Blessed be those who with their choice
Have families’ hopes defeated
Blessed be most the Chosen Ones
Through whose presence we find faith
Through whose absence we find strength
Through whose existence we find grace.
“It’s so hot!”
My 5-year-old, Gabe flopped into the back row of our minivan, arms splayed dramatically across his car seat.
“Whew! I need to cool down!!” He stripped off his dark blue DINOSAURS RULE t-shirt to reveal the fuchsia t-shirt he had chosen that morning. His deliberations had almost cost us an on-time arrival to school, since he’d had tangerine, lime, and sky blue to choose from as well.
After stretching every inch of his lanky torso, he smiled gloriously until he caught a look of himself in the reviewer mirror. In an instant, he collapsed, shrinking into himself.
“Gabe, what’s wrong, buddy?” I was accustomed to the whiplash mood changes that characterized the preschool set, but this was out of character…even for him.
“Jasmine said I looked weird because I had pink on.”
“Well you tell that little b-“
Wait! Was I really about to say that to a 5 year old…about another 5 year old? Nana Bear needs to chill out. Just take a deep breath and be the equanimous parent – not the Equalizer.
“How did that make you feel?”
“Sad,” he sniffed. “It hurt my feelings.”
“Well, Gabe,” Nick shrugged with the all-knowing, world-weariness that characterized the 3rd grade set, “maybe you shouldn’t wear pink to school.”
Parenting fail #574. Who was this kid? Hadn’t we instilled in him unwavering acceptance of anyone who fell a little outside the norm since this was the place he regularly lived?! Had he not worn all manner of clothing on out-of-uniform days with nary a concern for what others thought of him?
There was the 1st grade dashiki shirt and matching pants courtesy his globetrotting aunt, the 2nd grade Hello Kitty shirt he’d worn until its $5 Target stitching fell apart after daily washings, and – his most recent obsession – the bright yellow rainboots that he wore…with shorts.
What happened to the independent thinker who was simultaneously inspiring and impossible? Ignoring Nick’s detour into conformity, I zeroed in on Gabe.
“What did Miss Yeltzer say?”
“Um, she asked Jasmine how she would feel if someone told her she looked weird.”
“And what did she say?”
“She said it would make her sad. And maybe mad after that. Really mad.”
Yes, that described Jasmine perfectly. If there was going to be a future leader of the Queen Bee Society, this kid was it.
Fortunately, Gabe found the Spider Man stickers plastered on the window remarkably fascinating, which gave me a moment to collect my thought.
Do I advocate being:
Revengeful – where he tells Jasmine to find a brush before she comes to school and actually use it?
Resourceful – where he explains that “pink” isn’t really a color, since it doesn’t appear on the electromagnetic spectrum so perhaps she is hallucinating?
Resolute – where he simply states that she’s entitled to her opinion and it isn’t his job to change it?
Or do I just play Free to Be You and Me and call it a day?
I opted for Reflective.
“How does wearing the shirt make you feel?”
“I like it.”
“I like it too!” Oh! Hello, Olivia. You’re in the car as well, aren’t you? I knew that…really, I did.
“Thank you, Olivia. Why do you like it, Gabe?”
“Because it’s bright and it make me feel happy.”
Olivia, our budding chanteuse, took this as her cue to launch into the pitch-talk, up-to-11, 3-year-old version of “Happy.”
Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like a room without a tooth
Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like happiness is a fruit.
Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy (repeat and don’t fade…ever.)
“So Gabe,” I shouted over Olivia’s record-skip singing, “that’s all that matters. Do you think you look good?”
“I think I look FABULOUS!”
I see we’re back to arms-flung-over-the-head voguing. It’s good to have you back, Gabe. We air high-fived, Nick gave a restrained thumbs-up, and Olivia – finally – took a break from her Pharrell homage to agree.
“Hey!” Her eyes got that Norma-Desmond-ready-for-my-closeup look that defined her AHA moments. “WE BOTH LIKE PINK!”
Why are my children so dramatic?
“And that is perfectly OK,” I underscored. “Some people are going to make fun of you for how you look, maybe even who you are.” I flashed back to my own grade school experiences – the dark face in a sea of white, the daily teasing, the constant trips made by parents made to the principal’s office, the weekly lectures from teachers about tolerance, inclusion and Jesus’ teachings…this was Catholic school after all. But that was my baggage to carry, not theirs. They’d be footloose and fancy free for as long as I could protect them.
“You are special. You are strong and no one is ever going to take that away from you.”
OK…skating a little to close to Stuart Smalley and The Help, but it’s the best I’ve got.
“Can I get an Amen!?”
A whoop of Amen’s filled the car, and I patted myself on the back for another self-esteem crisis averted.
“Tomorrow I’m going to wear my sparkle blue headband and sparkle blue nail polish!”
“And you’re gonna look great, sweetie.” I met his smile in the mirror, both of us grinning like fools. “Right, Nick,” I prodded.
He shook his head, laughing to himself before reaching back to grab Gabe’s foot affectionately. “Yeah, that’ll look awesome, buddy.”
“And I’m going to wear my headband, too!” Cue Sunset Boulevard flared nostrils in 3…2…1-
“WE’RE GONNA TO BE TWINS!”
No, Olivia. Not actually twins. That was a concept we’d have to work on. But what she did know – what they all did – was that we stood up for each other.
And no one – and nothing – was ever going to change that.
The school science fair – two hours of bacteria gone bad, baking soda gone berserk and rocket ships gone rogue. As this was our first time at the rodeo, we chose the experiment-in-a-box approach courtesy Amazon Prime. With a few clicks and the cost of 3 Starbucks Ventis, we had a surefire, turn-key solution. 5 swabs, 10 petri dishes and 48 hours later, we confirmed that yes, our dog does have the dirtiest mouth in the family, which should be no surprise because he is the only member who regularly licks his butt.
Strolling through the aisles of 36×24 Avery boards, I was struck by how creative kids could be with a little latitude and a lot of parental support.
How long does it take for a mouse to master a maze?
Check out aisle 2.
Which singer is more conducive to weight loss – Taylor Swift or Tim McGraw?
Find the answer in aisle 4.
Samantha, a 5th grader, stood at the end of aisle 6. At 5’2 she already towered over some of her classmates. And with her untamed frizzy hair and oversized glasses she looked every bit the part of the mad scientist.
“Do you know if you see what’s really there – or here?” She motioned to her display. “I’ve always wondered if what I think in my head is identical to what I see. Don’t you?”
I shook my head. My thoughts were more along the lines of Did I turn the stove off? I wore a bra today, right?
“This is quite a setup you have here, Samantha.” Her display was impressive – a slick tri-fold with an iPad mounted on the center panel.
“Indeed it is.”
Samantha was one of those kids that everyone seemed to know…sort of. They knew who she was, but not really what she was about. She spoke like she swallowed a BBC program guide, even though she was from the north side of Chicago. And she pushed the boundaries of the school’s uniform on a daily basis. Today she sported flashing globe earrings and a matching – and flashing – headband – “For Earth Day,” she supplied when I had commented on them.
She cleared her throat three times before launching into her presentation. “I find great satisfaction in building things. So I had to determine the best way to display the information such that people could absorb it. I’m exploring a relatively abstract concept – “ She paused, then laughed. “Abstract! At a science fair. How droll. I’ll have to relay that to my mom. But I digress. The question I sought to answer is: how do we witness what we see? ‘Tis a conundrum to say the least.”
She tapped the iPad.
“So tell me, what do you see?”
“People in a circle playing basketball.”
“Spot on.” She reached across and hit the pause button. “OK, I’m going replay it from the beginning and you can tell me how many passes you see. Not too much of a challenge, I hope?”
I nodded, then squinted slightly – the low cafeteria light not doing any wonders for my post-40 vision.
“27,” I announced proudly at the end of 30 seconds.
“And what of the gorilla?”
I cocked my head. “Wait, what gorilla?”
“The primate that walked past the group. Observe.” She scrolled back to the 15-second mark, then paused, making sure that I registered it before resuming. There was the gorilla. It had actually stopped, waved, then done a little dance before continuing across the screen.
As she explained inattentional blindness – the failure to see what is in plain sight – my smile slowly faded to a regret-tinged sigh.
This kid was clever.
This kid was creative.
And…this kid was leaving.
I had learned of her transfer the week prior, during morning drop-off in a drive-by conversation. His mother and I had parked next to each other, twin minivans rolling up just as the tardy bell had rung. After we’d hustled our respective kids into the building, I shook my head and laughed. “I swear, next year we are going to be on time for a change!”
“I know what you mean,” Margot replied. “We’re going to have an even longer commute next year.”
“Oh! Are you guys moving?”
“No…” She dropped her voice, drawing closer as we walked to our cars. “No, we’re transferring at the end of the year.”
“Wow. Wait – all of you?” She had 4 kids in the school, ranging from preschool through 5th grade. To say she was busy was an understatement.
“Yeah.” She took her sunglasses off and I saw the start of tears she struggled to hold back. “We had a family meeting about it. The kids were great – all of them. It’s been a really rough year for Samantha. We don’t want to go, but we can’t keep her here. But the logistics of two schools – it’s just too much.”
I nodded sympathetically. “Is it something specific?”
“Samantha gets teased every day. Well, teased or ignored depending…I mean, I get it – she’s a little different. OK, she’s a lot different. She loves her teachers, but I have to drag her to school every day. That’s why we’re always so late.”
(We, on the other hand, did not have an excuse for being late, other than, well, CPT which we were really trying to work on this year.)
“Did you mention anything to the teachers…maybe the administration?”
“I did. They were great. I mean, they listened, and agreed to do some interventions, keep an eye out on the playground…but…you know how it goes. If you don’t fit in, don’t find your ‘tribe’, it can be really hard.”
I looked around the parking lot as I struggled for a response. There were the usual clusters of post-drop-off parents – the spiky-hair hipsters joking about the latest Game of Thrones episode, the North Face SAHMs coordinating the next toddler playdate, the yoga moms, the suit-and-tie dads…so many islands and nary a bridge between them.
A diverse community
Isolated by sameness
I looked back at Margot, my eyes filling to match hers. “I’m sorry.” I said, then squeezed her arm. “I wish…“
I wish I knew the names of her 4 kids – apart from their shared last name.
I wish I had some idea of how she spent her free time – what little there was of it.
I wish I knew If our paths would cross again – though it was highly unlikely.
“I wish things were different,” I said, knowing how inadequate my words were.
She patted my hand.
At church this past Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of the Good Shepherd, the One who tends the flock, but will leave to find us should we stray. When the priest asked, “who among us is the Good Shepherd,” I hesitated for a moment, half-raising my hand, not wanting to be “wrong”.
“All of us,” he said. “All of us are called.”
For the rest of mass, his words echoed in my head.
We’re not called to be perfect, only to be present – to take the time to acknowledge that yes, we are in this space together.
No matter who we are
No matter where we find ourselves
We are all wandering in this wilderness
Called to lead each other home.
Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.
At the first gate, ask, “is it true?”
We are rushing – as usual – to leave the house. Today, it is to make the bus for Olivia’s first field trip – a two-hour zoo outing. Her teachers have been prepping her class all week – painting pictures, reading books, and singing animal songs. She is so excited for this new experience that she is downstairs and dressed before Lori and I have even sipped our morning coffee. Sure, her shoes are on the wrong feet, and her skirt is tucked into her underwear, but she is ready.
Nick and Gabe, on the other hand, lollygag their way through breakfast.
“You don’t want Olivia to miss her bus,” I remind them, forced glee with an undercurrent of annoyance lacing my tone. When we finally wrangle the kids to the car, I open the door, expecting the dome lights to go on as they always do.
Unless the battery is dead because someone played with the switches and left those lights on.
“NICK!” I snap. “You left the lights on again! How many times have I told you to leave them alone?!”
“I didn’t,” he says, bewildered, as he tests all of the buttons overhead. “I swear. I didn’t touch them!”
It is then that I notice that the master light switch is set to Off. When I push it to Door, the lights flick back on.
I am so ashamed.
“Sorry, Nick. I was wrong and I’m so sorry.”
“That’s OK,” he responds, but I see a little of that beautiful light dim in his eyes.
I can’t keep doing this.
At the second ask, “is it necessary?”
“Gabe, can you give Skippy water? He’s thirsty. And he can’t use his paws to get his water! That would be silly!”
My sister-in-law, mother of 4 spirited kids, shared that her kids respond better when she makes things fun and that maybe I might consider doing the same since my kids see my mouth moving, but hear none of the words that come out of it. I figure I’ll give it a try, but I think she meant that it had to be genuinely fun, not tight-smile-through-clenched-teeth fun.
Gabe keeps walking towards the table, one hand holding his snuggie, the other pressed to his mouth as he sucks his fingers.
“Gabe,” I say more insistently. “What is your job in the morning?”
“I don’t know.”
“Seriously?! It’s the same job you have every morning. Give. Skippy. Some. Water.”
“OK.” He moseys over the drawer to get a cup, then meanders to the bathroom to fill it. When I hear the water running a little too long, I walk over to find him standing on the stool, staring out the window as water overflows from the cup and into the sink.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
He really has no idea what he’s doing. I can see it in his unfocussed eyes. Playing in the alley until 9 after a full day of camp completely wore him out. There’s a reason why he slept so late, why he couldn’t rouse himself to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and a pile of laundry now awaits me by the basement door.
Why no matter how many times I say something, it’s just not going to happen today.
He’s tired. I know this. I just didn’t take the time to see it.
“Hey buddy,” I say gently. “That’s a lot of water for Skippy! He’s a dog, not a camel! How ’bout we give him a little less?”
It’s the first one this morning.
At the third gate ask, “is it kind?”
“Good morning, Olivia! Guess who’s going to the zoo today!” I push her door open, and am surprised to find her room empty.
I pop back into the hall.
“I downstairs!” An enthusiastic voice peeps in reply.
OK, that’s weird. Usually, she’s snuggled in her Hello Kitty sleeping bag, reluctant to leave her blanket and stuffed animal sanctuary.
But today, she has turned all of kitchen lights on and is standing by the back door, one strap of her backpack slung over her shoulder.
She looks like a bag lady.
“Oh, Olivia” I chide, shaking my head. “What do we have here?” I untuck the denim skirt from her inside-out underwear and twist it into place. “The tag goes in the back, sweetie, and you need to see the pretty pattern on your underwear, remember?”
She nods, then starts chewing on her finger.
“And your shoes,” I sigh, undoing the velcro straps. “How are you going to walk around and see the animals if they’re on the wrong feet?”
“I sorry, Nana,” she sniffs, eyes downcast. “I going to the zoo today.”
“That’s right. You are going to the zoo today.”
“I get dressed by myself.”
“Yes, you did get dressed…” My voice trails off…by yourself, because you are smart, independent, and everything I say I want my children to be.
“I am a BIG girl,” she asks tentatively, her almond eyes looking up into mine.
“You are my BIG girl, and I am so very proud of you.”
She throws her arms around me, and I squeeze her body close to mine. I want to hold this moment forever.
So many words
So many gates
So many times to stay silent
And just be
“It’s 3:59. Are we still going to basketball?”
Nick continues to drag a stick across the dirt in our backyard. He’s ignoring my question. It’s the 4th time I’ve asked in as many minutes.
“I love you, Nana,” Gabe chimes in, to reinforce his preferred son status.
“Thank you, Gabe. But I’m in the middle of talking to Nick right now.”
“OK, Nana. I like your shirt.” Yes, Gabe. And I appreciate your ability to charm. That will come in handy when you’re older.
At 4:04 I give up. By the time we pack into the car and drive to the park district, Nick’s class will be half over. Even at a mere $10 for the season, it still feels wasteful to miss a class.
“So we’re skipping today, are we?”
Still no response as he shrugs and meets Gabe on the play castle beside our magnolia tree.
“I don’t appreciate not getting an answer. It’s rude. How many times – “ I have to stop myself. I can feel the criticisms building, just waiting for their chance to curtail Nick’s burgeoning sense of self.
Walk away. Just walk away.
I hear the voice of Olivia’s teacher in my mind. How many times have I walked into her classroom at the end of the day and heard Ms. Georgia advise the kids to disengage? Surely after teaching toddlers for 25 years, she must have some special insight into conflict resolution…
From the kitchen window I watch Nick and Gabe point to an airplane passing overhead. Gabe giggles; Nick makes some odd flapping gesture with his arms. Gabe giggles again.
My eldest scrambles over the structure and into the tree, hooking his legs over a branch as he dangles upside down. I marvel at his core strength as he starts swinging his body to and fro, arms up hit the branch, then back to give Gabe a “high ten”.
“Faster, Nick! Go faster.”
He is the picture of effortless grace…until the momentum proves too much and he lands on his head in the dirt.
I am in motion before I am consciously aware of it, taking the stairs in the mudroom two-by-two, nearly tripping in my haste.
Then I stop.
Nick has pushed himself upright, shaking his head. His brother sits beside him rubbing his back.
“You OK, Nick? Do you need some ice?”
Nick doesn’t respond, but absentmindedly pats Gabe’s arm. He finally stands, then works his way back into position – first one leg, then the other, over the branch before he slowly unfurls his body.
“Good job, Nick,” Gabe encourages. He scans the backyard, settling on an over-sized green ball and rolls it towards the tree.
“Here, Nick! You catch, then throw it to me!”
The two brothers spend the next half hour channeling their inner circus performers – Nick still swinging upside down; Gabe finding balls of varying size with which to challenge Nick’s agility.
This is childhood – the beauty of self-directed, unrestricted play.
As much as Nick enjoys learning the perfect layup, he also needs this – time to experiment and explore. To fall, get up, and try again.
The time will come when he will want to leave this house, to be independent from his siblings.
But for now, he is here.
He is happy.
And that’s all that matters.
I was invited to answer a question – what do I believe – for a magazine I have written for.
The answer fills the pages of this blog.
I believe in family – however it is defined.
It is an act of faith…and forgiveness. A bond tested – Oh Lord, is it tested! – and renewed.
It is an expression of humility, devotion, acceptance.
It is the space between you and me.
That makes us complete.
“Keep up, Gabe,” I said, tugging my middle child gently by the hand as we scurried across the parking lot. He kept trying to slide his hand out of mine, so I grabbed the edge of his sleeve as my eyes scanned for errant cars.
I had just picked him and his brother up from school, dropped Nick off at the park district, then swung by home to pick up snacks. Now we had 30 minutes to find Gabe a new pair of sneakers because we had discovered at 7:45 this morning that his feet had grown a full size in the night.
“Can I ride in the cart?”
“Oh no, sweetie,” I dismissed his request, pushing the cart ahead of me. “C’mon. We have a bunch of stuff to pick up.”
I half-dragged him to the shoe department where I snatched the first pair of decent-looking size 10’s from the shelf.
“I wanted ones that light up.”
I exhaled impatiently.
“I looked. I didn’t see any. These are good enough. Let’s go.”
As we passed through the grocery aisle, Gabe’s eyes grew large as he saw all of the forbidden snacks that lay just beyond his grasp.
“I want Cheetos.”
“Not real food, Gabe. I’ve told you that before.”
“But Nana – “
“No, Gabe. Now keep moving.”
I glanced at my phone. We needed to move faster if we were going to get through our list. Almond butter…where would I be if I were almond butter –
My musings were cut short by a primal, rage-filled scream reverberated through the hallowed halls of Target.
I rolled my eyes. Some poor kid had hit the wall.
Then I froze.
Wait, was that my son who had released that unholy sound?
I turned slowly, half-expecting to find some mutant devil spawn, complete with spinning head and spewing vomit. But no, it was still Gabe, albeit eyes wild, fists clenched, teeth bared.
“Heeeeeeey buddy…what’s up?” I tried to sound sweet, but it came out more like what the f-?
He unleashed the litany of wrongs which had transpired within the last 5 minutes.
“You didn’t get me Cheetos!”
“I wanted to ride on the cart!”
“I don’t want to hold your hand in the parking lot!”
And the final blow – his pièce de résistance – which he delivered with an accusatory finger jabbing the space between us to underscore each precious word.
“You’re not coming to my BIRTHDAY PARTY!”
(He had clearly forgotten that he had already uninvited me from his party yesterday.)
“Well, sweetie,” I began, pushing my cart to the side. “I understand that you’re upset, but here’s the deal: I’m not going to buy you Flaming Hot Cheetos because it will burn your tongue off. You’re going to walk because you are 4, and don’t even fit in the carts anymore. And finally, my dear, dear sweet boy –“ And for this last explanation, I crouched low, encircling him in my arms as I drew him closer. “You need to hold my hand because that’s how I keep you safe. You are just too important for me to let anything bad happen to you.”
The crazy dissipated from his eyes as his body slumped and he leaned into my hug. I rubbed his low afro, and pressed a kiss into his forehead.
“You are my special helper, remember?”
Whether I said it for his benefit or mine, I couldn’t be sure.
A wide smile spread across his face. In my haste to finish shopping in time to grab his younger sister from daycare then swing by to get his older brother from basketball, I had forgotten that Gabe needed time too.
To go at his own pace.
To have his own thoughts.
To breathe into the space of who he was…
And who he was becoming.
I gave him a final squeeze before fishing in my pocket for the shopping list I knew he couldn’t quite read yet.
“So we need to get 3 more things – dog food, detergent and waffles. What do you want to look for first?”
He stared at the list – perhaps able to identify a few letters despite my chicken-scratch writing.
“Skippy needs food.”
I stood slowly, lamenting the pop from knees. As we entered the pet aisle, Gabe stopped in front of the first bag of dog food.
“Is it this one?”
“We need a green bag, sweetheart.”
“No, that’s dark green. We need light green.”
“That’s not even green, Gabe.”
I could feel it starting again – the need to move a little faster, so we could knock off the other items on the list. Then I heard a little giggle, as he pointed to a red bag.
“This one, Nana?”
“Very funny, Gabe.”
We spent another 10 minutes there, playing his little game of I-bet-you-thought-I didn’t-know-my-colors-but-I-totally-do. This kid has a quirky sense of humor, I thought.
Thank goodness I had the time to appreciate it.