Let Me Be Your Lesson

“Everything is either a blessing or a lesson.”

Who was it that said that, anyway? Maybe, some things can be both of those at the same time.

Perched on top of the hill at the edge of my grandparents’ property, my brother, my sister, and I spent strings of days looking out onto the St. Louis traffic, wondering who inhabited the curious round apartment tower building, talking about where we could hide Grandpa Gene’s cigarettes, and dreaming of getting a can of Faygo Redpop from the grocery store across the highway. I think my body still hurts from rolling down that grassy slope so often during my childhood. I wonder how many times I narrowly avoided my demise by slowing just before I rolled a little too far.

Grandpa Gene would offer me a dime to pick apples from the tree that stood perfectly in the middle of his backyard. He would sit on the glider swing, eyeing the birds splashing in their pristine concrete bath as he coached me.

“You missed one,” he would laugh, but he was not joking. The shiny-skinned, gold- green apples were plentiful, with leaves rhythmically fertilized and untainted. Grandpa would send me inside to collect my dime after his carefully-directed harvest was complete. The apples, though, didn’t taste very sweet. At least, I didn’t think so at the time.

Every so often, competing for space with the swirl of “to-do’s” and “how-can-I-possibly’s” in my brain, a thought presents itself. This time, it was “blueberry Toasties.” When we were lucky, our grandparents would take us to the Howard Johnson hotel diner. There, I would have a special breakfast of two little square corn cakes, stuffed with blueberries and slathered in butter. I would cut the bites as tiny as possible, so the Toasties, which somehow were crunchy but melted in my mouth at the same time, would last as long as possible. Toasties may have come in other flavors, but I had never wanted to even explore that possibility. At some point, Grandma Evie found blueberry Toasties in a box at the grocery store, so we didn’t even have to wait to go to the diner. Maybe that was when they stopped tasting so good. Then, I forgot about blueberry Toasties for nearly fifty years.

Our end-of-the line child, our runaway caboose, starts kindergarten this fall. Thirty years of catch-up projects and neglected home keeping chores will have to wait just a little bit longer, as this boy and his brothers will be home at the farm this fall. We never expected this. Nobody did. His voice might plead, “Let me be your lesson, Mama.”

Sometimes, I do hear voices. It is no secret that we are bound here by mental illness along with the foreboding threat of our world, but these voices come from within with an unmistakable fury. Maybe no one else hears them at first, but as with the insistent cry of a child in the dark of night, I must listen.

Some years ago, my brother and I were traveling by airplane. From somewhere in the air above the seats in the cabin, a gravelly voice simply stated, “p”. This was particularly curious, as sometimes I was called “P” by my brother or sister when they may have felt that two syllables were too much. More letters came from the elusive voice. The mystery was solved when we realized that the man in the seat ahead of us was playing “Scrabble” with his seat mate.

Through the years, voices have called us to adopt, to foster, to move to the country, to campaign to legalize medical cannabis for autism, to raise chickens, to start beehives, and, most recently, to make blueberry Toasties. The “goat” voice, I hope, will come soon. Sometimes, the message has been in the form of one of my children, a friend, a flower, a newspaper, a tree, or a bird. And sometimes, for certain, it has been that of God.

Our little orchard at the farm has grown. I believe we have seven apple trees now. Two years ago, we were delighted to spy the first apple on one of those trees, our Colonnade Flamenco. We watched it grow, all alone, and we shared its sweet goodness on harvest day. That was the one and only apple in the orchard, until this year. Dismayed by rust on the apple trees and determined to use natural methods to care for our homestead, I have not held much hope in filling my apple basket anytime soon. There are, though, three perfect baby apples growing on one of the young Golden Delicious trees now. The voice of the young apple, looking very much like those that grew on Grandpa Gene’s tree so many years ago, pleads: “Be patient. Don’t doubt yourself. Keep going. It’s going to be worth it.”

I wondered if somewhere in the world of Pinterest or Google, someone else had remembered Blueberry Toasties. Indeed, with a little pinch of this or that, the memory of my best childhood diner breakfast became a reality.

Here’s how I made them, if anyone wants to experience the nostalgia first hand:

Blueberry Toasties, adapted from “Nancy’s A Recipe A Day” blog

This time, the lesson was easy. Crisped to perfection, dripping with the combined intoxication of blueberries and butter, my breakfast advised, in a voice that was nearly audible, “Don’t forget. Don’t forget the little things that you once loved.”

Would Faygo Redpop be bad for my kids? We could always have it along with the apples once they ripen, to balance things out a bit. That would definitely be a blessing.

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”

Still Brave: A Birthday Tribute

It’s the eve of your twelfth birthday. The picture in my head may have been a bit different from what I was expecting, but I should have known a long time ago to stop expecting, because there just doesn’t seem to be much sense in that.

I wish you hadn’t told me that you were starting to get a mustache, but I wish harder that I hadn’t looked, because I am not ready to see. I am not ready to see lots of things, but here I stand, knowing that in another birthday or two, I may actually have to buy you a razor.

On the basketball court, I watch as you run with your peers and keep pace with the coach’s demands. You dribble the ball through your legs, and you have a pretty slick left-handed lay-up.

You have come a long way. I wonder if I expected that. What I didn’t expect was the fallout behaviors of the younger children that would manifest as your own chaos was starting to fade. It has been hard around here lately. I know that your sadness looks like anger, your frustration looks like anger, and your anger looks like anger, but that you feel so very deeply and wish only to be heard and understood. I think that’s really all any of us wants.

Four years ago, we had hoped that autism would be added as a condition treatable with medical cannabis. After so many frustrating and sometimes risky medication trials, we thought that this might bring some peace and hope for your future, for our future.

It was recommended but not added, but we kept hoping. Help has come in different forms: home therapists, one medication that seems to have made some difference, your own strength, tenacity, and bravery, and a little dog named Spotty.

Now, the time has finally come. Autism was added as a condition this August. After updated tests to confirm the autism diagnosis, recommendations from the professionals, and some phone calls, we will be meeting with a patient representative at a dispensary this week.

I still think it’s going to help you, and I still think it’s going to help all of us. I just hope we are not too far gone by now.

There was sparring among brothers today; not just a little bickering, but the type where intervention is required. We made it to the end of another day, though, just like we always do.

You tidied up around the house and set the table for dinner after the emotions settled, a sort of peace offering, perhaps, but a welcome one.

You’re growing up. You are doing well at your school. You still love looking at the sunsets with me. You are looking forward to having your friends visit tomorrow. Twelve years have been a lifetime and the blink of an eye. I hope you feel loved, and I hope I have been good enough.

Happy Birthday, my dear boy.

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.