Friday, July 31, 2009

Who's Scamming Who?

Our friend Nina was here this week, visiting from Brazil. On yet another rainy day in New York she and Michael decided to play a rousing game of Scrabble. The only hitch was that she played in Portugese and he played in English.

He is not my best speller. Like his maternal grandfather, he prefers to spell phonetically. In their world, the word 'pizza' is spelled 'pitza'. I'm not kidding.

So when I walked in on this game and started studying the board I realized they had a pretty good thing going. Michael has no idea whether the words Nina puts down are 'real' and Nina can pretty easily be convinced that Michael's made up English words are genuine. It was a classic case of win-win, Scrabble style.

Mystery Illness

Having four kids ranging in age from 8 to 17 means I've seen a wide range of health issues. (not to mention my own amputee status). My little guy, Sam, is generally a really healthy kid. Besides a nice long set of ten stitches to the forehead in the spring and an incredibly mild case of asthma that almost never flares up, not much gets him down.

So when he started getting mystery fevers about two weeks ago, I was concerned. It started on a Wednesday when, out of the blue, with no other symptoms, he spiked a fever. But only for four hours. Then it went away and he felt fine and seemed fine. Until 24 hours later, when it would hit again. A three to four hour fever, usually around 103.5 that Tylenol would barely touch. Day after day, the same pattern.

By the fourth day we decided to skip the 'run its course' philosophy and get some professional help. Doc looked in all the right orifices and saw no troubling developments. No hint as to why he continued to have the daily four hour fever. So she put him on a mild course of antibiotics and we all hoped for the best.

And the best seemed to come. The fevers stopped a few days later and we had a nice long five day run of normal healthy kid status. During the healthy spell we went to New Hampshire for some pretty crazy family parties. He ran the bases in whiffle ball and jumped his legs off in the bounce house. It seemed our boy was back to good health.

Sunday morning he ran a 5K through the woods with his two brothers and his aunt and uncle. Auntie coached him with his breathing about halfway through, knowing it must be his asthma flaring up in the humid weather. He joined his brothers and his uncle in the winner's circle, claiming top time in his age class. We were even more confident that our boy was back to good health.

Monday rolled around and like a punch in the arm I got a call at work from my teen daughter. "Sam just threw up in the middle of Wal-mart and now he's burning up." Fever check - 103.5.

I made the appointment with doc but then canceled it the next morning when Sam had been perfectly fine for over 18 hours. Two hours later he calmly walked away from me in the bike store and threw up in their bathroom.

Then spiked a fever on the way home. You guessed it - 103.5.

I started to panic. My healthy kid had something going on but it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. In all of our weird medical dramas, we've never had a spiking fever that only lasted a few hours a day. No other symptoms. No other discomfort. I was afraid this was how the big bad scary stuff started.

We showed up at Doc's office first thing Wednesday morning. He ticked off the list of questions - "Ears hurt? Throat hurt? Coughing? Headache?" Every item on the list was a no. Peeks in all the same places showed no signs of ear or throat problems.

Then he got out the stethoscope. Concern crossed his face. We were marched down to the Xray room. Sam got to stand on a chair and wear a lead skirt while I stood behind a windowed wall and prayed he didn't fall off the chair and need more stitches.

Xray guy offered to let Sam 'see his guts' on the developed film and as soon as the light board clicked on I knew. My symptomless boy was walking around with a hidden boo boo. One lung was nice and black on the xray, meaning it was full of good air. The other had a top section that was black but a huge bright white area. Not good. White means fluid.

He had a classic case of pneumonia. And the only symptom his body gave us was a random out of control fever, once every 24 hours.

Bloodwork confirmed that my boy is fighting off some pretty big bugs. He's on a two week course of hard core antibiotics and I've been read the riot act about keeping him 'still' so he can recover. That's hard to do for a kid who doesnt really feel sick.

Looking back, the trouble on the 5K race course had little to do with asthma. It had a lot to do with the fact he was running with a lung full of fluid. He is so proud of the soda glass and tshirt he won in that race. He was encouraged and eager to run another one soon.

But first I will make him be 'still' for a bit. Let his body fight off this silent illness that crept in so mysteriously. Because who knows how fast he might be if he were running with two lungs full of air.

Help from Boys

We were staying at the in-laws last weekend and I asked to borrow a hair dryer. It's a simple machine, with one button, so when I couldn't get it to turn on I called Isaac in to help.

He fiddled with it for about five seconds then turned to me and said in all seriousness, " where's the safety on this thing?"

Guns and hair dryers have so much in common.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Relaxed Rules

My oldest two were best friends for the first five years of their lives. Being just over a year apart they had a built in best friend in those early years. Then school started and they found their own 'friends circles'.

So the other day it was easy for Michael to misunderstand a comment I made to his sister.

She had come to me, asking if she could spend the night at Toni's house. Toni is one of her best friends. She's a sweet, respectful girl. I looked at the calendar and decided it would be fine. "Sure," I said.

Michael, who had just walked into the office, looked shocked and horrified. "What?" he exclaimed, "What?"

"What's the matter with you?" I asked, "It shouldn't concern you. She and Toni won't be here to bother you."

Again he looked shocked and was now speechless. It wasn't until he found his voice again that I finally understood what horrified him so much.

"I can't believe it!" he said, "You're lettin' her spend the night with a DUDE?"

I guess to a guy's ears, a 'Toni' can only be a male.

My Other Daughter

At the end of this week I get to hug my other daughter. She is not blonde like my first daughter. She has shiny black hair and she's spent her life so far living in Brazil. Portuguese is her first language. I did not give birth to her and didn't watch her take her first steps. In fact I hugged her for the first time just a year ago, when she was thirteen. Okay, she's not really my daughter. But I love to claim her as my own. She is officially the niece of a close friend from college.

When my real daughter was thirteen she visited my college friend in Brazil. They spoiled her, took her to all the sites in Rio and Sao Paulo, and scooped her up into their family as they watched New Years fireworks on the gorgeous beaches of Rio. She became their American daughter.

Two years later they sent Nina to visit us. It was natural to return the favor and show her all the fun things we love about our little piece of the United States. We drove to New Hampshire and rang in the Fourth of July with red, white and blue clothes and food. The nation's birthday was the perfect time to show off our country. We picked strawberries and drove to the coast of Maine. We splashed in the cold Atlantic and took pictures on the rocks by the shore. We explored Vermont on the drive home and then hit the amusement parks the next day. But despite all the plans to show her a good time, this child who very quickly began to feel like my own, decided she loved the simple stuff the best.

They have a lot of great things in Brazil but some of the things my kids count as staples were foreign to our international visitor. Kool-aid turned out to be a new surprise. After she inquired about the 'colored water' in our fridge we decided she should learn to make this yummy beverage. We got out the small square packets and the jar of sugar. My kids showed her how to balance the funnel on top of the jug and measure out just under a cup of the white crystals. They took turns violently shaking the container then samples were poured into small cups. She took a long sip, licked her lips, then announced, "it's like drinking candy." I had to agree. And when she asked why we drink this concoction, all I could think to answer was, "because it's like drinking candy."

Chocolate chip cookies were another thrill. Instead of cheating and buying readymade dough (like I usually do) we pulled all the baking supplies out of the cabinet and measured, creamed and stirred until we had a perfect dough. She quickly got the hang of dropping little mounds of goo on the cookie sheet and then patiently baby sat the oven until the timer went off. The hardest part was waiting for them to cool just enough to pick one up. They melted in our mouths and the joy on her face brought her another notch closer to my heart.

The biggest surprise came to us on her last night in our home. She easily melted into the couch, mixed in with her American siblings, laughing at crazy American shows like "Wipeout". On this particular night she began fiddling with a Nerf gun she'd found on the couch next to her.

She toyed with the sniper light, aiming it at the boys. It didn't take long for them to bite. Before the next commercial break, they had all found their own Nerf guns, collected stray bullets, and the war games began. Round after round, way past bed time, they all joined forces and set up battles. My new dark haired daughter was in the zone. She ran up and down the stairs, in and out of the bedrooms, just like she was one of us. And by that point she was.

While we waited at the airport the next day, dreading the moment we had to let her go, I asked her what she liked best about her visit and what had surprised her the most. Of course she talked about Nerf gun wars, cakes made with blueberries and strawberries (that she'd picked herself) and having the chance to drive a riding lawn mower for the first time. The official entertainment I'd worked hard to arrange for her visit turned out to be pretty low on the list. And as for the things she had not expected about the U.S., her answer surprised me. "The smells," she said, "Everything smells different here." She went on to describe how the foods and treats we cook here make our houses have aromas she's never experienced before. Even stores (and airports) had scents she was not familiar with. It had never occurred to me that every day smells could differ from one country to another.

So this week, when my Brazilian daughter is in our fold again, I will not try so hard to entertain her. Under her father's strict orders I will let her be, let her hang out with her American siblings, let her get to know the everyday America she wonders about so much.

And I wouldn't be a good mom if I didn't stock up on cookie dough, Kool-aid and Nerf gun bullets.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


As the weekend approaches my mental list of projects grows longer. All week I carry a piece of paper in my pocket, a running tally of things I need to do once I get home from work. But when things don't get done on week nights, they automatically get bumped to the Saturday/Sunday list.

Which is why I had no intention of sitting by a lake in a lawn chair this past Saturday morning, watching little boys run wild. I accidentally fell into a pretty great morning that didn't involve brooms and dustpans, Windex or dust rags.

Isaac has a good friend who loves to fish. Isaac's dad and I are not fishing kind of people. We love being outdoors. Jeff's an archaeologist. He would be exploring the outdoors eighteen hours a day if life and mortgage payments allowed. He fished some with his dad when he was growing up. But it wasn't one of our priority outdoor activities. So when Isaac and his buddy started the summer off by biking to the lake every day to catch and release a few floppy little friends we took note.

By the second week of summer vacation he decided a fishing pole was the only item on his birthday wish list. He and dad made the inaugural trip to Wal-Mart and filled the cart with fishing line, tackle boxes, poles, bobbers, and all sorts of other slimy things they called bait. We learned where you could buy live worms within biking distance of our house. And suddenly my boy had a new hobby. Something to fill summer days and keep him away from video games and mindless TV. Something that was all his own, no older brother or sister had passed it down to him.

Then he came home and said he'd signed up for a fishing contest. We didn't think much of it. He and Sam would be spending the night at his fishing friend's house then heading over to the local lake early in the morning. Sounded like a good, productive way for a couple of boys to spend a weekend morning.

Jeff and I tried sleeping in, knowing our two 'little guys' were not even in the house on Saturday morning. Then came the text that they were in desperate need of sandwiches and lawn chairs. Enough laying there pretending to sleep while we wondered how it was all going. We had our excuse to go 'just check on them'.

By the time we pulled up in a van full of emergency supplies (snacks!) the boys had been standing by that sunny lake for two hours, without a single bite. They were ready for a change of pace. Sandwiches were devoured while Jeff and I set up the chairs. And suddenly my day had moved in a new direction. Nothing close to what I had on any of my assorted lists, but something I am happy I fell into.

With a perfect light breeze blowing ripples on the water in front of us I hunkered down in my chair and watched my boys interacting with their friends. I witnessed one incident of 'accidentally falling into the lake' and two incidents of lines being snagged in nearby trees. I witnessed three boys who act tough and macho in everyday life jump and scream when a six inch turtle made a sudden movement in the water by their feet. I saw my ever patient husband string and re-string fishing poles with new bobbers, bait and lead weights.

I also saw many other families and friends doing the same things. Man friends squatted by the water's edge, discussing fish and kids and life. A pack of teenage girls setting up chairs and stringing poles like experts, defying teen girl stereotypes. Little boys running up and down the shore, chasing bugs, ducks and the free spirit of childhood. And it was all good.

By the end of the morning we had one catch. Of the five boys in our group only one actually caught an actual fish. And that happened to be Sam, the little brother of my boy who's taken up fishing. It didn't win any prizes but it sure was a lot of fun to reel in and carry up to the judges stand.

And I got the classic picture. That picture that says childhood, no matter which set of eyes is looking back into the camera. A kid standing by a lake shore, clutching a pole in one hand and a line with a fish dangling on it in the other.

It turned out to be a pretty great day. Forgetting about lists and obligations and remembering what life is about. Snatching up the chance to see my boys as their lives unfold in new ways and snap pictures that will fill my eyes with nostalgic tears in just a handful of years.

It was good to be reminded that the stuff that matters in the long run has very little to do with all those notes I put on my to do list.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Gully Hunting

Over the weekend we were driving the back roads of Massachusetts and accidentally found "Balancing Rock State Park". The road to the gigantic rock had been mangled by our non stop spring rains. As we bumped along I said, "Wow...look at all the gullies! I don't know if I've ever seen so many in one place."

Sam, with his limited life experience, popped his head up from the back and yelled out, "Gullies? What's a gully? I wanna see a gully!"

We promised him that if he got an appropriate cage, we'd buy him a gully for his birthday.

Everybody Limbo!

What happens when Richie Rich encounters a stop light.

Stop the Parade!

We have a shoe emergency!

When Fire Trucks Have Babies

He followed closely behind his mommy through the whole parade.

I hear they grow their sirens in the second year of life.

When People Look

Sometime in the middle of last winter Sam went to the ER two times in three weeks. Once was a fall on the school playground. The suspended bridge on said playground is not very forgiving when eight year old skulls smack into it. His explanation - "I didn't duck enough." Dad dashed him to medical attention and he got off with a few well placed butterfly bandages.

The second incident happened at home. My boy who skis expert hills, skateboards with his teen aged brothers and could bunny hop his bike in his sleep (and never gets hurt) was running through the living room and tripped. A sturdy bookcase and his forehead had a quick encounter and within seconds our tan living room rug was covered in red. This one was a doozy. We packed a washcloth into it (did I mention it was deep?) and made the familiar drive. Later that night we walked out of the ER with ten fresh new stitches marching across his head.

For the healing weeks he diligently covered them with a big Band-Aid. Soon it was time to lay on that paper covered table and let Dr. Karen snip out the remaining threads. He was left with a tender, red scar that would eventually fade but on that afternoon, it was pretty sensitive. We had to quickly run by the grocery store on the way home and I didn't realize until halfway down the middle aisles that my boy was quiet. Suspiciously quiet.

When I asked him if anything was wrong he looked up at me with sad puppy eyes and said, "Everybody's lookin' at me." He then pointed aggressively at his new branded forehead.

After giving him the automatic mom hug I pulled my digital camera out of my purse and took a picture of his forehead. Turning the viewfinder around, I showed him just how un-obvious his injury really was. It seemed to appease him, although he did insist on wearing his bangs down, 'long in front', for the next few weeks.

I am no stranger to feeling like 'people are looking'. For most of my walking life I have had reasons for people to look. I hid it well through childhood but the cumulative deterioration of my deformed foot made my limp much more noticeable in my twenties.

By the third decade of my life I was wearing a leg brace every day and limping too much to hide. Finally getting my artificial leg gave me the chance to blend in more, as my gait on some days can be almost normal. But in summer months, when I live in shorts, all bets are off.

My kids love to play a game that we have yet to name. They walk about twenty feet behind me, when we are in public places, and count how many people stare at my leg after I have walked by. It's an innocent, humorous game in our family, because it is inevitable that people will look.

To me it's expected.

I have metal where my ankle should be. My calf is made of plastic.That's not something you see every day.

I have to admit I look twice when I see someone with an artificial arm or leg. Not because I'm in their club, but because it's different.

My first prosthetist told me, 'your brain expects certain things. People have two arms and two legs that look a certain way. When someone deviates from the expected norm, your brain wants to figure it out. So you look again.' I like that explanation.

Some of my amputee friends struggle with wearing shorts. They cringe at the second looks or the children who downright stare. I tell them I have no problem showing off my leg because I understand why they are looking.

It's not because I'm weird. It's because I'm different. Not at all the same thing.

I often watch people as I stand in Wal-Mart waiting for a checkout line. There are a lot of people out there who limp a lot more than I do. Many of them have injuries that keep them sidelined. I might limp, but I'm doing what I need to every day and immobility is not holding me back. I feel luckier than many of them.

In fact, I figured out a long time ago that I will never know the actual thoughts of 99% of the people who give my bionic leg a second look. They'll walk away and I'll never know what they were really thinking.

So I get to pick. I get to pick what I think they were thinking.

And if I choose to assign them positive thoughts, it's much better for my mental health. So I choose to think they were admiring my leg. They were intrigued and fascinated with it. They thought it was really cool and wished they could find out more about it. Who cares if that's not what they were really thinking. I get to pick my assumptions, and those work for me.

Someone once told me that whenever you feel insecure in social situations, remember that most people are thinking about themselves, and how they are being perceived, not about you and whatever hang ups you happen to have.

We assume way too much about how much other people are judging us.

So when a boo boo forehead is troubling my boy, I can say with authority, "Sweetie, no one's staring at you. And if they happen to notice your stitches scar, they're probably thinking about how much it hurt you and how brave you must have been."

There are going to be plenty of times in his life where he has legitimate excuses to feel insecure.

Teaching him a healthy way to cope with those feelings is one of my most important jobs.

Don't Make Me Name the Baby

When I was a little girl I dreamed about having babies. Other little girls dressed up in fairy princess outfits and acted out their dream weddings. I packed my toy stroller with all the appropriate supplies and took my posse of baby dolls out for walks. Other little girls dressed and undressed their Barbie dolls, making sure she had just the right shoes for each outfit. My Barbie doll, dressed in only a practical pantsuit and sensible shoes, was no fashionista. She was the mom to a mismatched assortment of children. Any doll who was shorter than Barbie qualified as a child and my afternoons were spent lining up these assorted kids so Barb could make sure they were all well cared for.

Once my own real life children came along I was thrilled. My prince charming had shown up just in time, halfway through my college years, and by the time we'd both graduated we'd had many talks about our future offspring. We both came from big families so we were pretty sure we wanted to have more than the typical 2.5. We talked about finances and logistics. We talked about desired genders and spacing. But one thing we didn’t talk much about was names. I never knew it would be such a difficult part of the child producing process.

The first two were accidentally easy. Jeff came from a family of five boys so when we were engaged I joked with him that I needed a girl up front, then he could have all the boys he wanted. (words that would later come back to haunt me). Sometime in the middle of college I had heard a radio interview and the expert was named "Dr. Meredith Something or the Other." The name stuck with me. Meredith. Not trendy but not an exotic name. Something people would recognize and probably know how to spell without it being too common. It stuck in my head and I knew if I ever got that sacred daughter, her name was already chosen.

Jeff and I didn't really discuss names during my first pregnancy. It was a detail we overlooked as he worked full time and kept up graduate school hours at night. Somehow he coerced the Man upstairs into giving us a baby girl and as she was wailing her first cries of earthly air he turned to me and said, "So, I guess her name is Meredith?" And so it was.

Just a year later, in the same room, at the same hospital, her brother joined our family. Knowing our first son would carry his grandfather's name, Michael proved to be a second easy pick. But then we decided to try for the next baby.

As my belly grew round with each passing month I realized we were going to be stuck if we didn't at least discuss this matter. Both of our reserve names had now been used. We needed to get serious about picking another. Since we both have J names and our first two offspring had M names we knew we had to find something outside those alphabetical parameters. That left all the possible names starting with the remaining 24 letters. We were just a bit intimidated.

We needed to pick something that fit in a name trio. I knew that for the rest of our lives we would be saying these three names together. They had to have some kind of flow. We also liked unique but not weirdly different. Something special but not strange. Something friendly but not dorky. It became a huge burden.

We went to the library and checked out all of the baby name books. That became too overwhelming. There were hundreds of names in those books. They didn't feel real. They felt like words on a list. I needed to feel comfortable calling this kid's name in public. I needed to know how it sounded as I shouted it across the playground. I wanted to be proud when the nurse at the pediatricians called my child's name in a crowded waiting room. We scoured the credits of movies we watched. They provided a nice assortment of ideas from every culture. But nothing stuck. Nothing grabbed us.

We finally settled on a girl's name we both adored. The boy's name still escaped us but at least we had half the job done. Then came the telling ultrasound. No need for girly names. Back to square one. In a last ditch effort, I propped the baby name book up on my mountain of a belly and we methodically read the lists out loud to each other. As I read the name 'Isaac' and continued on, Jeff suddenly said, "Stop!...that's it!...Isaac." He paused. "What do you think?"

I loved it. It was different but in a good way. He could be Isaac, Zac, or Ike, depending on who he turned out to be. It was only later that we realized he fit nicely with his big brother, as they saw their names on the candy box for the first time, "Mike and Ike." He arrived safely in the world on Father's Day, and we were so relieved that the name picking job was complete.

Then, just to torture ourselves, we decided to have that fourth baby. We spent the first half of the pregnancy hoping it was a girl because we still loved our 'girl' name. And of course he was a boy. Which meant the only logical name we could give him was Sam.

Sam I Am.