Figuring It Out

I’m all for lending a hand.  I’m a teacher and a mother, so sensing people’s needs and responding to them is something I do.

However, as a teacher and a mother, I also realize that there are times when the greatest gift I can offer someone is to let them figure something out for themselves–even if that means bearing witness to the inevitable and at times painful-to-watch struggle.

And the playground is rife for these sorts of experiences.

I have never been a fan of helping my children negotiate playground equipment they weren’t ready for.  You never would have seen me lifting my children so they could go across the monkey bars; I barely push them on the swings.  I always take my cue from them and let them decide what they’re ready for and watch them decide when something is out of their league.  My eyes are on them at all times, but my hands are not.

Oscar, at eight, can handle a vast array of the playground’s offerings and is now especially enamored of a particular zip line that just a year ago he could not (or would not) use.

However, today while exploring this newfound thrill, the handle wound up sliding just out of his reach.  The simplest thing would have been for me to walk the three feet to where he was playing and push it over to him.

But I didn’t.

“Mom, can you push that handle to me?”

I told him I could but that I wouldn’t–that I wanted to see what he could do to solve his own problem.

295374_4647498499718_197173820_nAfter an incredulous look, Oscar embarked on a tour of the perimeter of the playground, searching for sticks that might give him just enough of a reach.  He learned about the qualities of different sticks–some were too short, some were too weak.  He then stared up at the handle and donned what I can only call his “thinking face.”  He studied his conundrum and analyzed his options.  And I watched.

All of a sudden he removed his jacket (it was a balmy 37 degrees today) and started batting at the zip line handle with his copious winter coat.  The handle moved–slowly, inch by inch, but it moved.  And after ten or so strikes, the coat was back on and the handle was where it needed to be.

And I realized that if I had simply, mindlessly moved the handle for him, I never would have seen his face–the face of determination, the face of accomplishment, the face of having worked hard at something and succeeded, the face of someone suddenly empowered.

Then there was my face–the one that understood this is what parenting is all about.


Does He Still Have It?

Today marks the one-year anniversary of our son Edgar’s last seizure; therefore tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of his being seizure-free.


Cause for celebration?  Absolutely.  Cause for concern?  Always.

To coincide with this milestone, Edgar’s medication regimen is on the descent.  Where he was on five separate medications for his epilepsy last year at this time, he is now only on one–and a reduced dose at that.  The goal is that as long as he remains seizure-free, by this time next year he should also be medication-free.

More on that in roughly 365 days.

For now, the question on my mind is the one that others have asked me and that I have thought long and hard about how to best answer:

If the seizures have stopped, does Edgar still have epilepsy?

The short answer to that is yes.  He is still under a neurologist’s care and guidance; therefore his neurological condition persists.  It will be his doctor who ultimately makes the official call when and if we arrive at that point.

As Edgar’s mother, my answer is a bit more convoluted and not remotely rooted in science.

It is my contention that as long as he takes medicine, he has epilepsy.  As long as I wake up every morning and go to bed every night thinking about whether or not he will have a seizure, he has epilepsy.  As long as every time I hear the wail of an ambulance siren and Edgar is not with me and my heart stops as I wait for my phone to ring, he has epilepsy. As long as every time the front office buzzes my classroom in the middle of the day and I assume it must be a message about my son, he has epilepsy.

And yet none of this is about me.

It is all about Edgar.  And when he is ready, willing, and able, I have no doubt he will weigh in on this–how he sees his condition, if he sees a condition; what worries him and what doesn’t.

Today he has epilepsy, and he’ll have it tomorrow, too.  But he hasn’t had a seizure in a year.

No one around here is exhaling just yet, least of all my son.  But we’re celebrating and vociferously marking this milestone.

He may still have epilepsy, but he also has this moment.

And really, if you think about it, this moment is all any of us have.

Proust Over Paine

I drove by a church today—one with a sign out front that typically showcases thoughtful if not pithy quotes for the amusement and edification of passersby. Today’s referenced Thomas Paine’s “The harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph.”
In the past when I have encountered this message—either with my students or on my own—I have nodded in acquiescence, been able to come up with countless historical if not personal examples where this has indeed been the case.
But something has shifted, something has changed recently, and seeing this quote today left me pondering and more than a little empty.
YIMG_3244ou see, yesterday Edgar, my beautiful, intelligent whimsical son who happens to take medication for both epilepsy and ADHD, said something that left me reeling.
“I don’t like myself because I don’t know if I’m stupid or smart . . .”
This isn’t the first time he has questioned his self-worth, and this isn’t first time he has articulated a lack of knowing and/or liking himself.
As a parent, comments such as these do nothing if not eviscerate me. And if that’s how I’m feeling, I can only begin to imagine what this all must feel like for Edgar.
If Paine is (or was) right, then the challenges Edgar faces today will make every success and his eventual triumph all the sweeter. But I’m not buying it. Since he won’t have much of a memory of life before epilepsy or ADHD, he’s not going to have a source of comparison—or contrast. More glorious or sweeter than what? Than if he didn’t have these conditions, didn’t need significant medication to treat them?
What I do believe is that as much as it pains me to know that my son houses these mindsets, they are his. I cannot tell him not to feel that way. I cannot—with the flick of my wrist or the wink of my eye–invalidate the thoughts that reside in his seven-year-old mind.
And what I know is that this is his journey and his alone. To try to negate what he’s saying or sweep it under the rug or dismiss it might, in effect, serve only to disarm him, to deny him the skills he is going to need to continue on, to fight the daily battle that is his own.
Marcel Proust said, “We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
And there is my charge—the most difficult of my life in word and deed. I cannot spare my son this journey, though painful for me to watch, for it is his path to wisdom. To wish otherwise would be to thwart his growth, which is antithetical to the call of any parent.
I will love my son, respect him, bolster him, and be by his side. But I cannot take away his pain. I cannot spare him his journey. What I am is grateful that I am permitted to join him on it.

Bringing Up Mère et Père

“Letting children ‘live their lives’ isn’t about releasing them into the wild or abandoning them . . . It’s about acknowledging that children aren’t repositories for their parents’ ambitions or projects for their parents to perfect.  They are separate and capable with their own tastes, pleasures, and experiences of the world.” –Pamela Druckerman, Bringing Up Bébé


Violin.  Horseback-riding.  Art.  LEGO-building.  Marine biology.  Karate.  And now we can add chess to the ongoing list of activities, hobbies, and avocations I know nothing about, have zero talent in, and have not even the remotest desire to master.

These are the territories of my children.  They are not and never will be mine.

Of course, it would be disingenuous of me to say that as an English teacher I didn’t harbor hopes that my children would love reading, writing, going to the theater.  Of course I did–and do.  But what has always been most interesting–if not affirming–is watching what they discover and what they gravitate to on their own.

And what they choose to stick with–not because their parents participate along with them, or because they sense they’re living out an unrealized dream from their parents’ youth (or even their adulthood) but because they have chosen freely, following their own hearts, talents, and desires.

Pamela Druckerman, the author of Bringing up Bébé, touts this as an integral tenet of French parenting.  And perhaps it is.  But if offering children a measure of autonomy is an inherently French philosophy, then there is something about the power of choice that resonates as particularly American.

Parents from all cultures have much to learn from one another–but ultimately as we witness how our children respond to our parenting, it is clear that the most profound lessons come from the independent, free-thinking human beings we are privileged to raise.  Some might eat leeks for lunch and others chicken nuggets, but children–no matter where they are raised–are always their parents’ wisest teachers.

Taking on “That’s So Gay!”

A Sunday night.  Three boys ages eight and under wrestling with one another as their father prepares dinner on the grill off our kitchen and I fold the never-ending pile of laundry on the dining room table.  It’s a very typical Sunday night–and I pause to relish a pattern we are seeing more and more frequently.  I call it “extreme bonding.”  We’re not sure why it happens–perhaps it’s the boys having been together for two whole days, maybe it’s Monday morning looming; but every Sunday night all three boys play and play happily and hard with one another.

That is, until something happens.  Usually it’s a perceived transgression of sorts; and last Sunday it was Edgar’s.  I still don’t know precisely what it was that Edgar did during the course of their spirited romp, but Oscar extricated himself, dusted off, and bellowed at his brother, “That was so gay!”

I was just a foot-and-a-half away, watching my sons and doing what mothers of three boys often do during these roughhousing sessions, holding my breath–as though depriving myself of oxygen would magically keep everyone safe–when my deeply sensitive, fiercely intelligent eight-year-old son uttered a series of words that took away what little breath I had remaining.

This isn’t the first time, of course, Oscar had uttered something with which I was less than thrilled.  There have been plenty of instances.  But this was different.  These words weren’t merely sassy or mildly off-color; and they required not a quick reprimand but a detailed, heartfelt explanation–an explanation without judgment and, because it was for Oscar, one that was logical.

IMG_3165I told Oscar to go upstairs.  His wide brown eyes took in my pained expression, and he asked the question children are compelled to ask when parents send them upstairs: “Am I in trouble?”

I told him he was not but that I wanted to talk with him and we needed a quiet place to do so.

As I ascended the stairs I thought about what I wanted to say, wishing on some level that I had rehearsed this a bit in my mind before this moment but trusting that together we would find our way through his words, words he couldn’t even begin to contemplate the significance of.

I knew it would not suffice to simply say to my son, “Using that expression to describe your dislike of something is not acceptable and we expect never to hear it again.”  I had to explain why it wasn’t acceptable.  And to do that, there was a lot of other territory we needed to negotiate.

And so we did.

I talked.  He listened.  He asked questions.  I answered them.  And we cried.  We cried for people we know and love and those we have never met who have had to suffer for being themselves and for loving those they love.  And we cried for human nature’s propensity to take that which it doesn’t understand and turn it in to hateful, hurtful language.

Oscar then looked down at his knees and shook his head and asked me how I know so much.

I cupped his chin in my hand and turned his eyes to mine and told him earnestly, “There is so much more I wish I knew.  But I promise you I’m doing the best I can.”

And with that we just sat.  I knew we needed to sink into this moment and let the magnitude of it sink into us.

I can say with conviction Oscar will never use those words in that context ever again. And it will be a choice he makes because he understands why.

Answering His Own Question

IMG_2913“It’s almost your big day,” we told him.

Edgar looked up and replied, “My birthday?”

“No, not your birthday.  That’s this summer.  Your one-year anniversary being seizure-free!  January 28th!”

And instead of a celebratory beam or an exuberant dance in response to this news, Edgar looked worried and earnestly entreated, “What if I can’t do it?”

What if he can’t do it?

Our quick response was a chirpy and upbeat, “Well, we would just start counting again.”

And of course we would.

But his question speaks to how he sees his seizure-control–as an accomplishment, something at which he is working.  Probably not unlike the way his neurologist sees this journey, that a seven-year-old can view it the same way without any prompting from us took our collective breath away.  For us, Edgar’s being seizure-free for almost a year now is equal parts excellent medical care peppered with good luck, the belief that he will be seizure-free, and all the love in the world.  We have never presented this to him as something that required his attention, his hard work.  Just as he had no responsibility in his seizures’ arrival, we never saw him as needing to have any responsibility in their disappearance.

Yet that’s how he sees it.  And of course he is right.  Just like any other condition, the patient’s attitude and effort play a significant role–even a seven-year-old patient’s.

Edgar is not leaving this one to chance.  He is putting in the requisite effort.  He is doing his part.

And all the while he is teaching us what we need to know–about himself, about epilepsy, about being a fighter.

What if he can’t do it? 

If this represents the strength of his instincts, his ability to persevere at seven, well . . . something tells me there is nothing he can’t do.