Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lessons From a One Legged Mom

This is my parenting column for the paper this week. Since it's never been posted on the blog, I thought I'd do it today. Not really an essay, but helpful to some I hope.


On an average day I lead a life that is like any other full time working mother of four. I may have one less leg than other moms but my day to day life is surprisingly normal. That is, until I have a bad leg day. It is much like having a bad hair day except that extra hair spray and gel won't do a thing to fix the problem. A trip to my prosthetist's office is the only cure and sometimes he prescribes time on the couch with my leg off, to let my stump rest. Although my good leg days are the norm, I have purposefully set up our life to function in the most streamlined way possible. Some of the tricks I use are things I learned back when our first two babies were born just 12 months apart. To survive the physical demands of two babies, life had to be simplified and organized. Here are some of the tricks I learned back then and still practice today:

1. Forget about circling the parking lot for the closest parking space. Find a spot right next to the cart corral. No hauling children and gear through the parking lot. Directly load them all into a cart and push them up to the store. When shopping is over, you never forget where you've parked and have a handy spot to put the cart once you've unloaded your bags and babies into the car.

2. Don't bother hauling laundry back and forth to bedrooms. Find a space near the washer and dryer to put shelves or a dresser. Clean clothes go directly from the dryer to the drawers. If shelves are low enough, little people can help themselves to a clean shirt or pants then head to the bedroom to get dressed. To carry it a step further, have one main hamper in the bathroom. All dirty clothes end up in the same spot when it's time to do laundry. No more running from room to room to collect them.

3. While we're discussing laundry let's address socks. Buy only white socks. Not only can you save time sorting , all socks can be bleached together and once dried, be thrown into the same big basket. When it's time for a change of socks it takes just a second to find two that match and preschoolers love the game it creates. A few pair of colored socks, for special occasions, can be thrown in the sock basket also since they'll be easy to pair up at first glance. I gave up spending my sacred time sorting socks years ago and have never missed it.

4. Embrace the pile system. When I have days of limited mobility I find letting the kids do all the running around saves me precious steps. In each room make piles that need to be delivered to other parts of the house. (laundry, dishes, newspapers, books, etc) Young children love the challenge of being able to deliver three different items to different parts of the house and getting back to mom before their siblings. Once everything is in its correct room it takes just a few minutes to put it away.

5. Don't be afraid to let children into the kitchen. Preschoolers think sorting silverware and plastic storage containers from the dishwasher is a fun game. We package crackers and pretzels in small zipper bags that make great quick snacks on the run. Even the smallest helpers can break up crackers and put a handful of pretzels in each bag.

6. One last tip for parents of several small children: Don't beat yourself up that you don't have time to write in their baby books on a regular basis. Meeting everyone else's needs and still getting a shower for yourself is a goal in itself. The easy way to keep track of baby milestones is to hang a calendar with large squares near the changing table. Hang a pen on a string next to it. As special moments happen throughout the day, jot them down. Funny phrases said, first steps taken, new creamed veggie he somehow loves, all can be noted in their appropriate squares. I started this practice accidentally and am amazed how much information I have from that first year we had two under the age of two in the household. I had planned to transfer all of that information to a real baby book some day but now, looking back, I love seeing how our children's lives unfolded, day by day.

Being organized can help maintain peace in an otherwise chaotic situation. Whether your reasons center around raising babies or handling a temporary illness, having coping skills can keep you sane. And letting little people jump in and help out not only softens your work load makes them feel they are contributing in a positive way to the family. Time is a sacred commodity and finding ways to spend more of it cuddling and playing, not cleaning and sorting is a great goal, for one legged moms and their two legged counterparts.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

True Love

When most people think of Valentines Day they think of chocolates and roses and flowery Hallmark cards. They think of too many expectations and too many heartbroken tears and that lonely feeling of being alone on the couch when everyone else in the world seems to be snuggled with a honey.

But when you really boil it down, when you really tear apart what this day should be about, the word that pops to the surface is love.

And love can be about cards and flowers and candy. It can be about the zing you feel in your stomach when love is brand new and the peace you feel in your heart when it's old and comfortable.

But it's also about life. Everyday life.

This Valentines Day I was with my honey. We had a long stretch of time together, half of it alone. But we didn't see the inside of any restaurant and there are no lingering flowers in a vase on my kitchen table. There is just this one picture and a boat load of memories from a night I'll never forget.

Because this Valentines Day I had a long ride in our minivan, alone with just my honey and our sixteen year old boy, our oldest son. He was on his way to catch a plane to Brazil and could not have been more excited. I was preparing to watch a huge part of my heart walk onto that plane and fly across an ocean with a couple hundred strangers.

We arrived, had our usual difficulties navigating JFK, but he made it to his flight, strolled confidently up to the ticket agent, showed his passport and left my sight.

His dad and I had a long drive home, in the middle of the night when the roads were empty because everyone was home in bed after celebrating their own ways with their own honeys. Celebrating this day that is all about love.

All about having enough love for this child you adore, to let him walk down an airplane ramp and into a whole other culture with all its dangerous implications. Enough love to know that it is best for him and ultimately best for you, as the process of letting him grow up continues.

I know he knows he's loved. My Valentines Day was a success.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ribbons in the Trash

An envelope came in the mail last week. It was a big manila square, full of treasures from the past. My oldest sister was cleaning out her attic and found some things that were mine.

That's what happens when your mom dies as you are just starting adulthood, and your dad remarries and moves on. All that stuff that other people store in their parent's attics doesn't exist. For a short time after her death we gathered together, and cleaned things out, and gave things away, and packed things in boxes or plastic tubs. And life went on.

There were times, through the years, that I would think to myself, "I wonder where my baby book is...." or "I wonder where that yearbook is..." I wanted so badly to rest in the thought that probably, in all likelihood, they were 'in mom and dad's attic'. But that place didn't exist anymore. If I don't have it in my possession right now, it's probably gone forever.

So this envelope, filled with treasures from the past, was a nice surprise on a dark winter day. It was stuffed with aged, tattered certificates with my name on them. Vacation Bible School attendance awards. Library service awards. Recognition of junior high club participation certificates. It was a walk down my memory lane of the late seventies, early eighties.

But the bulk of the envelope was filled with ribbons. Most of my growing up years I lived in the country, on a piece of property that some might call a farm. Well, only city people would call it a farm. As my mom always said, "we had a little bit of everything but not much of anything." One cow, two horses, a few pigs, a coop full of chickens and an occasional duck herd that always ended up as dinner for the neighborhood dogs.

And with our rural life came 4-H. We were in a group that met once a month, way in the back woods of Missouri, in a church that had to have been over a hundred years old. Every year we signed up for different classes. We learned how to make butter cream frosting and decorate a cake with flowers and smushed roses. We learned basic sewing and took turns running our neatly pinned seams through mom's old machine. We had cooking classes, where we learned the trick to measuring shortening without making a huge mess. (it was the seventies, lots of recipes called for shortening).

Every year we also did some kind of animal project. My brothers raised a few pigs and more than a few goats. We tried raising a few ducks but the neighborhood dogs won that battle. We even tried rabbits one year, until dad broke it to us that some people also call furry bunnies 'dinner'.

And every year we worked on projects, fed and raised small farm animals, and perfected our buttercream flowers for one purpose. To go to the fair.

It was the highlight of the year and by far the best part of the summer. A stroll through the fairgrounds would take you past the pens where my brothers camped out with their goats, through buildings where my sisters and I displayed floral jumpers we'd sewn all by ourselves, and through exhibit halls where our garden vegetables were sitting side by side with similar looking produce from other 4-H clubs.

It was sweet to earn a blue ribbon and to earn a purple, which meant you were the best in the county and would move on the state fair, was a dream. To make the deal even more sweet, the county paid us a token dollar amount for each ribbon earned. For most of us it was the only way we could earn money and those few dollars and coins were sacred.

So when the ribbons arrived in the mail this week, a flood of memories came with them. Memories of childhood, and learning life skills and sharing experiences with my siblings.

But I really have no use for an envelope full of ribbons. What good does it do to pack them in a plastic tub that sits in my furnace room year after year?

So I did something I have done for years with my kids school artwork. I took a picture, to save the memory, and gave the actual ribbons a new home in our kitchen trash can. A garbage can full of ribbons that will make their way to the end of the driveway on trash day.

The ribbons might be gone. But just looking at this picture is enough to bring back the priceless childhood feelings of being a part of something much bigger than myself.

Bittersweet Weekend

It was a bittersweet weekend. The chain of events started on Super Bowl Sunday, with an email that one of my sweetest friends in NY had lost her sixteen year old son. He died in his sleep after a long, courageous battle with muscular dystrophy.

Over the course of the week my friend was constantly on my mind. Hubby and I went to his memorial service on Saturday. We drove down winding country roads, soaking up the first truly sunny day in weeks. The car stopped in front of this amazing little church that was filled with a large family and even larger circle of friends, a sanctuary full of people who loved Cooper and wanted to celebrate his beautiful life.

On Wednesday I wrote a note to my friend, in the form of an essay. She then asked me to read it at his service. I still stumble with grief issues myself, and having a close friend experience the kind of loss that makes me lose sleep at night, I was not sure I could do it. So my hero stepped up.

Hubby walked to the front of that church and read Cooper's essay for me, as I stood right next to him, sobbing quietly. He only had to stop once, to collect his emotions.

Afterward there were more tears, more hugs, and a long car ride home, feeling that unique kind of fatigue that comes with grief.

We pulled into the driveway of our own home, full of healthy, breathing children, with bright futures ahead of them (I pray...) and found them all being cared for by my in-laws, who were in town from NH. The evening started with a big hot meal, prepared by Grammy, and ended with card games we played until way past bedtime.

And Jeff and I laid in bed, remembering the day, and counting our blessings. No family should have to go through what Cooper's family did. And no family should have to feel the depth of that grief. But some families do. Regular families like yours and mine and my friend who lives on the back roads of New York.

Cooper's Essay follows. Read it and be reminded that healthy children with bright futures are a gift. Never to be taken for granted.

After This Day

I did not know Cooper. I don't know Cooper's dad and only met his sister with the bright smile once. But I know Cooper's mom. She is someone who is on my most treasured friends list. I don't get to see her often but the times I spend with her I cherish. And there was never a time I was around this friend that she didn't talk about her son.

She made it seem like having a child with a disability was a regular life experience. Like this is just what life is about. Taking what is handed to you and not just tolerating it or mulling through it, but delighting in it.

Delighting in a son who would not physically develop in the same way her classroom full of five year olds did. Treasuring the magical and unique things about her boy, the same way every mother does. And loving him with the fierceness of a mother's heart.

Because beyond his limitations and his growing disabilities, down deep, that is who Cooper was. He was Mary Beth's son. He was Tim's son. And he was Kali's little brother.

This day will be hard for the people who loved him. Especially hard for the three people who knew him best. Because after this day life moves on. Life without Cooper moves on.

After this day everyone goes home and jumps into their daily routines. They carry a love for these friends who lost a son, and a deep desire to take away their pain, but the reality is, no one has a magic wand with that kind of power.

So the sun will keep rising and coffee will be poured into cups that sit in the cup holder of the long commute to work. The friends of Coopers who huddled around his heart broken family will be forced to check back into life. And life will go on.

But after this day things will not be the same. They will never be the same. Cooper is gone and life will go on. But having loved him and then having lost him, his family will not ever be the same.

It's not a bad thing. His stamp on their lives and their hearts will never be erased. His smile will never leave their memory. Seeing his favorite food on the grocery store shelves and not putting it in the cart will be excruciating. Seeing his favorite teams as they come on TV or make newspaper headlines, will bring tears, probably even years from now. Taking a family picture and only centering three people for the shot will be heart stabbing painful.

But after this day they will all find the routine that is life without their son, life as an only child. It will take a long time and it will be painful, but a new pattern will have to find its way in.

A house will slowly rise on the foundation that was poured last fall. Cooper's room, today only a pencil lines on blueprint paper, will never know his presence. But his presence will be there. His mom will carry him in her heart. His dad will carry him also. Kali will come and go and no matter how far away her adventures take her, her brother will go with her.

Because After This Day, the day we all gathered to celebrate this special life that ended too soon, Cooper will not be gone. The events of this day, the loving words said, the precious pictures posted, the warm hugs traded back and forth, will forever be etched in the hearts of the three people who loved Cooper the most. They will carry the vivid memory of this day with them, through decades of life yet to be lived, and it will still be just as vivid in their brain on their own last days on the planet.

Because Cooper was a gift. A gift that struggled more than any child should have to struggle. But loved as much as any child can be loved. His bright smile and his loving spirit will live on.

Even After This Day.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

It's a Very Long Pole.

You would think I'd see it coming. Marry a guy who comes from a family of five boys, you are bound to give birth to a few boys yourself. Add in the fact that four of those boys took turns setting records in high school track and field and one went to college on a track scholarship and you think I'd know where things would lead.

Our oldest boy has always loved to run. As a seven year old he and dad ran a mile together every day. His body has always been lean and wiry, like a runner. But I didn't want to assume anything so we let the child take his own path.

And sure enough, when we moved to NY one of his first requests was to join the school track team. He was the little guy back then. The scrawny eighth grader who ran junior, junior varsity for the high school team. Quickly he made his way up to regular junior varsity, and suddenly Varsity. And he started to grow muscles and train harder.

Last spring he introduced me to steeplechase, the race they run while jumping over hurdles placed in front of water pits. I'd never seen that race run in person and it was surreal to have one of the runners be my boy.

Then winter track rolled around this fall and he started talking about hurdles and pole vaulting. His all time favorite run is through the woods, but since cross country is not a year round sport he tolerates winter and spring track to stay in shape and have an excuse to run some more. He's literally grown four inches in the past six months so he can no longer be called a small kid. He is still lean but has added muscle to arms, legs and shoulders and they open up new opportunities for him.

Opportunities to do things like run hurdles and pole vault. I saw my first winter track meet a few weeks ago. Hundreds of kids and parents packed into a not really big enough gym, all trying to stay out of each other's way. I saw my now grown up boy run a two mile race. (too many laps to count) Then he did hurdles. (very hard to get pictures of, it goes by so quickly and parents are shoulder to shoulder at the sidelines) Then he pole vaulted. My first born son ran with a ridiculously long pole and threw his body over that high bar. It was just hard to believe.

It was comforting to know he's still the boy I know so well. The next day I found this picture online. My son is the one on the sled. His track team mate is the one on the bottom. This is what they do on days there are no practices. He's still just a boy down deep. Just like his dad and the four uncles he is growing up to resemble.