The Long Winter

On most nights before the boys go to sleep, we have been reading the Little House books for close to a year now. I love the stories of honesty and simplicity, of struggle and triumph, of bravery and tenacity. Here at the farm, we love tapping our maple trees, picking dandelions and Queen Anne’s lace for making jelly, gathering eggs, and harvesting what we have planted in our garden. We love exploring the forest and sitting by the fire when the moon is up with the stars in the sky, and the boys love when their musical daddy sings to them or plays music on pretty much any instrument that he comes across. We also love coming in to our warm house which is bursting with the conveniences of today, and where we don’t have to worry about a bear sneaking through a makeshift curtain to torment us (or worse) in our sleep while we wait for Dan to build a proper door.

We don’t have to go back to some of the hard things. We have come so very far.

Last year at this time, as the cold set in, we were planning for a wedding. Our visions were often blurred through the snowflakes, which seemed to come with more strength and fortitude than in other winters. As the seasons turned, the weather didn’t, until the rain replaced the snow and ice. We reluctantly imagined wedding guests wearing rubber boots and holding onto their hats and skirts during what we had hoped would be a midsummer night’s dream.

And it was, because despite the fierce winter, and the spring that really never came, the sun came out to shine brightly on that beautiful June day.

When I first visited the dispensary, preliminary medical cannabis card in shaking hand, I hadn’t considered that there would be so many options. This is so typical for me: I can’t see the forest for the trees. For so many years now, my focus has been on the addition of autism to the list of conditions treatable with medical cannabis, and the attainment of what we felt would be the key for our son, without understanding that there would be more decisions and adjustments to follow. There always are.

The snow was melting, but the ground was yet frozen.

During the past year, our son’s behaviors have become more manageable. We have still struggled, but there has been significantly less physical aggression and combative behavior, perhaps due to maturity, therapy, karma, or some combination therein. The little boys often tried to provoke him, to try to recreate the chaos that they knew so well. It was what they were used to. This, to me, was surprising and unsettling. He would react in harsh anger, fueling the reaction that the brothers sought.

I worried about letting them out of earshot for too long on the farm property, doing what most little boys want and need to do: run free and explore. What if I was unable to intervene in time, if they fought too hard and I couldn’t get to them?

He doesn’t like the taste of the edibles that I chose from the dispensary; I hadn’t expected that he would. He is, though, cooperating. That, in a sense, is our first victory. The strain that we got in pill form had a hyper-focusing effect, which led to arguing and, ultimately, aggression. Though this felt like something of a defeat, the nighttime strain had promoted peaceful, easy sleep. After a bit of experimenting with a hybrid strain, we have a self-declared calm boy who has had the best consecutive three days that I can remember.

I wasn’t expecting the snow in mid October, especially since I was still thawing from last winter. In some ways, it just seems like one arduous, multi season continuation of challenges. It’s beautiful, some days. And there are breaks from the cold, breaks to fuel the next part of the journey.

I wonder if Laura and Mary expected to move around so much during their times on the prairie. If they had known what was ahead, would they have put themselves into each moment, would they have noticed the layers of sunset and the secret bird nests? Perhaps that was what kept them going.

The littlest boy, in particular, has been relentless the past few days, trying hard to make his brother angry by throwing toys, turning off his video game, or sneaking his food. This hasn’t worked as well with the new sense of calm. For this, we are so grateful.

Already, the pumpkins and chrysanthemums are frozen hard into the window boxes, and I haven’t had the chance to cut back my hydrangeas. I may not get to them, but they are magical in their own way, standing resilient with wind-dried, straw-colored blooms.

The winter will turn in rhythm. Tomorrow’s hard things will be different from those of today. We can’t go back. We may not want to, but remembering will make us know just how far we have come.

I will be returning to the dispensary this week for more counsel (and hopefully a hybrid in pill form for our boy) but, clearly, we are closer.

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“These faces of dust and stone are, the dirt and bone of loss.”

–Ben Howard, “London”

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I share these things not to highlight my family’s personal struggle, but in hope that others can relate to parts of the journey, and that we can reach out in kindness and peace to one another. Please share with others, if you are so inclined.

XO

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.

Circus Freaks and an Animal Parade

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.

I had no idea what to do, so I did nothing.

Still, the days passed, and there was another sunrise, a ball of red-orange casting a spell of yellow softness onto the white snow, but only for a short time.

The hours pass with little fanfare, until dusk, until a strip of the brightest pink opens the clouds, swallows them up, and draws the curtain of darkness onto the night as my eyes close.

I am afraid of what I cannot see.

We were not expecting to be more of what we have already been. We didn’t know, though, that we would become less.

This winter season has seemed endless. One more day of short-stepping my way across the many-times-frozen expanse of the driveway, crunching along the top layer of compacted ice and snow to tend to my chickens, who attempt to venture only a few feet outside the run on most days.

The season of angst, too, has carried on. And that’s how it is.

We are circus freaks or an animal parade, embattled, defeated, yet still called to continue. I guess we’re not done yet.

Our eyes are open, but we can’t see.

The magnolia tree is budding out with the first hope of spring; I noticed it yesterday through the still-frosted living room window. It’s true: this season will yield to the next. The chickens will begin laying again, prolifically, and the baby chicks will arrive at the farm.

We don’t know what you have been through. We don’t know what has broken you. We don’t know how to uncover what’s real.

I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing. I hope, with all that’s inside of me, that you can hear me.

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.

Turtles, Chickens, and the Stuff In Between


I didn’t look back; I couldn’t, for fear of what I would see.  The sound was hollow, soul-shaking, and unforgettable.  It must have broken into a thousand pieces.

The lagoon has always been one of my favorite spots.  I have been to breathtaking European gardens and tropical sandy beaches, but DeKalb’s East Lagoon is where I would choose to spend my days.  It was probably near dusk, and the weather was still and warm.  I don’t remember where we were headed or where we had been, but we were driving alongside the lagoon when we came upon the turtle.

In true tortoise-and-hare fashion, this turtle was indeed keeping a steady pace of not much more than zero miles per hour.  Dan slowed the van and then came to a stop while we waited, waited, and waited some more until our path was clear.  

After what seemed like much more time than even a tortoise should take to cross the finish line, we were finally on our way, safely out of the animal’s path.   Within seconds, though, a car came from the other direction, and that was the end of the turtle.

We can work so hard, with such patience and devotion, hard enough to think that we have nearly made it to the other side.  Then something happens: a trigger of some sort, a reminder of something that used to be, unkind words, or a forgotten birthday.  A thousand pieces, or even more, that need to be put together again.  Sometimes, I’m just weary.

The snow had not yet begun to fall, but the early morning’s mist hinted that the storm was near.  Something came fast from the field to the south; it was darkish gray, maybe, and it rolled under my car so quickly that I could not avoid the impact.  I hoped it was a tin can or maybe a rock, but I feared it may have been a squirrel, a rat, or a field mouse.  I looked back and saw nothing, so I continued home.

The chickens seemed confused by the snow.  Our first snowfall this season happened to accumulate to nine inches, and it took a couple days and some melting before they ventured more than a few feet past the coop.  They were a bit braver with each passing day, and by now little chicken footprints could be seen all around the farm.

The snow began falling with a fury in the afternoon.  By dusk, I knew that the flock would be in the coop for the night.  Aaron, my best chicken helper, was a few steps ahead of me as he bounded through the blanket of snow.

“Six chickens!”  He called back to me with an air of urgency.  The chickens, led by Wendell, our rooster and their guardian, always convene as a flock before roosting for the night.  Now, nearly half the hens were missing, and Wendell was on high alert, clearly wondering, as we were, what had happened.

It’s a message from the school, a call from a concerned parent, an observation, or something I may have overheard that shatters the fragile shell that had taken so much to build.  Here we are, once again, in the place that we wish away.  Maybe it will never really go away.  Maybe it can’t.

I understood going into chicken keeping that chickens are not forever.  There could be sickness, extreme weather, an accident, a preying hawk, or another predator that could take one of my hens.  Even Wendell, I know, is not invincible.  But four?  To lose four chickens at once, during the daytime, was unfathomable.

My tears flowed cold, and the wintry wind burned my cheeks. “We could order more chickens,” offered my sidekick.  We could, but I wanted these chickens, my chickens.

I thought of how carefully we had planned for the chickens, who came to us as tiny two-day-old babies, who we had nurtured and tended with the best that we had.  We brought them ice water and frozen fruit to help them keep cool during the summer’s heat.  We gathered each egg with great pride and wonder.  We put fresh handfuls of shredded pine bark onto the coop floor and tossed lavender and oregano into the nest boxes.  We held our chickens, and we loved them.

I often wonder if love is enough.

When I passed back along the path near where I had been earlier that morning, I noticed the remains of what was probably a squirrel at the edge of the road.  I wondered if this had been the gray flash that I had encountered some ten hours before.

Dan came out with the flashlight, and he and Aaron had not been gone more than a few minutes before I heard the cheer.  The four chickens were cold and afraid, but they were safe.

Sometimes we make it out.  Sometimes, there’s just not enough of something.  And then there’s a whole lot of stuff in between.

There was an extra sweetness about those hens as we carried them, one by one, to the warmth of the coop.  The ten were reunited as a flock, and, in this moment, relief blanketed all God’s creatures.  The hens had been spared.  Their time had not yet come, not yet.

I love going to the lagoon.  My memory of the demise of the turtle is not enough to keep me away from a place so magical and dear.  My brush with the lost chickens makes me love them that much more.  When we stumble and fall as all humans do, as we struggle to our feet we see that the door is left open for another chance, perhaps another trial here on earth.

And for the doors, open, closed, and unexpected, we are grateful.

Going Home


It could have been a driving snowstorm, or maybe the thickest, most dense fog that I had experienced; I don’t remember the precise conditions, but the fear will never leave my memory.  I’m a nervous driver anyway, but this night, travel would have been unsafe even for the seasoned race car driver.  I should have stayed at my friend’s apartment, but I was eager to make it home after my night class.  I was so afraid, once in the thick of it, gripping the wheel as tightly as I could, that I might not make it home.

My own words played incessantly in my head: so many years, so many services and specialists, twenty medications, and no answers.  I wonder how we have landed here, in a place of self doubt, where we feel lower than the last few nuts that the squirrels have abandoned along the exposed tree roots on the frosty ground as the inevitability of the cruel cold looms just ahead.

This time, it was driving rain and, more than that, the emotions screaming from inside my head, that obstructed my vision and made me wish I could just turn around, or that I could just keep driving and everything would come clear.

“I’m not sure psychiatric hospitalization is the answer.”

This was the doctor that eight days before had sent us home on a safety plan because no hospital within three hours had a place for our little boy.

What, exactly, then, is the answer?

I am pretty sure he didn’t know.  I am pretty sure nobody does.  No, hospitalization is not the answer, but it is an all too necessary step along the arduous journey.

It was, on this day, to be the course, though certainly not the answer. He must have known, because the fight left him for a good while, and he walked to the ambulance from the school.

It dawned on me that I should put the finch feeder away for the season.  No finches would be coming, at least not until springtime, when the torrent will have subsided and the birdsong will play vividly through the open window.

The baby crib, for decades a fixture in our home in one form or another, has also been taken down and stored away, for its season is now behind us.

What if we are destined, as beings that walk this earth, to be good at one thing?  What happens, then, when that one thing is done?  What happens to us?  Does our purpose fade?  Can we take what we have been, what we have learned, and offer a new kind of energy to our spent course?

There was a bed this time, at a hospital  not far away and on a unit for children with autism.  He would be transferred soon.

It was all too much for this boy, or he was too much for them.  It was as if the driving rain continued within the walls of this emergency room.  There were four people, all wearing scrubs of the same blue, jumbled together as one mass.  I couldn’t see their heads, or perhaps I did not look at them.  In a flash, through the screams of angst, one of the headless figures pumped the shot into my son’s soft pink flesh.

They left the room with the same fury as when they had entered.  Nobody noticed my tears; maybe nobody noticed that there were any emotions at all.

I tried hard to listen to his stories; his speech was rapid and his tone was convincing.  He spoke of Lego figurines and of how the mother of his classmate was going to take six months leave from her jobs, which included helping people that had wheezing, working as both a doctor and a computer programmer, and managing a company that fixes basements.

My own thoughts, though, interrupted his spoken stream of consciousness and distracted me from honoring him with my full attention.  I couldn’t really hear what he was saying.  I wondered what any of this was even about.

Who will help him in the bathroom?  Will he like what he is offered to eat?  Will someone sit in his chair at the kitchen table while he is gone, or will it serve as a lonely reminder of the demons that continue to invade his childhood?

“I’ll be in the hospital for two weeks…,” he piped matter-of-factly,  as though he was accepting of his fate.  “We can build our castle then, when I get home.”

Yes, we can.  And it will be much better than any video game.

I remembered the donut store from another time.  It had closed at midnight, less than fifteen minutes before the end of this ten hour ordeal, when I had found my way to the storefront with hopes of bringing breakfast for those at home.  The  door was locked, but the lights were on.   There, proclaimed in red and blue neon letters, was a tiny saving grace after a day of sadness and humiliation: “DRIVE-THRU.”

So, there would be donuts after all.  Ethan doesn’t really like donuts anyway, which is good, because he wasn’t going to be home to eat one.

We have seen him a few times now, and he has let us know, through his  no-nonsense descriptions of the rhythm of his days at this new hospital, that he is doing okay.  Today, as we make our way through the season’s first snow on the way to visit, we will be hopeful: hopeful that the new medication may be the one that helps, hopeful that he will be home soon, and hopeful that there will be new paths on the horizon.

No, it’s not the answer, but it helps, if even just a little bit, to guide us home through the storm.

Blessings for a safe and joyous holiday season, at home or wherever your journey leads.