Garbage Mom









Monday had a promising start: the sun shone brightly, and I had a few minutes to spare before I would be meeting my longtime friend, so I stopped at the post office. Two pairs of ladies occupied the lobby in front of me; both sets engaged in separate conversations.

The first pair consisted of the very pleasant post office clerk and a vibrant middle-aged customer whose hair was tied in a floral bandanna and whose presence radiated some sort of energy that (I inferred from my unintended eavesdropping) was clearly born from the relaxation of a beach vacation.

The second pair, two ladies who were standing eight feet or so from the first pair, off to the side of the line and presumably finished with any mailing business that had brought them there in the first place, exchanged a bit more concern with each turn of their conversation, which seemed to involve some unfortunate surgical mishaps or medical disturbances.

The two stories, in that space of time, in the stiff environment of the post office, blended into one conversation that was at once uplifting and unsettling, depending on which part I allowed myself to focus.

What entered my brain from the post office lobby went something like this:

“So good to see you… what a lovely day we have…”

“He lost part of one foot, then the rest of it, then the other foot…”

“I have my list, and I’m sticking to it. We just got back last night….the sun’s out for us; how lovely…”

How lovely, indeed, and how tragic, this dichotomy of our lives.

“Horns from my head, wings from my shoulders…”

I hadn’t seen my friend in more than a year. We had worked together for a period of time, what seems like a lifetime ago.

She spoke of her children, now nearly grown, of places that she had visited, and about how she had been starting flowers from seed. We talked a bit about growing older, about worrying about things, about food, and about how much changes in a space of time….well, mostly.

She asked about each of my older children, whom she had known as the young children that they once were. I told her, too, about the trials of parenting this second wave of children.

The struggles are mighty. My older sons referred to me as “garbage” exactly zero times (out loud, anyway) during their collective years at home. This week alone, I have been called both “trash” and “garbage”, a “toddler” (because I cried; perhaps I earned that one), “lazy”, “mean”, and a “pig”. I have also been told that my glasses were pretty, my pajama pants were cool, and that I smelled good. I have been fallen asleep upon at least six times, and I have been given no less than twenty-seven crayon drawings, also in this week, which I chalk up to mean that I am loved.

So maybe one skill that I have learned is to let the insults, the comments spun in webs of anger, bounce from my back like a crumpled paper which, I suppose, could be classified as either garbage or trash, depending on the moment.

These days, we have therapy sessions and behavior plans in place of baseball practice and band…oh, wait…we have that, too…

“Quick, Mama, look up…your baby has grown up…”

My friend and I drank good coffee and ran out of time before we had run out of things to talk about. At some point it occurred to me that I could try to fight and defy the challenges that interrupt my path, or I could spend that same hour, minding my own business, in my garden. While I might not have control over my problems, which may not even be my problems in the first place, I can surely stand to breathe in something of nature even as I bend in defeat. I suppose, then, all would not be lost. There might even be a flower at some point, maybe some sunshine instead of the amputation of some toes, depending on how I see…or hear it.

My friend went back to her work late on that Monday morning, and I went home to meet my little son’s bus, wondering if he would still think that my glasses looked nice, or if he would give me a few more reasons to spend a late hour in the garden.

Song lyrics from “O Behold”, by Kevin Morby, courtesy of Sam who, for the record, never called me either “garbage” or “trash”

A Hero’s Hand

“Don’t let anyone say that it’s just a game…”

A friend mentioned that in just a few weeks, it will be time for pitchers and catchers to report to training camp. He didn’t really have to remind me, though, as I have been looking desperately forward to a fresh season since my befallen heroes hung up their cleats as the ivy turned last year.

There had been momentary struggles with this boy through the years, the most epic of which paled in comparison, though, to the regular antics of a couple of his siblings. Aaron had been through much in his ten years: the losses that come through foster care and adoption, obscure medical issues plaguing his early childhood, and growing up in the shadows of the chaos of mental illness. Aaron was often the target of the wrath of an older sibling who needed help carrying a burden, the target of misplaced anger and fear born from the confines of a tormented mind. This, certainly, was hard to bear.

There was an escalation in challenging behaviors. Something had changed; a limit had been reached, perhaps. There was much more conflict at home, provoked, even, by the child that had often found himself merely in the line of fire. There were calls from school, disciplinary measures, and consequences. There was rage, anger, and sadness…great sadness.

The harsh weather hit early last fall. My little boy came in from school with a bit of an extra skip in his boots one afternoon; this had not been his recent pattern.

I asked how his day had gone.

“Great!” He flashed the smile that I had been missing for too long. “I saved someone,” Aaron proudly announced as he went about putting away his coat.

He went on to tell me that just as the students were filing out for dismissal, the fire alarm had gone off. Notoriously pokey, he had been the last to leave the classroom, along with one other boy who was, according to Aaron, scared and crying. He told me that this classmate had trouble with one of his hands, and that it didn’t always work because of something that had happened when he was a baby. On that day, the little boy stood, frozen. Aaron put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and the two walked out of the classroom and safely out of the building, together.

“Give us the chance to feel like heroes, too…”

For a while now, Aaron has been doing great. I haven’t heard of any disciplinary measures at the school, and he has worked hard at home to be a peacemaker with a tough crowd.

We asked him what had changed, and he didn’t hesitate: “It was when I saved him from the fire, Mom.” To him, it was a simple act of heroism that altered the course of his behavior in the direction of positivity, courage and bravery. It didn’t matter that someone had pulled the fire alarm. Aaron had saved his classmate and saved much more in the process.

“And here’s to the men and the legends we’ve known
Teaching us faith and giving us hope…”

In a few short months, my hero will be back on the baseball field, giving new hope to the game as we cheer from the bleachers.

Maybe that little spark will be the one that ignites the fire for him to see just how brightly he shines.

To some, it’s just a game. To the rest of us, it’s a whole lot more. XO

Lyrics from “All the Way”, Eddie Vedder’s tribute song to the Chicago Cubs

Fostering Words: Love Isn’t Enough, But At Least It’s Something

As a fresh spring chicken of a foster parent, I was given by one of my dearest friends a candy-pink shirt with the words, “Love is Not Enough” boldly stated for all to see. This puzzled me just a bit. “Hmm…we’ll see”, I thought to myself, as I wore it with pride.

That was about fifteen years ago.

Love, most definitely, is not enough.

Sometimes, I truly feel that I may have learned more about things through unfortunate experience than the professionals to whom I have brought my children for expert advice. I have felt the thoughts of some:

“You are making this up.”

“This is not a big deal.”

“I just don’t see it.”

Others, certainly, have sympathized. Many have been helpful. Some have been compassionate. Some have made me feel like I am doing it all wrong.

To that, I turn to look at my grown children, who come home to us, who remember what kind of soap I like, my best coffee drink, or what era vintage pottery makes me happy, who carry my groceries, who make a positive difference to others in their adult lives, who love me and whom I love, desperately.

And how I have loved, too, the little ones. Love alone, though, as I have seen, isn’t enough.

It’s not enough to melt what’s frozen inside, nor is it enough to erase the things that happened, perhaps, at the hands of the unknown. Not love, not anything, can make the hurt go.

It can, though, make the path just a little easier.

Lots of people talk about trauma these days, and it’s effect on the developing brain. Trauma changes people. Trauma also changes people that love people that have endured trauma.

As a foster parent, I learned a lot about behaviors that children who have been abused or neglected may exhibit: puzzling, disturbing, hard-to-handle behaviors.

Over the years, I have participated in several trauma workshops and classes. I have taken my children to therapists, neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, naturopaths, spiritual healers, and other specialists that may or may not have been able to make things easier or more understandable.

I have lain awake even on the rare nights when everyone else slept, worrying, wondering, and feeling all the things that could possibly fit inside of me.

Not long ago, a thought came to mind:

  • “Are we really helping these children to whom we have opened our doors? Are they better off in our care than they otherwise might have been?”
  • Sometimes, the answer is obvious. Often, though, it is more elusive.

    Multiple children come to the door wearing only the clothes on their backs but carrying much more than we can see. They bear witness, as do I, to the pain of one another until things are so mixed up that we can’t tell where the behaviors began.

    One child finds a peaceful space, but another must interrupt with his own, new found chaos as this is all he has known.

    So in trying to offer a safe place, have we just added to what is hard?

    I know there is no real answer to that question. There can’t be.

    Earlier in my tenure as a foster parent, I had often thought that it would have been helpful to know as much as possible about the pasts of the children in my care, but over the years that has really changed for me.  I feel like my job is to meet them where they are, and to help them embrace who they are, even the hard parts, and to let them tell their stories as they are ready.  It’s a hard job: it’s hard to be okay with just being, instead of always attempting to be helpful or trying to find a solution.

    I just hope that they will look back at the footprints one day when I am an old hen and see that they were deeply loved through the silence, and though love may not have been enough, at least it was something. And just maybe, they will return, with or without coffee.

    As for the pink shirt, I am not sure what became of it. My friend, though, was right.

    Snow on the Corn and Other Things that Just Don’t Seem Right

    I guess you only get so many chances, at least in this life. Nancy, my favorite chicken, went quietly in the early morning cold of All Soul’s Day. She had never really been the same since she had survived the raccoon attack last winter, though she tried her best to keep up with the others in the flock. I could tell she was slowing down. She mostly hung out under the roost in Coop #2, which seemed to be the place for ailing chickens, chickens at low places in the pecking order, roosters that had fallen from favor, and other chicken outcasts. It was also the place where I would discretely drop mealworms and sunflower seeds to let these beings know that though I could not do much for their situations, still they were loved and cared for.

    Tonight marked the beginning of a journey which also stamped the end of another. I made it to the dispensary to get our first round of medical cannabis for our son. He had a small piece of chocolate tonight. He didn’t really like the taste, but soon he was tucked in his bed, sound asleep. It is too early to tell if this long, hard path has been worth it, but we are finally on our way. There is a sadness recognizable in this culmination of emotion, perhaps because hope…hope can be hard. Hope, even, can be uncertain.

    There are some things I’m not going to understand, no matter how long my place on this earth.

    In our foster parenting classes we discussed the concept of expected loss versus unexpected loss. Aunt Marion lived a long life by anyone’s standards, so her passing, at age 100-ish, was not surprising. Still, though, the news was as unwelcome as all of the “what-ifs” that made their way into my head. Her brother, my Grandpa Gene, has been dead for nearly three decades. Dan and I had made the trip to St. Louis with our young family nearly every year, to visit Grandma Evie, so that I could spend time with one of my dearest people, and so the children might know their great grandmother. The trips usually included a visit to Aunt Marion, who did not live far from Grandma, and who desperately loved birds. She was an independent, positive-spirited lady who was a vegetarian and who wore her hair longer than any of the older women that I knew. Though we likely wore her out with our visits, she never bid us an early farewell, and her incessant smiles are marked in my memory. I know that I have taken more from her than I was able to give.

    Grandma Evie died near the beginning of our fostering journey, during which road trips were only successful if they were about ten minutes long and involved me folding myself into the third seat to break up fights and to award quiet moments with some sort of candy. We had meant to go for another visit. We had meant to do many things. We just didn’t. We couldn’t. There were cards and letters, but we never made it back to St. Louis.

    Aunt Marion died, but also, she lived.

    I couldn’t explain the depth of emotion I felt as I gave my child the small piece of chocolate which was to assure his rest, to still his mind and carry him to his winter’s nap on this fall evening where the temperature rivaled the most fierce of any January cold.

    There is still so much work to do in the garden. Mounds of golden mulch stand frozen from the days of rain followed by an early deep freeze. The garden gate, still propped open with a log to allow access to the chickens for their harvest time foraging, exposes mother nature’s angry deed. My hard-working cart, full of leaves, wilted weeds, and tired jack-O-lanterns, stands frozen amid the empty raised beds and blueberry bushes which still await their blankets of compost and pine needles. Perhaps there will be more days. Perhaps there will be more time. Perhaps I will have to close the garden shed for the winter and catch up with myself in the spring.

    There wasn’t enough time. How did I know when I packed those pumpkins into the cart, that this would be my last day in the garden? How do we know that what we have fought for for more than four years is going to make a difference?

    Maybe it’s best not to know we are out of time, until we actually are.

    Rest In Peace, sweet Nancy.

    Rest In Peace, dear Aunt Marion. I believe I have you to thank, at least in part, for my love of birds.

    Darkness and Light

    My mom sent a photo. It’s hard even to think of my parents as senior citizens, though I am nearly one myself. The image shows participants in a charity race on a bright day, and front and center are my dad and my mom, both reflecting the sun, smiling and looking well…astoundingly so. They are eighty.

    I do worry about my aging parents, far away from me. For them, I hold the thought that theirs will be a long, fulfilling sunset to their lives, already well-lived. Their richest blessings are one another, and of that they are keenly aware.

    My older children are forging paths into their own trees, mountains, and skies. Their fleeting journeys here with me have evolved to include other pursuits, and I am here, hoping that they know what they stand for, and how deeply they are loved.

    Those still at home are my reasons to be here, too, right now, when the days, arduous as often they are, turn quickly to years.

    Aaron is sick. From his earliest days, he was the one to get pneumonia when the others had a sniffle. Still, at nearly ten, he seems to be hit hardest by these seasonal bugs. A sore throat, fever, and chills (“shimmers”, as he calls them) kept him (and me) from the last game of his fall baseball season, where his team played for the championship. I can hear him now, breathing erratically and talking about dragons, as he has fallen into a restless sleep.

    I worry that I will not be enough for all of these people to whom I have been entrusted as messenger. On the days where I fall short of keeping up, where even the thought of tearing down the mountain of legos or moving the discarded socks and sweatshirts to the laundry basket overwhelms me, it is then that I try to remind myself that it’s just a day, one day, and that I will have a chance again tomorrow.

    I worry that we will die before we are done living, but I suppose that most people do.

    It seemed a grand idea, to offer newborn chicks to my broody hen, in order to satisfy her mothering instincts and free her from months of occupying an empty nest. It shouldn’t matter that the nighttime temperatures were near freezing. Chicken Bernadette would keep her new babies safe and warm. We wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with the risk of having more roosters. These were rare breed female chicks, shipped to the local post office directly from my favorite hatchery.

    Aaron had a break in his fever when the call came; within half an hour, we were in the coop, opening the box and introducing the babies to their new family. Maybe it was just a little reminiscent of the days when I would hurry to the DCFS office to be entrusted with a tiny someone, for whatever reason, for however long.

    One of the babies did not look well. She was cold and barely responsive. We put her in the nest along with the other babies, and we hoped for the best through the darkness.

    It was a wakeful night. When I opened the coop at sunrise, Bernadette was still perched proudly on the nest. Two hours later, three of the babies were dead.

    Aaron’s fever would break and rise, more rhythmic than his breathing. Every chance I had, I checked the coop. The last little chick’s peep sounds reassured me that all was not lost; mother hen Bernadette was tending to her baby.

    At dusk, when I went to close the doors and to see that all of the chickens were tucked in for the night, I came upon the baby chick, who lay motionless outside the coop entrance. Bernadette was roosting with some of the other birds. Did she leave her baby out in the cold to die? Did I?

    There’s heartbreak in chicken keeping.

    There’s heartbreak in parenting.

    There’s heartbreak in living.

    It’s okay. It’s okay, even when it’s not, because when it’s not, we are probably not thinking of it.

    As parents, we try. Sometimes we aren’t enough. Sometimes we can’t be.

    I don’t know if I will sleep any better tonight. Aaron is restless, and his fever seems relentless. He is so hot and so cold at the same time. Soon, though, it will be spring again, and he will lace his cleats before heading to the field. There will be new baby chicks at the farm: rare breeds, from the hatchery, but also, perhaps, a feisty young rooster that hatched from a broody hen, if that’s what was meant to be.

    My big kids will have new plans.

    My parents will see more sunrises and sunsets, together.

    I will know that the day holds, maybe not the best or easiest lesson, but the right lesson, for me, for this day.

    Where We Are: My Medical Cannabis for Autism Update

    “I had a great time. Can’t wait until next week.”

    Well, that was a relief, because the faces he made during the hour-and-fifteen-minute basketball clinic had me believing otherwise.

    We have come a long way, but we have so far yet to go. Four years ago on this day, I stepped out of character and shared testimony to a room full of people at the Holiday Inn in Countryside. I described, in two-and-a-half minutes, what it had been like to parent my son, and the frustrations and challenges that had led me to this place, on this day, pleading to have autism added to the list of conditions that could be legally treated with medical cannabis.

    On this day, four years ago, autism was recommended but ultimately rejected by Illinois’ medical director. What followed was much campaigning seemingly to no avail, and a series of legal appeals that led nowhere but to disappointment.

    Meanwhile, we struggled in the trenches through a few more hospitalizations, many medication changes, trials of alternative treatments, more physical holds, broken windows, damaged property, and defeated spirits.

    We love our son. Thoughts of the future were overwhelming, as he continued to grow bigger and stronger, and the effects on everyone else were glaring.

    Our psychiatrist recommended in-home applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy; eighteen months later, the services began, with a provider working in our home six days a week. Our son continued to attend the therapeutic school where he had gone since the second month of kindergarten.

    It seemed that he would struggle each spring and fall, but we would manage to come out on the other side. Very slowly, we had seen some of the aggression subside. And then, a transition of one of the workers would set the shaky ship off course yet again.

    We have had some successful times, and some good family times, even in the community. We have also had to drag ourselves through the dark waters of fear just as we thought the light was coming.

    Time marched on. Late this summer, as my mind had been full of many, many things, I received surprise word from an attorney’s office and also the patient advocate (connected to us by our older son) who had sat by my side in that auditorium four years ago on this day. There had been no fireworks, no great celebratory feasts of which I was made aware, but autism had indeed been approved as a condition treatable with medical cannabis. This seemed to be the culmination of a fight that I had all but walked away from, only to have it circle back, it seems, in God’s timing.

    The angst has begun to rise once again. It seems the boys take cues from one another, modeling negative behaviors and forgetting to be kind. We seem to forget where we were. We need something, and maybe this is finally it.

    I was excited to contact our psychiatrist, a doctor who had been supportive of our journey to try to help our boy with medical cannabis, and who we first traveled many miles to see, and who we now see by virtual office as she has since moved across the country.

    We were all set, it seemed…until the need arose for standardized testing which resulted in an autism spectrum diagnosis. I have a cabinet of paperwork on this child, and many files hold hospital reports, office notes, and clinical diagnoses of, among many other things, pervasive developmental disorder and autism spectrum disorder. The elusive standardized test, though, was nowhere in that cabinet, because it had never been done.

    Lots of bad thoughts ran around in my head. What if, when we were this close, we were actually in a place where it never could be? What if, after all of this, his autism diagnosis could not be “officially” confirmed? Did it matter?

    We have been hoping and rallying for about five years now. We owed him the chance. Our kind lead behavior analyst recommended a psychologist that could do the requested test. We waited about two weeks, made the trip for the testing, and waited three arduous weeks more.

    The report came, and I wondered what I had wondered about, when, of course, we had known all along.

    It was good to see our doctor’s response when I forwarded the report: “Received, thank you…I will move forward with the application…”

    So we wait, once again. And again, we will wait when the application has been submitted to the state. But like everything else, it’s going to be okay. In this very moment, we are okay.

    We are back at basketball clinic again, and our boy is smiling and joking around with the other participants. He misses a free throw, and still he smiles.

    It has, though, been a rough week at home, for not just this boy. My body is sore from a few too many physical holds of writhing boys. I am glad the sun came back out today, as that always beckons a sense of hope from the darkness.

    I am hoping that the time, this time, finally, is near.

    *Many thanks to EVERYONE who has helped and supported us as we have desperately tried to make our way!

    Occupation

    They’re a bit like my children, hummingbirds. We never know how long they will stay, or when they are going to come back. I have made a point to keep my eye on a hummingbird when it comes to the feeder outside the kitchen window; I have taught my children the same, those that will listen, anyway: to take in the fleeting magic until it is gone. It’s a lesson I am still trying to learn. The hummingbird’s time is short, and it is worth one’s complete reverence.

    After making fresh nectar in the early summer, I hadn’t given it another thought until just a few days ago when I noticed one of the tiny birds hovering nearby but not stopping to feed. Again, I forgot to refresh the nectar. I have had a lot going on inside my head.

    A few days later as I was sorting basil leaves for pesto, a hummingbird brighter green than my garden harvest stopped to take nectar from the neglected feeder. It came back two more times, each time for just a bit longer than before. I felt kind of sad for the bird, because the weeks-old sugar water could certainly not have been what it had hoped for.

    Please come back, little bird. I will offer you the freshest nectar, as much as you care to drink.

    My adult daughter came to the house as she often does, unannounced, with her boyfriend. I do not discourage this. There were days during the tumult of her high school years where I wondered if she would ever return once she closed the door behind her.

    “Ooh! Are you making pesto? Could we come for dinner?” Her eyes had that little sparkle that I loved best.

    Though it shouldn’t have, her question caught me by surprise, and I told her that I was leaving town to go to a visitation. Someone would be coming to watch the boys, Dan was taking one boy to baseball practice, and another’s therapist was here, so dinner guests might be hard this time.

    “Oh, I think I am going to cook fish tonight.” She was still smiling, no evidence of disappointment detected on her face, even as she was denied the dinner invitation.

    Sometime in the string of days that followed, I refilled that feeder with sugar and water and returned it to its spot outside the kitchen window. No one should need an invitation, not even a hummingbird.

    On a recent morning which offered a hint of the impending change of season with its crisp breeze, I had a couple hours in the garden, which now seems more of a congested jumble of weeds than the painstakingly planned plot that it once was. It was gratifying and almost effortless to pull ridiculously tall weeds from the rain-soaked earth. The late spring and summer months had brought seemingly endless rainfall with time stolen on the dry in-between days for painting and barn projects, a much anticipated family wedding, summer camps, one child’s surgery, all the regular farm and work chores, and some transitions that were hardly celebratory; all snatched would-be gardening hours and contributed to the wild, unkempt result which now faced me.

    My young son wants to be a Boy Scout. Actually, he has been campaigning for this since about first grade, and when the invitation from a friend to accompany him to a meeting came early one morning, he somehow ended up at the Elks Club that night, only to return with an application and yet another skip in his step.

    We had a Boy Scout nearly two decades before. I remember a living room full of popcorn, hours spent whittling a wooden car, fingers sore from the lost art of sewing patches, and tents threatened by storms and imaginary bears. Looking back, things could have been much, much worse. The rhythm and expectations had offered a sense of purpose and helped to instill a drive in our older boy that he holds today. Perhaps this will be a good thing for a boundlessly energetic little brother who likely hopes the bears will not be imaginary.

    The application was a triplicate form. I filled in the boxes with identifying information but hesitated on the line that asked for my “occupation”. I have been a few different things across the years, but in this moment, the “answer” to what belonged in those boxes eluded me. What was I, anyway?

    I don’t want to cry because it’s over. Rather, I would like to celebrate that it happened, and that I was part of it. I would like to rejoice in how it changed me.

    This time, the hummingbird stayed for a long while, flitting from one side of the feeder to the other as I held the smallest boy before me on the counter. We watched this moment of magic together, captive by what was clearly the orchestration of a higher power. As it finished feeding, the bird flew off. My little one returned to his toy tractors and I to my breakfast dishes with both of our souls a few drops richer.

    There were no wooden pickets to contain my thoughts which rambled as the creeping charlie and the wild carrots inside my garden fence that morning.

    Maybe there isn’t a word for my occupation. Maybe there is, though, and maybe it’s the same word that would describe how it feels in those captive seconds while we watch a hummingbird at the feeder.

    Something showed itself under a particularly stubborn clump of thatch that had been growing alongside and trying its best to stifle my young blueberry bush. It was just a little plastic tag, an identification marker that had come with the plant when I had first planted it at the farm, when I had chosen it because it bore the name of my son, my faraway scholar, my one-time Scout, my first little boy, my inspiration for all of this…”Elliott” blueberry was stronger than thatch and here to bring me back to what this was all about.

    It’s worth the magic. It’s worth the tiny moment in time.

    Onward, Scout!