Today, for many people, will feel like a finish line. High School. Done. I made it. I did it. Another hurdle surmounted. But I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you what I have learned about so-called finish lines. They don’t exist. This you may already know. You know so much. But just in case you don’t, it’s true. There is no such thing. Because once you pass through what the rest of the world would term a “finish line,” you are immediately onto your next race. And that, I’m afraid, is how many people see this journey we’re all on. Getting from Point A to Point B. Rushing to get there, often, and forgetting that nothing—no destination, no accolade, no piece of paper–is worth more than the journey. And nothing on the journey is worth more than the love you give and the love you are brave enough to receive. You have achieved a milestone today, not unlike many you have already achieved, and for that I am incredibly proud of you. I hope today you can feel pride, too, for your accomplishments, yes, but also for everything you have done to make this a reality. This is not something everyone can or will do. But you did. Draw strength from that fact. That you could do it and chose to. You are ready to do such incredible work in the world, to be an inspiration without even trying. Continue this journey of yours, crafting it to be precisely what you want it to be. Embrace who you are, and know you are worthy and capable of great love. Congratulations and all my love forever.
After torrential rains and an all-around meteorological dreary day, to see this dog sashaying down the street was a spot of sun. He was tan and tiny and fierce and moved, despite his leash, as though he owned the sidewalk. He was also carrying a tiny stuffed reindeer in his mouth. Probably Rudolph. No doubt his favorite toy.
And as this dog and his owner passed, I naturally smiled. Anyone would have. The woman walking him smiled back. She then said, admonishingly, “He’s cute, but he has psychological problems.” I clearly had the look of one who was unfazed and intended to pet her dog, “psychological problems” notwithstanding; so, to be clear, she added I should probably not pet him lest he bite.
And as they continued walking along, her and her dog’s backs now to me, she added, “I adopted him. So, you can’t blame me for his problems.”
And where to begin . . .
Well, first off, it probably goes without saying that no bite that tiny dog could have inflicted would have stung more than that seemingly unwitting, seemingly harmless remark.
In our language, we use the word “adopt” to describe “highways,” “spots,” “attitudes,” animals, and, of course, people. And while I have always leaned toward wishing for more synonyms so the word “adopt” could be reserved for people, I understand its linguistic flexibility. That being said, it’s the fact that this woman, in a mere moment and eleven words, cut to the core of a problem much more prevalent and insidious than mere semantics.
Before I continue on, I know she didn’t mean it, didn’t mean anything by it. Most people don’t and never do. And maybe that is a significant part of the problem. That people don’t realize it. But in her remark she effectively linked adoption and “psychological problems,” said that those who are adopted come with said problems, problems for which someone else is to “blame,” and that despite an adoption, the psychological problems linger and that the best one can do is muddle through.
In eleven words.
And therein is the trouble.
As the mother of a family formed by adoption, it pains me that my children are going to hear the word tossed about in this manner, the word our language has to describe the process by which our family was formed, hurled blithely and without regard, a word that is and will be at times participially attached to them.
The woman I encountered today didn’t know me, didn’t know my beautiful sons, and didn’t realize the extent of the subtext of her remarks.
She also didn’t share with me something I didn’t already know.
She just reminded me that some people bite.
“Can we please get the DVD when it comes out?” implored my ten-year-old son as we exited the movie theater on Friday night.
My response was a quick, perhaps curt, “no” and then a request for some time to formulate the reasons why.
My initial reaction to Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur was palpable. Like anyone else, I was swept up in the intricacies of the animation, in the charm of the main characters. But as an adoptive mother, the good was eclipsed—and forcibly so—by the ending.
At the risk of spoiling the story for others, a quick summation is necessary: Dinosaurs and humans, thanks to an errant if historically and scientifically inaccurate asteroid, coexist. In a violent storm, a dinosaur named Arlo loses his father and is separated from his family of origin. He meets a small human, named Spot, and forms an alliance, indeed a family, with him. The two share adventures, look out for one another, and love each other fiercely.
In one poignant scene, Arlo and Spot attempt to communicate to one another their respective losses. Using sticks, Arlo arranges five, two large and three small—his parents and the three children–vertically in the dirt. He then draws a circle around them to indicate family. Spot takes his cue and does the same—his two large sticks and one small. He draws the circle, knocks over the two big sticks, and buries them.
As I sat in the theater and listened to these animated characters then cry out their losses to the universe and the audience, myself surrounded by the beautiful sons I have the privilege, honor, and luck to parent, I thought of their losses. Adoption begins with, indeed cannot happen without, loss, and this fact is never far from my mind or my heart.
I wished then with everything in me that Arlo and Spot would draw a new circle, a symbol of the leap of faith and love that forged their new family, and move their sticks to that circle. But that didn’t happen. The adventures instead continued until the ending when a family of humans appears and Arlo moves Spot—despite his protestations—toward them and is then promptly reunited with his own biological family—a perfect, happy ending by Pixar’s standards, I suppose.
But sometimes the perfect, happy ending has not a thing to do with biology. Sometimes it looks exactly like this and is better than any fiction the movies could ever imagine.
“So, you’re Oscar’s mom?”
I nod my assent and settle into my spot as the parent in the parent/teacher conference that is about to unfold.
I wait patiently for the next sentence, the next word, the insight I long for, the glimpse of who my son is outside the four walls and comfort of our home.
And then it comes.
“Well, Oscar is a little . . . cue the dramatic pause . . . quirky.”
I took a breath and responded the way I often do when I’m not sure how to respond—with a self-deprecating joke and a quick deflection.
And then we moved on.
The word is loaded with connotation—both positive and less-than-positive.
His teacher could see him as a true original or as simply odd. Both are replete with judgment—but one has the power to lift him up, the other ostensibly to weigh him down.
For me, as a mother, though, I embrace the quirky, cultivate it even, encourage him in word and, I hope, in deed, to stand out without showing off.
But the net result, perhaps even the cost, of this, I suppose, is that there will be those who reduce him to quirky in the worst sense of the word, who have a sense of what “normal” is and note that he doesn’t fit it.
I will never know how Oscar’s teacher defines the word “quirky” or how she truly sees my son. I didn’t ask, and I won’t. I simply said that I saw it as a compliment and proceeded to discuss his classroom performance.
And then I went home to my quirky sons—all of them—and felt like the luckiest mother in the world.
In honor of Grandparents’ Day, The Huffington Post asked readers to share stories of grandparents. I am beyond honored to have my piece among those you will see here.
Lucy O’Connor made a difference in my life in ways I will never be able to fully capture.
She was ahead of her time—a feminist, an advocate for all, and one of the hardest working people I have ever known.
Her relationships with men caused her great pain; and it pains me to know she will never see the four beautiful boys I have the privilege to raise grow into men she would be able to trust.
There is not a day thoughts of her do not pass through my mind, my love for her forever in my heart. The debt of gratitude I owe her she would never have admitted to, but I try to repay it nonetheless.
I am better for having known her.
“Mom, come here. I need to ask you something.”
He was just a foot away, but what he wanted to ask required a closer proximity. He stood clutching two handmade dolls, an investment he chose to make in Pennsylvania Amish Country with a significant portion of his own birthday money—a male doll he named John, then a wife to John, Susie, whom he dressed in a matching outfit, the sweet couple very much at home in his loving arms.
He pulled me aside, then down to him so he could whisper in my ear.
“Mom, do you think people will think I’m weird?”
He is ten, and he worries about these things. And as much as I wish he didn’t, I know I can’t control what he feels. All I can do is react—or not react, as the case may be.
I told him no one would think he was “weird,” and he seemed content. He sighed sweetly, clutched his dolls a little closer, and ran off to play.
But that wasn’t the truth, of course. Because there will be people who will take one look at a ten-year-old boy with his Amish dolls, mentally run through the contrived checklist of what society has deemed “appropriate” for ten-year-old boys, and then eventually dismiss him as “weird”—but not before they share an unfortunate, possibly damaging, opinion or two that was never sought. Not everyone in the world will find his love of his dolls as beautiful as his family does. Not everyone will be as charmed or as gentle.
And the fact that he is asking the question, pulling me aside to do so out of the world’s earshot, means he has fear—fear of not wanting to be perceived as different, of caring too much what other people think—this despite everything we have done within our four walls over the last decade to make sure he has had ample space to grow into himself.
Yes, our son feels safe with us to purchase, play with, and love dolls. And, yes, he feels safe asking us what other people will think. But I am left with the feeling that I have done him a disservice by not telling him the whole truth of how other people may perceive him, that I haven’t armed him with the painful knowledge that is going to help to keep him safe long after I am able to.
But I’m just not ready yet to harden his edges.
And why anyone would I’m not sure I’ll ever understand.
The syllable was drawn out, long and low with a hint of whine, a precursor to a request that would invariably involve my stopping what I was doing within the next fourteen seconds.
“I love you.”
This started a while ago and has continued multiple times a day ever since. At first I thought it was simply my affectionate six-year-old’s attempt to test out the phrase, one he’s heard so many times, his way of attaching meaning to this sequence of words.
Then I thought it was his way of checking in. I was doing my thing; he was doing his thing. And though I was no more than ten feet away, he wanted to make sure I was still there.
And soon I noticed it would come along, in customary sibling fashion, when one of his brothers was in trouble, an effort to highlight the fact that at this exact moment it wasn’t him.
It took me a long time to come around to this particular sentence. Though I had heard the words regularly from my mother as a child, they never seemed to align with what I thought love was supposed to be—at least according to what I observed in others, read in books, and gleaned from the all-instructive late-‘70’s NBC television lineup and 92 PRO FM playlist.
So, for a long time this sentence gave me difficulty; and I concluded, perhaps with a sigh, that it simply was not for me. I filed it away, heard other people say it, show it and wondered about it; and though I know I felt it, I never really knew how to say it.
That changed, of course, once deeds matched words, and “I love you” soon became something I not only needed to hear but needed to say. Many people, of course, feel they don’t need to say “I love you” if they are showing it. But for me, given my checkered, truncated history with this sentence, I want to leave no room for doubt.
And though August’s history is not the same as mine, he, too, is figuring out this all-important sentence. He asked this week, “Mom, why do I say ‘I love you’ so much?”
I asked him why he thought he did; and he said, “Because it’s in my heart.”
Speaking your heart. A lesson from an exceedingly loving, uninhibited six-year-old.