Monday, October 29, 2012

I'm the Mommy

This past week has been a doozy.

Major school projects that require dismantling half the house have kept the entire family up way past our bedtime (Superdad's bedtime is 8:30pm, Annie's bedtime is 9pm, the boy's bedtime is 10pm or whenever they finally fall asleep, and mine is whenever all those other people are at last tucked in bed and snoozing).

Tim and Superdad got the thrill of flying down to San Francisco at the crack of dawn Wednesday morning to attend Game 1 of the World Series. It was worth all of the hassle and expense to pull together such a last minute trip, but it did create a flurry of activity and chaos right smack dab in the middle of the week.

The infamous Senior Thesis is still hanging over our heads like a not-at-all-cute version of Winnie the Pooh's little black rain cloud. For better or for worse, it will be turned in by this Friday morning at 8:10am but for now, it's still hovering.

Emails continue to pour in about November 15 college application deadlines. The dogs seem to be growing accustomed to the wailing and whining that erupts from me anytime one of these emails pops up in my inbox. There's a lot of heavy sighing, too.

Jack had the ACT test on Saturday morning, followed by a high school dance that night. I wonder which one was more fun?

And, of course, there were two soccer games (in the rain) this weekend and an attempt to not completely ruin our third child's childhood experience by finally going out and buying pumpkins for our porch. God help me, this probably means she is going to want to carve one of them sometime in the next 24 hours. Give me strength.

At any rate, as the evening wound down last night, I started fantasizing about climbing into bed, resting my head on my pillow and hoping upon hope that my brain would agree to shut down the swirling thoughts of deadlines and duties and allow me some much needed rest.

Turns out, last night was not the night my dream of a peaceful night's rest was going to come true.

At about 10pm, when I was starting to make my move to close up shop and make a run for the covers, I heard a tearful, plaintive cry from my youngest's bedroom. At that time of night, when a certain little one should have been asleep for over an hour, any cries for Mommy can't be good.

I went to her and found a shaky, weepy child obviously feeling sick and quite possibly about to throw up but fighting it with all her might. Like most of us, Annie is not a fan of throwing up. I assured her that she was in good company.

For the next two hours, I traveled with her back and forth from her bed to the bathroom as she went through waves of feeling better and then flooded with the uncomfortable queasy feelings again. We finally settled ourselves on the cold, hard tile of the bathroom floor. She rested her head on her pillow while she verbalized with stunning clarity everything she was feeling about her experience.

It was funny for me to listen to my "talker" and think about how even in illness my kids have their own unique dispositions and methods for coping. As a little boy, Jack was downright pleasant when momentarily flattened by the latest bug going around. An undemanding little patient, who would bear his suffering unceremoniously and without complaint. His disarming sweetness almost made the sight of him lying ill all the more difficult to witness.

Timothy, healthy as a horse and hardly sick a day in his life, is far more offended and resentful when illness finally takes him down. Our competitive, tenacious child views any malady as one more adversary to be defeated and maligned. He is certain that *someone* must be to blame for this setback and heaven help you if he decides you are among the suspect. Lucky for all of us, his sturdy constitution generally brings him back to good health quickly.

No surprise, Annie requires a great deal of love and attention when she feels poorly. Nothing soothes her more than the reassurance of knowing she has mom and dad's full sympathy and attention. But Annie also processes almost any experience verbally and the experience of feeling sick is no exception.

While kneeling near the toilet bowl, just in case, she proceeded to engage in her own self-help version of therapy, all in her small, pathetic, shaky, tired voice.

I just wish that I could know if I'm going to throw up or not, then I wouldn't be so worried. I just feel worried because I don't know what to expect. I don't like throwing up but I know that sometimes after you throw up you feel better. Right, Mommy? How many times have you thrown up, Mom? Do you ever feel worried and scared about it? Did you feel better afterward? Why does God have to let people be sick? I know it's because he made us to be human and so he lets human things happen to us... 

(heaven help me, the child actually hears me. I better increase my prayers for wisdom so I don't say anything too stupid),

...but I still wish he would stop people from being sick since he loves us so much.

(she's a budding theologian, my girl...)

Mommy, would you pray for me right now? Actually, just pray in your head, when you pray out loud it makes me feel like I'm going to throw up.

(good to know-I'll avoid praying out loud in public lest I cause people around me to start vomiting).

This went on for two hours as I attempted to stroke, soothe, calm, pray, quiet and sing her anxieties away. As it neared midnight and I could see fatigue starting to win out over whatever discomfort she was feeling, I let out a sigh myself and without thinking muttered, "Oh, Annie...I'm so tired."

She lifted her heavy head off of her pillow in alarm and asked frantically, "Are you going to go to bed and leave me by myself?"

Brushing her hair back from her face and shushing her quietly I quickly assured her that, no, I was not going anywhere. I would stay with her as long as she needed me, even if that meant all night.

Her weary head relaxed and settled again into her pillow and with her eyes heavy with exhaustion she mumbled, "Because you're my Mommy....right?"

I thought of the dozens of reasons I wouldn't leave her sick and alone lying on the bathroom floor, but none of them seemed as good a reason as that one right there. It's the reason we all soldier through disruptive school projects, rainy soccer games, messy pumpkin carvings, hundreds of school paper edits, college application essays, and late, long nights sitting on a very cold, very hard tile floor with nothing more than a penguin shaped Pillow Pet for comfort.

Because I'm their Mommy.

Here's to the Mommies. Hang in there this week. We are all in this together.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A thousand words

Very slowly, the immediate agony subsides. Around the edges of that opening, things begin to heal. Scar tissue forms. The hole remains, but instead of allowing only a constant stream of emptying, it begins to permit things to enter. We receive some of the love and wisdom that loss has to give us. Now is when loss can have content beyond the ache. This is the time to create meaning. Pay attention to what comes in that open space. Nothing can make the pain go away. Making loss meaningful is not making loss disappear. The loss endures, and time will not change that truth. But now it has some purpose.                ~Rabbi David Wolpe (from Making Loss Matter)

Jack is having his senior pictures taken in two weeks. I'm a little behind with this one which I blame on a mix of denial and my usual procrastination tendencies. Some people who know me might find it surprising to hear that I am a procrastinator but that's because I hide it under a carefully constructed veneer of perceived competence and efficiency. Ultimately, I will always finish a job and usually I will finish it well so no one is the wiser of how much of it came together in the 11th hour. Someday I'm going to write a book titled, The Organized Procrastinator, but I keep putting it off so I wouldn't hold your breath.

Lucky for me, I have a dear friend who is a gifted professional photographer and she was happy to sneak Jack into her busy fall schedule so he won't have to wonder someday why he was the only one of the graduating seniors not to have any formal pictures taken. I'm always trying to stay one step ahead of winning that Laziest Mother of the Year award, but there are some days it feels like it is breathing down my neck. Especially lately... what with it being October and all.

As I was emailing my friend, Lynette, about scheduling Jack's pictures, I couldn't help but think about the interesting turns life takes and the fact that if it weren't for my babies, Joseph and Molly, I might never have met Lynette. That would have been a loss on so many levels not the least of which is the simple gift of Lynette herself, as vibrant a personality as you would ever want to meet. But it would also have meant that I would have missed the opportunity to be a part of something very special.

It's amazing to me to look back and remember how early on I knew that my twins were leading me to something that would bring meaning to their short stay on this earth. Even in the midst of deep grief, I knew I needed to have my eyes open for where they were taking me. I had complete faith that once the thickest fog lifted there was going to be a place or a task or a mission that I could pour all of my broken heart into. But I also had the sense to take my time. To wait. To resist the urge to jump toward the thing that appeared the most obvious. Because I knew my strengths weren't going to be in the areas of direct fundraising, organizing major events or even just licking and stamping envelopes. All important, necessary work in the world of charities and non-profits, but I wanted to land somewhere where I could have an impact using the gifts I felt I had to offer. Quieter gifts. Behind the scenes support and maybe a little writing? I wasn't sure... I didn't have any idea where it might be or what it might look like, but I was prepared to wait.

In the waiting, we approached the second anniversary of our twins' birthday (it's hard to know what to call that day, but for simplicity we opt for birthday). One of the things I decided I wanted to do for myself in honor of their birthday was to figure out a way to make sure the few photos we had of them were preserved properly. We had a handful of photos taken with the hospital camera and then also some polaroids. Frankly, none of them were wonderful and my mother's eyes felt they didn't do justice to the sweetness of our tiny babies but they were all we had and I was determined to make sure they would last a lifetime. I knew that my little home scanner was not enough to make quality images of the polaroids that we could then save to a CD but I was positively terrified to take them outside of my home. Where exactly are you going to go with such sensitive photos? You can't exactly walk up to the photo counter of your neighborhood drugstore and casually explain what it is you need. Nor was I willing to send them off to some online service for fear that I might never see them again. I was stymied but still determined.

Around that time there was a new, local non-profit establishing itself that was garnering quite a lot of media attention. It was founded by Lynette Johnson, a well-known local photographer who had been quietly offering her services to Children's Hospital to photograph children with life threatening conditions. For many families, the only chance they have to get beautiful, professional-quality photographs of their child is if a photographer comes to the hospital where their child must spend his or her days. That can be difficult for a family to not only think to arrange but also to know how to find a photographer comfortable handling a potentially difficult photo shoot. Lynette's story is long and amazing and I won't attempt to do it justice here, but in short, as she worked with more and more families she became painfully aware of an unmet need in our community. A need she was uniquely gifted to fill. Today, Soulumination, the non-profit Lynette founded has a team of over 30 volunteer photographers who will give their time, free of charge, to photograph families facing the unthinkable- a gravely ill infant or child. They have also since expanded their mission to include families in which a parent is terminally ill. Their mission and gift is to provide these special families with gorgeous professional photos and they do it in a way that would take your breath away. It's so much more than photos... these are memories. Priceless memories.

When I learned about Lynette, and Soulumination, I thought they would be able to help me in my quest to preserve our twins' photos. I wasn't looking for anything more than guidance since our photographs were already taken and we couldn't turn back the hands of time to improve upon them (though I wish we could have), but I felt this was at least someone I could trust to understand what I was looking for. Initially, I sent an email, feeling far too vulnerable and nervous to try and talk with someone on the phone about these photos that I had never shown to anyone outside my immediate family. Even after sending the email I had regrets wondering if I was really ready to go down that road. Well, I had to get over those regrets quickly because in a day or so after sending my email I got a phone call from Lynette. And in her fantastically Lynette way, she cut right to the chase. She was kind and sensitive, of course, but she was also unafraid to ask me some very direct questions about the photos, our babies and our experience. Having worked with so many grief-stricken families Lynette is a rarity in that she is able to look loss straight in the eye, with great love and empathy, but without flinching.

She insisted I bring the photos to her office which then housed both her professional photography business and Soulumination. She felt confident they would be able to do everything I wanted themselves, all I had to do was trust them. It was several years later that Lynette learned how truly poignant that day was for me. I didn't tell her at the time that this was the first time anyone outside of my family had seen these photos. She had no way of knowing how fragile I felt handing them over to her, waiting for her reaction. She also couldn't have known then how much it meant to me to have her respond to their little faces as though they were the perfect baby photos everyone hopes to have. "Oh! Aren't they just little angels!" Which, of course, they were.

And that was the beginning. The beginning of our friendship and the beginning of my involvement with Soulumination. Sometime later I was asked to be on the Board of Directors for Soulumination and my primary responsibility during that time was to write and produce the annual newsletter which was a labor of love I enjoyed for many years. In producing the newsletter, I had the blessing of seeing the images of many of our Soul families day in and day out as I worked with the layout and copy. I knew all of their names and even in the tiniest faces I could see that unique spark gifted to each one of us at our birth. It was, for me, holy work.

There are so many incredible people and organizations doing important work in the world and both my faith and my heart compel me to try and support as many of them as I can. But one of the things I learned from my work with Soulumination is that even as we struggle to fight against the seemingly insurmountable injustices that plague our world, we cannot forget the power of offering a gesture of kindness and compassion to one person at a time. Photographs are not likely to bring us world peace, but they can bring an enormous amount of peace to the hearts of parents afraid that their precious, irreplaceable memories of their child might one day fade.

So, during this week in which thoughts of our heavenly babies are closer than at any other time of the year, I wanted to thank them for the gifts they have given me and the special spark they brought to the world. Love you always, little ones.

"...each person's life has meaning simply by virtue of carrying his or her own Divine spark into the world. But also we help create meaning for the lives who touch us. When we change our lives because someone else has changed us or moved us, we create meaning for the other person's life as well." ~Rabbi David Wolpe

This prayer flag was created for and displayed at
Soulumination's 5 year Anniversary Celebration

Monday, October 15, 2012

Muscle memory

October arrived late this year. And by that I mean that the rain didn't start until October 13, after a virtually rain-free September. We have been spoiled with a glorious early fall here in the Pacific Northwest but now October has arrived. And, as my husband likes to say, rain is in the forecast from now until April.


I love the fall. I really do. I don't even mind the turn of season we've had in the last few days in which the temperature has dropped, the mornings are darker and as if on cue, the leaves seemed to have figured out they are supposed to start changing color and dropping. We went from indian summer to autumn in one very short 48 hour span of time and part of me finds it reassuring and lovely. We Northwesterners are accustomed to a change of season and it can almost be disconcerting when one season lingers too long, drifting into the next one. Although, I'll admit, we are less bothered when summer is the season that decides to hang around to close down the party. We may enjoy our four seasons but aren't afraid to admit our favoritism for the sunny months.

But I'm realizing that this year October couldn't come at a worse time.

The other night, Superdad and I were lounging together enjoying a rare moment of respite, watching Modern Family, and thoroughly relishing a 30 minute window where we intentionally opted to do nothing. As the credits rolled though, all of the duties of life came intruding back into my brain and I commenced a long, borderline whiny lament to my blessedly attentive husband.

Ugh. I just can't stop thinking about all of the stuff that has to be done in the next month, let alone this weekend. Tim still has that stupid science project to finish and, I'm sorry, but it really is a stupid project. Just give the boy a test- he'll ace it and I won't have to be drawn into the web of suffering. Jack is only about 1/3 of the way done with his Thesis and he still needs several outside sources which have been almost impossible to find. Not to mention the minor detail of those college essays he needs to write. I'm starting to think we can kiss any of the Nov. 15 early action deadlines goodbye, which is just great. And on top of all of that, I can't stand how disorganized the house has become and I'm getting close to throwing out every single thing we own and we can start living like hippies. And even though you know I love to organize things, love to get things whipped into shape, love to assist with filling out forms and managing deadlines- I can't seem to get my head around any of this stuff right now. I feel completely unmotivated and find myself wishing I could take a nap every single afternoon. What is up with that?!? What on earth is wrong with me??

Superdad just smiled sympathetically as I took a breath and allowed my rant to quiet and disappear into the air like a deflating balloon. He reached over, gave me a big squeeze and gave me the answer I'd been looking for in just three words.

Because it's October.

And he was right. I don't know why it still catches me by surprise every year that the seemingly innocuous act of turning a page on the calendar, and the inevitable arrival of fall weather should knock me off my game so significantly. It really shouldn't be a surprise anymore. But now that the other eleven months of the year pass so peacefully I get lulled into a fall sense of calm that this will be the year that October will feel like any other month.

Nine years ago, at the end of October,  I birthed, held and said goodbye to our tiny, too-small-to-stay, infant son and daughter. Our twins, Molly and Joseph, arrived too soon and left us too soon which is a story too big to tell in its entirety right now but has left us with a twist in our family tale that we never expected or wanted. And I'm learning yet again this year that whether I choose to make it so or not, October will always be their month.

I know that sounds sad. And, of course, it is a sad memory. But honestly, after having been given the gift of time and distance, October isn't about sadness anymore. That's not what it is. It's a quiet remembering, with maybe just a hint of melancholy. There is even some happiness in the remembering simply because most of the time now I don't give myself much time to go back to those feelings and think about what was, what we had hoped for, what might have been; most importantly the children we planned for, prayed for, wanted, loved and love still. In October I am forced to give myself that time, one way or another, because it's all wrapped up in the season, the weather, the pumpkins on porches and everything that is October.

But this year is hard because of all the pressing to-do's. Many of them aren't really my to-do's but they require my help, my support and a little guidance. They aren't the sort of things that can be put on the back burner to be dealt with at a later date.

You learn a lot when you go through something traumatic. Not that you want to hear that when you are in the midst of wading through suffering. In fact, I should be clear, you do not want to hear that when you are in the thick of grief. Ever. Those of us standing on the outside of someone else's experience of loss must resist the temptation to offer pithy platitudes or awkward attempts to find the silver lining. I beg of you. Inevitably, whether we want to or not (and I would venture to say that we do not), we will all learn the lessons that loss has to teach us, but they are ours to learn, in our own time, in our own way.

One of the things I gained through my experience was the ability to prioritize and to really examine who I was and what was important to me. I let a lot of responsibilities go during those months following our loss and one of the few gifts of grief is that people will usually let you. When I started to emerge from the thickest fog I had a unique opportunity, the chance to decide what I was going to allow back into my life and what I was done with forever. Nine years later, I can say that I am still very careful about where I choose to land and to what things I will give my time and energy.

So, now the challenge in the remaining weeks of October is how to find a balance. How to press through and get done what needs to be done, and how to recognize I may not be running at full speed so what then can be left until a later time when I have more energy to give?

What would really be helpful is some sort of time freezing technology. Something where I can freeze a few days here and there between now and the end of the month where I can give myself 24 hours to just rest, read, relax, reflect etc... and then rejoin the world of housework, home management, college applications, work duties, and school projects without having lost a minute.

Is there an app for that?

Can somebody get on that for me??

I carry you with me into the world,
into the smell of rain & the words that dance between people
And for me, it will always be this way,
walking in the light,
remembering being alive together.
~Brian Andreas

Monday, October 8, 2012

He ain't heavy

I love to read. A lot. I mean, when I say I love to read I actually mean I love to read. And, yes, I would marry the act of reading if I could (if I were not already, in fact, married- because a polygamist I am not).

I've already made it clear that I have tendency to fall in love with books rather quickly. But I'll be the first to admit that my love affairs with books tend to be a bit fickle and short-lived because I'm usually onto the next love-of-my-life book within a day or two after finishing the previous oh-my-gosh-I-love-this-book. That's not to say that I fall in love with all of the books I read, I don't. Some of them definitely fail to light my fire. But, if I'm being honest, I'm pretty easy when it comes to falling in love with books.

However, there is a difference between the momentary flirtations I experience with the majority of books I read that come and go sometime between reading the first page and finishing the last, and the handful of books that have left a lasting imprint on my heart.

One such book that will forever go down in Lori's Literary Hall of Fame is A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I need to stop right here and offer a word of caution. I love Owen Meany so much that I get a wee bit defensive over any criticism, constructive or not, of this literary gem. For me, my passion for Owen Meany could be likened to some people's deep and abiding devotion to their political views. You know how you have those friends with whom you would never dare reveal any of your political leanings that might run counter to theirs for fear that their head might explode? That's me with Owen Meany. If you have read it and didn't like it, don't tell me. I might not ever be able to look at you the same way again. I'm not proud of this intolerance of mine, but the heart wants what it wants- and my heart is forever bound to one unforgettable character named Owen Meany.

This isn't intended to be a book review, there are plenty of places you can go to read a far more detailed and intellectual review of A Prayer for Owen Meany than I could produce. What brought Owen Meany to mind for me recently was two things. First, a dear, old friend of our family passed away this last week which was sad in and of itself, but also brought back up to the surface my own father's passing eight years ago as he and my father were old friends. In fact, this longtime friend of my parents gave the eulogy at my father's memorial service. Truly, a good man and a good friend.

The loss of my father was monumental in my life, occurring less than two years after the loss of our infant twins at birth. Suffice to say, I was well acquainted with grief during those years. In the days, weeks and months after my father died I found myself repeating over and over to myself the final line of Owen Meany. I had always thought it one of the best closing lines of any book I had read, but it took on a new poignancy for me in the wake of my father's death.

O God - please give him back! I shall keep asking you.

I'm still asking.

You will be relieved to know that the second reason Owen Meany has been on the tip of my tongue this week is far less sad. Simply, years ago, when I first read A Prayer for Owen Meany it helped me to come to grips with the reality that I will never, ever, ever, truly be able to understand the mind of a boy. This, in spite of the fact that I was raised with two brothers, grew up with boy cousins, attended gender-mixed schools throughout my entire education, and am now raising two sons myself. Some aspects of the inner workings of a boy's mind have always been and will always be a mystery to me. Quite specifically, the unique sense of humor of the male species.

Early on in the story of Owen Meany (in fact it arrives on the second page) there is a scene in which, John Wheelwright, the other main character of the story, relates how when they were children in Sunday School they would pick Owen up and pass him around over their heads because he was so small. The scene is relayed in great detail including Owen's trademark high pitched, loud voice shrieking to be put down. When I read this book for the first time (I re-read it every few years) I felt a mixture of horror and sympathy for the poor, pathetic, airborne Owen Meany. Every feminine, maternal instinct in me resisted finding even the slightest bit of humor in such a childish, thoughtless display.  In fact, I couldn't imagine any other reaction. And then, my father read the same book. My father... my gentle, kind, generous father who never raised his voice to me in my life. And yet, according to my mother who was seated next to him on the airplane while he was reading, he laughed hysterically while reading the very same scene that had filled me with such dismay.

When my mother questioned his reaction, because she too had read the book and had responded as I had, he could only wipe his eyes and shake his head and say, "Because it's funny!"

Boys. Sigh...

But the thing is, my guess is that John Irving thought that scene was funny too when he wrote it. And in any case, developing a wider tolerance for boy humor has only helped me to maintain my sanity in raising two sons of my own. Because let me tell you, my boys have a really odd sense of humor sometimes.

I am so lucky that my boys are both brothers and friends. Oh, they'd deny the use of the word "friends" only because they would find that word way too weird in describing a relationship that really requires no definition. They would just shrug and say, I don't know... he's my brother. But that's because they don't know how difficult family relationships can be. They don't know how lucky they are to have grown up together in relative harmony and to have arrived at this point in their lives still comfortable and content in the other's presence. I hope that will always be true for them.

What can't be denied, though, is that part of what bonds my boys is their bizarre and sometimes unexplainable sense of humor. Here's an example: My boys like to make fun of one another. They usually keep it pretty tame and they both truly find it a hysterical exercise in creativity. I, myself, have to take deep, cleansing breaths when they decide to engage in this twisted brand of conversation. Quite some time ago, Tim's favorite jab at Jack was to call him "slow". Slow as in speed, not intelligence. After awhile this got shortened to "low" (and you have to say it in a loooong, drawn out way) and now it is one of their favorite back and forth running jokes.

Tim: Hey, Jack! The doctor called and he said you forgot to take your low medicine.

Jack: Oh, Tim... paging Professor Low, your class is waiting for you to give your low lecture.

Tim: Ummm...Jack, are we going to need to be stopping to get gas for your low-mobile?

Jack: Captain Low? The tower has cleared your low-plane for take off.

Don't get the humor? You are in good company. But I have to admit, after awhile I get caught up in their goofy smiles and boyish laughter and can't help but start laughing along with them. Now I catch myself chuckling when hearing the latest "low" comment and thinking, "Oh, that was a good one!" Egads. What have these boys done to me?

What all of this has made me wonder though (you knew I had to get to a point eventually, right?), is whether they have any idea how much they are going to miss each other next year. Because they are. Maybe Timothy more than Jack because he will be the one left at home with no one to engage in a verbal sparring match, but I suspect even Jack will have his moments of longing for the simple familiarity of home and a brother who can always make him laugh.  I think that often when we think about the first child leaving the nest we focus on the impact on the parents, forgetting that there are siblings whose home environment has just changed dramatically as well.

Hopefully though, in this age of texting and Facebook and almost unlimited forms of instant contact they will find ways to continue to seek each other out and mock one another in ever-increasingly creative and mystifying ways. Isn't that every mother's dream? That her children will continue to taunt and provoke one another long into adulthood?

Well, when it leads to smiles like these... then, I guess, yeah... it is.

The highlight of my childhood was making my brother laugh so hard that food came out his nose.
~Garrison Keillor