think we all got it. We were all a little humbled, knowing we had just a brief time with our precious puppy, who wasn’t a puppy anymore.

Even as I stressed that it was doubly important that we feed her only dog food and keep her exercised, the teens agreed amongst themselves that if you only have a year to live, you deserve a few extra treats now and then. Kylie scarfed up every nibble of grilled chicken that her kids ‘accidentally’ dropped that night.
We all gave her more attention as the week went on. She was her normal self, as healthy as always,  and she ate up all the hugs, pats and verbal praise. We were seeing her with new, grateful eyes, and she couldn’t help but eat it up.
On Friday we got our first sign that something was up. Without getting too graphic, she started having drastic bowel troubles. This dog who normally did her business two times a day, religiously, was now visiting the yard every hour, and then six times through the night. By Saturday she had become a lot more mellow, spending long stretches in her doggie bed.
I knew it couldn’t be something fatal. We’d just been at the vet FIVE days before. She’d had the yearly blood work and examination. From what the vet could see, she was healthy. I was sure it had to be a reaction to the supplements we’d started her on. Thinking it would help her longevity, she started getting ‘treats’ to help her joints and her very dry skin. A phone call to her vet verified that this might be our problem.
We agreed to stop the supplements for the time being. The problem was, as Saturday evening came, we could see it was something more. This dog who adored food and lived for every last bread crumb dropped on the kitchen floor, had no interest in food. Forget the supplements, she wouldn’t even eat the tiny pieces of grilled chicken the kids so lovingly cut up for her.
When I’d been in Dr. Amy’s office, I’d asked her, bluntly, what were going to most likely be the signs that our dog was about to die. She’d said that either arthritis would kick in and destroy her quality of life, or a quick cancer or disease would take over and within days she’d be gone. With the second scenario, we’d notice that Kylie stopped eating as much, was drinking too much (or not at all), and was very lethargic. But, she assured me, in those scenarios, there was usually a pretty quick death, and very little suffering. That’s what we wanted most, for Kylie not to suffer.
And just five days after that little talk, I was watching it play out in front of my eyes.
Into Saturday evening she was unable to lift her head. At bedtime, Sam snuggled in next to her on the floor of my bedroom and cringed every time her breathing got raspy. I joined him as I realized this might be our last night with her.
The household had become solemn on Saturday evening. We all knew what no one wanted to say. We all dealt with it differently. Sam hovered, laying next to this buddy he’s known most of the years he’s had memory. My daughter hovered over her youngest brother, comforting him, and then, when it got to be too much, escaped to watch TV at her boyfriend’s house. Sam’s oldest brother periodically came over to pet her and remind her how much he loved her, then would disappear back to the bed, where he and dad were trying to stay distracted by TV.
My middle son, the one I call Dr Doolittle because of his bond with animals, did something that confused me at the time but makes perfect sense now. He ran off to spend the night at his best friend’s house. I should have recognized that the thought of losing her was too much for him to handle and he spent that whole night laying awake on a sleeping bag in his friend’s basement, wondering if she had died yet.
Then it happened. Her breathing got more labored. I stroked her head for hours, telling her over and over again how much we loved her, how lucky we were to have found her under that desk at the animal shelter, and how we’d never ever forget her. She looked at me with those huge brown eyes, the same ones that begged for scraps when I was making dinner every night, and eagerly greeted me every morning as she not-so-patiently waited for me to put my leg on, so she could have breakfast.
With a few last twitches, she was gone. The house seemed extra still. Sam had dozed off, after moving up to my side of the bed, but Jeff was awake, aware of the inevitable as he analyzed her breathing from across our small room. He came and said his last goodbyes, stroking that curly fuzzy head that we knew so well. Sam woke up a few minutes later, and without a word, knew it had happened. He came down to the floor and scooted himself in between his dog and me and let out a few sobs.
Eventually we covered her with some towels and crawled back into bed, the three of us huddled together in shared sadness.
The next morning the kids found out, one by one. Knowing it was coming didn’t make it any easier for them to hear the news. Immediately I felt her absence. Her food and water dishes sat empty, no one hovering over them, strongly suggesting I get busy and fill them. No one sat outside the bathroom door, right up next to the door, so when I opened it I was always forced to literally step over her.
The thought did not escape me that she’d chosen to go just in time for one of her favorite people, my soon to be military son, to be around to say his goodbyes in person.

We took turns crying. Then we rounded up the troops and went for a drive. In the past week, after getting the reality check from Dr. Amy, I’d been doing some research. It finally sunk in that Kylie would die in Colorado (at the time I thought some day) and I was beginning to make plans in my head, because when things like that happen, everyone turns to mom to see what we do next. I’d discovered a beautiful farm just down the road from us, that had people and pet cemeteries. They also did cremations. In the fields around the headstones there are wild buffalo and reindeer roaming. We decide to go see it in person.
The car was unusually quiet. As a family we’ve hit some major road bumps along the way, many of them in the past year. But we’ve never had a major death. My mom and Jeff’s dad both died either before we had kids, or when they were just babies. In their memoires, my kids have never lost a grandparent. This was their first big loss.
Someone once told me that as a parent we should respect first love, and the depth of heartache that comes with a first break up. The reasoning was that one’s first experience with love and devotion are paving the way, and they are truly the deepest feelings a teenager had had, at that point in his life. Later they’ll see that love, and grief, can go deeper. But for that moment, it hurts more deeply than they can even believe. And it’s real grief.
I feel the same way watching my kids mourn for this special dog. She was rooted into our family. She survived a cross country move with us, being adaptable along the way, despite her age and tendency to be a Nervous Nelly. The love they have for her is as deep as it gets. The only loss that could hurt more, and be more personal to them, would be to lose one of their parents or grandparents. This dog, who they saw every single day, who they interacted with every single day, who taught them to look out for someone else’s needs even when that someone had no ability to speak her needs, was a cavernous part of their lives.
And now we all have to wrap our brains around the fact that she’s gone. She’ll never again sit by the back door, begging to be let in by politely scratching the glass of the sliding door. She’ll never rub her head along the edge of my bed, desperate to wake me so she could start the day. She’ll never again visit Sam’s classroom and be the hit of the day. We will never again walk her through a dog park, attracting comments and visits from every other dog lover there, because her tendency to look like some kind of small sheep just couldn’t be ignored.
We’ll take her to the mortuary this afternoon and then decide where we should spread or bury her ashes. My Dr. Dolittle casually mentioned (in the days before we knew we’d lose her this week) that it would be nice to take some of her ashes with him on all of his mountain bike rides, so he could spread them slowly around all the mountainous places he loves to explore. I’d kind of like to bury a few of them, and mark the spot with a cairn, so that in decades to come, these children of mine can take their spouses and children of their own to that spot, and tell them stories about a great dog named Kylie.
I’ll miss those dark brown pools of her eyes and the soft curls that met my hand every time I reached out to pet her.  We all will. But as I keep reminding my kids, when the tears just won’t seem to let up, she’s happy now, romping around in some kind of paradise, eating all the dog treats she wants. She’s no longer old, no longer at risk for scary debilitating disease and ailments. She’s at peace.
It will just take a very long time for the family she left behind to feel the same.