He got it!
Hey All! Here is a brand new comic I've created. It's about a family who (surprise!) has a baby with Down Syndrome. You might recognize some of the characters....ahem. Yes, totally inspired by people I know. I plan to post this once a week. Friday Fun Day!
Last week, a thousand ducks descended on a lake nearby. Or so it seemed. They were everywhere, flapping, calling, swimming, squawking… and not a hunter in sight. Speckling the lake, splashing and dancing in migration preparations, they were leaving soon.
In marveling at their fleeting beauty, I almost ruined the moment.
“Ugh!” I complained. “They are so amazing, I can’t believe I don’t have my camera!”
Small One piped up. “Don’t worry, Mama. I’ll take a picture of them!” She opened her eyes wide, framed her hands and made a clicking noise. “See? I took a picture. Now I’ll remember it forever, ‘cause I have a camera in my mind.”
Hey! I’m the artist, why didn’t I think of that?
Can you even imagine the amount of laundry I do? I have seven kids, a dog who likes blankets, and a rabbit who sheds. And I am allergic to them (the pets, not the kids!) Every single day the kids play outside, digging, climbing, running, tearing holes in the knees of their pants…and I have more laundry.
I could despair. But I don’t.
Right now, at this moment, I have seven loads of laundry, piled high on the kitchen table. Did I mention it’s 7:00 a.m.?
I don’t despair because I have a secret.
A laundry weapon kind of a secret.
To be perfectly honest, every time my incredible mom comes over, she throws in a load of laundry before she says hello. If I have artwork to do, or an illustration due, she is the one to show up and fold towels so I have some extra time. But Mom Helping is no secret, it’s a well known fact. In addition to my wonderful Mother, I still have a secret.
About a hundred years ago, when I was in high school, I was complaining about laundry to a friend. In my ranting and moaning about folding shirts and ironing creases in our jeans, which I totally had to do, Missy stopped me.
“I love to do laundry!” She exclaimed.
“No, really. I love to do laundry. I pretend I work at the mall, and I get to fold all the perfect and beautiful clothes. It makes me happy because I get to keep them all.”
It’s a mind game.
It works. I look at the piles of clothing, towels and blankets, and I’m glad to have them. It’s difficult to imagine them new and hanging on a rack at Macy’s, but I have become grateful for my laundry. Grateful to be kept warm, grateful for the quilt and the dog that sheds on it, curled up and cozy when we weren’t looking. Grateful for the holes in the jeans, because the kid found so much joy in climbing the tree.
My laundry secret works in many different circumstances, too. For example, my truck has my son’s name scratched in the side of it. He picked up a rock back about age 5, when he learned his letters, and wrote his name on the side of our truck. He was so proud. And you know what? We left it there. I like it, because I am reminded of the pride and joy in his face when he showed me that he knew how to write his name.
I am free to choose to see the laundry and the scratches and dents of my life in any way I want. I can see things as a burden, as a drain and a pain. Or I can choose my secret weapon of positivity.
It’s called gratitude.
Stella loves a good party. One recent morning, I woke up, stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee, and found this.
She had the table all set for seventeen (count ‘em), and the pancake mix was out on the countertop with a bowl.
“Pancake party, Mom? Chocolate chip pancakes?”
It was six a.m. on a Saturday.
I hoped no one was really coming.
“Are you hungry, Stella?”
“Do you want me to make chocolate chip pancakes just for you? There’s no party. Only eight of us today.” I said. "And everyone's still sleeping."
“No. It’s a party!” she insisted.
She’s always loved parties. If she gained a year for every time we’ve sung “Happy Birthday, dear Stella” then she’d be in her eighties. When she was little, we used to pull out little birthday candles and put them in anything, anytime, just because her happiness and delight was so sincere and contagious. When she asked, we adorned muffins, pancakes, even mashed potatoes. Once we were at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, and Stell told the owner it was her birthday. So with much pomp and circumstance, they served up a plate of sticky rice, formed into a cake, glowing with a candle atop. She was ecstatic. The entire restaurant joined in the singing. Her little brother did get a bit jealous with all Stella’s birthdays, but he’s come around. She’s initiated many impromptu parties for him, too. Her surprise and joy cast a tone of happiness into each day. Why shouldn’t we celebrate a person we love, whenever we want to?
“Today is your birthday, Mom.” She smiles, caressing my cheek. “Happy Birthday to you!”
Thank God for paper plates.
One glance at this photo, and it’s just another pretty lake scene.
Oh, and it has a dead vine in it.
But is that all you see? Look at the vine, and see where it lives. Its home is a barbed wire fence.
Who wants a barbed wire fence for a home? There is beauty all around it, and it’s stuck in a barbed wire fence. Also it is leafless, naked and exposed.
Other plants get the lake, the grass, the cows…Our vine here gets the wire.
But think about it a different way… The vine has used the barbed wire to grow taller, greater. In fact, the barbed wire has given structure for the vine to grow. A foundation. The vine needs the barbed wire.
And even though it’s leafless with winter on the way, spring will come again.
When this season has passed, and the warm rains of spring return, new leaves will grow. Flowers will again cover the vine, and fruit will grow. Grapes, I think.
Maybe they will make the sweetest of wine.
And all because the farmer cared enough about the vine to give it a home of barbed wire.
At our house, the floor is strewn with paper dolls. You can find them anywhere; the living room, the hall, the stairs. This morning I found these four girls under my daughter’s pillow.
“What’s the story here?” I asked. “What happened to the crumpled doll?”
“Oh,” she said. “This is Grace. She’s all the same girl. This is Grace when she’s happy in the summer. This is her happy in the winter. This one is her happy in the spring. The big one is Grace when she’s at work. She’s a construction worker, and she works hard.”
I watched as my daughter proceeded to show me how Grace worked. She crumpled her up in a ball, sent her skittering across the room, retrieved her and started again. “See her working, Mom?”
I know just how Grace feels!
I have been working on this blog thing for one month now. Thank you to all the 3,500 visitors! Because of some very helpful feedback, I have set up a Facebook page for you to “like”. Also, the blog is re-designed and more user-friendly, I hope. You should be able to leave comments much easier now. Thank you for all the helpful and supportive feedback. Keep it coming!
In honor of Grace the paper doll, here is a little story about my first real job...
The summer after sixth grade, I borrowed my mom’s bike and rode down the highway to Cook’s farm, took a deep breath, knocked on the door and asked for a job. He had a golden tooth, Mr. Cook. His comb-over blew freely in the warm June wind, flapping against his sandpaper brown, wrinkly cheek.
“If you last on my farm,” he said, “you’ll be able to get a job anywhere. Everyone knows I only keep hard workers.” We walked together down the hill toward an immense and lush vegetable garden. “I’ll ring the porch bell when it’s break time. It’ll be the best icy cold drink you’ll ever have.”
I took the five gallon bucket he offered me, and set my jaw as I walked to my half-acre long row of beans. No more parochial school, sixth grade uniforms for me. I was on my way to public junior high in the fall, and I wanted new clothes. Badly. I pictured them in my mind, the red swoosh-striped Nike shoes of my dreams. At $2.50 an hour, it wouldn’t take me long. Babysitting only earned me $2.00 an hour. How bad could farm work be? Here I’d get to be outside, away from frustrating little Sarah, who pouted about Barbies and fought with her sister and wanted the crusts cut off her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when her mom was at work. I made my mental calculations. Dad demanded I save $1.25 an hour for college, and give 25 cents an hour to charity, that left a dollar an hour for my shoes, which cost $40. Forty hours of work, forty bucks for the shoes I had coveted since the fourth grade.
I could do this.
Sweat trickled down the back of my neck and cooled as it slid between my shoulder blades. I was used to the work, but our garden at home was tiny compared to this one. I pulled at the clover, skunk cabbage and grass, and dug at the dandelions with their deep tap roots. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the mosquitos took refuge in the shady leaves. Out came the horseflies. Worse than dive bombing Kamikaze pilots, they plagued me every minute. At least if they were buzzing, they weren’t biting. But as soon as the buzzing stopped, inevitably I felt a stinging chomp. “Why didn’t I wear my hat?” I whined silently, slapping the top of my head and missing the fly. My favorite gardening hat was a huge sombrero with fringed grassy ends, which baffled the horseflies. I was almost never bothered or bitten at home with my sombrero. Here there were too many other teens working. I didn’t need a sombrero in front of them.
My eyes strayed from the beans, following Mr. Cook’s teenage son, as he entered the raspberry patch. Mr. Cook had barked orders out loud and clear today. “And remember, boys. No one in the raspberry patch but my son!” At home, I was in charge of strawberries and raspberries. I knew to be careful around the sharp thorns, and extra cautious of the new green canes, the ones that would bear next year’s fruit. My dad trusted me with the berries. Here, I was a bean girl. Hmph.
I worked through the row, trying to keep pace with the others. My bucket was only half full. Red welts were forming on the outsides of my fingers, where they scraped the earth. I switched to my left hand. Less effective, but less painful. One glance showed me that the older farm kids were leaving me in the dust. They emptied their full buckets, and began a new row. I swatted angrily at what seemed to be the 700th horsefly, and left a loamy brown streak of dirt across my cheek. “Shoes. Shoes. Shoes,” I silently chanted to myself. Another fly, another brown smudge on my face. “I am going to fit in at junior high.”
An hour and a half passed by. My anger and determination were fading, and the monotony of weeding beans in the heat was overpowering. Mr. Cook appeared on the hill. Was freedom coming? Did he see how great I was doing, and I would be hired? This was a trial day, and I needed to impress him enough so I could earn my shoes. I glanced at the shade of the foresty raspberry canes. Neat, parallel rows of tangled, brambly plants. Delicious fruit hidden in secret under each jagged leaf. Mr. Cook walked closer. Maybe I was getting promoted! Maybe he saw my superb gardening skills, and I could go pick raspberries now! It was all I could do to keep weeding.
“Well. I can see you’re a fine weeder. Before I hire you for the summer, I want to see how you do in another part of the garden.”
Angel choruses rang out hallelujah in my head. “Rejoice! I’m off to the raspberries!” they sang. I smiled at Mr. Cook. The raspberries were calling me, and the shoes would be mine. “Great! I’m ready.” So long, beans. So long, losers. I smiled at the poor unfortunate other older teens, still stuck in the bean patch. I was off to better things.
Mr. Cook started toward the raspberry patch, but instead made a sharp turn left. “Over this way,” he said. “I’ll be watching to see how you handle this job.” We walked down another hill, near the edge of the woods. A lake lay hidden in the trees somewhere, I knew. But I didn’t see any raspberries. “Here you go” he said, handing me a pitchfork and a shovel. “You know how to dig potatoes? You have to be strong and careful too. Shovel around each plant, to dig it up, then loosen the potatoes with the pitchfork. I can’t sell damaged potatoes at the farmer’s market, so be careful.”
Shovel in hand, I dug in. This was a test I would not fail. Dig, Dig, Dig. Pick up pitchfork. Loosen earth, grope around in the darkness, searching for potatoes. Loosen dirt more. On my knees, I grubbed around at that first plant for a good ten minutes. Potatoes in the bushel basket, move on down the row. Was Mr. Cook watching? I hoped so. I pushed in to the second mound of potatoes. The plants grew thick, almost to my waist. As I put shovel to dirt, a flash of gold caught my eye. Potato bug. Looking closer, I suddenly realized hordes of reddish gold striped beetles were crawling everywhere. Stalks, leaves, dirt. I gasped and a sick feeling of doom filled the pit of my stomach. Thirty rows of potato bug-infested organic potatoes stood like the Berlin wall, between me and my Nike shoes. I closed my eyes and placed the shovel against the mound. Dig, but don’t get too close. I brushed against the leaves, and a beetle crawled up my calf. Brushing it aside, I got down on the ground to pull the potatoes out of the loosened soil. An itch on my neck…potato bug. Crawling up my arm…two more. Top of my head, on my shoelace, on my arm, crawling towards my sleeve opening! “Oooh my gaaaaawsh!” I jumped and screamed, leaping for safety away from the potato plants. I shivered despite the heat, gasping for air.
Mr. Cook was watching from his porch.
What should I do? I glanced at the crawling field of potatoes, and back at the porch. I even stole one panicky look at the forest, thinking for an instant that I could make a break for it, through the woods and lake and on to my house. Flight or fight? One more look back at Mr. Cook. Exhale. No dumb bug was going to stop me from getting what I wanted. Furious determination rose in my twelve year old brain, stronger than fear. Inhale. Step back into potatoes.
I dug a bushel basket full that day, and didn’t even notice my blistered palms. When the bell rang out on the porch, I emerged victorious, sweat pouring off my brow in dirty brown rivulets, face streaked, with blackened limbs ground in with soil and bug carcasses.
Mrs. Cook came out on the porch and offered me a tall glass of icy cold Kool Aid, and I felt she was an angel of mercy. It was red.
“Thank you,” was all I could mumble before I sucked it down to the last drop, feeling the chill swoosh all the way down my esophagus and down to my stomach like a red Nike stripe. It was the most satisfying drink of my life. I had earned it by determination and defeating my own fear.
“You done good,” said Mr. Cook. “You’re hired. See you tomorrow.”
I pedaled uphill slowly, savoring the aches in my back and legs, and enjoying the wind in my face. It was the cool wind of fulfillment. I looked like I’d been through a war, but I had $7.50 in my pocket, and Kool Aid sloshing in my stomach.
Victory would be mine.
“Don’t let go, Mama!” she said.
Still sitting by her bedside, I reached over and held her soft small fingers again. A smile returned to her rose petal lips, her eyes fluttered shut. Soon the steady rise and fall of her breathing began to lull me to sleep. I gently extricated my fingers so as not to disturb her. Slowly, slowly I inched away to leave.
“Don’t let go, Mama!”
Awake! This time I took a deep breath. I thought she was asleep! We were replaying this scene out, night after night lately. I was large as a barn, pregnant again. I knew with a new baby in the house, things wouldn’t be the same. I wanted to give my toddler all the love and attention she would miss when she had to share me with a newborn. She’d been the baby of the house for three years. But changes were coming. I needed to cherish every moment with her, before those moments were filled with diapers and nursing and the demands of a baby.
So I reached out, and intertwined her tiny little hand in mine again. “Okay, Dear. Close your eyes. I’m right here…” I could do this. What else was this important? The laundry?
Again she calmed, breathing relaxed. She squeezed my hand, to reassure herself that I was still there.
“I love you, Mama.”
“I love you too, Dear.”
Night after night, the dishes stayed stacked up after supper. The laundry got piled up too. But I knew that the dishes and the laundry would be there forever. And she would not. I needed every last hug, and every moment that she wanted to hold my hand, I wanted to be there. The day will come, I thought, that she won’t need me so much anymore.
I was right.
She did grow up quickly, right before my eyes.
And you know what? The dishes and the laundry are still here with me.
My child, the one that is so dear to my heart, she is growing, and soon she will be gone from this little spot we call home.
If I had had different priorities, my house would have been cleaner. Our laundry would have been whiter (or even folded and put away). Better food might have been served at our table. She might have had a different life, a more organized or tidy life.
But instead, I held her hand as she fell asleep. I learned to pray at her bedside. I became kinder and more patient. And eventually, she grew to not need my hand to hold, to scare away the monsters and help her fall asleep. Most of our lives, we are not strong enough or brave enough or smart enough to fight off even our own scary demons. But for a very short moment in a child’s life, Mom and Dad are all-powerful, and with a simple act of hand holding, we can make everything all right in the world.
I don’t regret a single moment of holding her hand.
Autumn is here.
This week I spent an afternoon teaching my teen daughter about photography. We walked a path of leaves and silence, examining landscapes and logs and waves and thistle down about to take flight. I am so grateful for that time with her. The days are fleeting, like autumn, and you’ve got to cherish every lovely moment that you’re given. I hope the wonders of nature are captured in her photographs, and that she’ll remember this day. And maybe she will always take time to look at leaves and the small things in life that make all the difference.
Just before dusk, a bald eagle flew overhead, landing on a branch above us. It stayed with us just a short while, majestic and magnificent. Then it was gone.
Like Autumn will be.
Artist Daughter wanted a cuddly dog. A lap dog. Jack was exactly that, when we brought him home in May. For hours, they sat together in the entryway, hugging and loving each other. Then came June, and Jack suddenly transformed, growing into a wild, cavorting, digging, mischievous demon. Artist Daughter became disillusioned, and abandoned all hope of petting him quietly again. But the wilder he got, the more Genius Child was captivated. She liked to run, he liked to run more. She liked mud, he could dig up the yard faster than a bulldozer, churning sand and black dirt far and wide. She liked the woods, he raced ahead, emerging with a grin and a face full of prickers. They were a match made in heaven.
In July, her Grandfather died. He had been her best friend in the family, her go-to for fun and mischief. With him gone, and her heart broken, Jack stepped in with all the love in his canine heart. The two became inseparable.
He slobbered as he ran, drool flying as he fetched a ball for her a thousand times. He appreciated her mud pies, rolling in her bakery supplies. He chewed her dolls’ legs and arms off. She didn’t mind. He fit perfectly in the fort she had built in the backyard, and her tears for her grandfather were licked away and lost in the fuzziness of his jumping, joyful form.
We were trapped.
She had transferred all of the love for her grandfather to this wild, wiggling, trouble-making lab. He dug out of his new kennel. He dug up our entire backyard, trailing moles and mice by digging trenches twelve feet long. He brought mud in the house, staining the pale carpeting. He had a sensitive stomach. The explosive nature of his poor digestive system was so powerful, it could only be cleaned up by Doug. “I told you!” he roared. “I knew this would happen! I do not want to be cleaning up after a dog!” But there was no way a kid could clean up the messes he made. Until a vet changed his diet and solved the problem, Doug was the one bathing the dog, bleaching the floors, washing even the walls of our entryway.
We couldn’t get rid of him, and break her heart again.
We were doomed.
Shortly after that, Stella was born. I was at the hospital a lot. Preoccupied and absent, Doug and I blundered through the many doctor’s appointments. She had holes in her heart and a weak immune system. Germs that others carried with no problem would send her back to the hospital, unable to breathe. We were told to not let people visit until she was stronger. But we had a lot of friends who wanted to visit, and deliveries for Doug’s work. So we hung a sign on the front door explaining that we could have no guests in the house. Packages could be left on the doorstep. I had to be down in the city, anyway, and the kids were on their own. This gave Jack the ultimate freedom to be as wild as he wanted.
He played with the kids every moment they had. And when they tired out and turned their attention to something else, he destroyed everything within his reach. Confined to the entryway by a baby gate, he shredded the carpeting right off the steps. He chewed the wooden bannister, leaving it splintered and gnawed. He actually chewed holes through the drywall. Three of them. We were so preoccupied with three holes in our daughter’s heart that there was nothing we could do about the three holes in the drywall. This was our first house, and neither Doug nor I was prepared to figure out how to fix these kind of things. We only knew how to paint. They would have to stay that way until our lives settled down.
Good thing we had that sign on the front door.
But for all the damage he could manage, the dog did take care of the kids. He loved them and cuddled them and played with them all the while we were gone. He barked incessantly, ferociously at everything that dared come near our house. I wasn’t afraid to leave them alone because he defended our home with such terrifying barks and growls that no one would dare come near.
We needed him.
Jack was ours. God had somehow planned this all out, I was sure. Jack was everything we needed to fix the sorrow in our daughter’s heart. He was the best playmate, up for any game, any time. He was scary enough to keep the kids safe when we had to be gone. He was trouble enough to keep them laughing. Nothing the kids ever did wrong could compare to the wrongdoings of that naughty dog. They were safe, all right.
Thank you, God.
Thank you, Dog.
Today was priceless.
We packed a backpack, a simple lunch, a state park sticker. And left for 12 hours of freedom.
We chose a new road, to a new park that we’d never been to before, and discovered it together. We found out who can throw a rock the farthest, and who can skip them.
Later in the afternoon, we hiked through a favorite park. The river had flooded and later receded, leaving debris and wreckage and washed out paths. The exposed roots of the trees at the river’s edge fascinated me. They had grown, intertwined and tangled, twisting through the soil. Hidden until the flood came along, the roots were left exposed when the soil eroded away.
Doug and the kids threw rocks at the river, enjoying the day, trying to outdo each other by throwing rocks farther. Small One stepped in the water and got a chilly foot. Wild Boy climbed a tree of driftwood, lodged in the crook of another tree’s branches. He napped like a panther. While all this was going on around me, I couldn’t help but get lost in my thoughts about roots.
We all have them. Roots. They are where we come from, what we hold dear. Roots hold us fast and tightly to what we love. Mostly they are secret. But then when life happens, and we get flooded, our roots tend to show. Who are you, really, underneath the soil? To what do you try to cling?
As I contemplated life and roots and erosion, the joyful bantering of my family called me back to the river, and today. The kids were louder now, heaving larger stones and chunks of driftwood into the river. In the middle of the bedlam and chaos, Doug yelled “Hey, don’t throw the whole shoreline! This is not a war.” Rocks rained into the water by the fistful. The two littlest ones were trying to make a raft. “Can I, Mom? Can I? We could launch it from here.” A triangular shaped stone had been lashed to a stick, and Small One piped in “I have an arrow and now I’m gonna stay here forever.” This day is one to cherish, it's our twenty sixth wedding anniversary.
Time to throw some rocks.
As I pulled my mind away from roots, I found a pale, translucently striped agate. I tucked it in my zippered pocket, so I could take it home as a treasure. Then I lifted my eyes to the river, and found my family.
We’ve all got our roots.
Dog is part of our Family. A large part. And a noisy part. If I told you everything about Dog at once, you wouldn’t believe me. Adopting Dog defined the end of an era for our family, the end of life as we knew it. But of course we didn’t know it then.
They begged for a dog for two years, before I relented. Two years. We tried everything to avoid it. We said no, many times. But every birthday, every kid, it was the same request.
“Can we have a dog?”
We bought them toy dogs instead. Small plastic dogs, dog calendars. Even large toy dogs, soft and stuffed. Always toys, never the real deal. That didn't satisfy their longing hearts for a dog of their own. So we started dog-sitting for the neighbors. We dog-sat for a month for a missionary priest who was on a trip. And we loved his dog, Gina. Gina was a very elderly grey-whiskered grandmotherly labrador who heaved great sighs of woe when she needed to go out. She smelled a bit potent. She preferred to loaf around on her side in our living room during those weeks, while small children crawled all over her. The kids were delighted. They loved her gentle, quiet ways, and I got to see just how much that meant to the kids. When Gina went back home, their hearts felt broken. They needed a dog of their own. We still said no.
So they took a small plastic dog, and placed it on top of the china hutch, as high up to the ceiling, and therefore as close to heaven as they could imagine. They put a candle next to the dog, and began to pray that God would send them a dog. They asked me to light the candle. That made me instantly complicit and defenseless. I couldn’t tell them NOT to pray. I was caught.
“Come on, Doug. You had dogs. I had dogs. My dog had ten puppies! Kids need a dog.” I said.
“I know what’s going to happen!” was his response. “I’ll end up feeding it and walking it and cleaning up it’s messes. I don’t want to clean up after a dog!”
But the candle had already been lit.
Meet our Dog.
He stayed a sweet, fluffy, cuddling angel for about two weeks. Long enough for all the kids to fall head over heels in love with him, and change life forever. But that's another story.
We like to draw. Some nights, when we’re all together, we cover the kitchen table with rolled paper, and dump a pile of markers in the middle. Then everyone, from the oldest (comic book pro) to the youngest (who ends up wearing most of her art on her arms) cartoon together.
One such night, a fight broke out, because Unnamed Child drew a picture of chocolate chip cookies. Wild Child wanted to eat them. A third kid got involved, wanting whatever her siblings wanted, and a scuffle ensued.
We draw monsters and buffoons, dragons and sisters. The Boy usually draws dinosaurs and Celts, battling it out in kilts and beards. We draw our friends. Dancing on rainbows with animal bodies. Each person’s characters may start out alone, but soon they cascade into the next cartoon, blending into a circus of creative expression.
Add popcorn, and you have a perfect night.
Thank you for visiting my blog today! I am amazed by the flood of interest and support for my post about Stella. I will write more about her joyful life soon. Thank you. In the meantime, I have been busy with the boys. The week started out innocently enough.
A boy with a shovel and a dream.
He wanted to build a hobbit house. He and his pals have been very industrious. There is now a fort, some semblance of hobbit house with a round green sled for a door, and a full (albeit very shallow) army trench dug into our yard. Thankfully, not right in the front! I am infinitely grateful that they are not playing video games, and I'm willing to have full-scale boy construction to get that. What could be better on a warm autumn day? The leaves are falling, oatmeal cookies are cooling on the countertop.
And the boys have shovels.
Here is Stella, signing “I love you”.
If I had caught a glimpse of this girl nine years ago, I wouldn’t have been afraid.
If I had known then that her favorite words of all would be “I love you”
then I wouldn’t have listened to what anyone else had to say.
When the geneticist told me about all the “Fifty markers of Down Syndrome” and the myriad of potential health problems, I was scared. When they announced the words “mental retardation” and “three holes in her heart”, I was terrified. What did that even mean?
A rather patient pulmonologist drew me a picture of the chambers of the heart. He tried to fill me in on the high school biology I should have remembered in the middle of the night in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Understanding the heart as a simple mechanical muscle was easy, according to him. He also said they could fix the holes.
But what about “mental retardation?” What does that mean? As I thought about it, I realized it was much easier to contemplate “giftedness” and “deficits”. Because I like visual things, I drew myself some charts, which included headings such as Social, Intellectual, Creative, Spiritual, Financial.
I also included ideals I valued, like Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness.
You get the idea. Then I started filling people’s names into my chart. For example, Alfred is a creative genius, but is financially deficient. Betty is spiritually gifted, but socially inept. Carla is intellectually superior, but awfully unkind. See how I changed their names, so they can live on in blissful ignorance? I’m so intellectual.
The next day, I cornered a cardiologist.
“Who says being intelligent is any more important than being creative? Why do you think being intelligent has more value than being spiritual? How can you tell me that having a high IQ is better than having much joy?”
I surprised that poor cardiologist. She responded with a get-back-in-line attitude. “I have spent my entire career helping those with physical disabilities and weaknesses to live a full life. And I have known many intelligent people who have a disability in kindness, or a disability in finding joy.” She may also have said “So back off, Mama!” but I’m not sure.
As Stella grew, the holes in her heart began to heal. The big one closed, all by itself.
As Stella grew, the deficits in my own heart began to heal, as well, but not all by themselves. I needed Stella to help me. Stella is peaceful, kind, gentle, loving and joyful, all those ideals I valued. She is not so good at math, or at tying her shoes. But she is teaching me to become patient, because I have always stunk at that. It was my heart that needed healing, actually.
And Stella is the one who is the genius in healing hearts.
Everyone has trouble at the Office.
Doug draws comics for a living. He shares a studio with one of his best friends, the awesome Pat Gleason. They both draw for DC Comics in New York. To the average person, it would appear that they mostly chat and eat and watch movies together. But they do draw. A lot. Sometimes they have Nerf gun fights. But yesterday, there was trouble.
Wonder Woman trouble.
Doug complained that he just couldn’t get her tiara correct in the panel he was drawing. It was taking too long. The angle wasn’t right, her hair wasn’t flowing properly.
So he did what any artist does; took a selfie in a paper tiara.
He got the panel right after that. All was well.
It's a good day at the office when all troubles are fixed with a paper tiara.
“Mom, do we need the internet to make waffles?”
Our internet has been a bit snarky lately, and the small ones were surprised by all the things we could not do. No weather report. No maps. No Netflix. No news, no blog. No architecture game that he loves so well. No Minecraft.
The eight year old ran through a list of all the things he could not do, and then decided that above all, breakfast was the most important.
And we could, in fact, still make waffles without the internet.
So he lived happily ever after.
Toys are fun. Food is fun. So they go together!
When Stella was about four, she decided that since toys and food both made her happy, they belonged together. Many days, when we opened our fridge, we were greeted by small plastic figures sticking out of the food.
The David and Goliath characters liked cupcakes. They were often found, buried head first in the muffins. Pongo, the daddy dalmation, lived in the milk cartons. When someone tried to pour milk on their cereal, an inevitable “PLOP” was heard, and there was Pongo, swimming in the bowl. He was just the right size for her to fit into the cartons. We’d wash him off, put him back in the toy box, and find him in the milk again the next day. For months on end.
Want some yogurt? Surprise! It’s full of Little People, looking up at you.
The trend caught on. Then-tween Genius Child made lunch for the little ones when I was gone to one of our bajillion doctors’ appointments.
She made refried beans.
But you know what she did? She emptied two cans of beans and sculpted them into a volcano shape. Melted cheddar oozed down the sides of the mountain, and a pool of molten salsa filled the cavity inside. An army of plastic dinosaurs marched up and down, oblivious to their dangerous proximity to the lava.
The entire mountainside (sans dinos) was devoured by the toddlers. A mountain of beans.
So there you have it; lesson learned. Even beans can be exciting!
Now go play with your food.
Someone made me cake yesterday.
She said it contained butter, flour, and two scoops of coconut. But it looked very much like dirt.
“And that sugar stuff that’s not sugar, Mom. That’s what I used, just how you like it!”
She smiled, leading me out to the yard, where her cakes sat baking in the warmth of the autumn sun. “See? I made you chocolate!”
Indeed, she had. Dirt, mud, and a few sprinkles of hydrangea blossoms. Shaped into cakes, filled with love.
They were the best cakes I’ve ever had.
If I was a teenager, I would think that midnight rocks.
Now that I am the Queen Mum around here, I would like to share a story of my midnight rocks.
10:30 pm... Last minute checklist. Geometry assistance: done. Lunches: packed. Backpacks: lined up. Just one more load of laundry, and I can call it a night. I threw the jeans and sweatshirts into the wash machine, and about that time, two unnamed residents decided that it was chamomile tea time.
I love those late night cups of tea. The younger set is asleep, and a hushed blanket of silence descends upon the house. No jumping. No leaping. No games of tag around the kitchen. It may be the first time since 6 a.m. that I have actually sat down to relax. The teenagers come out of their lairs, and talk about their lives. As long as no one makes any noise, we can sip hot tea with honey, and chat. Snacks are pilfered from various hiding spots in the top cabinetry. We all enjoy the serenity and peace of the darkness.
That was when Doug put the load of laundry into the dryer.
Our peace was shattered by the sound of volleying bullets of stone against steel, tumbling and crashing in the dryer.
"What kind of kid does this!?" Doug belted out. "Rocks! The dryer is full of rocks!"
It certainly was. But this time, it wasn't a child's fault.
I like rocks.
I had been in Duluth, and couldn't resist hunting for agates...and quartz pieces...and soft-edged, eroded sedimentary rocks...and some wave-polished broken bits of glass we call fairy tears...
The dryer was filled with rocks from the pockets of my sweatshirt and my jeans.
It was almost midnight when Doug tried to finish the laundry.
See? Midnight rocks.
Ever have one of those moments? Looked like a lot of fun at the time. But Mom is nearby, and to quote Candace from Phineas and Ferb, "You are so busted!"
There is always a Last Day. A Last Day of summer. A Last Day of school.
A Last Day of Childhood.
This year, it happened in our family again. A Last Day of Childhood.
On her Last Day of childhood, we could have done something remarkable.
On her Last Day of Childhood, we should have been packing for college. She was moving out the next day. On her Last Day of Childhood, my heart stretched and ached every time I looked at her. I saw a young woman, on the brink of adulthood and I almost couldn’t stop the tears.
She wasn’t quite ready.
“I can’t go, Mum. Not until I find that box!”
We sat in her room, clutter and cartons spilling everywhere, looking for a smallish wooden box.
“I am not leaving until I find it.”
It had been lost through the years and the debris of childhood, packed in the attic and almost forgotten. But not quite. We dug and searched every crate. Ice skates, crazy art projects from ninth grade, striped socks, notebooks filled with then-important thoughts and grade school dreams.
The box was from her grandfather. He had died when she was just nine. That was when she packed up all her dearest treasures of life, and put them in that box. There they sat, waiting for this day, till she was all grown up, and ready to say goodbye.
She found it.
With glee, she opened the tarnished brass latch of the little wooden box, and all of the joys of her childhood tumbled out around us. She laughed, and I saw her as she was at age seven, freckled faced and toothy. Grinning, hopping around in overalls with bare feet, innocent and happy.
The precious box contained: An agate. An eraser. A tiny bowl she had sculpted from rice (hidden away in a pocket during supper) and shellacked with nail polish. A hair from her dog that she had dipped in Borax to grow crystals on. A wooden nickel. And an acorn cap.
That’s it. Nothing, really. But treasures. Treasures of a childhood filled with love. A relationship with a grandfather who adored her and teased her relentlessly. She had dumped a bucket of water on his head for his Christmas present one year. The following Easter, he had cracked a raw egg on her head. She had decorated it to trick him, but the joke backfired. All of the moments of wonder of nine years of childhood danced out of that box. It was filled with love, really.
She did leave the next day. As she walked away from me, I held back the tears, and thought that nine years wasn’t enough. Eighteen years weren’t enough. But if, someday, I can look back with joy at an acorn cap, and feel my heart overflow with love, maybe, just maybe, I can face today. I could pack it all in the box of my heart, and move on.
To the First Day of Adulthood…
Here is a rock for you. Just another rock, like any other.
Kind of an ugly one, though...
If I saw at this rock on my path, I wouldn't give it a second thought.
I like to search out beautiful things, and honestly, this one is just not worth my time.
I could keep walking, and never give this dumb rock another thought.
Or I could look more deeply.
I could set aside my initial judgement, and take some time to really seek out the truth about this rock.
I could give it another chance.
I might change my mind.
I could be amazed! I could be surprised by joy.
I could find a treasure.
Today you may meet someone that is a lot like my rock.
So what will you choose to see?
Outside, or Inside?
My son likes to eat. That is an understatement. He likes food so much that he is a joy to cook for. He stands at my elbow, mouth watering, just waiting, smiling, admiring. He loves me because I cook for him. I would flip a million burgers (with slightly caramelized onions, tomato and romaine) just to see that smile.
But I didn't always enjoy cooking. In fact, I spent my childhood dodging the kitchen chores, running off to help Dad when it was time to cook and prep for supper. I couldn't stand the fact that all that work would be gone in an hour, with nothing to show for it but a kitchen full of dirty dishes. To me, cooking ranked on the job list somewhere far below shoveling the driveway of snow and weeding the onion patch .
When I grew old enough to go on a first date, the young man, Mike, introduced me to his mother, and then told me it was his dream to work in a restaurant some day. They smiled at each other, Mike and his mom, in mutual support of what I could only imagine would be a career at the one and only restaurant in town, a fast food joint.
"What?" I thought to myself in horror. "What am I doing with this guy? His ambition is to flip burgers the rest of his life? Horrible!" I must have physically taken a step backward, because the next thing I knew, I was tripping.. bumping... falling...
I fell all the way downstairs into the basement.
He and his mom stared, slack-jawed, at my crumpled and humiliated form, thirteen wooden steps below. Right about where I ranked cooking.
Well you may laugh, because the irony is that I have spent the last twenty years standing at my stove, flipping burgers for a seemingly endless line of children and their miscellaneous friends.
And I have actually learned to like it.
Mike, on the other hand, learned to cook in Italy. He often remembered us as he opened chic and expensive restaurants, for which he trained the staff. We have wonderful memories of eating fantastic food with friends and family because of this man's labors and talents.
One year, a couple of weeks after my own labor and delivery of baby number three, Mike invited us to the opening of an excruciatingly trendy, upscale nightclub restaurant in Minneapolis. Could we go? The baby didn't take a bottle, she would have to go with us. I decided to take the rocking Winnie the Pooh carseat, and try to blend in with the svelte young crowd in their glitzy black dresses. I made our grand entrance, lugging the newborn, but the place was so loud, dark and sparkly that no one seemed to notice. Hurrah!
Till I faced the coat check guy at the end of the evening. He asked which coat was mine, and I fumbled, saying it was black. He smiled.
"They are all black, Madame, this is Uptown".
I blushed. The only thing I knew about that huge, postpartum coat was that there were diaper coupons in the front left pocket.
He retrieved my coat in record time.
That was long ago. Last week, Doug and I ate at one of Mike's very own restaurants. The hamburger was so big, I brought half of it home to my own hungry boy, to show him how good food really can be.
You never know, my boy might grow up and want to become a chef someday.
Never underestimate the power of a sibling.
That Someone is near you for some very important years... you laughed together, you played together, you ate together, you even fought and cried together sometimes. You explored, had adventures, and got in trouble together. And somehow, now that you are all grown up and moved away, you miss them with an ache in your heart that can't be filled by anyone else.
Go ahead, call her!
You fill that same spot in his heart because you went through that wondrous and awesome journey of childhood together, elbowing each other the whole way.
Remind him that he is loved, and has been loved,
all the way from the very beginning.