4

When All That’s Left Is the Board

"We didn't lose the game; we just ran out of time." - Vince Lombardi

“We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”
– Vince Lombardi

King’s pawn to e4.

My dad has opened every chess game with this classic move. But this time, I’m not the one sitting across from him. It’s Nick, and he’s matched my dad’s move with an equally classic response.

King’s pawn to d5.

The two figures will stare each other down for the rest of the game.

Before this year, I had only beaten my dad once. It took us both by surprise. Left with only a bishop, knight, queen, and a smattering of pawns, I had haphazardly zeroed in on my dad’s king until he had nowhere left to run.

“Check,” I announced proudly, then, looking at the pieces again added, “…mate?

He examined the board – I could see from the rapid movement of his eyes, he was not only verifying the win, but replaying the moves that had led to this conclusion.

“Yes,” he finally said, then added, “Good game.”

He could well have said, “it’s raining outside” because his words were a statement of fact, not a verbal high-five. But I was used to it. After all, this was a West Indian household and superior performance was just the status quo. His tone, like his chess game, was decisive. There was a set pattern of behavior that yielded a set outcome. It was how he lived his life and how he had raised his offspring.

We were checklist children:

Private school. Check.
Afterschool enrichment. Check.
Competitive college. Check.

And it was how his father had raised him. A man who, by the time I was old enough to remember him, was a whisper of his former self – the proud family patriarch with the orator’s voice and the scholar’s vocabulary had become just “grandpa” – a mumbling, meandering man for whom once familiar faces were now a mystery.

“Dad, are you sure you want to move that piece there?” His knight hovers over f4, where Nick’s bishop will easily take him from h6.

He scans the board again, slower than I remember, then shakes his head ruefully before moving a pawn instead.

“I don’t know what I was thinking.”

This is how it has been for the last year. The difference between who my father was and who he will become is now a question of subtraction – as memories fade, skills diminish, and the person who shaped who I am fades away.

“Grandpa, it’s your turn,” Nick prods gently. My dad has drifted off to sleep, but Nick waits patiently as he returns to us. “You could move your rook there,” he says, pointing to a5. “I promise I won’t eat you.”

At 7, I can see the man he is becoming, a question of addition as the sum of his experiences define his personality, like shouting so Lori’s mom can hear him, or helping his other grandma down the stairs, or letting my dad retain some dignity as he faces losing to a 2nd grader.

The day’s game ends in a draw – both players chasing each other around the board with neither able to declare victory. But I know this is temporary, that some day soon, Nick will beat his grandpa. That some day soon, Grandpa won’t realize that he’s lost.

Or what he’s lost.

I’m saying goodbye to my dad piece by piece because I know how the game ends. I think he knows it too.

But he probably won’t remember by the time it happens.

0

Pride Is…

The 21st century Alt-American Family: Created by Love. Sustained by Love.

The 21st century Alt-American Family: Created by Love. Sustained by Love.

Pride is…

  • Sitting on the couch when you were 9 and asking why it’s such a big deal that some boys like boys and some girls like girls and your mom shrugging her shoulders and saying, “love is love.”
  • Watching highlights from the 1993 March on Washington with a group of college friends, noting that one of them has a really cute smile.
  • Scream-singing “Closer I Am To Fine” later than night at an Indigo Girls Concert and realizing that cute smile is directed at you.
  • Buying your first rainbow necklace at We’re Everywhere, convinced that hidden cameras would somehow alert your parents.
  • Buying your first mountain bike at Outspok’n, slapping a rainbow flag on the frame and riding along Belmont with that girl with the cute smile.
  • Directing your first play – a lesbian romantic comedy – because you saw it at Bailiwick and are inspired to recreate it in Chambana.
  • Buying a condo with cute-smile girl, then a house which you would later fill with children.
  • Hearing your first son answer the question “who’s the other lady” with “my other mom” without skipping a beat.
  • Watching your second son forgive as easily as he smiles, whether it’s an errant soccer ball or a bite from his sister. His smile is cute, just like his mom’s.
  • Noting that your daughter’s fierce ability to hold her own with 2 older brothers is both inspiring and terrifying when you consider what her teenage years will be like.
  • Being a part of this beautiful, wonderful, crazy family, created and sustained by love.

I am so grateful for the path that has led us this far, and exited for the journey ahead.

Happy Pride!

0

Finding Your Way Home

Today is a very good day.

Today a newborn and a new mom are basking in the glow of patience, faith and destiny.

When my friend Justine first approached us about our experiences with adoption, we were encouraging, but realistic.  And while we couched our words with “but this is just what happened to us; it might be different for you,” we didn’t pull any punches.

“Yes, as a single woman you will have a harder time adopting.”

“No, there is no “best case” scenario, only “meh, that’s not that bad” ones.”

“Yes, it’s good to be open, but if something doesn’t feel right, there’s probably ‘crazy’ in the air.”

Throughout her 2-year journey, she would check in with different questions, concerns, and of course, situations:

Like the woman who called her daily “just to chat” but refused a referral to a birth parent counselor to discuss her options, including placement.  (Surprise, she didn’t.)

Or the birthmother who begged Justine to be present at the birth – a four-hour drive – then changed her mind at the last minute.  (Been there, done that.  It sucks.)

Or the birth family who read her profile, saw dollar signs, then, a couple grand later, decided to parent. (Again, been there, done that…and done with that.)

Through it all, we told her, as we had told ourselves, that the right baby will find her.

It just takes time.

And the first time that you hold that child, you will wonder how this moment came to be…how you ever lived before this child came into being.

But, every now and then, you will wonder…about the others…

When Gabe was six months old, we attended an open house at the adoption agency.  We wandered through the halls, reconnecting with families we hadn’t seen since the required adoption classes, and connecting with newly-expanded families like our own.  Nick enjoyed himself immensely, even though we lost him a few times since he seemed to think that the entire building was his personal playground.  And Gabe, while not as mobile, made up for it with his non-stop baby babble, apparently seeing the entire event as his personal soapbox.

Just before we left, we struck up a conversation with a family who had a son, about the same age as Nick, and a daughter, about the same age as Gabe.

“She is too precious,” I cooed, marveling at her color-coordinated and heavily accessorized ensemble.  She was a vision of frills and lace – two items that have never seen the inside of our house.  So quiet, so demure this child.  And they all seemed such a lovely family, if a bit reserved. So while we traded stories about the difference between one child and two – “it’s not just double the work…it’s exponential!” – it was clear that we had very different children and very different approaches to parenting.

As we talked, more details emerged about their little girl, her birth family, and her placement story.

That’s when I put two and two together.

This was the one we didn’t get.

We had been one of 3 families being considered by a young woman and her boyfriend.  On paper, it had seemed like a perfect fit.  They had loved our profile, our creative bent, and, of course, the future big brother, Nick.  But after a week of deliberations, they had chosen another family with closer geographical ties.

We were devastated, ready to resign ourselves to life with one child.

But then we got a call…and the rest is Gabe’s history.

In the car ride home – after we tracked Nick down – I shared my discovery with Lori.

“Oh my God.  How weird is that?  Wait, why didn’t you tell me inside?”
“What was I going to say?  And how?  It’s not like you speak Spanish.”
“Yeah, and you don’t speak pig latin.”
“Touche.”
“You mean, ouchetay.”
“Whatever.”
“Ateverwhay.”
“Please stop, or so help me God I will jump out of the car.”

(Silence)

“Nice family.”
“Yup.”

(Silence)

Sooooo not our kid.”
“Not even close.”

Our kids, god love ’em,  are quirky, boisterous, compassionate, obstreperous, independent, fun-loving, carefree spirits.

In other words, they are perfect…and perfect for us.  We wouldn’t have it any other way.

To those who are seeking those seeking to be sought, know that it will happen.  Know that when it does, it will all be worth it…just to hold and behold perfection in your arms.

As a child of the 80’s, I have to close this out with the song that has found me shortly after each one of our children has found their way home.

[photo from http://templar.osmthu.org.uk/_photos/Baby%20Feet.jpg%5D

0

Do These Pills Make Me Look Fat?

“See? We even made room for you.”

I have a love/hate relationship with prednisone.

On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to climb stairs like a normal human being instead of dragging my legs behind me like some mutant zombie freak.  And being the efficiency nut that I am, I love finishing projects in record speed because, well, your body acts like it’s on speed.

Organize the kitchen cabinets – 40 minutes.
Sort, fold and purge all of the kids’ old clothes – 1.5 hours (including a trip to Salvation Army!).
Install shelves in the basement – 2 hours at 2am.

“Mania, schmania!!  These shelves look fantastic!!!  What else can I get done this morning?! BOOYEAH!!!

On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of the side effects, including, but of course not limited to, loss of bone density, insomnia and weight gain.  It’s the last one that gets me, not because I’m vain – which I’m not – but because I came home yesterday after an afternoon of window shopping to discover a huge rip in my pants…right up the crack.

Yes, all of 900 North got to see my granny pants underwear.

And yet my biggest gripe about the drug is the dependence.  On nights when I forget to take the pill – because I’m too tired or distracted – I awake the next morning in a panic because I know that half the day is simply gone.  The limited range of motion as I hoist myself out of bed and lumber to the bathroom will tell me how slow I will be today, but not how much pain I’ll be in as my body systematically turns on itself, joint by joint. That will have to wait until I’m in the car during morning drop off when it feels like little elves have taken pickaxes to every nook and cranny of my weary frame.

Me no likey RA.

I tell the kids that everything in life is to be embraced – that they have to take the good, take the bad, take them both and there you have – sing it with me – the facts of life! The facts of life!  This diagnosis is not something to be beaten, but something to be integrated.  If the body is tired, slow down.  If the body is happy, enjoy.  And if the body is stuck, ask for help.

“Um, Lori….Lori….LORI!!!!!” I was trying very hard not to panic.

“Coming….” I could hear her skipping stairs in her hurry to reach me.  She stopped at the bathroom door, took one look, and burst out laughing.

“How long have you been trying to get that shirt off?”

I had pushed my right arm through the neck hole of my T-shirt, in an attempt to lift the whole shirt over my head without using my left arm, which hung limp at my side.  My RA had decided that today, it would go bats*&% on my shoulder joint.  In my mouth, I had a corner of the collar because in the 15 minutes that I had been contorting my body, I had now come up with the brilliant idea of trying to shred the shirt with my teeth.  Desperate times…

It took us less than 30 seconds to get my shirt off.  All that time wasted being independent, when I had a partner with whom I could be interdependent…

As she lowered me into the Epsom salt bath, I gave her a quick peck on the cheek.  “I didn’t think we’d be doing this for another 20 years.”

“No worries,” she replied, giving me a peck back.  “I’ll still be here.”

2

Where Did I Come From?

“We cannot have an identity of our own until we have our own story.”

– James P. Carse
Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience

 

Story time is sacrosanct in our house.  No matter how crazy, crappy or convoluted the day has been, we will gather, as a family, in the boys’ bedroom and read.

There are books that are in regular rotation – 10 Apples Up on Top (Gabe), This is the Way to the Moon (Nick), and  Mary Had a Little Lamb (Olivia).  But the ones that the kids request the most are the stories of how our family came to be.

“Mommy and Nana were in a meeting,” starts Nick’s story.  And he listens with rapt attention as we describe the daisy chain calls to our work, then cell phones, to ask if we wanted to pick up baby boy…right now.

How we were so excited to meet this baby that we forgot our car seat when we drove to the doctor’s house.

How we bounded up the stairs of his Victorian and he met us at the door.

How the moment our social worker placed this tiny baby in our arms we knew he was our Nicholas.

How we realized we didn’t have any baby items at home so we drove to Target and walked the aisles while Auntie Caroline told us over the phone what we needed to buy.

How when we got home we stared at him as he slept, whispering over and over, “thank you for finding us.”

“And what about Gabe,” Nick prompts. “He came from Obama’s house.”  We smile, as we always do, because no matter how many times we have explained that “the white house” that Gabe came from is different from the one where Obama lives, Nick still thinks his brother has a presidential connection.

“Mommy and Nana were working on the computer,” starts Gabe’s story, “and we got an email.”  There was a baby boy, about a month old, in the nursery of “the white house.”  His birthmom had picked our family – had picked Nick specifically to be this baby’s big brother.

How we went to visit the baby – just Mommy and Nana – while Nick was in school. 

How alert he was, with his toothless baby smile, and he snuggled into our arms, as if he was always meant to be there.

How we went as a family to bring him home and Nick told everybody in the elevator that he was going to get his baby brother.

How we sat on the big couch and big brother did such a good job holding his brother’s head up as he fed him a bottle.

How we showed Gabe the giant “READY” sign we had painted, now hanging in our kitchen, to let him and the Universe know that we were here and waiting.

How Gabe smiled at Nick as he drifted to sleep and Nick’s smile filled his face, then the room, then our hearts.

“And Olivia?” Nick says of his sister who has fallen asleep in Lori’s arms.  He is stretched on the floor next to his brother, who is fighting to stay awake.

“Nana was ‘making a movie’” – we describe our work in ways that they can understand – “and I got a message on my phone that Olivia was being born.”

How Olivia had to stay in the hospital because she was so excited to meet us that she came a little early. 

How Nick picked the clothes for the new baby and we cautioned him that maybe we would just have the baby for a little while since we had to wait for her birthmom to tell a judge she wanted us to take care of Olivia forever, and remember how the other babies’ mommies had changed their minds…

How Nick studied the yellow duckling onesie he held in his hands then said quietly but firmly, “No. I want to keep this one.”

How Nick and Gabe waited with our village of friends and family while we visited Olivia, taking pictures to show them when we came home.

How Nick started his first day of kindergarten; Gabe went to daycare.  Both came home, went to bed, and awoke a few hours late to meet their little sister.

How we sat together in Olivia’s room, marveling at our expanded family.

The children are asleep now, and as we tuck each one in, we know we will share these words again.

These are the stories we tell our children, for them to tell themselves.

2

Mad With Power…

It was fun while it lasted, then we got a nasty shock.

Finding equilibrium in a family of 6 – we’re including the dog – is – wait for it – a balancing act.

Sometimes it means listening to who’s crying the loudest –

“Yes, Olivia, I understand that you want to eat my pizza, but at 9 months your gag reflex is still kicking in which means that I will soon be wearing everything you’ve eaten for the last 3 days.  Now eat your carrot-lentil-rice puree.”   

Or who’s being the quietest –

“Gabe?  Gaaaabe?   Where are you…..GABE!!!!  What are you doing behind the couch?  We do not eat Playdoh! Yucky yucky!”

At its core, family dynamics is about power – who wields it and who wants it.  For the first few years of Nick’s life, Lori and I ran an oligarchy…and now we are reaping all the “benefits” of that model.  Although we would like to think of ourselves as benevolent, more often than not we were directive, with little in the way of explanation except, “because I said so.”

“Nick, put your shoes on.”
“Nick, go get your backpack.”

We had never treated each other like that, nor our friends or family, nor anyone we respected for that matter.  But somehow, with the arrival of a completely dependent infant, we let power go to our heads.

Is it any wonder that we hear this same tone when he addresses Gabe?  And should we really be shocked that he’s now flexing some of his own power muscles as he tries to assert his Alpha Male status in a family run by two Alpha Females.

Jonah Lehrer wrote this 2010 article where he talks about the effect power has.  It doesn’t so much corrupt as it does corrode.  Contrary to Machiavelli’s recommendations, nice guys and gals do finish first, but then something funny happens once they get to the top.

Turns out that the corner office with a view becomes a loony bin.  You actually go a little crazy, like damage to the orbito-frontal lobe crazy where you’re less empathetic and more judgmental.  You rely on stereotypes, you make less eye contact, and you are less likely to agree with ideas that conflict with pre-existing beliefs.

Egads! Sounds like me on my worst parenting days – the ones I look back on and cringe, convinced that whatever false assumption or sarcastic aside I made is the one that’s going to send the kids into years of therapy.

So how do we move from our matriarchy to a democracy?  How do we equally distribute power without devolving into a Battle Royale?

Three simple steps:

1. We shut the hell up.

Really.  As chicks we talk non-freaking-stop to our kids – warnings, explanations, teaching moments – we never met a quiet space we couldn’t cram with talk, talk and still more talk until their eyes glaze over, their jaws hang slack…and then we’ll talk some more.  We want to make sure that they fully understand the ramifications of every choice, danger or opportunity that is presented to them to ensure that they…

Yeah, you get the idea.

But now we’re at a point where we observe and listen.  There are times when I literally bite my tongue as I wait for Gabe’s 2-year-old brain to work through the question I’ve just posed to him:

“Would you like to share your Cheerios with Olivia?” 

Sometime between my 9th and 10th diaphragmatic breath, he will unfurl his sweaty hand and offer a crushed “O” to his sister.

Totally worth it. And breathe…

2. We see the world through their eyes. 

Whether it’s sitting on the ground to make eye contact, or listening to their entire explanation as to why the bathroom floor is slippery and the soap dispenser is in the sink (“I wanted to make the soap last longer, so I poured some of it out to make room for water, but it spilled.”), we try to follow their internal logic.  It’s always there.  We just need to give them the time and space to share it with us.

3.  We channel our inner poker player. 

We gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away…

Lori’s sister has 4 “spirited” kids who make our kids look comatose.  The best piece of advice she has given us is to just let the kids be.  Period.   Want to stand on the chair repeatedly after we’ve briefly explained the likely outcome? Fine.  In our house, we call that “assumption of risk.”  We won’t keep nagging you about the fact that you might fall.  If you do, we’ll kiss your booboos.  And if you don’t, we’ll say “good job” and strike another milestone from the list.

Even with these guidelines? ( laws? statutes?)  we’re still trying to find that “perfect” form of family governance, where every voice is heard and every special interest represented, amidst the order and chaos that defines everyday life.

0

Lights Out…Play On!

In the middle of dinner last night, we lost power.

We weren’t expecting this until summer, but with the unseasonably warm weather in Chicago, we were not completely surprised.

What did surprise us was the WHOOOP of joy that both our 5-year-old son, Nick, and two-year-old son, Gabe, let out. (Olivia, at 7 months, reacted with a simple widening of her already enormous eyes.) But this WHOOP soon turned to BOO when we announced that it was time to head upstairs for story time and bed.

“How will we read in the dark,” asked Nick. “Only bats can see in the dark.”

I opened my mouth to yes-and-but-and him – “Yes, it’s true that bats see in the dark, and I’m really proud of you for making that connection, but bats aren’t the only creatures with night vision, and they don’t read” – but Lori’s not-so-subtle glare meant her instinct for simplicity trumped my need for specificity.

“No worries, buddy,” I self-corrected. “We’re going on a reading adventure!”

Up the stairs we went, flashlights in tow for an impromptu indoor camping trip. Out came the blankets, sleeping bags, sleepy friends and whatever else our two boys could throw onto the floor in 2 minutes. Nick chose Stellaluna (of course) and The Lorax; Gabe opted for The Foot Book (again) and My Numbers.

Olivia opted for a pacifier.

Huddled on the floor of their shared bedroom, we read by flashlight, alternating between stories on the page and stories from our minds as we acted out shadow puppets on the wall. Even after the lights returned, interrupting our reenactment of the DOOM OF THE DINOSAURS – Olivia’s head was the comet – we took a brief intermission to flip the switch before plunging back into darkness.

It would have been easy, I suppose, to let the house lights signal the end of our play. Instead we chose to stay in the moment, making magic with our children, until the last puppet took his final bow.