Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Year We Survived

The day before school started, he walked into her classroom and shook her hand for the first time. Two weeks before, he had taken a bad skateboard fall and ended up in the hospital with a concussion and a broken wrist. He had a fresh cast on his arm the day he signed the enrollment form to start Wilmot Elementary.
One week before, he had driven across the country with his mom and two brothers, making their way from their old home in New York to their new one in Colorado. Life seemed upside down and fractured, since their house on the East coast hadn’t sold and their family was forced to move in shifts. He was a bundle of nerves and anticipation as he crossed into her fifth grade classroom for the first time. Her mega watt smile and friendly disposition put him at ease.
He had no real home, on the day school started. The temporary lease on a tiny condo across the street from school still had fresh ink, and Colorado life was on hold until the New York life could be wrapped up. The teacher knew of his details and kept a close eye on him the first few days, and weeks, as a favor to his mama, a woman she’d only met once.
The teacher’s own mama heart scooped up this nomad child and made him feel welcome. More than half of his classmates had shared classrooms since kindergarten but he wouldn’t know that until much later. The climate she encouraged was one of inclusion and looking out for each other.
The boy’s mama moved back to New York and left her boy with the cast to live with his daddy and high school brother. His oldest brother had been dropped off at college just days before school started. Another bit of fracture to add to a fifth grader’s list.
Through September and October he struggled in the temporary furniture-bare condo home, missing his mama, way back in New York. He snuck into his tiny bedroom closet and called her on his cell phone, asking her every day when she’d be coming back to be with them. When he’d tell her he often cried himself to sleep it broke her heart. Trying to find ways to comfort him long distance, she’d send emails to his teacher, asking her to give him a proxy hug and make sure he was okay. The mama grew to trust that the teacher was doing exactly that.
As weeks went by the boy got outside a bit. He visited bike parks with his dad and rode mountain trails with his big brother. Even through all the feelings of loss…lifetime friends he’d left behind, the family pets who were still back East, and the comforting sense of having both parents in the same house…he started to fall in love with Colorado.
The names of new friends started to cross his lips. As he’d chatter about Windham, and Luke, on his nightly calls to his mom, she started to relax a tiny bit. Making friends is one of the first steps to feeling at home.
By the end of October his mama finally (finally!) drove that two thousand mile road again, this time bringing a special cat and dog with her. Life became a bit more crowded, as another person and two animals moved into the tiny space, but the boy relaxed a bit, finally having, at least, both of his parents at the dinner table each night.
The routine of school continued. Books read. Reports written. Homework done, then signed. His mama spent her days trying to keep the long distance house in order, while making their temporary quarters as homey as possible. She saw the notes that came home in the backpack, about helping with this school project or that one, but the day to day survival took up most of her time. No one at the school, and most importantly, the teacher herself, never judged, and only encouraged. The mother was deeply grateful.
The semester changed. A new year brought new changes. A move to a more permanent house and finally all of the boys belongings showed up from far away. By the end of February his sacred Legos were once again scattered across his bedroom floor and his old familiar favorite clothes were being pulled out of boxes. Homework continued, school activities continued, and the boy started to feel more settled. Loved by a large family at home, taught and nurtured by a big hearted teacher at school.
Every time his mom stopped by the school office, to sign him out for visits to the dentist, she was met with smiles. You see, the fifth grade classroom that had been the boy’s sanctuary for the unsettled months he’d lived through, wasn’t the only place in that building where love and laughter flowed freely. The boy’s mom began to look forward to every trip through those school doors, as she knew her spirit would be uplifted by the beautiful souls who sat behind the front office desks. This place called Wilmot had a knack for attracting the best of the best.
Spring brought many school events that everyone else seemed to be familiar with. The boy’s mom would drill her boy for information he’d learned at school, and scour his Friday folder for explanations of the next big festival or school dance. Being new in a school district means having to try twice as hard to just figure out what everyone else already knows.
Many times the boy’s mom would call on his teacher, through a quick email, asking for more details and clarification. Every email was met with patient explanation.
Spring brought two big events for the boy. One cold sunny afternoon his beloved old poodle got to come visit his classroom. After promptly leaving a ‘deposit’ in front of the school (she was a nervous girl, after all), she quietly walked through the brightly colored hallways and promptly took her place in front of his class. Cell phone pictures were snapped left and right as dozens of hands patted her curly head. The boy, who had grown to feel very at home in his fifth grade classroom, was thrilled to be sharing his life’s best friend with the people he saw almost every week day.
A few weeks later the school talent show was announced. The boy was immediately ready to share his talent of song, even though the talent bucket wasn’t a deep one. His mother was a bit worried, then a lot worried, when he announced he’d also be wearing a full body morph suit for his performance.
More emails to the teacher, who promised she’d help in any way she could. These desperate emails had a different tone than the ones from Fall, when it was all about keeping the boy comforted until a mother figure could show up. These emails were more about wondering where the line was in protecting your child from laughing peers versus letting him find his own way. And although the teacher’s own child was just a toddler, she had lots of older kid experience, and successfully assured the mother that all would be fine.
And, amazingly, it was.
The teacher’s mother skills were once again brought to the classroom when the boy’s fluffy old dog suddenly died one weekend. A week after a good check up at the vet she heaved her last breath, with the boy holding her head in his arms. It was another devastating blow to the boy, one that once again needed home and school support.  The mother didn’t hesitate to email the teacher. She kept her mommy eye on the boy, as she taught math and science, and assured the boy’s mom that he was holding his own at school.
Then one day, not even a week after his lifetime best friend died, the boy was just too sad to go to school. The grief was too big, the pain grasping too tightly on his heart. The mom made one of those hard decisions and kept him home, emailing the teacher about the ‘real’ reason for her son’s absence. Instead of judgment or  criticism, the teacher emailed back, saying she completely understood, and at the end of her words she included, "Please don't ever apologize for parenting your son. We will soon be a distant memory for him; he can make up school work. He can't make up mom and family time, especially if that was what he was needing. Thank you for loving your son."
The mother was deeply touched and grateful.
And then the end of the school year arrived. The teacher announced she’d be moving from the fifth grade classroom to the second grade classroom. Either way, the boy would be moving on to middle school and rarely be exposed to her stabilizing force anymore. She’d move on. He’d move on. Both to find new adventures and new challenges.

The night of the fifth grade graduation the mom and the teacher both had tears flowing down their cheeks as the slide show flashed pictures of smiling babies who had turned into mature young students. The mom’s tears continued as the lights were turned back on, as she tried to contain all the gratitude and love that had slowly accumulated for the teacher, after nine long months of transition and neediness, laughs and smiles.

But that’s the problem with teachers. The really good ones just do what they do, day after day, caring and encouraging and loving, and never ask for praise. And the moms and dads who really need them to branch out beyond teacher duties feel bad asking for anything more. But really good teachers never flinch at such requests. They never hesitate, saying, “Of course!” sometimes even before the request is fully voiced.

Because they are people first. They are moms and dads first. They bring to the classroom their big personalities and their optimistic views of life and they pour them into our children. Fueled by an occasional mention at a graduation ceremony or a teacher appreciation day, they plug forward.

As this school year draws to a close, this year that was the single hardest year of my son’s life, I am more grateful than I can adequately express. For a teacher who recognized my son’s need, then recognized mine, and did everything in her power to help us both. She will always be one of the shining stars when I think of my son’s childhood.
The teacher who pulled us both through.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Deep Loss

Grief is hard. I was aware of this fact long before today. It first hit me, in a small wave, when my grandfather died. I was in middle school and it bothered me that the whole world kept going about its business as we rode by in the Lincoln Town Car, on our way to put my loving, fun grandpa in the ground.
Then I felt it in a life changing way when my mom died. I was in my mid twenties, with two very little children. She was healthy one day and gone the next. I never knew what true grief was until that second day.

It’s a blessing and a curse that my own children have not known much of this thing called grief. We lost a hamster or two back when they were in elementary school. There was a lot of crying, many nights of having trouble getting to sleep because they missed him. But back then they had no idea what real sadness meant. Today, they know.
On Friday our curly haired family dog got sick and was gone within 24 hours. She’d just been to the vet on Monday, our first visit in this new state. It was a visit to just get her in the system. She hadn’t been sick. We talked about her minor ailments - a fatty tumor that was growing on her shoulder that our NY vet had found to be benign, and some patches of skin where she’d lost her hair, probably from the extremely dry Colorado climate.

Our new vet, Dr. Amy, lovingly sat on the floor next to her for the examination. She gave her treats in between her yearly shots, and made her feel like the queen my kids believe her to be.
Then Dr. Amy got real. She explained to me that Kylie was in great shape…for a dog her age. But the reality was, she was at the top of the charts when it came to longevity for her breed. I had noticed that chart on the wall when we first came into the room. It was hard not to notice that Kylies age put her in the ‘extremely geriatric’ category.

Of course we knew she was old. But loving a dog makes you wear blinders sometimes. Most of us assumed we’d get a few more years, maybe even five, if we kept feeding her the right foods and kept her active. My oldest son even admitted that he’d signed her up for the ‘Never Going to Die’ club. He’d also signed up his 84 year old grandpa while he was at it.
Dr. Amy lovingly gave me the facts. Even being in good shape, a poodle just doesn’t live to be 14. Even 13 is a stretch. Kylie was twelve and a half. Those numbers hurt my heart.

That night as we sat on the back porch having our first barbeque of the season, I told the kids what Dr. Amy had said. There was some joking around, because that’s how teens handle hard to hear news sometimes. My oldest son, who is weeks away from leaving for the military, wondered if he’d have to get a phone call about her passing, and how it might be awkward, being surrounded by all the guys in his Army unit. We made plans for things we could do with her, to make her life more enjoyable for the short time she had left.
But I think we all got it. We were all a little humbled, knowing we had just a brief time with our precious puppy, who wasn’t a puppy anymore.

Even as I stressed that it was doubly important that we feed her only dog food and keep her exercised, the teens agreed amongst themselves that if you only have a year to live, you deserve a few extra treats now and then. Kylie scarfed up every nibble of grilled chicken that her kids ‘accidentally’ dropped that night.
We all gave her more attention as the week went on. She was her normal self, as healthy as always,  and she ate up all the hugs, pats and verbal praise. We were seeing her with new, grateful eyes, and she couldn’t help but eat it up.
On Friday we got our first sign that something was up. Without getting too graphic, she started having drastic bowel troubles. This dog who normally did her business two times a day, religiously, was now visiting the yard every hour, and then six times through the night. By Saturday she had become a lot more mellow, spending long stretches in her doggie bed.
I knew it couldn’t be something fatal. We’d just been at the vet FIVE days before. She’d had the yearly blood work and examination. From what the vet could see, she was healthy. I was sure it had to be a reaction to the supplements we’d started her on. Thinking it would help her longevity, she started getting ‘treats’ to help her joints and her very dry skin. A phone call to her vet verified that this might be our problem.
We agreed to stop the supplements for the time being. The problem was, as Saturday evening came, we could see it was something more. This dog who adored food and lived for every last bread crumb dropped on the kitchen floor, had no interest in food. Forget the supplements, she wouldn’t even eat the tiny pieces of grilled chicken the kids so lovingly cut up for her.
When I’d been in Dr. Amy’s office, I’d asked her, bluntly, what were going to most likely be the signs that our dog was about to die. She’d said that either arthritis would kick in and destroy her quality of life, or a quick cancer or disease would take over and within days she’d be gone. With the second scenario, we’d notice that Kylie stopped eating as much, was drinking too much (or not at all), and was very lethargic. But, she assured me, in those scenarios, there was usually a pretty quick death, and very little suffering. That’s what we wanted most, for Kylie not to suffer.
And just five days after that little talk, I was watching it play out in front of my eyes.
Into Saturday evening she was unable to lift her head. At bedtime, Sam snuggled in next to her on the floor of my bedroom and cringed every time her breathing got raspy. I joined him as I realized this might be our last night with her.
The household had become solemn on Saturday evening. We all knew what no one wanted to say. We all dealt with it differently. Sam hovered, laying next to this buddy he’s known most of the years he’s had memory. My daughter hovered over her youngest brother, comforting him, and then, when it got to be too much, escaped to watch TV at her boyfriend’s house. Sam’s oldest brother periodically came over to pet her and remind her how much he loved her, then would disappear back to the bed, where he and dad were trying to stay distracted by TV.
My middle son, the one I call Dr Doolittle because of his bond with animals, did something that confused me at the time but makes perfect sense now. He ran off to spend the night at his best friend’s house. I should have recognized that the thought of losing her was too much for him to handle and he spent that whole night laying awake on a sleeping bag in his friend’s basement, wondering if she had died yet.
Then it happened. Her breathing got more labored. I stroked her head for hours, telling her over and over again how much we loved her, how lucky we were to have found her under that desk at the animal shelter, and how we’d never ever forget her. She looked at me with those huge brown eyes, the same ones that begged for scraps when I was making dinner every night, and eagerly greeted me every morning as she not-so-patiently waited for me to put my leg on, so she could have breakfast.
With a few last twitches, she was gone. The house seemed extra still. Sam had dozed off, after moving up to my side of the bed, but Jeff was awake, aware of the inevitable as he analyzed her breathing from across our small room. He came and said his last goodbyes, stroking that curly fuzzy head that we knew so well. Sam woke up a few minutes later, and without a word, knew it had happened. He came down to the floor and scooted himself in between his dog and me and let out a few sobs.
Eventually we covered her with some towels and crawled back into bed, the three of us huddled together in shared sadness.
The next morning the kids found out, one by one. Knowing it was coming didn’t make it any easier for them to hear the news. Immediately I felt her absence. Her food and water dishes sat empty, no one hovering over them, strongly suggesting I get busy and fill them. No one sat outside the bathroom door, right up next to the door, so when I opened it I was always forced to literally step over her.
The thought did not escape me that she’d chosen to go just in time for one of her favorite people, my soon to be military son, to be around to say his goodbyes in person.

We took turns crying. Then we rounded up the troops and went for a drive. In the past week, after getting the reality check from Dr. Amy, I’d been doing some research. It finally sunk in that Kylie would die in Colorado (at the time I thought some day) and I was beginning to make plans in my head, because when things like that happen, everyone turns to mom to see what we do next. I’d discovered a beautiful farm just down the road from us, that had people and pet cemeteries. They also did cremations. In the fields around the headstones there are wild buffalo and reindeer roaming. We decide to go see it in person.
The car was unusually quiet. As a family we’ve hit some major road bumps along the way, many of them in the past year. But we’ve never had a major death. My mom and Jeff’s dad both died either before we had kids, or when they were just babies. In their memoires, my kids have never lost a grandparent. This was their first big loss.
Someone once told me that as a parent we should respect first love, and the depth of heartache that comes with a first break up. The reasoning was that one’s first experience with love and devotion are paving the way, and they are truly the deepest feelings a teenager had had, at that point in his life. Later they’ll see that love, and grief, can go deeper. But for that moment, it hurts more deeply than they can even believe. And it’s real grief.
I feel the same way watching my kids mourn for this special dog. She was rooted into our family. She survived a cross country move with us, being adaptable along the way, despite her age and tendency to be a Nervous Nelly. The love they have for her is as deep as it gets. The only loss that could hurt more, and be more personal to them, would be to lose one of their parents or grandparents. This dog, who they saw every single day, who they interacted with every single day, who taught them to look out for someone else’s needs even when that someone had no ability to speak her needs, was a cavernous part of their lives.
And now we all have to wrap our brains around the fact that she’s gone. She’ll never again sit by the back door, begging to be let in by politely scratching the glass of the sliding door. She’ll never rub her head along the edge of my bed, desperate to wake me so she could start the day. She’ll never again visit Sam’s classroom and be the hit of the day. We will never again walk her through a dog park, attracting comments and visits from every other dog lover there, because her tendency to look like some kind of small sheep just couldn’t be ignored.
We’ll take her to the mortuary this afternoon and then decide where we should spread or bury her ashes. My Dr. Dolittle casually mentioned (in the days before we knew we’d lose her this week) that it would be nice to take some of her ashes with him on all of his mountain bike rides, so he could spread them slowly around all the mountainous places he loves to explore. I’d kind of like to bury a few of them, and mark the spot with a cairn, so that in decades to come, these children of mine can take their spouses and children of their own to that spot, and tell them stories about a great dog named Kylie.
I’ll miss those dark brown pools of her eyes and the soft curls that met my hand every time I reached out to pet her.  We all will. But as I keep reminding my kids, when the tears just won’t seem to let up, she’s happy now, romping around in some kind of paradise, eating all the dog treats she wants. She’s no longer old, no longer at risk for scary debilitating disease and ailments. She’s at peace.
It will just take a very long time for the family she left behind to feel the same.