Saturday, May 31, 2014


"I'm looking for answers from the great beyond..." - R.E.M.

I'm sitting on the couch, there but not there.

She's filling my mind, this friend I haven't seen in several years. This friend who is about to lose her fight with cancer.

For a few moments, all I can see is her face seated at the table across from me in Bible study, and her kids. Her kids. Three of them, all in elementary school. She is younger than me. She has been fighting for quite some time.

A sigh of helplessness escapes me. I look up at the television and for the first time start listening. I see that Dan has fallen asleep in the middle of what he was watching with Anna before she was tucked into bed not long ago. I remember hearing them from the other room. She was singing "Let It Go" and Dan was asking if she'd ever heard of fractals (as in "my soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around," one of the lines in the song).

I see the man on the television, from a YouTube video actually, is talking about fractals. He's making a presentation at what appears to be a church; on the screen are amazing images that look like art. Only they're math.

The best I can understand, fractals are infinite, complex, never-ending patterns that reveal greater complexity when they are repeated. They can go on forever. And you'll find them not just in math, but throughout nature. The genius of computers helps us to see the infinite patterns play out. They look like art, and order.

This man shows the layers within the layers of looping spirals that forever loop into tinier and tinier versions of themselves. Can you see it? he asks. Can you see the order woven even into mathematical patterns?

A website I delve into later ( concurs: "Science continues to discover," it says, "an amazingly consistent order behind the universe's most seemingly chaotic phenomena."

I sit there for a few minutes, my eyes burning tired, lost in the beauty. It was like that day, the day after 9/11, when I sat at my cubicle while the TV in the conference room nearby blared the horror, played the buildings turning to ash again and again and again. That day, there were roses on my desk, and as I sat and stared at the petals, suddenly lost in the sweetness, awed by the beauty, everything else momentarily faded away.


A few days later, a friend and I go to visit. On the drive there I realize the last time I visited this hospital was to have Chloe, that frosty Saturday morning in the dark. This Saturday there is sun and green everywhere. Fathers carry empty baby carriers through the hospital entrance to soon take home their newborns. We walk down that endlessly long hallway where I prayed the contractions would let up four months ago; we turn the other way, toward the Oncology unit.

We visit, and there is family and laughter and hugs and tears. How do you say goodbye when you know it truly is goodbye? Maybe, it's like my brother said, when we were visiting my grandmother that last time in the ICU. Maybe it's not so bad to say "see you soon." In the grand scheme of things, this world, this life, is a wisp.

In the car, driving away, I try to think of the fractals. I see the swirling images dance in my mind's eye. I wonder: can I trust to believe there is something beautiful in this; some order behind the chaos of this world where kind mothers with big hearts die far too soon?

I think of the way I'm always wondering.

Sometimes I think I need to take a break from asking, and focus on being, and doing. What can I do to make sense of the chaos? What is my part in the design? I can plead in prayer to a God I can never fully understand. I can help rather than standing immobile, frozen by resentment and offense.

I can stop wondering for a moment and just sit with the wonder.

And so I do, and then I feel it, spreading slowly like a trickle, momentarily lapping away the tears and everything I will never know.


"For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."
- 1 Corinthians 13:12

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Love and Marriage

"Mama?" Ethan asked one evening as we were driving in the car. "When I grow up, me and Anna be Chloe's mom and dad, and every time she disobeys she will get in trouble."

I tried to explain that he was not going to become Chloe's dad, but he wasn't having any of that.

"Hon, Anna is going to marry a different man when she grows up; not her brother. And you can get married too, if you want," I told him.

"But if I get married, does that mean I have to leave my family?" His voice sounded panicked and scared.

"Well, when you grow up and if you get married, you start a new family," I said gently. "But your parents will always be your parents." He sat for a while with that, quiet in the back in the dark.

I wonder a lot about Ethan and relationships.

I can see him growing up and graduating high school, maybe college.

I can almost picture him learning to drive a car.

I can envision him finding some kind of job (preferably, I would think, one involving facts, numbers, computers, and predictable activity).

But can I envision him in a romantic relationship; married? I just don't know.

Not long ago, I would ask him about where he was going to live when he grew up. He said in a little house next door to us, where he would play video games. Sounds like most 30-year-olds these days.

Every once in awhile, I'd ask which he liked better, being with people or being alone. Nine times out of 10, he'd say alone. But that's starting to change. "I think I just slightly better like being with people," he told me not long ago.

Side note: One of his class vocabulary words awhile back was "solitude." Well, Ethan's always one to try valiantly to use his vocabulary words in everyday speech. Many nights when I ask him to get ready for bed, he complains, "No! I can't because then I will be all solitude upstairs." Our apparently scary upstairs at night is one place where Ethan definitely does NOT prefer to be alone.

Apparently, there's at least one little girl in Ethan's class who appears to be enamored with him. I heard through the grapevine that she spends a lot of time trying to get his attention. Ethan is completely oblivious. Well, I take that back. One day, he announced at breakfast that this certain girl was his "girlfriend."

"Really?" I asked, surprised.

"Yeah," he answered. "Because that's what my friends said at lunch."

Ethan doesn't have to get married, of course. He may very well be a person who, after all, really does prefer "to be solitude."

But who knows? I asked him, the other day, out of the blue, if he thought he'd get married someday.

"I don't know," he answered slowly. "Maybe."

"Maybe someday," I said all of the sudden, "you will find a nice woman just like you who loves power lines and storm drains." His eyes lit up. "I will?" he asked.

"Oh, she's out there," I said with all of my heart. "Ethan, she's out there."

Saturday, May 24, 2014

What I Hope He Knows

I held Chloe up to the mirror to see her reaction to her reflection. After a surprised few seconds, she smiled at the drooly baby gazing back at her. I remember doing the same thing with Ethan, and he would only stare.

I put her in the exersaucer for the first time, and after she got comfortable, she looked and saw Anna, Ethan and I watching her. She looked from face to face, and for the first time I saw little wheels turning in her head (People are watching me. I kind of like all of this attention.). She started babbling and screeching.

I checked the milestone lists and where Chloe is at four months. Right on target; not crazy far ahead the way Anna was sometimes, but certainly not behind, either. Reaching for toys. Bearing weight on legs. Laughing. The list goes on.

I look at all of these things and first, know that there are no guarantees, that just recently I came across a study showing that autism was harder to detect in infants than previously thought; that these kids did actually seem indistinguishable from typical babies early on; never mind that one type of autism actually shows itself later on. I thought all of this while acknowledging that at the moment, things are looking good.

But as soon as I thought that, I wondered. I wondered about writing about my searching for signs that my baby was "okay" and feeling relieved to see her hit social milestones on time. Namely, I wondered, if Ethan came across this blog one day, what would he think?

What would he think to read about his mother hoping that his little sister was not like him?

This is the weird thing, when you are writing about your kids and they are so little. I started this blog when Ethan was two and Anna was five. At the time I couldn't fathom them reaching an age where they would care I was writing about them and sharing their antics with others. Sadly, the word "privacy" never came to mind, or maybe I would have given them pseudonyms. It wasn't until this year that Anna started to express embarrassment about things I'd share about her on Facebook, and I realized I needed to back off a little and respect her as an individual rather than a little extension of me.

And then we come to Ethan, who's life has been spread out here for four years now for all to see. There's been the good, the bad, and the ugly; in recent years, much more of the good. I would hope he would see I have learned to respect the unique way he is wired. I would hope that he would see we love him for who he is and aren't bent on molding him into something he's not.

And his autism itself? I would hope and pray that Ethan would not hate that part of him. I would hope he would understand there are many autisms, and that I have been a first-hand witness to both sides of the spectrum. It's not that I wouldn't want to wish autism on anyone; it's that I wouldn't want to wish those parts of autism that can completely overwhelm and frustrate a person; those parts that make it difficult for them to live in their body, to communicate their needs, to understand their world.

I hope he knows there are things about him that are incredibly unique and wonderful and refreshing and probably wouldn't be there if not for autism.

Autism is not cancer or some kind of devastating rare genetic condition. If I'd had one child go through something like that, and then had another, and was relieved to see my child have a clean bill of health, that feels different.

But autism is not so much physical as a way of thinking and perceiving and sensing. I understand now why it almost makes sense to call someone "autistic" rather than "having autism." Autism is so much a part of who they are that it's hard to extract the person away from it.

I hope Ethan, I hope all of my kids, grow to know that they are loved, that God made them and has a plan for them. In the end, that is the most important thing. Maybe I need to remember that too. Take a break from the milestones. And just enjoy.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Gate

I hear it often, when people talk to me about Ethan, particularly people who don't know him very well.

"Oh, I never would have known he's on the spectrum"..."He doesn't really stand out from his peers"..."Really? Autistic?"

And I can understand where they are coming from, because if you just have surface interactions or spend a few minutes with him, Ethan basically comes off as just a regular kid. You may not notice he doesn't prefer to look you in the eye. You might not see that while he does like playing with other kids, there are many times he prefers doing his own thing (especially after school, when he's had to exhaust himself socially all day).

He's been having a blast playing basketball next door with the neighbors' boys. I asked him the other day which he liked better: the big basketball hoop he gets to use over there, or his friend (I'll call him "A"). His reply?

"I guess the basketball hoop, but if he was there I would say him or that would hurt his feelings."

Well, I'm glad to know he's picking up something from the social skills group.

And then there is this:

Look in any manual listing the diagnostic criteria for autism and you'll see mentioned as a hallmark: Exhibits restrictive and repetitive behaviors.

The picture above is of Ethan's "gate." He got the idea for it after coming across a mangled Slinky about two months ago. Since then, he has rebuilt the gate about 300 times.

He always builds it in the same place (stretching across the playroom and over to the back door). He always uses the same unconventional collection of materials: the Slinky, a toy shopping basket, a ribbon/mock "Olympic medal" we got at a Dollar Store, Dan's old iPhone, and a TV tray that's been sitting in the same spot since Chloe was born (yeah, I'm getting to that).

Asking Ethan why he likes to build this gate is pointless. I hear the same answer again and again ("because I like gates"..."I like to keep people out of things"). If you take down his gate because you have to do something silly like actually walk out the back door, he's not a happy camper. He won't tantrum, but you better believe he's going to put it right back as soon as possible.

He also can't explain why he uses the same few items for his gate again and again. These objects never grow old for him. I can't tell you how many times he's pointed out the shopping basket to me, and I try to act amaze that he's finagled the Slinky around the thing once again.

When Ethan's working on his gate, he's completely engrossed and completely happy. This is how it is with any of his obsessions (and really, I guess, how all kids are). Don't you love it, those of you with kids? Don't you love the absorbed silence of a child fully involved with a fun project? In the past for Ethan that's included puzzles...those Perplexus balls where you have to move a tiny ball through varying obstacles...constructing elaborate marble runs.

He notices the tiniest of details. I almost feel bad that we can't appreciate fully what he appreciates. The other day he spent the better part of a half-hour once he noticed the threads on the string of what used to be our toy Olympic medal had split into five parts -- he was trying to weave each microscopic-thin thread into a different spot. "Look how it goes here!" he then announced proudly, having me peer under the TV tray where the threads were wound around the iPhone cord.

No, he's not making Lego creations like most boys his age. The gate is his pride and joy. I stopped and watched him watch what he'd built yesterday. His eyes followed the path of the stretched Slinky. He traced his finger along the loops, searching to see where each one went, studying the complicated traffic jam where the Slinky was hopelessly tangled for a long, long time, trying not to lose sight of where his path went.

He is not typical. But in those moments when he is full of joy, how could I ask for anything more?

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Anna struggles to roll over for the first time, 2004

I was watching Chloe on her play mat, attempting to roll over. At not-yet four months, she's done it a couple of times, which to me is pretty good for a child who had her legs in a brace for her first 12 weeks.
She was up on her tummy and her arms, and I placed a toy just out of reach to entice her a little; to give her something to work towards. At first, she was highly motivated. She started kicking...reaching...doing anything she could to scooch herself forward. For a moment I saw a flash of Anna at the same age, furiously determined, learning to roll in the same spot on the TV room floor.

Then there was that moment when Chloe was just DONE, frustrated at not being able to get what she wanted, and I pushed the toy where she could reach it. My heart couldn't bear for her to feel like this was just a tease, that she was a mouse chasing an ever-moving piece of cheese.

I thought suddenly about that Bible verse, about God not allowing us to be tempted beyond what we can bear. I thought about the feeling that had just risen up within me, the compassion that welled when I saw how hard she was working. Suddenly for a moment, I could see God's heart. As someone who has sometimes questioned, "Is God up there playing cosmic jokes on some of us?" "Is God throwing things at me to see what will stick and what will rise up out of me?" (hello, book of Job!), I long for these moments. When I placed that toy where I did to stretch her, when I pushed it back within her reach before she could completely overwhelm herself, I saw for a flash God's intentions, God's heart, toward me, towards all of us.

Yes. But. Isn't there always one? What about those times when we aren't just being pushed out of our comfort zones but truly stretched beyond what we can bear? I thought this, sitting on the rug, continuing to watch her kick around and bat at toys.

In my mind's eye I saw myself holding Chloe at her doctor's appointment, getting shots. I saw myself cradling Ethan at just a few days old, getting blood drawn to see if his jaundice was improving. I heard the echo of their blood-curling screams, frantic and desperate and not understanding why they were being subjected to this pain. I saw the tears welling in my own eyes as I held them, knowing things they couldn't even attempt to know, knowing things would be okay.

In a second the picture was gone. But I found myself immensely grateful for a glimpse. I seem to be on a lifelong quest to reprogram my mind, to believe: God is good. Now please, show me?

For a second, I saw. And then Chloe began to fuss, and I picked her up and held her against my shoulder, as we looked out the window at the pouring rain, at the raindrops sliding down the glass.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Day Falcon Died

Mother's Day. We were out on the deck, Ethan shooting baskets in his mini-hoop with his mini-basketball, "Falcon," when the inevitable happened. Falcon, who'd had the beginnings of a crack in his leathery skin for the better part of a week, split open, and he quickly lost his air.

To understand the story you have to know this: Ethan got his ball when he started an eight-week basketball class back in March. He mistakenly named his ball "Falcon" after misreading the word "Franklin" printed on the ball. Falcon quickly became something akin to a combination imaginary friend and comfort object. He rode with us in the car on the way to school. He slept in a sleeping bag on the floor next to Ethan's bed (I had to be sure to tell him goodnight, too). I once drove through Hartford traffic to retrieve Falcon from the developmental pediatrician's office, where Ethan had inadvertently left him. And of course Falcon served as Ethan's constant companion outside and next door when Ethan would go to "shoot hoops" with his little friend and little friend's big brother. According to Ethan, Falcon was "as old as God" and possibly as tall as God, too.

On this gorgeously sunny day, Ethan looked at what had become of Falcon, at his deflated, misshapen form, and couldn't hold it together. The tears started, then the sobs. "My Falcon!" he cried out, carrying him over to the swing set. He was cradling him in his arms, and I heard him murmuring.

"Ethe, what are you doing?" I asked, from where I sat on the deck with my parents, who were over visiting.

"I'm asking God to heal him," he said.

Oh. Oh no.

"God, please listen," he begged.

"Oh hon," I started to say, half-smiling, my heart sinking. "I'm so sorry...but I don't think Falcon can be fixed."

"But I am asking God," he said earnestly, looking down at his deflated friend. "Why isn't He listening to me??"

And though I knew in that moment how lacking the standard platitude was, even if it was true, I still said it.

"Hon, God DOES listen. Sometimes He just doesn't answer the way we want him to."

Ethan, my Literal One, wasn't having any of this. All he knew was: people had told him you could pray to God, and that God heals, and he was waiting to see results. He sat there with Falcon, huddled in the May sunshine, wailing out to the Universe. He clutched the ball in his arms, ignoring our overtures. All he kept saying, again and again, was "I prayed. Why isn't God listening to me?!"

This was no longer remotely funny. I felt my eyes prickling behind my sunglasses. Ethan got off the swing and came to me, begging for a hug, begging for answers. I couldn't speak. I just kept shaking my head, because in my six-year-old, I saw myself. I saw all of us who have prayed and been disappointed, who have wondered if our overtures fall on the uncaring ears of a God far removed from us, who have wondered if there is a God there listening, who have questioned and raged and screamed WHY???

My mom began gently talking to Ethan. My mom, on Mother's Day, who had lost her own mother just a few weeks before, who herself was no stranger to disappointment and prayers prayed in faith not realized.

"Ethan, sometimes we don't know why," she said. "But God hears. And God is there to help us through the bad times. It's okay to be sad. You will feel better again."

Ethan was bargaining. "But maybe if we glue him. Maybe if we tape him..." Anna rushed to find her glue gun, but I gently urged her to stop, to not awaken false hope.

Still clutching Falcon, Ethan's face grew hard after a few moments. His next words took my breath away. "If God doesn't listen to me, I'm going to hate him," he announced.

Tears were flowing behind my sunglasses now. I felt the pounding of my heart bursting into pieces, thinking of childlike faith, dashed, knowing my son was very much like me and my own heart, so quick to jump to offense, to weigh down with resentment when I just.don't.understand the person we prayed for who wasn't close to being healed and the mom who had just gotten her life back together who died in a freak accident and the baby so little suffering so much pain from cancer and the list went on and on.

I couldn't take it. I went inside for a moment. I wondered. I prayed the starkest of prayers: Oh, me.

A few minutes later, back outside, Ethan was calming, just slightly.

"Anna and Gramma told me Falcon will be able to bounce in heaven," he said, still cradling him in his arms. "Will he be able to bounce really high?"

In that moment, I cared not the least about any sort of theological argument about basketballs and the afterlife. Heaven is a place where wrongs are made right.

"Ethan, in heaven he'll be able to bounce to the stars and come back down to you," I said without thinking. For the first time, a peace seemed to settle over him. He managed a shaky smile. We decided to go get ice cream.

Later that day, I asked him. "Ethan? Do you still hate God?"

"No," he replied simply. "Because Falcon's going to be able to bounce high in heaven."

You can call this God thing a crutch. You can call it a myth or a fairy tale. You can make all kind of arguments and logically I can't win them. But I wonder.

Watching Ethan I understand the way the questioning, the blame, the pride are woven into our fallen natures. But I also wonder if we aren't created to hope. That there isn't a part of us that finds perfect peace when we grasp that Truth that there is a place where injustices will be no more. Where loss no longer rips us apart. Where dreams don't evaporate.

We were made for something beyond this, and it's bigger than all of the answers we don't have.
Don't be afraid of your blind belief
Because the more you fly, the more you'll see
You're not alone, you're not alone

Look beyond the window there
To the sky above to the open air
Look beyond what you can see
Close your eyes and just believe

The lion roars and the lamb lays down
They live together in a whole new town
They're calling me, and they're calling you
From the cold hard facts that we're on our own
To the age old truth that we're not alone

 Look beyond the window there
To the sky above to the open air
Look beyond what you can see
Close your eyes and just believe

The lion roars and the lamb lays down
They live together in a whole new town
They’re calling me and they’re calling you
From the cold hard facts that we’re on our own
To the age old truth that we’re not alone

-Jason Upton, Emma's Song (You're Not Alone)
Don't be afraid of your blind belief
Because the more you fly, the more you'll see
You're not alone, you're not alone

Look beyond the window there
To the sky above to the open air
Look beyond what you can see
Close your eyes and just believe

The lion roars and the lamb lays down
They live together in a whole new town
They're calling me, and they're calling you
From the cold hard facts that we're on our own
To the age old truth that we're not alone
Don't be afraid of your blind belief
Because the more you fly, the more you'll see
You're not alone, you're not alone

Look beyond the window there
To the sky above to the open air
Look beyond what you can see
Close your eyes and just believe

The lion roars and the lamb lays down
They live together in a whole new town
They're calling me, and they're calling you
From the cold hard facts that we're on our own
To the age old truth that we're not alone
Don't be afraid of your blind belief
Because the more you fly, the more you'll see
You're not alone, you're not alone

Look beyond the window there
To the sky above to the open air
Look beyond what you can see
Close your eyes and just believe

The lion roars and the lamb lays down
They live together in a whole new town
They're calling me, and they're calling you
From the cold hard facts that we're on our own
To the age old truth that we're not alone

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Possibly My Favorite Mother's Day Card Ever

hefty: adjective \ˈhef-tē\
: large and heavy: big and strong
: very large
: very forceful

"Look what I have for you," Ethan announced, pulling something out of his backpack. Right away I knew what it was, what with it being just two days before Mother's Day.

I took a look and saw this:

(To translate: "I love you so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so much," complete here with a Tootsie Roll stain the card picked up later in the day that I tried to wipe off).

"Ahh Ethe, that's so sweet," I said, turning the card open, speaking with all my heart. Inside he had drawn a picture of us, and on the opposite page he had filled in the blanks on a flyer titled "Words To Describe My Mom."


I could see he'd it'd been a stretch for him, trying to think of new words. It also warmed my heart that these words immediately sprang up.

This cheered me, since I can be a pessimist, and I can be grouchy. At least in this moment of composition my son hadn't thought of me that way.

Woh. That seemed almost...super-hero like. We were moving into uncharted territory here, and I loved it. No one had ever called me mighty. In fact, growing up my family liked to tease me about being a wimp.

And one more. "Um, Ethe, what's this say?" I asked, squinting.

"That?" he had to look at it for a moment, too. He'd spelled it wrong. "Oh..." he said. "That's supposed to say hefty."


"Hefty?!" I said, a bit too loudly.

"Yeah," he replied. "It was one of our vocabulary words..."

...which meant he knew exactly what hefty meant.

I looked down at myself, and at the ton of baby and other weight I need to lose.Well, he had a point. And it was all I could do to not start giggling.

Mighty...hefty...yeah, I was mighty hefty all right. I loved that he saw me with all my love and strength and imperfection. In that moment the weight of all of my failures as a mom temporarily lifted from my shoulders, and then I couldn't stop myself.

We laughed.



Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Chasing Green Clouds

Tornado-spawning cumulonimbus mammatus clouds

 "Can you tell me a story about a time there was a bad thunderstorm when you were little?" Ethan asked me the other day.

We had been talking about summer and the topic of thunderstorms came up. Ethan's not a big fan of them. Neither was I, for a long, long time. I have a plethora of thunderstorm stories still bouncing around in my mind (for some reason, our little Central Mass. town seemed to get walloped more often than we ever do here). I picked the one I always recall as "The Day we Chased the Green Clouds."

Growing up in a family of weather aficionados and storm chasers meant sometimes I was dragged along on the storm chasing. This wouldn't have been so bad except that after the day a tornado hit my grandmother's town when I was six, I became petrified of storms. You could say, to coin an autism term, that I did a fair amount of perseverating on the subject. I got a cloud chart and studied the pictures of cumulonimbus clouds religiously. I kept an ear to the weather report and an eye to the sky most humid days, always ready to dive under my bed and hide if necessary. So that day when I was about eight and a bad storm started to roll in, I was in my usual panic. Meanwhile, my parents looked to the sky with eagerness. "Look at how green the clouds look over there," I remember one of them pointing out. And then -- "Let's go chase it!"

I didn't want to go. I really, really didn't want to go. I begged and pleaded, but my parents weren't having it. "You can go or stay home alone," my mom suggested. I felt as if I were in my own kind of private hell, where the only choices are both tortuous. Ride into a severe storm? Or stay all alone as it pounded the house? Finally, in tears I said I'd go.

We headed toward North Brookfield, a town just about as rinky-dink as ours, about 15 minutes away. The storm grew much worse. Rain fell in sheets making it almost impossible to see. Lighting bolts cracked all around us. The thunder was so loud I could clearly hear it in the car, and at one point I remember looking at a grove of young maple trees and seeing them bent halfway to the ground, by the wind. I was huddled in the back, sobbing, and I knew it was bad when even my dad stopped the car and said he didn't dare drive any further. Another car in front of us kept plowing ahead into the storm and I remember crying thinking they were going to die. And then as all storms do the weather began to ebb and the rain eased and we could all breathe again. Later that night we learned  a funnel cloud that hadn't touched the ground had been spotted near where we'd been driving. After that storm chasing experience, my fear of thunderstorms would linger until I reached adulthood.

As soon as I finished talking, Ethan looked at me with wide eyes. His bottom lip was trembling and I could tell he was fighting tears.

"You know the worst part?" he asked. "The worst part was when they asked you to stay home alone." And boom -- just like that -- he had nailed it. That had been the worst part, as a child. That sense of powerlessness. That feeling that I had to do something awfully scary because the alternative was even scarier.

"If you were home alone the tornado would have destroyed you and your house," he said. I reiterated that no tornado actually touched down, but that flew over his head. "I didn't want you to have to stay all alone," he said sadly, forgoing proper verb tenses in his misery.

"I know, I know," I answered, starting to see that we had a problem. "But it's okay now, Ethe. Nothing bad happened. I'm not afraid of storms. I like storms."

"We need to go to that town," he said. For a moment I was pleasantly surprised. I thought of driving the kids through my old stomping grounds (we'd tried this before), past the elementary school and the library and the old railroad tracks, and them actually caring.

"I need to see where that green cloud was," he clarified. I tried to explain the green cloud was long gone. No matter.

The next morning, he asked again. Ethan has it set in his mind now. We need to drive an hour and ten minutes into Massachusetts so he can see where the green cloud hovered over the hills. And we're going to be talking a lot more about this. He's already asked to hear the story again, and I want to hit myself for filling his mind with something scary.

But this is the clincher: in the midst of all of this I was suddenly reminded of the day last summer when the kids and I sat on the backyard grass listening to thunder in the distance and watching some really big thunderheads to our north.

"The bad storms ALWAYS miss us!" Anna complained, wanting to see something exciting in the skies.

"Well...let's go chase it!" I said suddenly. "Yea!" she agreed, jumping up. In a few seconds' time we were rushing over to the car, while Ethan trailed behind. "Please," he began pleading. "I don't want to go." His entire body was tense.

"C'mon Ethe, it'll be fun," I urged, hurrying him into the back seat. "Mama, I want to stay at home," he was saying again and again, fighting tears. And somehow, in that moment, I had chosen to ignore the memory of that terrifying afternoon 30 years ago. I had become my parents.

When I think about it now, it's hard to not let the guilt slither in. Especially when I recall the rest of the afternoon, about our driving into a hailstorm while Ethan covered his eyes and ears in the backseat.

But then I wonder if, in my foolishness, like my parents' foolishness before me, I might have given him the same thing I received -- a story to tell. An adventure. An opportunity to face his greatest fear, and come out on the other side. Maybe there's some good that can come from a parent's misplaced enthusiasm; from a dose of immaturity. At the same time, I feel the sting of regret that I placed my son in a similar situation, the one difficult for any child to bear: one of fear and powerlessness.

During Ethan's bedtime prayers tonight I heard: "And thank you God that we are warm and cozy in our house and safe from tornados." Someday we'll go check out North Brookfield, Ethan's land of the green clouds. He'll see that it's not such a scary place. And I'll figure out how to balance a quest for adventure while ensuring my kids feel safe. This is what parenting's all about: try, fail, repeat, fail less badly, try again. And always look for silver linings in those green clouds.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Mind Matters

The other day I looked at Chloe and wondered when we should get her pictures done for the first time. Then I was plunged into a memory of Ethan when he was just a month or two older than she is now.

We'd had a lot of luck with Anna getting cheapie portraits taken at the Target photo studio nearby. I'd been pretty happy with the results, so I thought I'd take Ethan there. At the time I was in my "something seems off with him" phase, but it was the Target visit that sealed the deal. The photographer could not get him to smile. He didn't cry; he didn't wail; he just stared. At first I tried to tell myself it was because this guy, who couldn't have been more than 20, seemed to be a total green goof-off who was constantly fumbling around and consulting the book about what to do. But down deep, I knew that couldn't be the only reason. Babies were babies, and normally, they like to smile at people, at least after a maximum amount of cajoling.

I went into a tailspin. For days I pondered: Call the pediatrician or not? If so, what to say? Finally, I took the plunge and did it. Ethan was about five months old; we got in with my favorite pediatrician, the woman about my age with young kids of her own. I had a plan going in, and it included being straight-out honest that things didn't "feel" right about Ethan; that he wasn't that responsive to his name or other overtures; and also that I was worried about one foot that seemed to turn out more than the other.

She did her exam, and apart from the foot, which she wasn't really concerned about, she didn't have much else to elaborate on. "It's just too early," she told me, gently pointing out, for example, that most babies his age didn't yet respond to their names. After a few minutes of discussion, her tone grew even more tentative, as she turned her attention to me. "Have you considered.." she asked slowly, "...Have you considered talking to someone about your anxiety?"

I walked out of the office miffed to be leaving not with answers about Ethan but a paper in my hand with the scribbled names of two nearby psychiatrists. For the longest time, I stewed about that. They couldn't help my son but wanted to ship me off to some shrink. At some point I crumpled up the paper and threw it away.

But I didn't stop thinking about it. This little voice in the back of my mind would whisper once in awhile: No matter what is or isn't going on with Ethan, maybe she has a point. Down deep I knew, all my life, I'd greatly struggled with fear and worry.

For the longest time, I didn't want to take action. There were lots of reasons. I recalled the snide remark a few years before from someone at the moms group I attended, who, when I mentioned I sometimes felt stressed when I had to make conversations with strangers, sneered that I should get on some anxiety meds. I thought of the anxiety, bipolar and depression that ran in my family, of stories of family members having "breakdowns," whatever that actually meant. Am I a repeating pattern? I wondered. A failure? Getting help felt like weakness, like giving up.

And in my head danced the voices of "if you just have enough faith" Christians. It's sad but true: there's still a lot of controversy and confusion when it comes to the church and mental health issues. I guess it's not surprising. Some people want to attribute everything to a demon or to unbelief. Some people want to shy away from a "pill" solving everything. And honestly? I don't have all the answers. Like most issues in life, there are no simple explanations. I do believe there can be a spiritual component to depression. But in some cases there are biological factors as well. We're fallen people. This is life, and not everyone has their issues immediately whisked away by a prayer.

It took me months, but I finally made a phone call. I knew I wanted someone who shared my belief system, so I found a Christian psychologist, and we started to talk. For quite some time, Peg became my lifeline. She didn't wave a magic wand and make it better. She didn't hand me pills and send me on my way. She helped me understand myself, others, and that how I reacted to a situation was infinitely more important than the situation itself. She broke through the Christian hocus-pocus, the voice that said there must be something wrong with me. My struggles with anxiety, she used to like to say, were not a "curse," they were genetics.

Today I don't look back to five years ago and that day in the pediatrician's office with a mixture of embarrassment at my frantic behavior and disgust that it took another year and a half to get Ethan a diagnosis from that point. I know now that it was something that needed to happen, for me. Ethan's issues were just the catalyst. There were things simmering under the surface there were going to come to light one way or another.

You know, in my MOPS group, the same one where that person (long gone now) so callously threw out a reference to anxiety issues years ago, the theme this year is A Beautiful Mess. We are encouraged to be open and share about our failings; missteps; weaknesses. It's our vulnerability, our authenticity that helps others, not the facades we put up or the games we play. If I can be real, if you can be real, we take a giant step towards alleviating shame. No one already tormented by their mind should feel as if they are any "less" of a person if they admit they need help. That's an unwinnable game that only keeps you in the downward spiral. It's time to stop the cycle.