Secrets

The last year or so I have heard so many people’s secrets. I have been approached on the playground because I am the woman who shares her life freely. I am safe. Not because I am good at keeping a big, dark truth hidden, but because all my demons live on my body. I am the mom who lost her marbles in public view a couple of times last year. Casual acquaintances hear about my problems. I am pretty much without filter. So people know I have a daughter with learning issues. They share their children’s learning issues with me. In private. They ask me not to tell anyone.

What would happen if I told someone?

I know everyone is different. Someone who is not me may not get anything out of telling lots of people about the stuff that keeps them awake at night. But I also hear the fear that traps people. I hear the troubles that weighs them down. If they hold this secret too close to their soul, won’t it eat them alive? Won’t this policy of secrecy get in the way of helping their child?

Maybe I’m wrong. But I have heard so many reasons why people don’t want anyone else to know that their sweet child is struggling with an issue. I don’t want her to be teased. I don’t want other kids to think my kid is different. I don’t want him labeled; the label will follow him forever and people will treat him different.

I get these lines of logic. But here is why I don’t agree. Children are masters of picking out differences. Annie was treated differently by her classmates this year, and it wasn’t because she was wearing a shirt that said: “I don’t know my letters and numbers.” Nope, the kids knew, innately, that she was not exactly like them. By talking about her issues out loud, at home, with her all the time, we dealt with the teasing. She came to us with the taunts and how left out she felt and those lines of communication were already open because I am simply not capable of pretending everything is fine when everything is really not fine.

And where you ever teased? No? Praise the Lord; I am shocked and happy for you. But I am guessing all of us were put down, teased, degraded or made to feel completely crappy by other kids sometime during our childhood. It’s inescapable. It is what we learn to do in the face of bullying or simple taunts that is important.

And labels. I struggle with this one. I get it. Recently I saw another parent react to a label on a child she had never heard before. Previously, she never noticed this child had any issues. Now she was overly concerned about this child. I assured her the said child was fine. She is still her, just like before you knew about her issue.

But I also know labels help people who need to help your child. Would you not want your kid’s teacher to know she had dyslexia or diabetes? Would you not want a few other friends and parents to know about these labels so they could help your child when he really needed help? The principal at our school has encouraged me to have Annie tested further so we know more about how her brain works. If she has dyslexia, what is the nature of her dyslexia? This will help her teachers and tutors work with her in a more effective manner.

The main reason I don’t hold secrets in high esteem? Secrets easily become surrounded by fear, which in turn chokes us from the inside out. Not talking about something is the best way to let it fester and eat you up slowly from the inside out. If you tell your child his learning issue or condition or illness is a secret, what are you teaching your child? That all of them isn’t worthy of openness and love?

I know these ideas of mine aren’t popular. I hold my friends who have secrets in high regard. I understand where they are coming from. But I also hold a vision in my head: a day when people hear words that normally sound scary and these words are no longer scary. Why won’t diabetes, dyslexia, ADHD, Tourette syndrome sound like the bad guys? Because you will know someone with this condition. You already know someone with one of these issues. You probably love them exactly as they are. You may have no idea that she or he has this issue to contend with on a daily basis. If you did, the fear around this word would be diluted by the love you feel for this person, and the fact that you see how truly awesome this person is at her or his very core. This issue? It is part of what makes them wonderful and unique and human. Why not celebrate it a little bit louder? Why not change the negative energy around these words just a tiny bit? This is why I live out loud. That and I just love sticking my foot in my mouth. Toes sure are tasty.

Don’t worry though. Your secret is still safe with me. I understand your fear. The day I realized my shining star of a child has learning issues that make her life more difficult I felt like I had died a bit inside. It’s her light, though, that made me realize there is not reason to hide this difficulty from the world around us. She’s a rock star. A rock star with developmental delays. By speaking out loud about her to everyone around me, I have become a safe person to talk with about your kid’s issue. And I am more than happy to help you slay a bit of the fear and feel a bit more at ease with your difficulty. It’s like a line from a favorite poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver: “Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” We will have a cup of coffee, too. I’m guessing a pastry is in order as well.

She Unfolds

We find ourselves at Chris’ sister Colette’s house for a long, leisurely afternoon of food and hanging out. Whenever we have the good fortune to be here, Chris and I settle in for some relaxation while the kids become pets, as in cherished favorites of Auntie Colette, Uncle Brian and Grandma Alton.

We eat an early dinner. The kids play hide and seek with Brian. They challenge him to a wrestling contest and win. Colette pulls out the photo albums and we all look though them with pleasure. As usual, I can’t tell baby pictures of my girls apart. I have to deduce to figure out if the photograph is KK or Annie. It’s nice to flip though photos and know that Colette holds the Alton family history in print, since most of our pictures live on the computer. Aunts come in handy, especially an aunt that sends you a mother’s day-slash-thank-you-for-giving-birth-to-my-nieces card once a year.

While Colette and I drink coffee around the table, we talk about Annie.

“She has changed so much in one year. She knows so much more than last year and is happy at school. She traced the entire alphabet the other day without any prompting from me. Last year I would have asked her to do that and she would have refused,” I say.

 “She’s like a completely different child,” says Colette.

 “A completely different child … what do you mean by that?” I ask. I am curious about her perspective.

 “She wouldn’t even look at me when she was little.”

 And I don’t really hear the rest of the list. I know Annie didn’t look people in the eye as a baby, a toddler, a preschooler ….. even last year, she was adept at looking way and turning off when she didn’t want to connect. But she always was herself, her full present self, for me. I recall how quiet she was as a baby. But at 18 months and onward, she became louder for us. Yes, speech was always an issue, but even though she wouldn’t talk at her way-too large preschool at age two, she always communicated with us. At the same time she was at the huge preschool she attended a preschool with just 6 to 9 other kids, depending on the day. And although it took her awhile to open up there, she did. The girl always hated crowds, loud noises, too many people. But she has changed, or adapted. When I ran into the assistant teacher a week ago, I asked how Annie is doing in kindergarten this year.

“Let me see,” she answered. “The first thing that comes to mind is her laughter. She participates more and is more social. Little Liam has a crush on her and they were giggling so much together that I had to move her to another chair.”

I ponder these thoughts as Colette continues.

“And you know why she is different and everything you are doing for her is making a difference? Because you pay attention. I worry about all those kids who don’t have someone paying attention,” she says.

Maybe it is as simple as that. We have thrown resource after resource at Annie. I know that I have always seen the girl Colette sees now; the one bouncing happily around her house. It took me a long time to notice that she shut down completely at lots of places and that people had no idea how to turn her back on. Because I can always turn her back on if she flips off. We get each other. We have each other’s backs. For every time I have helped her, she has helped me. “Mom, be kind.” “Mom, calm down.” “Mom, here I will give you a hug to feel better. Do you feel better?”Her presence has made me focus on how I can be present for her.

I know Annie’s growth, this girl who cracks jokes at school and knows more than half the alphabet and can count up to 10 easily, I know part of it is due to our diligence. The six tutoring sessions last year, the two tutoring sessions all summer long, this fall’s numerous tutoring sessions plus the many other things Chris and I do with her in mind are paying off. I also know she is unfolding just like any other child does, growing into her skin and into the world she lives in. I can’t give Chris and me all the credit. This opening up is why I was so hesitant to get extra help beyond speech therapy before last year. I am all for letting children learn at their own pace and in their own time and way. Unfold is the term I thought of often when I worried long before kindergarten smacked us upside the head last year. Unfold, girlfriend, any way you know how and exactly how you would like to unfold.

So it’s interesting to hear Colette praise us and to think about how I have always seen the girl at her best. Part of me loves how she controlled her environment by shutting down. Yes, this sounds weird, but how great to be able to modulate the world when it is not working for you. We all spend our lifetimes figuring out how to exist on this planet, in our own scenes. Annie knew how to be all by herself in a crowded room at a very young age. We all should be so lucky sometimes.

The Third Day

Every three days or so, my feelings catch up with me. Before that day arrives, I think all is going swimmingly well. Annie likes school so much more this year. She is making new friends! KK’s teacher calls to tell me that my daughter is awesome! Heck, she compliments me on my parenting. My longer mileage for half-marathon training is an excellent escape valve for my emotions.

Then, bam, I can’t see for the tears threatening to spill out of my eyes. It reminds me of grief. I guess it is grief. It starts simply enough. I see a dad on campus that I have wanted to talk to since the school year began. I know he has a son named Drew who receieved tutoring services at Greenwood last year and he should be in kindergarten this year. His brown-haired child is tucked into his chest as they walk back to their car.

“Is your son in preschool again this year?”

“I’m five. I’m in kindergarten,” says Drew.

“No, he is going to kindergarten at Loyal Heights,” the dad says over Drew’s answer.

And I am off and running. We talk for maybe six minutes but my brain has left the earth. Maybe Annie should be going to public school. She has an IEP, too. Maybe I shouldn’t be taking her to appointments at another school and tutoring places all week. Maybe I should have pulled her out of that preschool that didn’t work so great for her. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent her to kindergarten last year when I knew she wasn’t really ready. Maybe every avenue I have chosen for my child has been a street filled with pollutants and bullies.

I can hear Drew’s dad telling me the truth. “She is in two loving environments. Mrs. S loves her and you love her. You can’t go wrong with that. The kids who have it bad are the ones who don’t have that.”

I know he is right, but the sunshine ends right there. It might as well be pouring rain with a forecast of an 8.0 earthquake. Because I can’t hear reason. I only have ears for someone else’s decisions and I second guess every choice I have ever made for my girl. Seriously, Annie wants me to change her name to Kiki right now and she sobs when I tell her no. Did I choose the wrong name?

The fact is we are all doing the best we can. Each of us, in our shells we call home, good or bad, right or wrong. I push at the chatter in my head with a run, by talking to Chris, by reading, by picking words to think about my life in new ways. But sometimes grief is just grief, and even reason can’t change the sadness pushing its way out of my body. There isn’t a thing to fix. There is just me today, being sad about the road Annie has already traveled. Sometimes, it just sucks to have a child with learning issues. There is no way around that feeling. If I sit with it today, I am guessing tomorrow may be better.

Facing Forward

Sometimes a preposterous idea turns me back in the right direction. The whole family was sitting on Aunt Colette and Uncle Brian’s patio last night. We had finished eating Grandma Alton’s homemade berry pie, the wind had completely stopped, and the air temperature felt exactly right. It was the only time in days that I wasn’t waiting for minutes to tick by. Suddenly Brian blurted out, “KK, I have an idea!”

Brian rarely speaks out of turn and I have never heard him raise his voice. But here he was, jumping in-between the sentences being spoken, with words said  a few tones above his normal quiet level.

“I could build you a clubhouse KK,” says Brian. “Nancy, would it be OK if I built KK a room with a desk where she can write her novel?”

Dude, you are offering my child a second room of her own right in the backyard. You see her gifts and you want to take your gifts and offer them to her, to us.

Of course, there is a catch. Where, I ask, would this be? Chris, Colette, and I were just talking about chopping down a tree. It’s finally clear that she is talking about cutting down the kid’s treehouse tree, the treehouse Chris built with KK when she was merely 3, the one the kids and he just remodeled with carpet and tar paper. The one that has two rope swings on it. The tree the girls have spent the summer living under. I have already started my annual Christmas letter in my head with the line “It was the summer of the swing.”

And it is clear that Brian is channeling his wife’s mind: She is chopping down the tree and he is building a new masterpiece. The girls are getting older. KK can’t stand up straight in the treehouse. Next year she might be too heavy for the swing that she has spent hour upon hour swinging on during these last few months. I am filled with such sadness lately about summer ending, about KK getting older, about Annie headed back to the classroom that she dislikes, about our slow mornings turning into chaos as school begins.

“The tree is a weed,” adds Colette. This is the tree that sees so much activity. The squirrels and blue jays clean it out every August before any hazelnuts are ripe enough for us to eat. It provides shade. The treehouse has been lovingly built and the swings hanging from the tree’s branches, well, they have been fought over all summer long. Every kid, including my own, does not want to stop swinging on these ropes. Cut this tree down? Are you crazy?

But I can see it happening as I sit enjoying one of the last evenings of summer. Life changes pretty fast. I fear these changes. I want to hold onto to all the good stuff as tightly as I can. Heck, I want to hold onto the bad stuff, too. It defines us. I can explain it with humor and make lots of people laugh.

The Adrienne Rich line pops to mind: “The moment of change is the only poem.”

There’s a reason I had my Aunt Susie embroider this line for a wall hanging that hung for years by my front door. Change is hard. Change is constant. Change wins every time. Wait, change can be good. KK was ecstatic about Brian’s idea. What kid doesn’t want her awesome uncle to build a clubhouse for her? Who doesn’t want a room built with leftover construction materials with windows and a door and a desk for writing and drawing and for a laptop with a wireless connection provided by dad?

This crazy conversation and the excitement it brought to the table turned my mind to joy. Why not plan the future with bliss instead of the usual dread? So often I look forward with terror. The last school year was hard, what if next year is harder? What if the school year is difficult but we mix it with equal parts of greatness and fun? Let’s tear down an old weedy tree that gave us much pleasure. We will mourn it, but we can look forward with glee to a brand new clubhouse for KK (and by extension, Annie). I want to approach the school year with the same mindset: Sad for the end of a sweet summer but excited for countess opportunities for growth for all of us. Change happens whether we welcome it with anticipation or push against it with panic. I’m ready to let go of the fear and greet the fall with a blessing on my lips.

Don’t You Worry

The school year is coming for us, and my feelings are anything but easy. In fact, my emotions threaten to overtake my summer self and bury me in fearful tears.

You see, last year was a lesson in seeing my child clearly and trying to meet her needs, which are so not simple. The day Annie came home and said a classmate told her since she scribbles she will have to go back to preschool was not really fun. For months, I took the girl to 6 different tutoring sessions. I spent hours processing my own feelings so I could be a better mom. It wiped me out. I grew into a new skin, but this hide doesn’t quite fit yet. And I hardly had to wear this still uncomfortable husk during the summer months.

And I know our lives are easier than most people’s journeys. We have resources that many folks don’t have access to. But emotions don’t differentiate how lucky we are. My base feelings hate this new world that we are learning to navigate as a family. I dislike hearing KK say it would be horrible to repeat kindergarten and listen to the worry beneath her voice as she tells me Annie is going to catch up this year and never repeat another grade. I don’t want Annie to dislike school at such a young age or know that kids often lack empathy and like to poke at anything that stands out as “other” in their fields of vision. Spending a small fortune on weekly tutoring isn’t actually part of a workable budget that deposits money into savings every month. Nope, it stretches the finances until you wonder how close you are to stepping over an edge that you can’t climb back over until you are one of those horrible stories you avoid reading in the news. Discussing your child’s special needs with your partner is never a light conversation.

Se la vive, right? So it goes. So it is. This is our life. And it’s a good life. This morning, Annie and I spent fifteen minutes sitting on our front steps waiting for a friend who will be in her class next year. Annie pretended her friend had turned into several older versions of herself and was driving down our street in all the cars that passed by. Her friend became the tall cypress pine tree that decorates our parking strip.  She even became a man and then a dog walking by on this beautiful August morning. Last night I did an alphabet puzzle with her using all the skills we have learned from our weekly reading tutoring sessions. She knows so many more letters than she did last year at this time. Today I saw information about a new book on dyslexia — “The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain” (by Brock Eide and Fernette Eide) — and thought “I might be able to read that book.” Her learning disability has its gifts. Her brain works in a different way and her world view is clever and smart and amazing and funny.

So I am back at lucky: I am blessed to be her mom. I am worried. But I am practicing holding my hands open whenever I get too tied up in my thoughts and emotions. This is Annie’s journey. I get to guide her, but I have to let go of all that unnecessary fretting. We, all of us, will get through whatever the next nine months bring one minute at a time. The school year could be better or worse than last year. It doesn’t really matter what it is. If I just listen to that funny girl we call by so many nicknames with open hands and, by extension, an open heart, she will guide me, too.

Easy

I’ve been thinking about my wish for things to be easier. This specifically relates to summer camp this week, of course. I thought Tuesday would be easier, but no, Annie decided she didn’t want to go to camp as soon as I pulled the car up to the parking lot. Nothing I said seemed to convince her otherwise. Not the fact that she had fun the day before, or the notion that I was going to work. I promised her an ice cream cone before I walked away. KK was with her, stepping way too naturally into my role: “Mom, just go, she’ll be fine!”

But I knew she wasn’t. And I was mad. I met a good friend for coffee and I held my phone close to me, waiting for a call. I told my friend, “ I just want things to be easier! I was waiting for summer thinking it all would be easier. And in many ways it is. But in some ways, it is so not. She is still Annie.”

Lately, being Annie means crying every time Mom leaves the house, bargaining hard for exactly what she wants, and getting very upset when she doesn’t get her way. The other side of Annie is delicious, but that isn’t what I want to change.

So, yes, the call came. Luckily, it was a parent from St. John telling me about the snot running down my child’s face and her refusal to join in. This woman gallantly came to my rescue, agreeing with me that coming to get her wasn’t in anyone’s best interest. This other parent helped Annie calm done and got her to join in. She talked to the first-time counselors about how to engage my child, and one assistant counselor spent the day with her. Point is, she was having fun and fine by the time I picked her up.

Still. And yet. I spent the day upset. When I left for yoga last night, Annie was in meltdown mode again. There was no putting Annie up on the shelf while I moved through my yoga poses. Putting a person or event or life’s craziness up on the shelf during practice means you are letting it go while you are on the mat, instead focusing on your breath, the movements, the here and now.

 I wanted to run home and see if Annie was OK.  I wanted things to be easier. I wanted Annie to be easier. I wanted to change her into a happier, more content version of herself.

No such luck. These difficulties are hers. She gets to figure out how to stay at camp and participate when she would rather be at home with me. She gets to figure out that I always come back, that I am not going to Africa and never coming back. She gets to realize that KK picked the movie for family movie night and she doesn’t get to go off by herself and watch “The Fox and the Hound 2” for the third time.

And I get to decide that suffering is optional. Or that’s what the memoir I am reading said last night. This uneasy time is here, in front of me. I get to decide how to react. Yes, I walked away from my crying child several times yesterday and left her in capable hands. Then I chose to feel miserable. For all the non-attachment I have practiced over the last year or so, it is difficult to detach from Ms. Annie. (She knows this, my smart cookie of a girl.)I did an OK job of lessening my suffering yesterday, but it never completely disappeared.

After awaking from a solid sleep last night, I know I’ll do better choosing happiness today. I wasn’t suffering when I joked with KK and Annie this morning. While waking them up, I said, “What if I had 56 kids to take care of, and 48 of them were babies?”

They laughed. We discussed how I could take care of them.

“I couldn’t nurse all of them. KK, you would have to feed them with bottles. Can you imagine fixing 48 bottles? You could not go to camp!”

We all laugh.

“I know! We could sell them. Forty-eight babies for sale!”

Then Annie decides she is a baby and I am keeping her. When she comes downstairs 10 minutes later, she brings the sheet with her.

“I am in my baby blanket! Here’s your baby!”

As she eats her cereal, she tells me we have a new secret name. She isn’t my baby bird anymore; she’s just my baby. I already knew that, and I tell her our secret is safe with me.

Falling Down

Last night I did a head stand at yoga. I felt like I was on top of the world.

This morning, roughly 30 minutes ago, I tripped and fell hard in front of my husband’s girlfriend from college. I feel utterly disgraced. I am picturing this knee-nose dive as a metaphor for my entire life.

Which one of these experiences is true?

Both.

I am a woman who does head stands during yoga class then wakes up 9 hours later to participate in a one-hour morning boot camp.

I am a woman who was worrying about dropping off library books and filling the car with gas and copying the financial forms for Girl Scouts and buying toilet paper before I had to be home for the final inspection for our house remodel.

I am the person who has attacked exercise with vigor as a way to cope with my life being turned upside down by my daughter’s learning disabilities.

I am the person momentarily congratulating herself for not acting like an idiot in front of her husband’s long-ago girlfriend before completely losing her balance.

I am the girl who spent an hour this morning joking with other girls as we tried to figure out partner exercises that seemed more difficult than calculus at 6:30 am.

I am the girl who compares herself to the old girlfriend who is currently a lawyer and I come up short as the stay-at-home mom with the lame writing career that has never paid the mortgage.

I am the human being that spent one month not skipping one day of a five-day-a week harder-than-hell boot camp to prove to the annoying male instructor that I have true grit.

I am the human being that just sobbed for way too long about every sucky thing in my life.

Just for the record, it’s been a hard year.

Just for the record, it has been a beautiful year that turned my brain inside out with both its difficulty and grace.

And after I ice this leg, I am running a million stay-at-home mom errands, taking Annie to yet another tutoring session, and completing some meager freelance work.