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.

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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.

What’s In Your Egg Basket?

Something happened.  Something went wrong, or maybe it didn’t.  Words that interrupted my idle thoughts as I stood at the kitchen sink,  face-to-face with dinner’s aftermath, cannot be taken back.  Even as I feel the blood rush through my legs and the empty space grow in my soul, I find solace in a cupcake.  It’s the last one, hidden in the back corner of the freezer, leftover from a forgotten celebration.  Rich chocolate of the most devilish kind, with a perfectly swirled pink vanilla piped frosting, made extra special with a fairy dusting of sparkling sugar…gone in an instant. The experts would probably call this emotional eating.  Alone on it’s plate, it beckoned, and I ate it.

If I get out to the coop at just the right time, I can get an egg that still feels warm to the touch.  Fresh from it’s laying hen, this egg rides in the cup holder of my car as I take the baby in to town for therapy. It acccompanies me across the road to the mailbox.  I hold it gingerly in my hand as I look around the farm, thinking of the blooms that will pepper the summer’s garden and imagining the tiny herd of goats that might one day entertain us in the pasture.  Everything seems to hold a bit more promise as I am reassured by the blue-green chicken egg that brings so much to me.

It’s an egg.  I could get a dozen eggs for a little more than a dollar at the grocery store.  

After what seemed like two hours but was actually just over ten minutes, I could feel his body melt into mine.  He made his way to the pink chair, my favorite one.  The storm had subsided, and Dan was home by now.  There were no more cupcakes, but I could get my egg basket, and I could see if there were any eggs to gather.  Even if the hens were done laying for the day, I would breathe the peace of the outside air and know that in this moment, I am okay.  We are okay, right now.  Even if I returned to the house with an empty basket, I would know, because of what it represents, that the basket is actually quite full, if not of eggs. 

There might be different things inside the basket on a given day. Pink sparkly cupcakes, my best well worn sweater, the anticipation of my sister’s visit, my special water bottle, the thought of my fairy roses and my Christmas milk punch: these are in my basket.  In it I can also find the way it feels when all is quiet, when I am washing the last plate, when bedtime has blanketed the little ones in a soft hush (at least for a few hours), when I am able to sneak down to the cellar to start my onion seeds in their fresh peat pots, and when the promise of spring is tangible in the form of garden catalogs that have begun to arrive two-a-day by mail.

To me, it’s much more than just an egg.

There are people, many people, in my egg basket, which is also full of robust donut shop coffee and baseball.  These people fill me up when I most need them, and even when I don’t know what I need.  One brings me ice cream in the middle of the night, another sends me a message that makes my stomach hurt from laughing, and another came to sit with me and did not mention one word about the cheese that stuck to the bottom of her shoe as she walked through my  kitchen.  

When the questions are bigger than the answers after a quarter century of parenting, when the pancakes burned because I had to step away from the griddle to mediate a fight, when I don’t want to look past today for fear of what I might see, and even when someone has eaten the last secret cupcake, I can go to the chicken coop with my egg basket, and I know that I will feel better for having gone.  Experts might think that this is emotional egg gathering.  Though I am far from an expert, I think it might be.  

I don’t think we can really know what is in someone else’s egg basket, at least not everything, anyway. It’s probably not even an egg.  For our deepest friendships, yes, we sometimes do know some of what the basket holds, or we can do our best to try to figure it out.  And even the thought of someone trying to understand what is inside can be enough to fill it up.

When the bread is baking, when my grown son calls to share his excitement at his new venture, when I take a minute to look at my vintage cookie jars, when my daughter’s eyes flash so brightly that I can nearly feel the warmth of her happiness, when the little boys drive their construction trucks in rare harmony, perched together atop the gravel pile; these are the times that I have enough to share my basket with others.  

I might miss the glory of the Northern Illinois sunset if I don’t hurry out now to close the chicken door for the night.  While I am out there, I will be sure to check for eggs one last time.

What I Hope You Will Know

 

 “And just as the darkness got very dark, he bumped into his big fur mother, and she took her little fur child home in her arms and gave him his supper.”  –from “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown

Here is what I hope you will know: it is different.  Raising babies that I have birthed is not the same as raising children not born to me.  Do I love you, my children, differently?  I would like to think that love can rise above the unknown, and even that which is known but unthinkable.  I would like to think that love transcends all boundaries and fills the hollow spaces with what needs to be there.  The difference lies in circumstances, in history.  With my biological children, whom I have known since before you were born, the history is ours.  Together, we have been one.  For my children that came to me when the journey had already begun, for you that were matched to me by the stars and the forces beyond, at the expense of a different path and different players, the history is yours, mine, and others’.  Only eventually is it ours, too.

I hope you know that you are not fortunate or blessed to have me.  We have been given to one another in this life, and we have each other to stand alongside against our struggles.  There’s a place between wanting to cover up and hide away from all the bad things that happened, to pretend that they never were, and wishing I could share more than I even know, to help your actions and behavior make just a little more sense to others in a world of judgment.  I don’t want to make excuses, nor do I feel that I should hold your hand through all of the challenges and conflicts, which are almost daily, and which are often sporn from a place deep inside and from many yesterdays ago: a place from where the fallout never ceases.

I hope that some day, you can see yourself as I see you;  I hope that you will let others hear your laughter and let them see the real sparkle that dances in your eye.    I hope, too, that you know that when your day is guided by anger, grief, sadness, despair, and darkness, these hours will not define you, and you will not be alone.

I hope you will believe and understand that what “happened” is not for all to know.  I hope you understand and believe that you will be a strong adult for what you have overcome, but that you are still yet a child who is trying to find your place in a world that is not always gracious or forgiving.

When you fall, when you are shattered, I will do my very best to help pick up the pieces.  I know, though, that in the end it is up to you to forge the path to your future.  No matter where the path leads, you will always have a place here, at home.

I hope you hope, right along with me.

I hope you know, too, how very deeply you are loved, no matter how or when you arrived.  

 All of you.

“Sleep, sleep, our little fur child, out of the windiness, out of the wild.  Sleep warm in your fur all night long, in your little fur family.  This is a song.” –from “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown