Here and Now, Then and Always

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I’ve been here before.

I’ve been in the car hours before dawn, one piece of my heart sleeping upstairs, another in the backseat, another driving. I’ve been down these roads that I could navigate in my sleep, the turns I know through memories painful and good: the nighttime drive to deliver Little Brother, the morning one for The Kid, and countless ones to take him to the Children’s Hospital where they’ve poked and prodded and hurt and somehow helped.

I’ve been in this waiting room before, or one like it, holding him still, assuring him all is well, both of us sweating, me through my clothes and him through the gown they gave him. I’ve taken him back before, heavier each year, held him as they’ve pushed the liquid through the IV and his head has rolled back. I’ve kissed him after they’ve laid him on the table, unresponsive, told him I’d see him soon as I prayed for his safety through tears.

I’ve been here before, and yet I haven’t.

I’ve been on the couch–our Atlanta couch–watching Mickey with TK and LB, and I’ve waited as the characters urged responses from the viewers, and I’ve yearned for TK to talk back, to say just one word, and I’ve waited in vain. But this time, on this couch that is ours yet also not, I”ve heard him respond, heard him answer their questions easily. And not only that, but I’ve seen the additions to what I’d hoped for: the jam dance they learned from their Aussie friend, butts wiggling in front of the TV, laughter punctuating their movements.

All the other things we’ve picked up across the ocean: the growth, the friends, the early-morning texts as they are going to bed, frantic mornings that, when we return there, will be replaced by frantic nights and mornings of messaging. People on both sides of the world, our lives richer than we’d hoped.

“Did you ever imagine your life would be such an adventure?” The Dad asked the night they got here, and since sarcasm is our family’s first language, I’d waited for the punch line–but it didn’t come. He meant it, and it’s true, the waves that have swept me to New York and Atlanta and Sydney, that constantly resuscitate me to grace. The truth: that there was never a time it wasn’t there.

We melt into each other on the couch, these jet-lagged moments that we never would have had were it not for the waves. My boys and I, a unit so much stronger and more blended than we were before we left this house. Before my “no” followed by my weary “fine.” Fine: do it again. Upend my life. Destroy my agenda. Love me fully.

I waited for years to hear the sounds I heard the other night from The Sis’s kitchen: my boys playing with their cousins, the boy and girl laughter, the friendships forming. We only had to move across the world for it to take hold.

And now I sit, waiting again, suspended between his going in and coming back. Like we were in the hammock in the backyard that is now both our home and a place we visit, willingly held by the ropes that keep us aloft while digging into us. Like we are between time zones, between cities, between continents and days. I know I’ll think it when we get back, as I stare out my bedroom window into the night: How is it possible that they’re beginning the day I’m ending? How is it possible that we have more than ever before, in so many places?

How can it be that I should gain? That this grace that will wake him up and return him to us in an hour will fly us to New York then Sydney, will hold our hearts even as the ropes that keep them aloft dig in, hurting yet healing and bringing us always to more, to life.

The History of Us

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This family spends a considerable amount of time (in Australia, you might say heaps of it) smashed together in hotel rooms.

This one particularly, the one in which I’m now writing, our layover host-with-the-most near LAX. We enter it early morning, post-Sydney flight, and often leave it late at night, to return there. We’ve mastered its restaurant menu, grown familiar with the staff (at least enough for me to recognise some of their faces, I mean), know where all the good poop bathrooms are.

Still, when we arrived here around 8 am Saturday morning after a 14-hour trek across the North and South Pacific Oceans, The Kid made a declaration: I want to go home.

Suspended as we are between two of those, between two destinations, I asked him which home he meant. “Australia,” he answered easily, then provided our street address there, just to be clear.

“I do too,” I confided to him, even though that’s not the whole story. It rarely is. For I, too, want to be where things are most familiar and at-hand. And right now, that is likely our home in Sydney. But there’s also the house in Atlanta: our first home as a family, the place where we’ll welcome friends and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. The place that welcomed us, when The Husband and I left New York and got married, then brought home from the hospital two healthy boys.

Oh, New York. That’s another one. The place where TH and I met, where we’ll be returning next week, for the first time with the kids. Where my writing partner and I will promote a book two years (and two lifetimes) in the making. Where we’ll board a flight back to LA then remain in the airport for a flight back to Sydney.

It’s complicated, this trans-continental, trans-hemispheric, trans-season, trans-home life we lead. Complicated, and pretty beautiful, in between (maybe because of?) the messy bits.

The night before we left Sydney, I pushed a stroller full of Little Brother while TK walked beside us. Fuelled by champagne and friendship, I descended a hill overlooking the ocean and talked to friends while their kids ran ahead. We arrived at an evening full of kids dancing and parents eating/drinking/talking, and in my joy at this life of ours I overdid it, waking up the next morning hungover.

I forgot my wallet. Left it right on the table at our house in Sydney. My, and The Sis’s, first reaction? At least I have my passport in case I get carded.

Now we’re in LA, with a flight to Atlanta tomorrow. In this hotel room, we sleep, and shower, and screech at each other, and stay smashed together, and there’s something wonderful about it: waking up to these three favourite faces, this story of ours so ours, these moments known just by us. This childhood TK and LB are having. Lost in the day-to-day-ness of regular life is, often, the beauty of our stories. I relegate memories of how TH and I met to the recesses of my mind, choosing instead to wonder why he can’t close a damn cabinet. I forget the moments of the boys’ births when they ask a million questions and fight with each other. But here, in this room, we remember: we like each other. We are for each other. We are, always, together.

Yesterday we went to the Santa Monica Pier. Ugh. Beautiful view as long as you look to the left or right. As someone wise once said, it “makes Seaside Heights, New Jersey look like the French Riviera.” I looked up and saw the word harbor on a sign. “That’s not how you spell it,” I thought reflexively. “Where’s the U?”

This story is changing us, and not just our spelling. It’s stretching us, demanding more than we can confidently give, and forcing us to make space for grace to do…well, everything. “Everything” being the exact amount we can’t do. We are between so many places and grace, it is within them all, waiting for us to get there, waiting for us to come back, and just waiting with us, as we forget and remember and live the best parts of the story it writes.

I, Will

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And now, a word about Little Brother.

I think it’s fair to say he gets short shrift around here–here being these weekly blog entries, not our life in general. This inequity stands to reason: he came along second, after all, and he’s thus far coasted through life without any of the challenges his older brother, The Kid, has had to face (though that ear-tube surgery back in ’16 was kind of a bitch). Lately I’ve been watching him, and listening–he makes it hard to NOT do either, larger-than-life as he can be. And I’ve made some notes for your reading pleasure and, hopefully one day, his.

If birth stories are predictive of future personality, then TK and LB’s stand true: TK arrived early and quietly, so many things about him unexpected yet subtle. LB, on the other hand, kicked me until my water broke all over the bedroom floor, forcing me out of the house WAY past my bedtime and officially entering the world at 1 am after I vomited all over a nurse due to my (his) unbearable contractions. What I’m saying is that he makes his presence known. And how.

He is both a perfect mixture and, always, his own person. Mixture: he can be The Husband’s doppelgänger, all furrowed brow and concentration one minute, laid-back glee the next; he can also be his mother’s mirror, reflecting back to me a short fuse and bent toward easy frustration. The will is strong with this one: relaxed one second and stubborn the next, his temper often leads TH to turn to me and grin: “I know where he got that from,” even as I was just about to point out that they look like twins.

His own person: ask him if’ he’s anything–hungry, hot, a silly bear–and his reply is standard. “NO! I WILL PHILLIPS!” He knows who he is, even as he’s figuring out what that means.

I can relate.

As an oldest child, I often can’t relate, though. I was the first to do most everything: have a particular teacher or take a certain class. I was known on my own, a quality the younger doesn’t always have. LB is often known in the context of being TK’s brother, and I wonder how that can affect a person. (Maybe I’ll ask The Sis.) I watched him recently as I went with him to TK’s school to talk about his special Apple brain. LB sat on my lap, happy to be in central viewing territory of the class’s eyes. He inserted comments about his own goofy brain a couple of times lest any of us forget he was there. He tickled my face and bounced on my knees. A wallflower he is not.

If TK is a quiet little Mozart, focusing intently on his tasks, then LB–though not without Mozart moments–is more often Yosemite Sam, blasting around our house with a ferocious energy that seems to wane only when he’s sick or there’s an option to be carried and held. He always wants to be held. This is exhausting and endearing, indicative as always of the wide-ranging spectrum he inhabits. This week, he’s been sick–coughs in the night and raspy voice in the day, more carrying than even usual, need amplified to reach my breaking points. And yet. I’ve been afforded more moments with him, this second-born who, when faced with the possibility of growing up in another's shadow, both defiantly emerges from it to cast his own while never failing to come back to that bond: "That's James. He's my brother."

He is complicated yet easy. We lie on the couch together in the calm before he climbs into every nook my body creates, demanding more of me than I know how to give. This morning, I dropped him off for a short day at school and he reached for me, crying. This afternoon I'll pick him up and he'll run to me, thrilled.

And I think about what this means, to know someone or something in the context of something else, to be inseparable from others. Because it's true of all of us, and all we know: everything within something else. For me, all of it within the context of grace, which came first and bats last and never leaves. Grace making everything--challenges and sickness and tempers and grins--a deeper invitation into its all-encompassing context. Every other story a part of the bigger one.

Yesterday in the car LB announced, "We make the world bigger!" I doubt he even knew what he was saying in his cold-induced haze, but I did. And they do.

Help/For the Drowning

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My eyes are shit.

Besides a fun little condition called congenital nystagmus, which renders my eyes vibratory little balls, I just have poor long-distance vision. I remember getting glasses as a child and seeing the leaves on trees for the first time on the way home from the ophthalmologist’s office, a miracle in broad daylight. I went to the optometrist last week and she put me somewhere on the middle of the visual spectrum: not that good, but not that bad either. The equivalent of tepid water.

This sort of offended me. I mean, without my contacts I feel like I’m in a fever dream. Not that bad?

It’s the same kind of offence I take when someone says that “God gives special kids to special people.” Or that God has allowed us to face our particular challenges to show how strong we are. Or–THE WORST OF ALL OF THEM–when a person dies and says that “God needed another angel in heaven.”

Who is this God people speak of? Because, to me, he sounds like an asshole, which is why he’s not the one I know. This God belongs on needlepoint pillows yet has a bullying problem. This God identifies his peeps by dropping them in the middle of minefields, by switching the weights on them at the gym before they do their dead lifts, by being so insecure as to pluck people from earth so he can have more friends in paradise.

Gross.

Here’s the truth: my vision sucks. I’m not so special. And I’m definitely not strong. By the end of most days, I feel I’m drowning, and the only thing that can save me are red wine, a hot bath, and a raft called grace that scoops me up rather than requiring me to pull myself onboard.

That “Footprints” thing that I used to love? Gross again. There’s never not a day when I’m not being carried. What I’m saying is that strong…is overrated.

The other night I stood staring out the window after yet another day of failures, of shitty parenting, of not-so-consistent kindness to The Husband, and I felt the familiar urge to list it all out in my head, all the things I needed to do better tomorrow. I could live my whole life in lists and it would kill me. The weight of this particular set of to-dos approached me like a shadow in the growing night and then I remembered: we don’t do things that way anymore. God and me, his grace and my lack, that is not how we operate. I shut the self-salvation project down once again–turned off the lights in the office, put up the sign saying we’re no longer in business (I have to put it up daily; someone keeps taking it down)–and made space for the glorious freedom of being in need.

Years ago I heard a lifesaving expert recount how difficult it is to save a person who has just realised she’s drowning: how, when the initial panic sets in, the person flails and fights it so hard that, were an untrained person to intervene, both would likely go down. How people are more…well, save-able once they’ve given up. When their strength is gone and they have nothing left. This is when they are most likely to be carried to safety.

So the other night, at the window, I remembered how I don’t have to be a hero anymore. How I never did, how I never was anyway. I let the failures that so easily look like both accusations and future projects be, instead, exactly what they are: the things that expose my need for more, that drive me into a grace that saves me. Once again, I stopped fighting and found that I could breathe.

It’s not about not trying to do better. It’s about the freedom that comes with knowing that when I fail–every time–grace doesn’t. Which is the point.

We had a busy Easter weekend, full of chocolate and BBQs, swimming and sun, wine and wonderful friends. After four days of it, we were exhausted, and the time change (it’s autumn here) was working its black magic on us too. The boys and I rode home from their swim lesson last night with the sun beginning to set at its new time. As we turned the corner to our street, its orange glow pierced the windshield, and my song list shuffled to “Nessum Dorma” from the opera Turandot, because I’m fancy.

Actually, it’s because in 2008, I took a trip to Italy with my girlfriends and we booked a private wine tour. At one point, our tour guide/new friend cued up this very track and it blasted the van we rode in through the Tuscan countryside. It felt magical. I knew I needed the song for myself, even if it wouldn’t feel as Italian and wine-soaked ever again.

But the strains echoed through the car anyway, decidedly more quietly but still recognisable ten years later, and the water glimmered ahead of us, and I thought about all the places I’ve heard it: a van in Italy, from which I was scooped into a Honda in Atlanta, from which I was scooped into a Hyundai in Sydney, all by a grace that may change the surroundings but never the saving, set to a background music that always sounds the same.

Becoming Bilingual

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I didn’t expect that we would move to Sydney and become fluent in a new language.

The Kid and Little Brother’s experiences of language have been at opposite ends of the spectrum (see what I did there?): TK being a late starter but now filling the silent and empty spaces with questions upon questions, always seeking information; LB harping on something TK hardly ever did: the art of imitation. I hear him parrot me without his even knowing he’s doing it, the huffy “GAAH”s and the occasional bursts of profanity (“This is FUCK!” in the waiting room at TK’s therapy centre being a classic example). Then there are the thousand other things he utters, revealing that his ears are always attuned, that my words are soaking in for better or worse. There are the “broccoli smells like farts” pronouncements at the supermarket; the “James, you have to say ‘please'” exhortations that only serve to anger his big brother; and, my recent favourite, “I can only do ONE THING AT A TIME,” something he hears me say daily and uses at his (but not my) convenience. The other day, on the way to school, he told us he was going to share toys with his mates and I melted in the front seat. They are both sponges, taking in what they see and hear and processing it in their own ways.

But they both say “ba-nAAHH-na,” and “rubbish bin,” and “playing up,” and a hundred other Australian-isms that we’ve learned together, the local language seeping into all of us.

After last week’s student-initiated introduction of the word autism to TK’s class, I realised it was time to step up and teach TK’s colleagues a new vernacular. And to introduce some words to him that we haven’t used yet. So I sat him and LB on the couch and we watched a video about how brains work and what the A-word is. Up to this point, we’ve been using a different A-word–the Apple brain–to describe how TK’s mind works. I prefer that far more descriptive and accurate term more than one that reflects a best guess, umbrella-type diagnosis that doesn’t begin to summarise TK.

But there are a lot of words, and we have to learn them all.

Yesterday I went to TK’s class to speak to them our language: the special Apple brain that TK possesses, the special hat called a halo that he wore, the way he teaches me every day. The students sat, rapt. Occasionally one of them would wave at me from his or her perch on the floor as though we were having our own little moment, separate from the rest. LB sat on my lap, inserting words into the conversation now and then, always seeking to be involved. TK stood beside me, alternately listening and just grinning, shy and proud. He heard the language of his story. With one Xanax and a lot of prayer on board, I was as ready as I could be to tell it. Afterward, I heard other stories: parents telling me about what their kids came home telling them. How cool it is that James doesn’t care what people think. “I love James.” How James doesn’t like loud noises, and “neither do I, Mum! We’re the same!” How James likes cars–“just like me!” How James got to ride horses, and “we should do a class excursion and go horse riding!”

The last question of the talk came from a girl in the back, who asked the million-dollar one: “Why does James have autism?”

One of the reasons I know I’ve always believed in God, even when I wished I didn’t, was because of how often I get mad at him. I thought, in that moment, of all the tears shed, the anger unleashed, the frustrations mounted, the “why”s I’ve asked over the years. This question, seemingly so impossible to answer, but I know it. I know the answer.

“I think he was made this way,” I told her, told them all, “because he has special things to show the world.”

I never asked to learn this language, but I’ll never stop being grateful that I can speak it.

Later that night, TK went over to the cupboard and grabbed my Apple computer. “If most people have HP brains,” I had told his class, “then James has an Apple brain.” Before I could ask him (indignantly) what he was doing with my stuff, he placed the laptop on a bench and grabbed his own blue HP. He lined the computers up next to each other. The HP and the Apple, side by side.

Together In It

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On Sunday, the day of this past weekend that did not include a hangover for me, our family skipped church for another kind of unifying activity: a Moana singalong at the local cinema. It’s like this…

Old life: sleep in until 11 am, hustle down to the local brunch spot in time to grab a table and a pomegranate mimosa. Or three. Eat way too many fries and eggs and fried eggs. Head home for a nap in front of the TV.
Now life: Wake up at 6:30 with two kids in the bed. Hand them screens to get 30 more minutes’ sleep. Fill the time until 10 am. Head to local cinema and meet friends there with their kids. Occupy two rows and watch/belt out Moana for two hours. No alcohol involved. Or naps, for that matter.

Maybe I’m polishing a turd here, or maybe I was just on a non-hangover high, but I’ll tell you something: the singalong was actually fun.

Our two familiar families took up rows in front of and behind each other, and our kids traversed these rows at will. I held all four of them on my lap at some point, as did The Husband. The kid in front of us, with his dad and sister, kept turning around and making exclamations like, “This film is GREAT!” and “I love this song.” There was no order, except the dictated chronology onscreen. And yeah, I sang. I sang like a mofo.

It’s no pomegranate mimosa (#RIP Penelope), but it ain’t nothing either.

Another favourite film of the kids’ is Inside Out, which I will take over Transformers any day, thank you, and The Kid has been quite into feelings lately. Maybe it’s the movie, maybe it’s all the talking I encourage about emotions on the sly since TH tries to avoid it like the plague (#submissivewife), likely it’s a combination of both and just…everything else in life. He’s been going through a period of fear and worry when it comes to our family’s safety and health. He’s afraid we’re going to disappear, though I’ve made him countless unkeepable promises to the contrary. When he asks if our Family Island, like the one in the film, could ever fall apart, he already knows the answer: No. And he also knows the answer to the next question, why: Because the love is too strong. But he still likes to hear it. Over and over and over. So I tell him. Over and over and over. Maybe I need to hear it too.

“There is nowhere you could go that I won’t be with you,” Moana’s grandmother said to her, and maybe I’d been looking at my phone the last time I heard the words, because this weekend it was like hearing them for the first time. I whispered into TK’s ear: “Did you hear that? Remember what’s true,” the thing I say to him so often as he’s drifting off to sleep and the fears arise, as they so often do in exhaustion and darkness. Remember what’s true.

Because here’s what is true: eight weeks into the school year, he’s finally settling. Re-settling, after last year. The fearsome changes are beginning to take their rightful shape as blessings, new people sitting around our table over champagne while their kids bound up and down the stairs with mine, old people knowing us and being known by us even better than before. I told it to TK, how new things can feel hard but get easier as you get used to them, and the other night he said it while drifting off: “Mom, I’m getting used to it now.” And I let out an eight-week breath.

What is true happens while we’re standing around a pool in which our kids swim, and I tell the story of James’s diagnosis and my denial afterward, and one of the new people who’s feeling less and less new, she reframes it: it wasn’t denial. I was refusing to let him be defined by it. I was fighting for him. And I see the grace that passes through people, through friendships, through the places where we’re put that can feel so wrong at first but become so right.

This is our community, these family islands that coalesce with ours to cover a map called Home. These moments in the foyer, when a friend comes by to grab the things her kids left, and I tell her about the kid in TK’s class who seems fixated on the word autism, and she cries and hugs me. These are our people, and we were put among them by grace.

“Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,” the song says, and there are moments when the loneliness seeps in and I look around, waiting for it, welcoming it. But so often now, one year and more in, here and across the ocean, I hear those words and think…more? How could there possibly be?

Broken Hallelujahs

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What she had could not quite be put into words, but the best way to capture it may be to say that she knew what wasn’t true.” –Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway

I’m in a season of learning what’s not true.

The Kid and I talked about it the other night as he was falling asleep, Little Brother already sacked out beside us. This is when so many of our meaningful conversations occur now, in that space between daylight and night, the twilight seeping through their window, the coming darkness allowing fears to float to the surface and feelings to be whispered before dreams transform them into images. He was talking about feeling sad, about how Year One is so much different, and harder, than kindy; how it makes him sad when I leave. He asked what would happen if we all disappeared and he was left alone in the house and I did the thing parents do: I made a promise I have no real power to keep, telling him that will never happen. That we are with him.

“And God is with me?” he asked, calling for divine assurance in the way only children (and distrusting adults, ahem) can: as backup. As co-pilot.

“Yes, always,” I told him, because we believe these things even as we doubt them, even as all evidence points to the contrary. Believe me, I’ve tried the opposite. Didn’t take.

“He’s in my heart? He’ll never leave me alone?” he asked, assurance and reassurance stacking upon each other, never enough.

“Yes,” I said, and told him one painful yet freeing thing I’ve learned: that our feelings can lie to us. That when the sad turns to being afraid, to be suspicious, because this could be a lie. Sometimes sad is real, and must be felt. But sometimes it can be based on a feeling that is based on a lie.

Because I’ve been learning it–what isn’t true–so that I can tell them what is.

I’ve learned that feeling happy isn’t what keeps us safe. That easy isn’t always better. I’d rather remember this in years when things are easier, when he skips into school and can’t wait to go back, rather than a year in which (so far) every day is a struggle to get through the gate and the classroom door. But I don’t remember it as well then, do I? I don’t need to.

I’ve learned that it isn’t me who ultimately protects him. That my hands can only hold–and hold back–so much.

I’ve learned that some amount of letting go is always necessary, and always awful.

I’ve learned that I can’t stay at his school and stare through the window all day with a video camera. APPARENTLY.

I’ve learned that the bottom of a bottle of wine may not hold all the answers.

I’ve learned that running from feelings just makes them run faster to catch up.

I’ve learned there are no blood tests for what TK and I have, these anxieties that plague us, that turn into spectres that dog us and clench our insides until we must be unravelled to be healed.

But I’ve also learned other things.

I’ve learned that the hands that are big enough to hold my children also have room for me, if I will let them. That grace operates independent of mathematic principles, because the more I need, the more it abounds. The more I use, the more is left over.

I’ve learned that I can’t stay with him at school, but I can go into his room when he calls at night, and I can lie between him and LB and answer their questions just at the point when I’m so spent I think I have nothing left, and grace will tiptoe in and be enough for all of us. I’ve learned that they can fall asleep hearing the truth.

I’ve learned that sitting down with feelings and facing them, rather than running to some other distraction, can leave them both disempowered and somehow befriended. which makes them scream less. Which…helps.

I’ve learned that, for me, the bottom of the bottle may not hold the answers but a glass or two can, and the truth for me lies on some murky line in that deep red liquid.

I’ve learned that both anxiety and hope are future-focused and that we carry both, and are formed by both, and will be freed in the midst of both.

I’ve learned that I have one kid who, at his brother’s age, wouldn’t sit still for or participate in a group class, but that I have one, LB, who will be the star of Gymbaroo his first week. That pitying glances and “oh, he’s so cute!” exclamations don’t begin to sum up either of my children.

I’ve learned that I have one kid who didn’t speak until he was four, and that I have one who, at three, pronounces to everyone in the grocery store that “broccoli smells like farts.”

And I’ve learned this: that at their baptisms, neither much liked the water spilled over their heads by hands that loved them, but that now, they ask what it all means; they watch the babies up front endure the same and turn to us with grins on their faces, knowing they’re a part of something. That they are held by things deeper than feelings, by blood and water, bread and wine, promises kept.

I’ve learned that hallelujahs that are broken are still hallelujahs. That they may, even, be the best kind.

Same Kind of Different As Us

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It’s the same with every new group of people–and life has been full of those for the last few years. There’s the getting-to-know-you awkwardness, which my social anxiety allows me to feel keenly. There’s the wondering whether I should reveal all the sections of me that are a hot mess, which is to say, ALL OF THE SECTIONS: my history of pre- and postpartum depression and anxiety, my childhood quirks that have largely been resolved due to coping mechanisms (WINE) but which will always familiarise me with feeling a part of the “weird” kids, the outcasts; my American accent, which carries its own baggage (I promise I won’t shoot you and no, I didn’t vote for him); and, over dinner tables and in schoolyards, over classroom desks and social drinks, the spectrum diagnosis that somehow defines us and doesn’t, colours every day yet can be even forgotten in the monotony of just life.

There are people who wouldn’t have even known, they tell me, had I not told them about The Kid’s special Apple brain (our current preferred work for autism, thanks), and this begs the question: when’s the time, if ever, to admit we’re different?

I find that I’m drawn to the people who do admit it, so maybe the answer is…always?

My friend said it over the phone the other day: “Why do our kids always have to expose us?” And my thoughts were multi-fold: 1) Damn right. 2) Because they’re assholes. 3) Because that’s how grace works. Rudely, and effectively, because we need it. 4) I cannot wait for people to read the book CG and I are writing because this kind of stuff is all over it.

Because it turns out that it’s not so much about TK’s social challenges, or Little Brother’s struggle with not screaming “HELP!” at school to make his presence known, or the way that other kid picks his nose, because they’ve all got something, because we’ve all got something, and it’s really about that. About my stuff. About everybody’s.

The local grocery sells banged-up produce at a discount, but I’m wondering if that might be the best kind.

Last Monday, we were walking down our suburb’s main road, fresh off a trip to the toy shop, when an older kid passing in the other direction did a double take and stared at TK. I glanced at TK myself, wondering if he was standing out in any way and prepared to fight, then the older kid smiled. “Hi James,” he called out, and I relaxed as TK, predictably, glanced his way and ignored him for his new toy. But I turned to the kid. “Hi!” I compensated. “Do you know James?”

“Yeah, I went to his school last year,” he told me. “I’m at the high school now.”

I asked his name, thanked him for saying hello, and walked the boys to the car with tears in my eyes: we’re now getting stopped on the street. Sometimes–often? Always?–things aren’t what they appear at first.

Later, a girl who lives a few houses down knocked on our door and asked for a play. We headed to her front yard, populated with toys, and she pointed out a car to TK. “That’s a beautiful car,” he proclaimed, and she looked up at me and grinned. It wasn’t the response either of us expected. It was better. It was him.

And this past weekend, we were sociable every day and somehow are still alive. We connected with new friends and older ones over things happening to our kids, which are of course things happening to us, and there was frustration and anger and joy and laughter and all of it. We strategised and questioned and planned. “Here’s to not having it all together,” one of us said, and I exhaled a breath that I didn’t even know I was still holding. The kids ran around us, torches lighting up the sky and house, and a knock at the door revealed a policeman. He told The Husband he had been called by a neighbour who, because of the lights bouncing around, was worried we were being robbed. “I’m a bit embarrassed really,” he finished, “Now that I see what’s actually going on.”

After speculations were proffered in the hope we would end up subjects of this week’s crime section in the local paper, I thought about it again: all the first impressions that don’t have to persist, but can only be broken through the awkwardness, through the revealing, through the sticking around and not having it all together. This opening, like flowers to the sun, the light being the thing that both hurts, and keeps us alive.

Back to Reality, Back to Life

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I spend all day recovering from the first two hours of the morning.

Trying to recover, at least. The process never feels complete, as the hours while the kids are in school fly by and I am always somehow still connected to them: through their laundry, in meetings with their teachers, by the emails I’m sending to the rest of the parents in The Kid’s class.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is: the school year has begun, began five weeks ago actually, and I am in many ways just now coming up for air.

Little Brother’s last day at his first childcare spot in Sydney was a few days ago, and they sent him off with a huge card full of pictures and notes. I cried, naturally. Goodbyes are almost as hard as hellos for me. We drove away and I processed how this familiar place, where he is loved, will from now on be a part of our past. (It’s possible I overthink things. I’ve heard one of my weaknesses is that I care too much.) And now he’s fully immersed in his new preschool, where they are beginning to love him–his teacher yesterday told me that whenever LB goes to the toilet, he announces, “My mom will be so proud!” He’s not crying at dropoff. Life goes on.

And The Kid. Well, I’m back into advocacy mode with him, having spent two mornings in the principal’s office this week due to teacher difficulty. I’m acquainting other people with him, filling in the picture that’s nowhere near complete for them yet, and picking up that brush again can be exhausting and…fraught. Finding his place is, for now, my role, and it runs the span of emotions daily.

Last night I fell asleep with LB beside me; this morning I woke up with TK beside me. The days start early and in full-on mode, those first two hours full of sandwich-making, breakfast-dispensing, coffee-drinking, toilet-visiting, scream-stifling, brother-fighting, anxiety-managing chaos.

And later, when they come home? Sorry not sorry, but playing with kids is the worst. LB has all these rules: “Be the bad guy! No, NOT LIKE THAT.” And TK is constantly asking questions, the whys affording a glimpse into his beautiful mind while driving me to the edge of insanity, these pendulum swings between love and rage, understanding and confusion, laughter and tears the measure of our time together.

Also, the questions TK asks really should be directed more toward experts in the respective fields: physicists, theologians,, meteorologists. Because really, how am I supposed to answer why God takes people to heaven after their hearts break and the hospital can’t fix them and the moon is behind the clouds and walking uphill is harder while I’m making another f-ing sandwich?

Someone asked me awhile back if having kids changed my writing. Again, maybe an expert should respond, but here’s my take: Having kids changed everything. As far as my writing goes, they frustrate it even as they inspire it; the interrupt it as they provide all the parts of it that matter. Mainly, though? They ignite it like never before.

That’s the thing, the worst and best thing of it all: they kill me to bring me to life. I think they got the idea from God, and grace.

Last night LB would NOT go to sleep. I let him come upstairs with me since The Husband was a dinner, and I thought I had been more surreptitious with comments made under my breath. But lying there beside me, he began to whisper: “Fuck fuck fuck.” FAILURE AGAIN. Sound the alarms. And this after I’d lost my temper enough times to approach sleep from a shame spiral.

Just before that, before TK had fallen asleep, the boys were fighting and squealing in bed and I had explained to them, through gritted teeth, how hard it is for me when they’re both making demands at the same time. That I’m not their servant, but their mother. TK asked if my heart was broken, and I assured him it wasn’t.

And after all that mess, all that death…life. TK reached out for me. “I love you,” he said, so softly I had to ask him to repeat it. He did, those all-too-rare-from-him words sinking into a heart that, let’s face it, is always somewhat broken. An hour and terse words after that, TH arrived home to find me and my arch-nemesis/BFF, LB, spooning in bed. Tomorrow, I’ll spend my third day in a row in the principal’s office, trying to sort out what being my child’s advocate looks like right now.

Yesterday, after (another, always) rough morning, I drove by the beach on the way home. I got out of the car and walked to the edge of the sidewalk, stared at the water and the gray clouds, felt the wind whip through my air, sand blow across my face. No one would pick this weather scenario for a day on the shore, but still…sometimes you can smell the salt better on days like that. Smelling the salts that are meant to revive.

Weights of Glory

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“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” –C.S. Lewis

There’s just no way to predict it.

I expect the tears on Monday, when we’ve had the weekend together, to blend and lean in to each other, each settling into the next one’s edges and curves until we emerge after the weekend, one unit that must be broken for another five days. Monday comes and both boys head into their schools with minimal protests, absent of tears, and I walk away from them pleasantly surprised.

Then Tuesday arrives to bitch slap me in the face and I’m left reeling.

Little Brother was denied entry into a tower-building partnership by a boy with whom I had thought, five minutes earlier, I had established a rapport. Harrumph. I thought for sure that would bring on the waterworks, as he looked at me uncertainly; then his teacher suggested they read a book together and he nodded resolutely, walking off to hold said teacher by the hand, and The Kid and I headed to his school.

We arrived, switched out his reader and hung his bag as usual, and he was all smiles for the whole of it. Then, inexplicably (to me), the tears began: “School is hard. School is boring. Take me home.” From someplace deep within me came the strength and conviction that are not of me, and I took a knee beside him, the ground gravelly and painful on my skin.

“Remember: I’ll share the sad with you.”
“What will happen to it?” he asked, knowing the answer.
“It will get lighter until you don’t even feel it.”
“Where’s God?” he asked, knowing the answer.
“In your heart.”

I went on to tell him other answers he already knows: that his therapist is with him. That he’s stronger than anyone I know–the scar on the back of his neck (and countless other memories he hasn’t even retained but I have) proving it. That he is loved and cared for and kept.

“Walk up the steps with me,” he said, and I pushed against my own weight, against the weight of a thousand heartbreaks, to walk that way, then turn around. He went into the classroom and out of my sight.

Out of my sight, but the weight remains. It remains for the mothers I talk to throughout the day, commiserations longer than the days themselves, stretching out through the years with our worries over these children we’ve carried and still carry, always, one way or another. The seven pounds at birth translating to a weight that grows throughout a lifetime, in and out of moments and never leaving. The weight of love, of responsibility, of obligation, of limited freedom but occasional glory.

The other day I was walking TK home and up ahead, I saw another mother with her son. On the main road, with the six lanes of traffic speeding by. They were skipping.

There are some weights that lift us.

“Many hands make lighter work,” my friend said to me the other night as she helped wash our dinner dishes, quoting her mother half-jokingly, and I thought of all the people who have been added to our life by our struggles, by our move, by the things we never would have chosen. How content I would have been to stay comfortable, protecting myself. How I never knew it before, the way to turn a Transformer robot into a car and back again. How I never would have had scar stories.

Last weekend, The Husband and I went out for Valentine’s Day, celebrating it our favourite way: with a movie. A new world in Africa opened up to us onscreen and afterward, we stepped into the Sydney night, a new world that is now a year old to us, that never would have happened had the boundary lines of our existence–the ones I set–not been scattered. The weight of life fluttering in the breeze all around us, grace with wings, kindly making us feel as though we were the ones who pulled something off.