Fourteen Years, Then France

IMG_2947To spend ten consecutive days with him is something I never dared dream.

To spend ten consecutive days with him in France is nothing I could have ever conceived.

He was a toddler when he walked into our lives and our hearts fourteen years ago. And when he left nine months later, we knew we would never be the same.

He was our foster son; and each day he was with us, every move we made, every thought we had was for him. We held his hand as he negotiated our city’s streets, read to him every night stories about the world we live in, narrated to him all he heard and saw. We loved him and watched him grow and learn.

And when he left we didn’t know when or even if we would ever see him again. Our plan was to try to find him when he was eighteen; and, if he consented, we would tell him who we were, share stories and photos of his time with us.

But he beat us to it.

On a July morning last summer, I rose to a still-sleeping house and made my way downstairs. I poured a large glass of orange juice and turned on my computer to check my email. And there in the subject line the name I had carried with me every day since that cold November day in 2000 when we first met.

Sixteen years old and living a mere 42 minutes away.

And so soon we met. Again.

It was alternately effortless and all-consuming, a beginning and a natural continuation.

We shared conversations and connections. The topic of travel came up.

I mentioned I was planning a trip to France. I told him if he wanted to go, we could figure out a way to make that happen.

He did. And we did.

First passport, first flights, first everything.

Paris, Arles, Nice.

And I once again and fourteen years later had a front-row seat . . . observant and awestruck, wondering if words existed to capture any of this and finally realizing they really don’t.

But perfect moments do.

Whether on a too-cold November night in 2000, at a computer on an early morning in July, or on a boat moving dreamily along the Seine.

They come when they come.

And when they do, nothing is–thankfully–ever the same.

What Are We Waiting For?

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2002

She had a smile that entered the room long before she did and a heart that knew no limits. My husband’s aunt, who, by the time I became a member of the family, lived hundreds of miles away, was always someone I knew of. Declining health prevented her from meeting our youngest son, her one visit with our older two a mere few hours.

I had only spent a short time in her physical company, but the idea of Irene has always been profound; and her passing last week has left a palpable void and reminded me of something I thought I already knew.

If I had to guess, I don’t think Irene understood the impact she had on me. And that wouldn’t be her fault. It would be mine. Because I never told her. I never picked up the phone and called her, never wrote her a letter. I sent photos of the children, always made sure I sent a Christmas card; but beyond that I was remiss.

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2007

I never told her how beautiful I thought she was, how incredibly brave, how the story of her life is the stuff of fiction. She lived many lifetimes in the one she was given, weathered losses that would have easily felled others. I never made an effort to be sure she knew her great-nephews despite geographical hurdles.

And just as resplendent flowers tend to arrive more prolifically after a person has died, the ardent words that would better have been spoken and written in life, suddenly appear with a vengeance: Obituaries overflow with positivity, letters of condolence seep with evocative praise. And the person who has left departed none the wiser.

So I’m left today wondering why: Why I did not stop the wheels of progress regularly to tell Irene what I thought–that she was kind and beautiful and brave? Why I let days turn to weeks and months, years and decades without a word, now having to join the legions who are compelled to relegate praise to sentences written in the past tense?

Why did I wait until today to tell the world about Irene? Why did I not do better when I clearly knew better?

Why do any of us?

 

 

 

Preparing for Battle

Mexican PhotoWell, August, it’s Thursday, 5 February 2015, and yesterday this little nugget of highbrow humor was meandering about the internet—on social media and the like. It might be an old picture. I can’t be sure. But yesterday was the first day I saw it.

You’re all of five years old. You don’t yet know how to read, and certainly you have no reason to see this photo. You’re too busy mastering your sight words, building with LEGO, and trying to negotiate a later bedtime. This is honestly the last thing you need.

But you are curious, incredibly astute, and all too soon you will see these sorts of things. And as a person of Mexican ancestry, how you will respond will be a decision you will need to make.

I am not of Mexican ancestry, but I can tell you that as your mother I am tired. I’m tired of seeing this sort of thing. I’m tired of the fact that people still produce this, that people still share it and laugh at it. I’m tired of being told it’s just a joke, that I need to learn how to take a joke. I’m tired of being told that humor and offense are inextricably linked. IMG_2330

And I’m angry, too. About all of the above, yes, but also because of the compulsion I feel to call this sort of thing out every single time I see it. I’m angry that I feel defensive and continually bound to state the obvious—that disparaging another human being’s ethnicity is ignorant, laughing at it is short-sighted if not cruel. At the very least it’s completely unnecessary.

But despite my exhaustion, my discontent, and my anger, I won’t stop. It’s not in me, and the motivation I have is the most powerful of all—the love I feel for you, the respect I have for you, what I hope to impart to you.

My words, my vitriol, my discontent—none of these have changed the world or stopped the flow of the tasteless, insensitive, or unkind. My efforts have not been successful in shielding you.

It is my hope, though, that they will fortify you so that when it’s your turn to fight, you will be ready.

 

More to Him, More to All

IMG_8453Three years ago today he had a seizure. It was, as they say, a doozy. We held our breath, watched his very small body betray him for how many times I cannot and am not inclined to count, and held him tight as he endured the aftermath.

We didn’t know then it was going to be the last—at least for the next three years—that that seizure would mark the beginning of a hiatus that would give our son the opportunity to make up for the proverbial lost time, would allow him to make the strides that had necessarily eluded him while epilepsy exerted its control over every facet of his being.

Three years later our son’s face no longer bears the evidence of his trials. To meet him today you would never know that while other Kindergarteners and first-graders spent their afternoons happily playing, he was sound asleep in his school clothes, the soporific effects of medication more than his small body could bear. You would never know of the afternoons he was simply too weak to walk home from the playground or through the aquarium and had to ride in his toddler brother’s stroller. You would never know how his hair fell out or how sunken and sad his eyes once were.

He is a marvel to me—in many more ways than I can ever articulate—but more than that he is a reminder that we can never presume to know anything about anyone based on the smiles they wear, the energy they exude. What is behind those smiles and under that energy is where the stories live.

Our son’s is a tale of resilience, yes. But it is also a tale of the danger of judging or assessing others based solely on appearances. There is more to him than anyone who doesn’t know him could ever know. There is more to all of us than anyone who doesn’t know us could ever know. Our son is not simply a silly nine-year-old boy who laughs too loudly at equally silly jokes, who makes messes sometimes faster than he (or we) can clean them, or knows just the right way to get under his brothers’ skin.

He is also not simply the avid reader, the eager learner, the boy with the heart of gold.

He is a child who already knows pain, who remembers what epilepsy was and is. He understands not being able to count on his body, and he understands fear.

He is simultaneously similar to and completely different from everyone else.

Just like everyone else.

 

 

Just Like Her

He was angry at me and said I was exactly like my mother.

The charger for his device was not doing its work fast enough.  I endeavored to help him by swapping it out for a different one.  He was less than impressed with my efforts and lapsed into a temper tantrum occasionally characteristic of many a disgruntled five-year-old.  I told him not to yell or I would take away said device.  He then hurled his response with all the vitriol he could muster:  “You’re just like your mean mother!”

I stopped in my tracks, was rendered speechless.

My children have heard the tales, have asked for them in fact.  My childhood and all its mystery has taken on near-mythical status in their eyes. I have, of course, responsibly edited the more unsavory details of my rearing; but they have heard enough to know that there were good reasons they were never able to meet my mother, were never permitted to spend time with her before she died.

They have concluded she was “mean”—the word taking on its broadest significance when referring to her.

167008_1680165118238_649770_nBecoming a mother necessarily forced me to confront my feelings about mine; and it became painfully and pitifully obvious that in terms of role models, my first and most significant was presented in mirror-image: I eventually discerned that if I simply did the opposite of what she did—at every turn, at every moment, I would then naturally become her opposite. Her behavior and choices rendered her cruel; mine would ensure I was good, profoundly decent. It seemed a simple strategy.  I never aspired to be perfect—not in motherhood, not in anything.  But her opposite?  I could and surely should aspire to that.

Then, when I least expect it, my son—the five-year-old boy who still fits dreamily and snugly on my lap and informs me—eyes sparkling, heart radiating–I’m “the most beautiful mother [he] ever saw”—tells me in a fit of frustration and anger that I’m her.

You’re just like your mean mother.

I get it.  I truly do.  He’s five.  He was unhappy with me.  And instead of saying, as plenty of children have before him, that he hates me or that I’m the worst mother ever, he says I’m just like her.

And while his aim was to hurt me, to retaliate for his perceived affront, he will never be able to fathom the magnitude of his words because he does not comprehend the sum total of who she was—and was not.

The version he has of her has been heavily edited, and that is how it should be.  All he knows is she was mean—very mean; and since he thought I was being mean, it’s the retribution that made the most sense, was the most convenient and accessible epithet he could grab in that moment.

And despite the power of my very conscious, very logical self who knows who I am and who I am not, my head could do nothing but spin, could do nothing but contemplate that what-ifs born of six words .

Then I thought about what she would have done had a similar scenario transpired when I was five.  And while I’ll stop short of painting that sad picture, I can say she would not have issued a natural consequence.  There would have been no thought.

She would have reacted.  She would have been mean.

So, I know I’m not her.

That my son is wrong.

But his words are not without resonance, not without power.

They sting—no less than the realization that the five-year-old I love most in the world, my child, has the power to fell me with a single sentence.

 

 

 

 

Filter Installed

Christmas Photo Black and WhiteWhen they were little, writing about them was easy. Parenting was new. Every experience, victory, and setback a novelty and ostensibly worthy of documentation. As a new mother and one who has always processed complex emotions by writing about them, this blog was born out of necessity.

Plus, they couldn’t read. Their friends couldn’t read. The only people who knew their stories were over five feet tall and had the judgment that customarily comes with it.

But now . . . well, two out of three and the company they keep can read and read well. One is on the verge. They each know I write and write about them. And I would be lying if I said that though this blog started essentially, dare I say magnanimously, as an online baby book of sorts, I never expected it to go someplace else, to garner attention beyond my immediate circle. It’s the wish of all writers . . . that their mere words resonate with others. It’s what fuels them and compels them to click the “publish” button.

My sons will be eleven, ten, and six this year. And the experiences, victories, and setbacks are no less frequent. In fact, arguably, they’re more interesting than ever. They engage with one another in ways that regularly and alternately impress and confound me. In terms of pure “material,” there is no dearth.

And the wish to write is no less palpable. The longing to tell the story of what happened last Saturday or even this morning insistent.

Yet I won’t. I can’t. A filter has found a spot on the tips of my fingers—one that keeps me from writing anything that may compromise or embarrass them today or, as much as I can predict, tomorrow. A filter that will allow some stories to come through, but not all of them.

My children have been my muses. I have trusted their voices.

May they always be able to trust mine.

 

 

I Don’t Want to Not Be with You

It was cold.

And I was so warm.

Bundled up in ample layers of fleece.  My signature look as I alternately meander through and hide from winter.

“Let’s go to the Museum of Science.”

But I was so warm.

And we had just been to Boston the day before.  Too much traffic and four hours in the car had left me less than inclined.

That and the fact that it required my getting dressed.

My nine- and five-year-old in happy unison:  “Hooray!”

IMG_1154 Then my ten-year-old.

“I don’t want to go.  You don’t really want to go, do you, Mom?”

I didn’t.

But we get so few days when all of us can be together that not going was not an option.

To me.

But to him, at ten, it was.

He sees endless days stretched out in front of him.

The world still occasionally spins around and just for him.

So he said, “I’ll just stay home.”

And I said, “You’re too young to stay home for eight hours by yourself.”

I told him to make plans. If this is what he wanted, he would have to make his own arrangements.

So, he asked for his grandparents’ phone number.  And he called them.

We dropped him off with a wave and a wish for a good afternoon.

And off we went.  With part of us missing.

He spent the day wishing he had gone with us.

We spent the day wishing he had gone with us.

Then this morning: “I don’t want to not be with you again.”

And I said, “Then don’t.”

He hugged me and whispered, “Happy New Year.”