Luke Ate The Snowstorm

“Last year, at this place in Michigan, they got FIFTY-THREE FEET of snow IN ONE DAY.” The words spilled emphatically from his mouth and sent forth little drops of spit that distracted me, but only slightly, as I imagined this extraordinary snow occurrence which, in his mind, had certainly happened.

“Maybe you mean fifty-three inches? That’s still quite a bit.” Dan was always the polite voice of reason.

“No, I mean FEET, you idiot.”

Okay.

There was an impending snowstorm. We may have been ready. The news reports described something nearly as foreboding as our son’s description of what had hit Michigan last year.

“Luke ate the snowstorm.” Our youngest boy had to offer a fantastic tale of his own. “Luke” often emerges in conversation. He seems to be a phenomenal boy, quite skilled for just four, who has done most everything and who shows up randomly but is never seen by anyone except our own four-year-old.

Someone once told me that having an imaginary friend is a sign of high intelligence. If that is so, what does an imaginary snowstorm signify? Years ago, Ethan also had an imaginary friend. The friend’s name was Jake Harrison, and he lived in a yellow house near the university. He had never been described as doing outlandish things such as eating a snowstorm; rather, he would sit alongside Ethan and sometimes accompany him around town. Perhaps in this simplicity of character, Ethan found some calm for his restless spirit.

Luke, though, seems to seek the thrills, get the latest haircuts, eat the greatest amounts food, and own the most exotic animals. My child was quite convincing, and I was curious enough that I felt compelled to verify his non-existence at our preschool meeting. The teacher, principal, and therapist assured me that this extraordinary child was indeed my little son’s imaginary friend; they could think of no one named Luke that fit the description.

I thought so. But sometimes I just don’t know.

Dan has had cycles of painful headaches for years. They are debilitating when they occur. An eight-inch blanket of snow had fallen overnight, as predicted, blanketing the farm in winter’s magical and bountiful, and also heavy and sloppy, offering. Through the window, I watched him drive his tractor, recently fitted with the snow attachment, and I admired his courage for doing his best to take care of us even during the worst hours of his affliction. There is much to read about these cluster headaches, but what people do to get relief seems as random as the manifestation of our imaginary friends. Dan and I had both read about drinking Red Bull or some sort of energy drink at the onset of an episode. Today, after the snowstorm, he tried it, and very quickly, he felt better. We shouldn’t ask the questions. We should just go with the answers…for now, for today.

So often in parenting, and in all aspects of life, really, I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. So I just don’t do or say anything. Perhaps by not doing anything, I am doing something. But I just don’t know.

One of my more spirited foster children told me that her sister had the second longest hair in the world. I had actually met the sister, and I had admired her pixie-ish haircut. But, in this little girl’s world, where it was just her and her sister, her sister did have the second longest hair, second only to her own. So I guess she was, in her own way, right.

“Luke ate the snowstorm, and it turned into ice cream.”

Now, we are getting somewhere.

While our resident farmer was plowing the snow, the boys and I were busy making snow ice cream, a winter treat that we have grown to love. Aaron gathered a bowl of freshly fallen snow to which we added milk, sugar, and a little vanilla.

We, then, ate the snowstorm, but not fifty-three feet’s worth. We will leave that to Luke.

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Mother

In the morning, I saw my mother in the mirror for the very first time. A bit later that same day, my husband reminded me that my mother-in-law was four years younger than me when she lost her husband to cancer.

There was a magnificent purple in the dusky sky as it beckoned nightfall. I was out of my element, an anxious, slow moving person that held fast to all available handrails in this city of lights, sparkle, and circumstance. We had spent the day in the city: the girl my son will marry, two of her close friends, her mother, and me. I was honored to be included in this entourage on the day that a perfect girl searched for the perfect wedding dress.

So far from my usual rhythm, I was an observer, keenly aware of the passage of time in more ways than one, of a day that included homemade chicken and dumplings at the charming home of one of my older son’s now-grown-up childhood friends; the lilting beats of a street musician; walking in Chicago time with the parade of people-going-places; and the reason for this day: the pursuit of something beautiful, for a beautiful someone.

I had never seen my own resemblance to my mother. That morning, though, there was something. Perhaps it was the cumulative years of wishing that I shared not physical but constitutional characteristics, those which drive her to her successes and motivate her to make a difference in this earth. She is dark-haired and slightly built, tidy in all affairs, accomplished in business and philanthropy, and comfortable in a crowd. I am none of those. But our eyes: they have the same green. Maybe that’s what I saw in the mirror: my own eyes reflecting the soul of my mother into mine. I am not what she has been, but she has given to me what I am.

I wonder if my own daughters will ever see me, or what’s inside of me, in their own reflections. If they see me, and even when they do not, I wonder if they will know.

When my son was ten, there was a time when we worried that he may not survive, that the tumor in his brain might take him away. For a while, the surrounding fears defined our days. Time has taken those fears; time has turned our boy to a young adult, forging his path together with his beloved.

I wasn’t sure what it meant, but once my eyes were opened, I couldn’t forget. It was a bit like a show I had watched some years before we moved to the farm. She would disappear behind a wall, only to emerge in lace, sparkles, fanfare and splendor, all pinned to her tiny frame with clips. It was exciting, dizzying, and beautiful. She sat for a moment beside her mother, and the two seemed almost one person. To me, they resembled one another in many ways that were not just physical. One had carried the other so many years before, and now, flush with emotion on this monumental afternoon, they were at the threshold of something that was to come. I watched them, and I loved them both, and I was grateful to be part of this space in time. I may have been confused by the letters, but in the end, all the signs seemed to make sense.

Tomorrow, my husband will turn the same age as his father was when he left this earth. I hadn’t met him, but I feel as if I have known him, as part of him is carried by his son.

And for our children who were not born to us, still they carry us with them. They carry, too, those that birthed them, and our Maker has made us all as one. Relationships are at once rich, painful, complicated, and the force which pulls us through the years.

And so we walked, together, for a very long time, for however long it took to get there. Through the rhythms, reflected in the mirrors, across the seasons, through biology, adoption, and the extinguishing of life’s light, our blessings abound.

Ode to My Child’s Teacher

You have been my child’s teacher, and I am grateful.

For a span of nearly twenty-five years, children of mine have had the privilege of being taught, nurtured, cared for, and loved by so many extraordinary teachers, men and women who have helped to form these young beings into who they are.

My nearly grown son stopped by the farm earlier this week. He was about to leave on a business trip, but he made time to deliver a bag of apple cider donuts from the nearby orchard. I had been harvesting watermelons when his car pulled in; I have a bit of time now to work on the chores that have piled up for too long, as the littlest boy is now at school for a few hours each morning.

My son drove off just before the bus returned my preschooler to me. Time has a way of turning our boys to men even as we spin around to tend to the things that fill our days.

In the early years of motherhood, we hold our little ones close. To them, we are the whole world. The doors open, though, and there are influences that reach past our own fingertips, influences that help to form these tiny souls into who they will become.

And that’s where the teachers come in.

I am busy with the things of adulthood; I have waved to my child as she looked back at me through the school bus window, and I hope I held a thought of gratitude for the teacher who was moments from receiving my teenage bundle of attitude, unrest, and great promise (who just happened to be wearing pajamas).

Because you have always worked to forge a partnership with us, and to find something good in difficult circumstances, even when actions and behaviors were beyond understanding; for your tenacity, I am grateful.

Perhaps the nature of my family makes for a good longitudinal study of some sort. At the very least, it has allowed me to see over and again how the great love of a teacher can make a vast difference in the life of a child.

You made me feel like I am a good enough parent, through my tears and frustration, when life’s forces were bigger than me; for your support, and for your kindness, I am grateful.

For seeing past my child’s dirty fingernails, for praising him for his careful coloring, and for asking him to tell you more about his special train engine; you have done these things, and you have made a difference.

For helping my little boy to see that he is magic and brilliant even as he struggles with below-grade-level work; for your compassion, I am grateful.

For giving my daughter the time and space that she so desperately needed to be ready for learning, and for lifting her up so the burdens she carried were just a bit lighter; for your understanding, I am grateful.

I sometimes wondered how we would ever make it through the day. Then I turned around, and a whole year had passed. The year turned to decades, and I see grown children whose lives reflect the gifts they have been given by their teachers through the years.

I love those cider donuts, especially at this time of year. I ate three in a row that morning, right from the bag.

Perhaps it’s the time of year: transition, gratitude, thanksgiving as all around me are fields in the throes of harvest. I am grateful for the little things, which really might be big things. I am grateful for my children, for what is before me, and for you, the teachers that have given so much of yourselves for so very long.

I am grateful beyond any words I could write, and I hope you know that as you offer your hand, once again, to my child.

Thank you.

Racing the Clouds

“I know a lot about dinosaurs.

My favorite is the Velociraptor.”

“Is that a big one?” I immediately regretted encouraging this boy to carry on with what was clearly going to be more information than I could…or would want to… process.

We were at a birthday party, and my little son was playing ball with a few older boys. I had been standing in the shade in a rare moment of solitude when the dinosaur boy came upon me.

He answered the question that I wished I hadn’t asked.

“No, it’s small. It’s the size of a turkey. It has a tail that’s all feathery.”

The boy was six or seven years old. His dark brown hair was neatly trimmed. He wore a golfer’s polo with a collar that fell just right, pressed tan shorts, and clean running shoes.

He continued, offering words that I did not expect to hear on a sunny Saturday.

“And they eat meat. YOU are meat.”

With that haunting thought, I took my attention elsewhere.

Three has been a challenging age this last time around.

“Shut up, Mom. I hate you.”

I thought of that Velociraptor, coming at me when my back was turned.

I know they are just words, circles and lines from the tongue. Still, I fall in defeat. I cannot stop them. I cannot stop him. I cannot stop anyone.

For the times that I stood alongside you yet could not hear what you were saying, for the times when my own thoughts were too loud to hear your words, for the times when you felt that what you had to say did not mean enough to me, I am truly sorry.

I took the three little boys to visit Sam and Emily at their new house. The drive was nearly three hours. We spent a great day in the late summer sunshine, and before we were ready to go home, night had fallen. As we drove into the darkness, the stark evening sky called up emotions from my soul as a tiny three-year-old voice.

“I see the moon.”

Indeed, it was bold and full, holding stories and mysteries of cheese and an enchanting man who lived there. This small boy, too, would know them.

“I hate you, and I love you.”

Moving from one highway to another, across an illuminated trestle bridge, into more darkness…senses reeling. I still had a vision of the string lights as they lit up the backyard at the house of my grown son, my small child, my backpack baby no longer.

We were not used to these evening drives.

“It feels like we’re racing the clouds,” piped one boy.

“You’re like a race car driver! We’re going to win,” announced the youngest.

The oldest of the little boys sat in quiet solitude, but I know he heard everything.

We drove on into the night, stripped to our senses, and I was grateful for the chance to share the space in the old black van, alongside an abandoned camp backpack, a couple of baseball mitts, and treasures from today’s trip, with these three small beings that have given me the chance to care for them, to be their mama, and to take a day’s journey in the car to visit a brother who was once this small, and who would still appreciate the wonders of the night sky.

Three hours is a long time; twenty-four years is the blink of an eye.

There was truth in what the dinosaur boy told me, whether I wanted the information or not.

Sometimes I hear you, but I don’t know what to say. Though my words are elusive, I am listening still. Your chatter confuses and overwhelms me. YOU are meat; WE are meat. Please, keep talking. Keep talking, my son. Help me face what I cannot see.

Race the clouds with me. The moon is amazing, just as you are.

Sunsets and Storms

“How long do you think I’ll last? I mean, when do you think I am going to die?”

Ethan’s questions still sometimes catch me a bit off guard. I am not sure I ever give him answers that satisfy or even make sense to him.

I had to come up with something. “Well, Grampa is eighty. You could live a very long time.”

“Grampa eats fruits. If you eat a lot of fruits and healthy stuff, then you can live a long time. I don’t eat that many fruits.” He went back to what he had been doing before. The conversation was enough for him, though to me, rather unsettling and incomplete.

There are times when nothing makes sense…to anyone…at all.

I had hoped to hide from my embattled reality for at least three minutes. Just as I turned the lock to the bathroom door, I heard the skip that is unmistakably Aaron, embodied, bounding upstairs.

“Mom? Are you up here?”

He knew where I was; there was no hiding, no refuge to be sought. I was glad that he spoke first, before my annoyed retort for befallen peace sent him away, certainly without skipping this time.

“Mom? It’s a beautiful sunset. You should come see.”

That’s why he had come upstairs. That’s what he wanted to tell me: that the sunset was beautiful. He wanted me to see.

My little son knew that tonight’s fleeting gift of God’s creation would be worth more to me than a little time alone in the bathroom.

My birthday is coming up again. I am keenly aware that I am at the brink of the manifestation of the sunset of my life. While the future had once been something to envision from a great distance, that tide has now caught up to me, and my steps are not defined as I had expected that they might be. They melt; they disappear into a million grains of sand, indiscernible from the tracks of those who have gone before.

I wonder how my son, my child who views the world through a black and white lens, would make sense of the loss of a child. I wonder how anyone would.

The behavior specialist from Ethan’s school called last week. After analyzing the data from the past year, she was pleased to report that though the incidences of physical holds had increased, the overall challenges with his behavior had decreased to the point where he would be dismissed from her caseload. This, for us, is a type of victory.

Are the days that follow the second half of what has already happened, or is it a new start? Is it the end of the beginning, or will there be an entirely new purpose?

Olive Chickens (thanks, Elliott, for the middle name) does not appear to know where she is going in a given moment. Her feathers hide her eyes, and one wonders how well she can even see. Somehow, though, she finds her way home, or close to it, at night. Once, though, she almost didn’t.

I had taken Ethan to the specialist out of town. The driving rain made travel hard, and it was well after dark when we finally returned to the farm. Dan and Aaron had locked the other chickens down for the night, but Olive, who had been with us for just a handful of days, was nowhere to be found. She was certainly scared, cold, wet, and tired, if she had even been spared. After what seemed an eternity in the darkness of the still-stormy evening, I heard her unmistakable peep. I was a child on Christmas morning: Olive Chickens had wedged herself in a less-than-two-inch wide space between the coop and the run. She was trying to get home. She was scared, but she was okay. With the help of a rake and some urgent prayers, she was soon safely perched with her coop mates.

The boys were waiting for me when I finally made it inside. Ethan was first to approach. “Mom, you really care about that weird chicken.”

If only he knew.

So when the storms are inside, coming from a now medium-sized boy, and they overtake an hour or a day, I remember that we have come far. I remember that the beautiful sunsets had been further between. I only hope that we won’t run out of time before we make it home.

When I am gone, when my days are done, I hope that someone will be glad that he is alive, that someone will search for him when he is lost in the storm.

Here’s to eating lots of fruits, always finding our chickens amid the thunder and lightning, and never, ever missing out on a beautiful sunset.

Mirrors and Empty Containers

Maybe he didn’t intend to leave it here, but I’m happy that he did. The whole kitchen fills with the smell of good coffee, because it’s whole bean, and I have to use the grinder, which makes me appreciate the roast even more, when I already feel like I am getting away with something by using what may have been accidentally left behind.

There was a little caddy with a handle, one that held the toothbrush, deodorant, and, among other things, the particular lotion with the patchouli-lime scent that my younger son wore every day. I could tell when he had been in the room; it was undeniable. Now, though, the scent has faded, and the little caddy has nothing inside.

There were some other boxes and baskets, also empty. He no longer needed them. He left them behind when he moved away.

I could fill them with something else.

Strip me down, bring me to the hands of my Maker, when I am empty, when there is nothing left inside. For I was full from my love, from my experiences, and from those that have shared my life. Without these things, I am merely an empty container, for it is the collective sadness and joy that has created me, filled me up, and left me in the wake of what has been, what remains, and what is yet to come, with its own containers waiting for their fill.

A daily rhythm is of such importance to our young children. We can read volumes on the importance of consistency, of predictability, of bedtime routines….I would argue, too, that my own days are ordered with a sameness that helps me to move forward. The sun rises, the rooster crows (well, my rooster actually crows at all hours), and I let the chickens out, turn on the coffee pot, pack the lunches, and prepare for the day’s offerings.

The rosy cheeks of a feverish child, the harrowing evidence of a predator’s attack, the unexpected visitor that bears news: good or bad; the return of a grown child, if just for a short visit, and the stark absence of another at the Thanksgiving table…the rhythm breaks, and we are left, hands outstretched, for strength to carry us in this moment.

Chickens are very much like people. Teenage chickens are very much like teenage people. I have had several sets of teenage chickens (and similar numbers of teenage children), so the rhythm and characteristics of these unique breeds has been observed over the course of time.

Chicken teenagers like to hang out in the chicken run even past dusk, well after the rooster and the laying hens have retired to the coop for the evening. Teenage children like to hang out on the front porch or on one of the couches well into the morning hours, when parents have long since gone to bed.

When the big kids are home, even though I may not see much of them, still they are here, and the familiar circle of wholeness is tighter and safer.

Teenage chickens also love looking in the mirror; one hangs in their chicken run. They cannot seem to walk past their dirt-splattered reflections without stopping for a mouth-gaping stare. I have also known many teenagers like that.

My sister visited the farm this week. She stayed a bit longer than usual, and we had time to sit together, which is just what I believe we needed. On the morning that she left, I heard a song on the radio. It had been the hit song by a band that my sister and I had seen together just after our sophomore and senior years of high school. My sister and her two friends took me and my first boyfriend to see Asia, and at some point we had picked up a hitch-hiker. This terrified me. I remember trying to catch my breath, pushing my teenage self as far as I could into the car door, hoping I would not fall out, yet fearing the alternative fate.

I am not sure what I was afraid of. I was with my big sister, and I knew she would take care of me. She always did.

And when I heard that song on the heels of her visit to the farm, it reminded me of the passage of time, but also how fleeting our time here must be, and how deeply we must love while we can.

I see my own image in the mirror, at the same time a woman of half a century and a girl of seventeen. Some thoughts are the same, but there is now a realization that what’s next is really just in front of me, and if I carry on, in a passing glance, it will, inevitably, be revealed.

Maybe we spend our days trying to fill our containers, looking in all the mirrors, rehearsing our lines, trying to figure out who or what we are supposed to be…until our days are done.

When the curtain closes for the final time, if I am not yet sure what I am supposed to be, I will hope that it has all been enough. When I have been emptied out onto this earth, may I keep rhythm with the sun and moon, to become part of where I have lived and loved.

I would like to think that my son left the coffee behind on purpose, because he somehow knew what I needed to fill me up.

If ever I meet up with that hitch-hiker again, I hope I will have more to offer than fear: at the very least, a cup of good coffee.

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

I always think of my college roommate on Valentine’s Day.  Today, she must have thought of me, because she sent me a little message about heart-shaped pizza.  We shared a heart-shaped pizza at a restaurant on Greek Row as college freshman on what, to many, is a day of great romance and candlelight.

Underneath the candles, I have found the real light.

Lynne and I were seated at a cozy table with love-struck couples at every angle.  The pizza was perfect; the company, somehow, even better.  The stars aligned to deliver me the perfect roommate (with whom over the years, I indulged in many more pizzas) when I was an innocent and vulnerable just-turned-eighteen-year-old.   My perfect roommate had come to the university just days after suffering an unthinkable loss, one that made her among the most courageous people I have ever met.  I am pretty sure that in my selfish oblivion, I had no idea the depth of her grief, and how she would comfort me over the years as she carried around her heavy suitcase, one that nobody could actually see.  Those were such formative years for me; great blessings, indeed.

I want to fly, away from the part that hurts, but still into what I am now, never changing or passing with time.

Dan and I moved our young family back to DeKalb in 2000.

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From my journal, dated 1-22-01: “As I was walking past the river on an afternoon…, I again realized that DeKalb is the most  beautiful place on earth.  The Kish(waukee River), yet to be frozen, was running northerly, broken up in some spots by very white balls of smooth, snowy ice. All was still, and the university very, very quiet.  Never, ever will there…be any regret for choosing this place.  This is our home.  The smallest reasons are the strongest confirmations.”

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I have always loved cookies.  Lynne and I shared our passion for antiques: we would visit the dusty back rooms of whatever doors were open, it seemed, in search of Fiesta ware and vintage cookie jars.

I had ordered a plate of decorated cookies from the student catering building.  On Valentine’s Day, 2008, I ventured onto campus for the first time in perhaps over a year.  With my three-month-old foster baby in tow, I collected the sparkly heart-shaped gems and stopped at Record Revolution to share some with an old friend.  The baby was safely in his seat (I think he was actually sleeping, which did not happen often in those early days) as I crossed the alley at the back of the parking lot which edges the campus.  I was taken aback by a student running, cell phone in hand, from the direction of the theater building and Cole Hall.  As a wild animal runs to escape its hunter, so perhaps a dozen frantic-looking students followed suit of the first. Curious, I thought, as I pulled through the alley and drove down the street to get a coffee before picking up the elementary school set.   Was this some sort of scavenger race?  Maybe an acting class?  It was, after all, near the Stevens Building.

As I left the drive-through, latte in hand, my ears were flooded with sirens.  First one police car, then many.  Rescue vehicles and frenzy filled my usually peaceful university.  Reports were coming across the radio by now.  I just needed to pick up my kids.

It wasn’t until I was safely home that I realized how close I had been to the horrific, the absolutely unthinkable.  Innocent people were breathing their last breaths as I passed by, as I was enjoying what may have been the most decadent butter cookie imaginable.

We are these people.

Clear the thoughts…rub your eyes…it’s almost time to fly, fly.

Today, I am eternally grateful for my rich and deep blessings: my dear husband, my beloved children; my extended family; my deep and sustained friendships; my spirituality; my precious kitty, Juliet; my cookie jars; and, of course, pizza, heart-shaped or not.