Monday, November 16, 2009

A Song For Mom

I’ve written about my mom’s song before. But it is something I never expected to last through the years. Just a few months after her death I was driving down the highway, well after dark, and a song came on. It was a popular song at the time, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”, from the soundtrack of the movie The Bodyguard. I had heard it many times before. But this time it meant so much more to me.

The reason I was in the car, driving late at night had everything to do with my mom’s death and how it turned my world upside down. With his wife of thirty years suddenly gone, my dad had to figure out a new life. Jeff and I lived just thirty miles away so I spent many nights and evenings in my parents’ house, helping dad sort it all out. Sometimes I took our two babies with me and some nights Jeff kept them at home so I could have some time alone to sort things out.

On this specific night I had stayed pretty late. It was hard to tear myself away from that house, the place where most of my childhood memories lived and the place where I found refuge from the ups and downs of finding my way in the bigger world after high school. It was hard to go through that big front door and not have a loving voice call out, “My Ju - deeee!” from some distant room. But it was twice as hard to exit out that front door, never having received that warm enveloping hug and bright gracious smile.

On the drive home I couldn’t help but think about her. How I never got to say goodbye. How I never knew if she realized we were there, after she collapsed on the country dancing floor from a stroke and was rushed to the local hospital. We held her hand and said encouraging words as our tears dripped onto her hospital bed sheets, but we never knew if she was aware of our presence or heard our desperate pleas.

At first I didn’t think much about Whitney’s song. Then the second verse came on. My ears caught her every word. “I hope life treats you kind. And I hope you have all you've dreamed of. And I wish to you, joy and happiness. But above all this, I wish you love…..I will always love you.”

The lyrics pierced my heart. It was exactly what my mom would have said, had she been given the chance. Her last goodbyes would have been most of those words, if not all of them. I cried the rest of the way home. Sobbing, choking, ugly sobs that make you thankful you are alone in a dark car. I knew this song was a message from my mom. Her way of telling me she would never really be gone.

The song was popular for a while then it faded from the radio waves. I rarely heard it. But when I did, it was at the perfect moment. Years later, looking through pictures of my growing children with my mother-in-law and wishing I could share them with my own mom, and suddenly that song would come on the radio. My only daughter’s thirteenth birthday, driving home from a movie she and I shared without all the boys in our family, thinking of how my mom would have adored this child who shared her name, and that song came on the radio. In the seven minute drive home from the movie theater, that song came on. I couldn’t help but believe it was my mom, reassuring me that she was there, seeing how great my life was turning out.

This week I am packing for a rare trip back to my home state. My four siblings and I have only all been together once, with all our spouses and kids, since my mom died fifteen years ago. We decided it was now or never, so we are driving 1300 miles in two days to get there. This weekend was the first time I let the thoughts of possible sadness creep into my trip planning. So far it has all been about gathering appropriate clothes and books and electronics to keep everyone busy on the long ride. But over the weekend I started to realize I may have some tears when we get to Missouri. We will visit the cemetery where the reality of her absence always hits me hard. We will be in so many places around town that are ripe with memories of her and the things she loved. By last night I was just a bit melancholy.

In a quiet moment after dinner, when all the kids had scattered to other parts of the house, I walked into the kitchen to see if there were any chocolate chip cookies left. The radio in the corner of the kitchen was on, but very faint. I could barely hear it, but it was loud enough to know what song was playing.

Her song. That song that lets me know she still loves me, always will love me. I let myself stand in the kitchen alone, leaning against the counter, soaking in that song and all its words mean to me. I thought about how much life had changed since she left the planet. How differently it had turned out than if she had stayed. How I have four really great kids, who she would have loved and adored, and how much they missed out by not knowing her. I let the tears flow and made no apologies.

Then it was over and I was ready to move on. On to packing DVDs and board games and favorite pillows. I know it will be sad, at moments, when we get to Missouri, this place that is saturated with memories of my mom. But I also know she would have loved the whole idea of this trip. She would love that we are all making such an effort, to come from far away states, to gather together and enjoy each other’s company. It was exactly what she would have wanted. And it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I hear that song, her song, at some point along the way.

On a radio station in Illinois, or Ohio, or Indiana, it will come on and I will know. I will know that she will always love me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Van Full of Teens

In just one week my family of six will be pulling out of the driveway in a rented minivan and heading west. For two and a half full days we will drive across the country, hoping to land at my family reunion in Missouri. We have taken cross country trips before. Most of them didn’t end at vacation spots. Most of them ended with finding a new life in a new state. When we moved from Washington D.C. to Utah we took the roundabout way to get there, circling down through the gulf coast states. So we are not unfamiliar with long car trips.

There is one small fact, however, that is worth pointing out. On exactly none of those trips were there any children whose ages had the word ‘teen’ in it. I feel that we might be treading on new ground here. We have not had a big family trip in several years and this time around three out of the four non-adults in the car will be teenagers. I may be delusional or way too optimistic, but no, so far I am not scared.

Don’t laugh, but just the other day I realized I am actually excited about our upcoming trip. I started a small pile in the corner of the dining room, of supplies we might be needing next week, and I got that old familiar countdown feeling. A big change is on the horizon. Everyday life as we know it will be turned upside down for just about ten days. And I think I am not scared, even with the detail of a car full of teens, because down deep I think this is something our family is good at.

With all of the moves from one state to another, and all the trips to out of the way places, we have logged a lot of travel hours together. We’ve never been to Disney or taken a cruise. But we’ve spent days in the middle of the Navaho Nation as Jeff attended work related meetings there. The next day we stood on the Four Corners marker and crawled through cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. We always found adventure along the way and it taught us a lot about who we are as a family.

There is something magical about packing a vehicle full of only the essentials, slamming the doors shut, and driving away to a new place. A place where friends and peer pressure lose their power. A place where new sights, sounds, smells and flavors are around every corner. A place where most of the daily life rules no longer apply. No chores to fulfill, no beds to make, no rooms to clean. Just free living, dependent on only what fits in that duffle bag with your name printed on the side.

On every cross country trip we’ve taken it’s been a joy to leave behind the distractions that pull us apart. Suddenly our familiar world is confined to a metal shell on four wheels. It’s us against the world. In each of our moves we consistently settled into a unique pattern, where the kids could be friends with each other and it was okay. Despite age differences they learned to find a way to enjoy their siblings. There wasn’t much choice, it was a matter of self preservation. Either make friends with your little brother or die of boredom. It seemed to be a no brainer.

And I suspect our children will fall back into that mode a week from now. Even though they are growing up, and their interests are growing apart, I have a good feeling they will find that old place, where we are all in it for fun and the sibling rivalry and teasing can be laid aside for a while. I am packing several fresh decks of cards and plan to teach them the classics while they are my captive audience. Beyond Go Fish, we will play Spades, Spoons and any other game I can find in the card game library book I checked out today.

Since my oldest two learned the most about reading a map and navigation by being in the front passenger seat as we moved from Utah to New York, maybe it’s time now for the younger two to get their turn. There is nothing more thrilling for a child than having dad hand you the map and saying, “You are in charge of telling me which road to take and which exit to look for.”

This time around we own a few ipods. I have purchased headphone splitters and am looking forward to my children sharing their music. In our regular chaotic life everyone has their own style of music and their own specialized playlists. As the hours drag on and card games are not enough to relieve the boredom any longer, I plan to hand out the brand new splitters and have a music exchange. They might actually discover their playlists have overlapping songs.

So now I’m off to make more lists, create more piles of supplies and harbor more happy thoughts. I suppose a part of me is hoping if I dream it, it will come true. Maybe you should ask me, two weeks from now, how it all went, if the kids rose to my expectations and enjoyed each other, for the most part, on our long haul across the country. I hope I can answer with a rousing, “YES!”

But just in case it doesn’t all go as planned, if I’m sporting a scowl or any physical scars, you’re welcome to keep your questions to yourself.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Full Time Life

We had a big transformation in our household last week. I’m not sure the kids noticed it, but I felt it intensely. After over a year of being a full time employee I let go of the job I truly loved to be dropped down to the part time roster. I was fortunate that it was my choice. I am aware that unemployment rates are rising and a full time job in a great environment is a gold mine. Several friends immediately asked, ‘your choice?’ when I shared the news of my drop in hours. I understand their confusion. The decision was not made in haste.

I gave up the gold mine for something much more valuable.

Since the day I gave birth to my oldest child I have been at home. Several times through the years I held part time jobs, working a few hours at nights and on weekends, to help make ends meet. It gave me some great social time outside the house and gave my husband a chance to be a full charge dad when I was gone. But I have never worked full time, never been away from our house when kids were still in it.

I know many moms who work full time. I have a much deeper appreciation for what they are pulling off, now that I have spent a year juggling those balls. I can’t even comprehend how the single moms do it. It’s a feat that should have some reward, some recognition, some trophy that is presented after a big banquet.

The catalyst for my decision was a health struggle. For a few weeks in October I had issues with my leg. We were at the end of a long process to recast my leg, to make one that fit me better, and along the way I had several days where the only remedy was sitting on the couch, with my leg off. I worried about using up sick days, knowing the flu season was just around the corner. I worried about not pulling my weight at work, making co-workers cover for me time after time.

During a conference with my bosses, where we discussed how I could make up lost work time once my leg was better, it was suggested I think about taking a part time position that had just come open. I resisted. I loved my job. The people I worked with, the interaction with great patrons, and the helpful paycheck that landed in my account each month. But then more time on the couch opened my eyes.

For those few days that I was stranded on the couch I saw all four of my kids. A lot. As they passed back and forth, going about their busy daily lives, they stopped and chatted with me. We laughed together. Sam and I read more picture books together than we’d read all month. Isaac helped me as I hobbled around the kitchen on crutches and we turned out some pretty decent dinners. Dinners that found six people gathered around a table, sharing the events of their days and lingering long after plates were cleaned.

On one of my days of confinement I reviewed our family finances. The desperate financial situation that drove me to work full time had eased some. Some juggling of the bills and some changes in hubby’s income made it just about possible to live on just his paycheck. It dawned on me that we technically could live on a paycheck and a half. The idea began to grow.

It is now five weeks later and the process is complete. Someone else now holds my old job and I am finally home more than I am at work. I walked around last week, my first week back home, with a gratitude so deep it made me emotional. All of the things that were so ordinary in my old stay at home days have become downright magical.

I hum as I switch the laundry in the middle of the day, because I am so deeply aware that I am not switching laundry late at night or on a sacred weekend. I dig through cookbooks and find new things to make for dinner, aware that my children are no longer living on canned ravioli. Spending an hour in the kitchen, cleaning up, chopping vegetables, popping a batch of brownies in the oven, and creating yet another dinner is now a joy, not a chore.

Each day, each moment of each day, is now sacred. No matter what I’m doing I make a conscious effort to stop, turn, and face my children, as they trickle home from school and are ripe to tell me about their days. Each hug from my little guy, each high five from my biggest boy, fills me with joy and gratitude.

Because I am here to see it, here to do it, here to experience it. No longer feeling pulled in too many directions. No longer losing sleep at night, tight with worry about limited sick days and how to dole them out. The imminent future, the one where my oldest two children are off on their own, out making their own lives, is so close. My desire is to be here, memorizing every ordinary, common, challenging moment that presents itself while I still have them close.

I picked up my new leg last week. A pretty fitting event to occur, a new leg on the first week of my new life. I gave up the bigger paycheck. I gave up the gold mine. But I bought back time. A new leg, a new chance to know my kids better, an opportunity to be the mom and wife I want to be.

I feel rich indeed.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Digging for Money

As we were finishing up running errands it had grown dark. We were headed to a grocery store where you need a quarter to 'buy' a cart and I wasn't sure I had any change.

I handed my purse back to Sam and asked him to rummage through it, in the dark, and see if he could find a quarter for me.

After a few minutes of quiet, suddenly from the back seat I heard an announcement.

"Houston, we HAVE a quarter!"

It's always fun to run errands with Sam.

Amazing Sunsets

Sam and I were riding home from my leg appointment the other day and the sun was setting on the horizon. We drove up a large hill and at its peak we had a fabulous view of the sun setting over the mountain.

"Sam, look at that amazing sunset!" I said, "What a beautiful time of day!"

There was no comment for about thirty seconds, then the voice from the back seat piped up and said, "I see it, mom."

Another minute passed before he added, "Just so ya know, mom, I didn't answer you right away because I was taking a drink of my chocolate milk....I didn't want you to think I was speechless. 'Cause I wasn't speechless. I was just drinkin' my milk."

I am now living with a nine year old who is too cool to think any sunset could make him speechless.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Video Game Judgement

It’s easy to be judgmental when you’ve cranked out a couple of kids and feel like you really have the parenting thing figured out. It’s easy to be smug, confident enough to believe your sweet little toddlers will never be like the unpredictable tweens and teens you see who belong to your older friends. I know. I used to be that mom. When my oldest was starting school I was confident about the things we would allow and the things we’d never see happen in our home.

Then my kids grew older.

One such theme was video games. We did the Barney computer games, but by golly I was pretty sure my kids would never, and I mean never, play those video games that hooked up to the TV. I was okay with my boys playing with guns. Someone once told me that even if you ban toy guns from your house a child of the male variety will still chew his toast into the shape of a weapon and shoot his brother at the breakfast table. That insight turned out to be very true. And although my boys owned toy guns, because we didn’t make a huge deal of it, they really didn’t play with them that much. But I was pretty sure I would draw the line when it came to video games.

As life unfolded, and my boys’ toy guns fell to the bottom of the toy chest, something unexpected happened. My brother, who lived in the next town over, upgraded his video gaming system and offered his old one to us. My husband happily accepted the gift and hauled it home with a big smile

That night, after children were in bed, we discussed the implications of this new item that sat ominously on the kitchen table. I expressed my concerns, he expressed his. Because I’ve never been a boy at any point in my life, when it comes to decisions for our sons, I find I often need to listen closely to the expert in our house, the person who was a boy and has been male for more than a couple of decades. And this male that I married (and tend to trust) said he was not concerned about this new step. He assured me he would supervise the games thoroughly and we would never become the family that let the boys play for hours on a video game when there was a perfectly good day outside that could be explored. So we hooked it up and suddenly we were the people I used to judge. Lesson learned.

And I have to say, now that we are a decade past that momentous decision, I think my kids have done okay. Even with the video game influence. They started with race car games and sports games. One of my sons devoured the flight simulator game and mastered it with great pride. We have upgraded systems a few times and we’ve tried out a variety of games. Sometimes they play against each other but most of the time they play on teams, which means they are united in shooting the aliens, not each other. Brotherly love and bonding and all that.

As they have gotten older, their skills have improved and now they enjoy taking on dad. It’s just one of the many ways they hang out with their male parent. Sometimes they race down ski slopes, sometimes they toss the football to each other, sometimes they hike in the woods together. And sometimes they pull out a video game and face new challenges together. It hasn’t turned them into aggressive or violent kids. It’s just added another skill to the many others we’ve fostered.

And I have to say I’m really enjoying the way we are currently using our video gaming system. Some call it Guitar Hero, some call it Rock Band, but either way it involves each boy drumming, singing, or playing guitar. And it’s not just the hand eye coordination I enjoy about the game. It’s the songs.

Because suddenly all four of my children are walking around the house singing songs that are very familiar to me. “ I’d like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’s garden, in the shade”. “Lucy in the sky with diamonds”. These are tunes I’ve sung along to for years on the oldies stations and suddenly they are back in style. And my kids know the actual words, not just the ones we made up when we sang along with the cassette player so many years ago.

So it seems like my judgments and ideals from a dozen years ago maybe needed some tweaking. I know many families who choose not to allow video games in their homes. It’s a choice we all get to make for ourselves. But in our house it became much like the toy gun issue. When offered in moderation it was just another step on the ladder rung of childhood.

Speaking of guns, suddenly I find we are back to that phase. With the arrival of sophisticated Nerf guns, my bigger boys are now once again interested in playing hunt and seek. Neon orange foam darts litter my house and end up in my dustpan on a regular basis. It surprises me that even the girls enjoy a good game of chase when you get to shoot your opponent with soft darts. Who knew?

Certainly not me, the mom who still doesn’t have it all figured out.