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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See Ya, Buttheads

It was the wax bottles, the Maryjanes, the sixlets, and the caramel bullseyes, along with a vast array of other vintage candies that held my attention until I looked to the direction of my son. We were at a downtown sweet shop, and he was engaged in conversation with a young girl who looked to be about his age.

“What grade will you be in?” asked the girl.

“I’m already in fifth,” he answered.

“Who’s your teacher going to be?” I don’t ever remember a longer spontaneous conversation between my son and anyone else.

“Well, I’m in a special school, and I am already in fifth grade because I went to summer school.” Ethan spoke without emotion. This was the first time that I had heard him volunteer this information, and I am not sure if I was relieved by his matter-of-fact delivery, or saddened that he recognized the difference that separated him from another fifth grader.

“Oh.” The girl turned her attention back to the television screen. She must have deduced that since they would not be in the same class, the conversation was no longer worth pursuing.

I can’t tell where one cloud ends and another begins.

Maybe it doesn’t even matter anymore, or maybe it never did.

I’ve been hit in the head with a size 10 toddler light-up boot one two many times this summer. I am ready for something.

I’m getting coffee, and you’re not. I am not really mean, and I certainly hope I don’t qualify as an idiot, whatever that is. Is that self-care, going through the drive-thru for coffee? I think it qualifies, and I think I am not obligated to buy cake pops for all of the trash-talkers in the back seat. They, of course, think differently.

I don’t talk to the clouds for fear that they might talk back.

Aaron spent many hours at the orthodontist’s office as a baby and toddler while his older siblings had their turns in the chair. On this day, he was going, brothers in tow, to see the doctor for his own orthodontic consult. We sat in the chairs in the waiting room for a few minutes, and then a bit longer. When Aaron’s name was called, our ill-behaved, complaining parade filed past perhaps a dozen teenagers, all in various stages on the path to straightened teeth. Some of them were accompanied by parents or companions. None seemed to be accompanied by little brothers, at least not cantankerous, impatient ones.

One brother carried on (loudly) about how long it was taking. Another performed full-body stunts on the dental chair. The third just kept running away, until I offered to take him back to the lobby to see the waterfall. On our way out, he proclaimed, “See ya, buttheads!” to the captive audience of orthodontic patients whose mouths probably hurt when they laughed at him…or maybe, more likely, at me.

School started this week, and with it comes a highly anticipated (by me) break from our summer rhythm (or lack thereof). Here I am, with three hours in front of me. A blank canvas, no obligations, and embodied inspiration that has left on the school bus.

I think I miss them.

Olive is such a silly chicken. It’s hard not to love her best, with her downy fro, her frantic postures, and her unmistakable charm as her feathers fall in her face and she accidentally collides into absolutely anything in her path. I wonder if she is lonely, if she longs for someone to explore the farm with her. Earlier this week, she seemed to have found a friend. One of the Cream Legbar hens, the type that is supposed to lay sky-blue eggs, had joined Olive in her usual hiding spot under the roost. By midday on the second day, I shooed the two young hens from the coop. It was a perfectly sunny day, and though I was delighted for Olive that she had found someone to keep her company, I thought they should get some air.

Olive’s friend had trouble standing. Her breathing was labored, and her eyes were half-closed. I separated her from the flock and tried to figure out the best way to help her. Olive looked on, likely wondering why I had taken her friend from her. By nightfall, the Cream Legbar was gone. She had settled under the roost not to keep Olive company, but to seek refuge from herself. Maybe, deep in her chicken heart, Olive knew this. Anyway, I know she was grateful for the company, however fleeting, and I’m sure the Cream Legbar was grateful for a companion to see her to the other side.

We’re trying to find our places here. Maybe they are determined from the beginning of time, or perhaps they are made clear as we grow, evolving as we do.

The sinister tides of trauma and mental illness overwhelm me, engulf me once again. Mine or theirs? I cannot tell.

Maybe the time spent in the waiting rooms, struggling, frustrated, and confused, helps us find what we’re looking for, even if we don’t understand what that is, as we stand (possibly wearing light-up cowboy boots and eating caramel bullseyes) at the threshold of a new relationship, a sacred friendship, a new school year, or an unexpected journey.

And if there were never clouds, how would we ever appreciate the rarity of a clear blue sky?

I wonder what color Olive’s eggs will be.

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.

Get Me Some Milk, You Idiot!

Pillars of light danced from the early evening waters of the lagoon, a thousand glow sticks from a summer’s festival stood mid air. The moon would rise, and the lights would fade as the sky’s darkness would give in to what had been its destiny all along. If there had been magic, still it was there, but hidden away, beneath the angst, the long lists, the confrontations, and the harsh reality of the face of today.

“I said, ‘GET ME SOME MILK,’ you idiot.”

I know him, and I understand, though his delivery is harsh, that his immediate desires, perceived as urgent needs, override magic words and kindness.

We have come a long way, but I turn around and the baby, and now almost the little boy have gone. Sometimes, the look is far away. The eyes are glazed by words that cannot find form. When it all makes sense at last, will there still be time?

Maybe it’s good that I’m not a maple tree…a silver maple, or, especially, a sugar maple. I’ve heard the sap flows freely…

Before you know, maybe it’s simpler. Before your eyes have opened, your sleep was the peaceful comfort of a down blanket with the softest satin edge. A dollar for a dozen grocery store eggs, perhaps even eighty-eight cents during the Easter specials. Each precious egg, colors of green, blue, or brown, was laid by a hen with a story, a hen that spends her days roaming the farm property, trying to sneak food from the barn cats, peeking in visitors’ cars, and running to greet me as I come from the main house with a handful of millet. The eggs from our hens are part of nature’s rhythm, and we cannot put value on that.

A light so bold, fierce, amazing, and brave, once was and still is.

The sap from three trees drips into buckets at our farm. We gather it daily and have been boiling the contents once a week. Eleven gallons of sap, gathered and boiled, boiled for hours and hours on a Saturday, slowly evaporating and condensing into sweet syrup, just over one quart, which tempts us straight from the bottle. We wondered if it would turn out, for all the hours and guesswork, for all the hope.

Maybe it’s a little like parenting; we keep going, because it’s what we’re here to do, and even with experience as our guide, we falter. We falter, until one day all of our gallons of labor have boiled down to one quart, one childhood, to which we gave all we knew.

There had been so many horizons ahead, some which were yet unknown, when the turn in the path finally answered. What is before me is greater than what has been.

The sap drips at a good clip when the sun warms the day. I can’t keep the tears back when I am reminded of the steps not yet taken, the steps to places where people are just expected to go, the steps where I will no longer walk with my child on this earth.

The tears are for him, that the vague and diluted questions may find answers which satisfy for all the seasons of toil, when we did not understand where we were to go.

He asked for the maple syrup the night we had pancakes, and he did not call me an idiot this time. There was a lilt to his laughter, a new sound that rushed in to fill the air. There was a dance and a magic, as the light on the water, to remind me that he is here.

Sparkles and Fear

She didn’t say a word, and neither did I.

It may have seemed like just a piece of paper, but to me it represented much more. For nearly eighteen years, I had held on to it and kept it safe. And just as I handed it to her, she let it slip away.

Wendell was our first rooster at the farm. He was aggressive and would flap up at us randomly. We loved him, but we were all a bit fearful of him, because he sometimes hurt us. Wendell died suddenly last September; he had not been with us even two years. A few unsettling weeks passed for our vulnerable hens before we got Ben, our new rooster, from a farm in Wisconsin. He fit right in with the flock. He has been as gentle as Wendell was ornery. Not once has he approached any humans with aggressive tendencies. I can fill the feeder with Ben standing right beside me, patiently awaiting the fresh crumble. Still, though, whenever I make my way to the chicken coop, as the flock follows me from behind, my guard is up. I turn around every few steps to make sure Ben is not getting too close or coming at me. I guess I am so programmed from my angry rooster, that I can’t quite let go of the thought.

I think this is a tiny window into the minds of our kids who are hyper vigilant every moment as a function of a traumatic past. The fear, the worry never quite goes away.

Ben is the sweetest, kindest rooster. He stands near the door of the chicken house, eyeing the pie tin filled with warm oatmeal and buckwheat groats, likely wishing that the hens will leave just a bite for him, just this once. He dares not even try to join the others. His first priority is to make sure he guards his flock. But it’s not about Ben. It’s about what we remember, about what happened before. It’s about the fear that is still so raw, that becomes part of who we are.

I know she can do it. She just wants to forget what she can’t remember, but she must remember that she will never forget. She is strong enough, but her eyes must open so she can see.

I love the new fallen snow. It sparkles like glitter across the acres. As I trod over the property to open the coop in the nearly knee deep blanket, the ornamental grasses that surround a nostalgic metal tractor…garden art, in summer…bend slightly under the weight of winter’s latest gift. The colors are bold and definitive, showcasing nature’s artwork, marking the seasons in a new, unexpected way.

My son sent a miniature orchid for my first Mother’s Day at the farm. It was delicate and profuse in its blooms of lilac and pink, striking beauty for my kitchen windowsill. As spring turned to summer, the last blooms had gone. I read about orchids. I fed my plant with fish emulsion. I watered it regularly and saved its place in the window. I gave it a bigger pot. All the while, I wondered if it would ever bloom again. Nearly two years later, almost overnight and to my utter surprise, seven buds have appeared on a single stalk that looked, until days ago, just like the shoots that have come and gone without flowering.

I’m different than I was a couple decades, even a decade ago. There’s fear in having experienced more, in knowing more and less at the same time, but there’s also complacency in knowing that the hope will find me, that there will be something, no matter how small, to let me know that I am still on the trail…even when I have to turn around every so often to make sure the rooster hasn’t turned on me.

I can hear my little boy laughing from the other room. For him, it has taken much more than two years. It has taken twenty-eight medications and most of his young life to find a few moments of stillness, sparkling as they are, in this space of time. I don’t know where this will take him, or what this even means. I know, though, that it’s a better place than anywhere he has been in a very long time. It doesn’t mean we don’t look back, wondering if a torrent is coming from behind. I think we always will.

We had to get a new paper, a new declaration, to replace the one that had slipped away. There’s a painful lot, though, that we can’t replace.

When the snow begins to melt into a messy slush, I look, but I can no longer find the sparkles . That doesn’t mean, though, that they were never there.

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.

Brave

 Ethan is brave every day.  Yesterday, I was brave for him.  I wanted to post the words that I shared with the medical advisory board which voted 8:2 in favor of accepting autism as a condition to recommend to be treated with medical cannabis.
“I am learning more on this parenting journey than I ever expected to learn.  Honestly, I really don’t want to learn all this stuff.  I don’t want to know the side effects of Risperdal or Zyprexa.  I don’t want to have a reason to know them.  I don’t want others to treat my sweet boy with any less dignity than he deserves.  The grip of autism is not selective.  This child is only trying to make sense of his world and his emotional kaleidoscope.  I want him to eat lemon knots; I want him to be able to walk across the train tracks without being gripped by fear; and I want him to enjoy the Christmas lights with the rest of us.  I want him to know that he is a treasure and a great blessing, every single day.

We know that people with autism are often in a state of sensory overload.  Experiences are more intense: louder, scarier, more painful…often intolerable.  I have seen anecdotal studies of children close in age to my son, with similar behaviors, who seemed to get better almost overnight when allowed the chance to have medical cannabis.

With Ethan, there are extraordinary swings of angst, fear, and aggression.  In the other direction, there are flashes of brilliance and uncanny cleverness to outsmart a university scholar on a good day.  The days where the brilliance outweighs the angst, those are the days we relish.  We adore him.  We are exhausted on all of the days, but he has brought to us intangible things that we did not even know we needed.

Ethan, at seven, has been through two psychiatric hospitalizations when the behaviors became too overwhelming.  His therapeutic day school has now called on a behavior analyst to help with his programming.  I learned yesterday at his IEP meeting that my son had more physical restraints during the last calendar year than anyone else at the school.

I’m sorry for everything.  I’m sorry for the railroad tracks, the thunder, the bees, the wind, and for all of the other things that invade your head and stir your fears.

We don’t want him to have to go back to where he is not understood, where nobody sits with him as he falls asleep, and where he is presented with trays of brown things with gravy.  We don’t want to go back to a place where the outcome will be no different than the last time.

Then the moments come, and there is nothing we can do.

My little boy, at seven, has been on at least fifteen different medications.  We have never been sure if any of the medications have had any positive effect, though the negative side effects have certainly presented themselves.  Many children in states with more sensible laws have recovered the ability to function in everyday life by using edible cannabis.  I will never give up trying to help my son.  I feel that it is our ethical responsibility to offer this same opportunity to children in Illinois: the chance at a childhood that is governed by states of calm and joy.

Please offer this chance to my son and to countless others with autism who may not have words to express but who feel so very deeply, every single day. ”

Thanks to yesterday’s vote, we are one step closer.  No matter your thoughts and feelings about this, I want our story to be about standing up for our children, and about coming together to make a difference.  Many thanks to Elliott, my bright star, for being the guiding force.