Will Write for Attention

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I saw the emotional avalanche that is Dear Evan Hansen two weeks ago, on a yearly childless pilgrimage my husband and I make to the city where we fell in love, and conveniently, where Mockingbird holds an annual conference. Maybe it’s the range and sincerity displayed by headliner Ben Platt, with whose image I am considering adorning my bedroom walls (I think my husband will be fine with it; considering our age difference, it would be more of a proud Teen Mom situation). Maybe it’s the poignant and earworm-ridden soundtrack. Maybe it’s the tendency of the cast to depart from the stage door entrance every night and graciously sign playbills. Or maybe it’s the narrative, which feels personalized to me on every level: high-anxiety mother of at least one high-anxiety son; former awkward teen and current awkward adult; battler of insecurity and feelings of never fitting in.

I loved it, is what I’m saying. And what’s more, I am it.

Read the rest over at Mockingbird!

Made for Each Other

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Say it with me: I’m a shitty mom.

No? Not into that? Doesn’t make you feel better? Because lately I’ve come to wonder what our group obsession is with telling each other what a good job we’re doing; what wonderful mothers we are. And then I show myself and others a little grace and realise, duh, it’s because this matters more than just about anything else we do. We don’t want to suck at it.

But guys. WE DO.

And we don’t. But the parts where we do suck–where we fall apart, and don’t have the answers, and are left heaving and hurting with heaving and hurting kids beside us? These parts are real and deserve attention. They deserve being called what they are. And what they are, are not our best moments. And I have a lot of them. And maybe shitty is too strong a word, and sucks doesn’t exactly foster conversation, but neither does hiding those dark moments and covering them up with pretty ones.

I’m tired, is what I’m saying. So if you’re tired, and feel weak, and need a place to sit without having to get your shirt dry-cleaned first and have a professional photographer gloss away the messy bits, then there is room over here.

Welcome. Let’s breathe.

The other night The Kid set off our house’s security alarm. Yep, surprise! WE HAVE A SECURITY ALARM! It was news to us too–not that we had one, exactly, because the control panel is right there on the wall, but being the renters we are and having been given no information about said alarm, we figured it was disarmed. That there was no danger of it being set off.

TK woke us from that reverie.

So it was that on a Friday evening at around 7 pm, in the dark autumn night when bath time should have been gearing up, a shrill electronic scream broke through the air on our quiet street. TK freaked out. Loud noises coupled with parental anxiety? TIME TO HIT THE ROOF. Nothing would assuage his fear; no amount of reassurance would calm him. So I did that thing they tell you to do if you want to be a good mom: you play the flight attendant when the plane is crashing and your kids are the passengers. You stay (fake being) calm. IT DIDN’T WORK. Not for TK, at least. Meanwhile, Little Brother bounced around like we had just kicked off a rave and it was the BEST, MOST EXCITING NIGHT EVER. The Husband fiddled with the control panel, then descended to the basement to fiddle with the fuse box, and I heard proclamations floating up the stairway that brought to mind the dad in A Christmas Story when he was working on the heater, so I made an executive decision. Maybe even a shitty one: I poured a short roadie of red (one inch, or 2.54 centimetres if you’re nasty) into a stemless glass, threw on some shoes, forgot my wallet, and told the kids we were going for a drive. LB bounced behind me and into his carseat, glee plastered across his face at this break in monotony, while that same break in monotony plastered terror over TK’s features. He reluctantly climbed into his booster, though, and we backed out of the driveway in time to meet one of our neighbours who was walking by to “check on us” (figure out what the hell was going on and why we couldn’t stop it). He graciously offered us a place to stay if we needed it, which I think was sincere and not code for “I’m going to have you kicked out of the country if this doesn’t cease in the next five minutes.”

And off we drove into the night.

As “Cherry Bomb” poured from the car’s speakers and LB sang Mickey Mouse songs in the backseat and TK asked the same thousand questions over and over and we drove circles around our neighbourhood, I thought about how wonderfully shitty I am at this whole “caring for others” thing. Even the film Bad Moms didn’t touch on the idea of chauffeuring your kids around with takeaway Shiraz in hand, but I thought that movie kind of sucked anyway because their lives were more funny than depressing and who believes that? Besides, LB was now giggling in the backseat and TK was visibly calming (or I was), and at the end of the day if you bring home two intact and somewhat happy children, I’d say that’s a success (#lowstandards).

The alarm eventually subsided once TH pulled the plug on nearly all our electricity. We had to throw out everything in the freezer and fridge (RIP, 2 bottles of champagne), but we survived. Success.

The boys are taking swim lessons and they are truly smashing it. They willingly jump in to their teacher and are both going underwater (LB’s submersions have been mostly accidental, but whatever) and they’re learning survival skills which is all encouraging, but my favourite development so far is how they cheer each other on. TK gets into the water first, and LB yells from the side, “Hooray! Yay, James!” and applauds as if he’s watching the Olympic finals. Then it’s LB’s turn, and James throws out a few “Yay Will, go”s before begging to ride the glass elevator. They are for each other, and it echoes LB’s utterances from his carseat on the night of the alarm: “It’s okay, James. It’s not scary.”

I tell him what a good brother he is, because that’s what you do. That’s what people want to hear, right? But the thing is, sometimes it is scary. Sometimes the thing that doesn’t bother you, or undo you, or leave you heaving and hurting on the floor beside your heaving and hurting children? Sometimes that’s the very thing that DOES do all that to someone else. We are all broken in different ways by different things. Some of us, ahem, get through a spinal surgery and hospital stay with their kid then almost lose their mind when he finally starts talking and won’t stop asking what every. word. means. Some moms have to leave their son’s room during bedtime because he won’t read his damn book like he knows he’s supposed to, and when those moms finally cool off and reenter the room and the son asks, “Mommy, why did you leave?” those moms say they nicest thing they can think of which is also true, and it sounds like, “I needed a break.”

Sometimes we need a break. And here’s what that can look like to me: we all want to hear we’re great at this, but what I think we really want, even more, is to know that in those moments when we’re not so great at it? When we, in fact, kind of suck at it? That we’re still loved, that there are people who won’t abandon or refuse to forgive us.

The boys talk to each other in the car now, and it is hilarious. They argue over the most ridiculous and non-existent crap, like whether the airport is closed and why people go to jail. Throw in a few made-up words and I feel like an Uber driver carting around a couple of drunks. It is wonderful. And, sometimes, when they reach a fever pitch and start whining and my eardrums bleed, it is shitty. But every Saturday, they cheer each other on. They emerge from the pool, and the car, and the alarms, and the days, intact and mostly happy. They are learning to take care of each other, as I am learning to take care of them. We are doing something you can’t be taught yet still have to learn: how to love, and how much life there is in admitting we have miles (or kilometres, if you’re nasty) still to go.

A Mother of a Load

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Females are strong as hell. –Walter Bankston

This morning a text dropped on my face in the middle of the pre-school chaos, asking me if I could read with The Kid’s class today because the mum I alternate weeks with had an appointment she forgot about. CUE THE UPHEAVAL.

But not before I quickly texted back “Sure” with a thumbs-up emoji because I AM IN A NEW PLACE AND MY NEED TO BE LIKED HERE (ANYWHERE) KNOWS NO BOUNDS. Especially when my kids are involved. So I assented to the alteration of our morning landscape–not exactly akin to the beaches of Normandy, but adding anxiety nonetheless–and proceeded to let the new tension tighten my shoulders, cramp my back, raise my voice, and leave me realising once again how laid-back Aussies are and how NOT laid-back I am. How f-ing mental I am, to put it their way. In a quiet moment in front of the mirror, I breathed. I thought about my kids, quietly watching their screens in my room. And I did this: I resolved not to do better but to let go.

We moms carry too much.

We carry tension, and anxiety, and guilt, hung like millstones around our necks while water threatens drowning all around us but land persists, and we do too. We carry scars (my children seem to be magnetised to the one on my abdomen out of which they were born, landing on it with such regularity that I wonder if it’s their mother ship calling them home). We carry bags, ridiculous folds of leather and fabric containing the secrets of universes both Lego and literal, with some sand and dried peanut butter mixed in for WTF-fun. (At least I hope it’s peanut butter.) We carry hearts, and it’s a good thing when I chose that poem for my wedding I didn’t know how painfully true it would apply to my parenting or I would have run the other direction (don’t feel bad for The Husband; he would have too). We carry hands within ours, and soiled underwear, and smears of poo we don’t realise are there until it’s too late and social alienation is, once again, inevitable.

Did I mention we carry guilt? I still don’t know the names of Little Brother’s daycare teachers. I keep meaning to look that up.

And on Mother’s Day, we carry around handmade gifts and hopeful expectations that we’ll be recognised, that we’ll be seen, that maybe we’re not doing the whole damn thing wrong.

And maybe a bit of hope for some time away. During which we’re not touched. By anyone.

Which is why (along with a concerted effort to pre-empt a breakdown similar to last year’s) I told TH in no uncertain terms that this year, what I’d really like for Mother’s Day is a hotel room by myself in the city. And I got it, y’all. Thankfully, I have a partner who thinks handling live turds in the hand is as gross and #notmagical as I do, so he gets it. Also, he has a vested interest in my not going insane and blowing this popsicle stand. So on Saturday night I found myself in a warm and glowing room at the Sheraton where a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of champagne awaited me. (Note to Jesus: if heaven is supposed to be better than this, then you have your work cut out for you.)

(And note to you, readers: I am not bragging. Please understand the point here: I NEEDED A BREAK OR I WAS GOING TO GO CRAZY. We just completed a whirlwind trip across the world and back, right after a whirlwind move across the world, and I was reclaiming some space. Some sanity. It was a luxury and trust me, this is not lost on me. Which is why I’m considering starting a charity that provides mums with hotel rooms when their anxiety meds run out. I’ll keep you posted.)

I almost cried when I entered the bathroom and saw all that space that was for me, just MEEEEE!!! Compare it to our bathroom at home, whose own space is constantly exploited by two small bodies that hover around it constantly as I try to squeeze out a wee to the sound of screams. Heaven.

I wrote for two hours with champagne by my side, and then I met a friend downstairs for dinner. And this introvert who values her time alone found a gift in the next three hours, during which I spilled red wine all over myself (#nailingit) and deepened a growing relationship with some like-minded talk and laughter. Then I went back upstairs, drank another glass of champagne, and watched Ghostbusters (#nailedit). (Did I mention I shared a bottle of champagne with another mum the night before and she’s amazing? CHAMPAGNE FOR THE WIN!)

The next morning I managed the logistics of shoving all my stuff into my bags and carrying a bouquet of blooms to boot. The bags hung heavily off my shoulders and the flowers weighed in my arms like a baby as I walked through downtown Sydney. I was sweating when I arrived across from the church, in the park where I was meeting my family. And it wasn’t lost on me, the wonderful yet groaning weight of all the stuff, all the love, that I had to carry.

We carry so much. We carry dreams for our children, and disappointment over dreams dashed. We carry diagnoses, and fear over our own health and theirs. We carry empty spaces inside us waiting to be filled with the hope of new life, and we carry the little deaths that come each month when that doesn’t happen. We carry the phantom kicks that remind us of what pregnancy felt like and the ensuing wonder over whether we’re really done with that chapter (don’t worry, TH, we are). We carry confusion and ambivalence and regret and hope, and we carry it all every. single. day. We carry it to sleep, often waking up with it and the little ones who give birth to it lying right beside us. We carry, and we persist, because this is what we do. It’s how we go on living. It sucks, and it’s amazing, and the only thing lying between those extremes is…oh, just the mundanity of every day of life.

Oh, and we carry tunes. Recently LB asked me to sing a song about dinosaurs, and of course the only one I could think of was the classic below. I sang it for him, and then TK joined us in the car later that day, so I sang it for them, and now it’s the only GD thing they ever want to hear. This morning, in the middle of the upheaval and my pleas to get into the car, I urged TK to open the door. A second later, I heard him singing.

“Open the door, get on the floor, everybody do the dinosaur.”

I looked at him. “Are you singing the dinosaur song?” And he grinned back at me, and the morning and all its sins were redeemed and atoned for, and a dinosaur song became holy. And tonight, I’ll carry that to bed with me along with all the other baggage, as TK and LB do that thing where they whisper without knowing it in their drifting off to sleep: Mommy.

Coming Home(s)

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Atlanta, New York, Sydney…y’all ready? Let’s do this.

What’s more fun than fourteen hours in the air with your two small children, I ask? That would be fourteen hours with your two small children when they only sleep for two. And y’all, I was ready. I was packing. I had phenergen and liquid melatonin for them, Xanax for me. We got on board that flight and a few hours in we pulled the shades, forced the medicine down, and said nighty-night. And two hours later, my #preciousoffspring responded, “Good morning, bitches.” Another dose of phenergen couldn’t even take them down. Of course, as soon as they fell asleep, I downed my Xanax with some Shiraz because #flightrules, so I awakened to The Kid tugging on my arm saying he needed to use the toilet (#bullshitartist), and I spent the rest of the flight recovering from my stupor.

It was a great way to kick off the trip, is what I’m saying.

We spent a night in LA sleeping, then all my men spent the next day sleeping as well while I watched a Twilight marathon from my bed. In the late afternoon, we spent a couple of hours riding the elevators and escalators because #hotelrules, then we all passed out again after dinner. The next day, we landed in Atlanta.

Weird. Weird walking into a house that was home for six years and is a place to visit now. Weird having some of our stuff there, some packed in boxes, and some across the ocean. Weird feeling out of place in my own bedroom.

But also…wonderful? Wonderful seeing dear friends. Wonderful sitting on a couch across from someone who knows me and reminds me that tension is a passing note, because we’re being held. Wonderful taking the bread and wine from another friend. Wonderful watching the kids descend upon their “Atlanta toys” like it was Christmas morning (also, #spoiled). Wonderful hearing The Husband and my parents talking at the dinner table while I watched TV with the boys on the couch. Wonderful sharing life again, briefly, with people we love.

And wonderful leaving for the next trip home…

What’s better than visiting the city that grew you, the city where you found grace and got engaged? Visiting without diarrhoea or a hangover. BOOM (#nailedit).

Against all odds, I can breathe in New York. This antisocial-to-a-fair-degree introvert thrives being surrounded by people she doesn’t have to talk to. This is my space. And there are signs of home all over it: the briny smell of the East River, the incessant honking of cabs, the motion of a sea of people, and then…my stuff. I revisited my old street, 29th, and saw it again, and for the first time. There was my building, and the dry cleaner downstairs, and the preserved colonial home across the street, and the why-won’t-it-die bar from hell on the corner. But there was also the fire station I walked by every day without noticing it, and now I thought immediately of TK, how much it would thrill him to be that close to the engines. I saw the playground I walked past every day, and through often on the way to hit tennis balls against the wall next to it, and I imagined Little Brother conquering its slides. Things I barely noticed before, and now I imagined the most significant pieces of my life populating them.

We went to dinner. We saw a haunting and wonderful show that I’m still processing (I spilled wine on myself there and cried; #unrelated). We bounced from conferences bars to apartments to rooftops to restaurants in our solemn but exhausting vow not to let a little thing like and ocean make us disappear from people’s lives. I spoke and didn’t self-combust (or shit myself). We passed through, but deeply, which…is life, I think? Also I got a cupcake.

“Not to be rude, but is he going to be quiet on this flight?” she asked me. “Because I have a meeting after we land and I need to get some sleep.”

I imagine punching that asshole in the face when I recollect her question, but in real life I just turned away and back to TK, who was behaving JUST GREAT, THANKS ten minutes into the boarding process of our return trip. One great thing about having kids is that they drastically reduce the number of f*cks you have left to give; I am down to zero currently. Another way of putting it? They turn your face–sometimes literally, damn them and their inability to understand personal space–toward what matters. For the next fourteen hours, I remained glued to TK, even while sleeping. As TH and LB slept a few rows back (because #dearhusband and #mamaneedsbusinessclass and #happywifehappylife), TK uttered, “Mommy. Come over here,” and we piled into the same seat to sleep. We took trips to the bar together for snacks; we (I) used the bathroom in tandem. And, wonder of wonders, it wasn’t totally suffocating. Because here’s what they don’t write in the expat handbook: your heart will be stretched across thousands of miles, your sense of split homes will feel like split personalities, and you will be jet lagged with regularity and beyond belief. BUT. You will truly know your family again, and for the first time. And when your son, who is perched between your legs watching TV in a reclined seat while you try to sleep, turns and stares deeply into your eyes then explodes into a heart-bursting grin, you will finally know where home is.

And then you land. And you see it again and for the millionth time, the road that goes to your house. And the four of you walk in and breathe again.

TK goes to school the next day with that same grin, greeted with hugs and shouts. “James! You’re finally back,” the handyman says with a smile as he passes by, and I remember that we haven’t been here long, but we are known. I go to a wine night with some of the mums from his class, and I am slowly and awkwardly (as is my custom) getting to know them. The boys go to their first joint swim lesson and cheer each other on and don’t cry once, and when we’re done TK spots the glass elevator on the way out–the one that looks strangely similar to the one from his pool back in Atlanta–and just like that, we still get to take end-of-lesson lift rides.

The boys and I emerge from the car one afternoon and walk to the top of the concrete steps that lead down to the beach below, and as I gather their shoes and prepare to descend with them, LB announces, “HERE WE ARE!” It hits me, with the chill of an autumn breeze, that until now, I’d always visited the beach in warmer months. Now I will experience it in the winter. And every other season. Now I will really know it, for the first time. All of it. We are being held, taken through the liturgy that is life in all its old and new, words and prayers, known and unknown, and we are showing up for every season. For now, this home. And here we are.

Take a Beat

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I’m sitting here at 3:30 pm local time, having landed this morning around 7, and I’m struggling to stay awake. Other things I’m struggling to do: not scream at my children every time they whine (which is, jet lag considered, OFTEN); not shiver (68 degrees Fahrenheit/whatever that is in Celsius is COLD compared to what I just came from); not feel overwhelmed by the glut of memories churned out over the past couple of weeks (and the depressive episode that is sure to follow them, and accompany my imminent adjustment period).

So what I’m going to do is give myself a break. A brief beat, to just be, and to think through all that’s happened over the last fortnight: countless conversations, endless wine, too many airport trips, myriad familiar faces parading gloriously through my frame of vision, one speech delivered without diarrhoea or other incident, a Broadway musical that brought me to sobs and haunts me in the best way ever since, a run around Central Park with The Sis, an MRI, rooftops and laughter, a book idea growing into a Real Thing and (even better) friendship to go along with the partnership, a hotel night with dear friends, so many dinners, communion and community. And something tells me I haven’t begun to tap into all that it means. Or remember the half of it.

Sartre said that hell is other people. After three days in a row of traveling (and a lifetime of other evidences), I’d have to agree. Then again, Sartre didn’t know my people. So it turns out he’s only partially correct. All due respect. So I’m going to sit for a few days with the memories of my people, American edition, and let it all take root. Also, I’m going to sleep. And–maybe most beautifully, and most raw, and most challenging, I’m going to sit with my main people–my man and boys–and get back into our life here. After a tough morning (for the love of God STOP WHINING, SMALL PEOPLE), I just spent an hour on the beach–our beach–with The Kid and Little Brother and hand to God, it was like, for that sixty minutes, all the exhaustion and frustration and irritation melted away and we just got to be with each other. We just got to be.

So I’m going to go do more of that. That, and the sleep. And then I’ll come back and word-vomit all over your asses.

Tour de Us

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“…but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid…” —The Bible, and George Washington, and George Washington

I am driving my mom’s big-ass Toyota Highlander through a parking lot of traffic west on 285 toward Vinings and my women’s small group from our Atlanta church, and this is ridiculous and remarkable. I don’t live here anymore! Right? I mean, I live in Sydney. But here I am, driving down the right side of the road, searching for a decent XM station on The Mom’s radio, knowing exactly where I’ m going. And when I get there, I open the unlocked door and settle into the empty seat right between two friends, one who always laughs at my jokes and the other whose baby bump is MUCH bigger than the last time I saw it, and I’m hearing teaching and sharing life among familiar voices in a known spot. I live nine thousand miles away, yet I am still home. There, and here.

I am sitting on our couch, assigned the task of going through The Kid’s medical file which is really a medical drawer which is overflowing, and I’m actually throwing things out. There are things we don’t need here. Things he has outgrown. He doesn’t live here anymore, within these pre-surgery scans and PT exercises, and before I toss them (trust me, I didn’t toss that much), I take them to The Husband. “Remember this?” I ask him, as people always said we would–that we’d barely remember so much of this, and marvel at the recollections–and that’s what we do. Marvel over where we were, and where we are. I kept discharge papers, those golden tickets we were handed that were our tickets to freedom after hours and days in the hospital. And I toss them. They are no longer my tickets to freedom.

I am burrowed into a couch in a beautiful home that feels like a second one to me, a place where a party was hosted in my honour to bid me goodbye, and it smells and feels like home, so why isn’t it? It is. I am sharing life not over email this time but in person, and we are nodding and grinning and crying and talking and who knew when I nervously asked her to be my mentor a year ago that she would also be one of my dearest friends?

I am checking into a hotel a couple of hours before the other three arrive, and when they do it’s like no time has passed. No–it’s like ALL the time has passed, because in it have been texts and Skype sessions and stories and laughter and tears, and we are that much closer for the nine thousand miles, and over dinner and drinks we do life together, in person again, and I’m home here. Someone asks the next day if it was fun, and I reply in the affirmative even as I know that word doesn’t begin to describe what is experienced among friends like us. “Life-giving” comes closer and still doesn’t touch it. “This was good for my soul,” one says, and I think that just about nails it.

I am sitting on my family room floor after a Chick-Fil-A lunch and this baby is four months older and bigger now, and my boys are periodically enthralled with her, and I catch her grin and grab her rolls and see, again in person, what a blessing she is. And her mom and I, who have been somehow made stronger through the time and distance (this seems to be a theme among my closest), we share life over fries and children and the kind of vulnerability that is born of trust that is born of the CS Lewis, “You too, I thought it was only me” identification, which is of course born of grace. And a few days later I am sitting on this same floor as three of us women, and three of our men, and six of our kids are wreaking havoc around us. My youngest niece is four months older and she smells like heaven. Her sister, The Niece OG, crushes me with her hug. Our honorary nephews mill about as do my boys and I stop for a second to take it in: the three of us, stumbling our way through college friendship to these six lives and our triplet of marriages, and it’s so hard and wonderful and everything else in between. And I am home.

I am walking toward the front on Sunday, and a knowing glance is paired with the bread and wine, and I am given these gifts at the table and in life: these incalculable mysteries and mundane moments and all of it, scattered across maps and time zones and climates and continents, and it all plays like music I know yet am hearing for the first time. Our vines and fig trees are in two places for now, and we are doubly rich for it, even on the plane in the middle of a sleepless night in the air, even in the getting-to-know-you awkwardness of new friendships, even in the packing-up stress of house reassignment, and especially in this: these reacquaintings that are deep soul reunions that are preserved by grace. All of it blessing, all of it gift, because this is the only language grace speaks, no matter the local dialect.

I am doing my life, among my people–the American subset of them–but all of it points back to this: the one who is I AM, which means, really, Was Already and Will Be and Always Is. No matter where I am.

*Upon further reflection, the author would like to add the following:
I am wishing that I had more time to prepare a talk that I’m giving in two days in front of more than a couple of people.
I am loving my children while gnashing my teeth over their neediness and anxiety, which reflects my own, and over my guilt about leaving them for three days for the first time in awhile.
I am aching for alone time in the midst of wonderful reunions and talks over drinks and other blessings that are exhausting for a tried-and-true, dyed-in-the-wool introvert.
I am constantly realising how insufficient I am for all of this, which is reflected by my constant internal threats to just UP AND LEAVE.
I am wishing I would stop comparing our clock to Sydney’s, which has my older son missing more and more school.
I am trusting…off and on…that the greater I AM is bigger than all of this and swallows it up in love.

Here and There

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A bit of madness is key to give us new colours to see. –La La Land


It’s what The Husband and I kept repeating to each other from the moment our car hit I-85 and headed north, away from the airport and toward our house–our Atlanta house, as The Kid calls it. As we took Exit 5A and stopped by Chick-Fil-A to pick up dinner. As we pulled into our neighbourhood and headed down its familiar streets. And especially as we entered our house and flung our suitcases to the ground. Our familiar yet foreign house–one of two that meets such description, I suppose–the house whose ceiling seemed lower and walls seemed closer than before, the house where things are like we left them but also not, the house we grew into over six years and now feel to be growing out, or away, from.

Also, the cleaners hadn’t come like they said they would, which blew.

Our return trip began, I guess, before we even moved, a date on the horizon filled with hope. As it drew closer I pushed it away, fearing the travel ordeal, the jet lag, the emotional underpinnings. Saturday I did a half-dozen loads of laundry and packed three suitcases and grew more anxious and tense by the second. We took the boys to the zoo where there were meltdowns and euphoric moments, whining and flying above the terrain in a sky car, tears and views of the Harbour Bridge. That night, we went as a family to the restaurant where TH and I ate lunch the day we looked at schools. That afternoon I’d sat with him at the table, facing the water with a glass full of rosé and a heart emptied of hope. On Saturday, we sat with the boys, and TK approached another table where a boy his age sat with his parents. He was invited to play with Legos, which he did for a bit, as Little Brother narrated our tableau, and the waves rolled and crashed outside the window. The day before, I had run along that same beach, already missing it. On Saturday, the boys wanted to take their turn running on the beach, so I sipped my wine and watched them as TH took them outside and I waited for the bill. A few minutes later I was with them, chasing them across the sand to chants of “MORE!” TH and I looked at each other: Where else in the world would we have this? The ocean our backyard, Saturday nights filled with waves? I took snapshots in my mind like I was at Jim and Pam’s wedding. Three and a half months is how long it took to fall in love with this place.

The next day we boarded our flight and our kids proved their resistance to drowsiness-inducing drugs, sleeping for only two hours each on the fourteen-hour journey. We landed in LA exhausted and confused and crashed at the hotel. After a marathon sleeping sesh (them) and a Twilight marathon (me), our carless asses headed to the lobby to search for entertainment, which we found in the form of elevators and escalators. We had two Easters, neither typical: one on the plane and one in a hotel. We ate dinner at the bar and slept in two beds, one kid with each of us, and I marvelled at the changes over the past season: how much closer we are, how much growing the boys have done, how this adventure is changing us all, knitting us together.

Yesterday TH and I took TK for his fifth annual MRI, a tradition I’d rather pass on but Management (in the form of God and TH’s neurosurgeon) have assured me that won’t happen in the near future. I watched my brave boy follow the nurse back to the radiology department, gazed as he mounted the scale without the tears of years past, grinned as he tearlessly underwent the administering of the IV. Then I carried him to the MRI room and he lost his shit. But hey…progress! (This was NOT the camera he had envisioned. Fair enough.) A couple of hours later we got the good news, which was that there were no changes, and we headed back to our Atlanta house to be complete as four again.

This morning the ceilings weren’t as low and the walls weren’t as close. We went back to our gym–our Atlanta gym–and were greeted by faces that know us. The boys found their old places and people. I ran along my old route. We came back to the house and played and talked and they were being so sweet to each other, to me, and I thought about how much they’ve grown, how maybe this was how the trip would be: their comments, my laughter, our peaceful cuddles.

Lucky for you, I didn’t start writing then.

Soon enough they were picking and fighting. We went to Target, then Publix, where I approached the register and discovered I didn’t have my wallet. I hauled the boys outside and back in twice before realising I had left it in the Target cart. In the parking lot. One sweaty, yelly ride later, I found it right where it had been left. I flipped on my windshield wipers instead of my turn signal. I went to Trader Joe’s and very possibly caused a huge dent in someone’s car by not tucking our cart in properly–all I saw was one renegade cart bounding across the parking lot and into a Lexus. I gave them my information and prayed they wouldn’t use it. Then I headed back to the house with the boys, considering that I can feel crazy on any continent; that competence is a trait I feel in scant possession of and this is not likely to change soon, regardless of hemisphere; and, finally and most importantly, that grace is taking all of the events that would have formerly been to my shame and decreasing the amount of time between said event and self-forgiveness, and between that forgiveness and laughter. Grace is literally un-shaming me, and it only took me thirty-nine years to fall in love with it.

It’s amazing how much growing I’ve done.

On the way back from our adventure, TK asked me where his toy jeep was. I grimaced–there was no way in HELL I was going to show my face in that Publix again, un-shaming be damned–and told him I didn’t know. “Did you leave it at home?” I asked.

He considered the possibility. “No,” he finally replied, encapsulating the last three months in his response. “I left it at the Atlanta house.”

Into the Fold

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I know the world can turn in different ways
Most of the time, we’re simply hanging on
And under the signs of how we all behave
We might find the place that we belong

We’re gearing up for a trip back to the States, and it doesn’t feel right.

What a strange thing for me to think, let alone say, when this date on the calendar might as well have been a life raft in a stormy sea as we were preparing to move. The bright sure spot in an ocean of coming uncertainty. And so soon! And so soon. I anticipate the negative, as I always am adept at doing, and its possibility hangs over my head, drenches me in anxiety, keeps me awake.

Not to be negative.

There are, of course, all the benefits of this trip–time with family and friends chief among them–but they’re wrapped in the difficulties that come along with it: nearly forty hours on planes with small children (TWO OF WHOM ARE OURS), jet lag and sleep deprivation, The Kid’s yearly MRI under sedation the morning after the evening we land. These are certainties. Then there are the shadows that lurk around them: setbacks in adjustment, confusion over home, a prolonged feeling of displacement, of not feeling fully at home in either place. The shadows get me the most, because this is where so much of my personality lies and is at home itself: not in the sunny patches of easy social interaction and making-the-best-of-it self-help theology, but in the dark spots where grace always shows up but where I get the time wrong and arrive early, waiting for it.

And there’s the added complication: we’re making a home here.

Oh my God, what a few months it’s been. What a couple of weeks it’s been: Little Brother spouting out waterfalls of words, narrating life for us, padding into our room every morning in his footie pyjamas and giggling, jumping up and down as though he can’t believe this wonderful life into which he’s been dropped. Talking of changing nappies and cuppa tea and performances of ABC songs for everyone who will listen, making himself known to parents and schoolchildren and daycare staff and coffee shop owners and endearing himself to them all. And TK? Well, let me breathe a second.

Last week, one of the other mums asked me about the scar on his neck. He’s just gotten a haircut and the barber went a little shorter than I prefer, which of course turned out to be a gift, because now that scar is showing, and it is a gateway to our story–another point of entry for people to love him. The little redhead who is like The Niece, Australia Edition, she came up and mentioned it and showed me her own scar from a fall several years back. And it hit me: scars reveal sameness.

Last Friday we traveled en masse with the rest of TK’s class to a house across the street from the school, and as per usual, I arrived to the dark spot of my mind early: TK ventured inside to explore as per his usual, and my anxiety followed me inside after him, likely overflowing onto him, damn that shit, and I led him back outside over his protests as I worried for the millionth time about how he would “go” as they say here–how he would interact, if he would. And within seconds, the dark was flooded with light and his classmate had come outside with heaps of cars from his room: “Here, James. I brought you cars.” And I nearly cried with relief. As if that wasn’t enough–as if grace hadn’t made itself known with that fireworks display–the mum of the house appeared by my side with a bottle of champagne and passed me a glass, and we proceeded to stay thirty minutes longer than the allotted party time. LB playing inside with cars and kids and occasionally breaking into a dance as per his usual; TK moving from his cars to–are you there, Stephanie? It’s me, GOD–the trampoline with half his class, as is per not his usual. And I stood, glass in hand and various women beside me, engaging in conversation and hearing about how well James reads and how much the kids love him. And in this social setting, I glowed. So not per usual.

Then on Sunday, we went to a cookout at the house of an acquaintance and found ourselves surrounded by three other stories on the spectrum, like-mindedness and battle wounds on full display, and just like that we knew and were known. We ended the day on the beach with them all, wine in hands and children playing in various states of challenge and gift around us, as a cruise ship floated by, the sun set to golden glory, the waves lapped at our feet, and the gifts were almost too much.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” one mum said of her son’s diagnosis, and proceeded to tell me about the people it had brought into their life, the priorities it had reshaped, the adjustments it had allotted. There are moments when I could say something similar and moments when such a thought makes me run in the opposite direction and I know it’s okay if I live most days somewhere in between, the shadow and the light dancing around each other to create the most beautiful sunsets.

But there are days…there are days when the light undeniably blasts through and I have to throw my hands up in surrender to the greatness of it all that I never could have imagined.

TK running around church and the town centre, approaching strangers with a grin that invites them toward him, leading LB into his path so that they are the most miraculous pair, forcing our lives beyond their small margins and into the orbit of others. His confidence is growing and palpable: he is reading, and adding, and greeting, and growing, and oh how he is talking, and all of it glows in endless invitation, dropping us into a life full of wonder. He is comfortable here. And it shows.

And so we will head to one home, and then back to another, two autumns in less than a year with a summer and spring sprinkled in, and what is that if not a gift? Among the difficulties and the scars, so many gifts. Yesterday I drove TK home from the therapy centre, and he told me about a booboo to his finger–a battle wound. I mentioned healing, and threw in Jesus for good measure because we’re working on getting him up to Santa status at least, and he queried from the backseat: “What’s Jesus doing right now?”

“The dishes, probably,” I almost said, but decided to wait until he gets sarcasm a bit more, and finally settled on, “He’s taking care of you and loving you.” TK thought for a minute, then pointed at me. “That’s him!” he declared, grinning. “Mummy, you’re turning into Jesus!” And in a moment of pure joyful shock that never would have happened were it not for the way his beautiful brain works, I let the gift open right there in my lap: a grace that allows my son to see past the flaws and the anxiety and the mess and right into what grace and Easter and redemption and love are doing: changing my heart and me into more. Showing up with champagne and cars and unspeakable beauty.

Now, God help us on that flight.

Feels Like the First Time

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“Is that James?” I heard the stage-whisper behind me. “The one who…” the voice trailed off, or I stopped listening, or both, because I didn’t want to feel the impact of what would come next, even out of a child’s mouth. The one who…has autism? The one who…talks funny? The one who…is different?

I’ve heard it all before. I don’t need to hear it again, and I certainly don’t want to feel the barrage of emotions that come afterward: the fear over his future, the guilt over his past, the anxiety over his present. But I’ve promised myself I’d make space for all the feelings, all the grief and pain and joy, because…well, therapists recommend it. So there’s that. But I also know from experience that anything else is just a lie. And I did that long enough. Like, for almost thirty years. Living in a space of denial isn’t living it all, it’s just putting a pretty filter on things and not knowing who you are. So I waited until we got home, and we bathed the boys and put them to bed, and then I climbed into bed and felt it. Then The Husband climbed into bed and I told him about it. And a funny thing happened.

It wasn’t like the times before.

This time, I didn’t grasp at hope like a blind woman looking for light. This time, I thought it and said it: how it hurt, how it sucks, but also: what has changed. How far he’s come. How–and not that long ago, this may have been wishful thinking, but on this night it was real–how there’s a growing part of me that is so inexpressibly thankful he’s not like other kids. Because it means the differences are adding up to something you can’t filter out, and it’s beautiful.

And I know, in saying all this, that it’s a description and reflection of the corner we’ve turned. Lately he’s been asking so many questions, and the memories that pop up on my phone aren’t just reminders to me, but offerings to him: here you are before your x-ray two years ago, last year. Here you are in the hospital after they fixed your neck. Look at that hat you had to wear! He asks about the surgery, which broken bone it fixed. He sees his own tilted head, and watching him as he takes it in, I almost can’t catch my breath: it’s like watching the sun rise. He asks about the body parts he sees in his book: the skull and the brain, the bones and muscle, the kidneys and bladder and intestines, and as he provides a brief recap of the way I’ve told him the digestive system works, I think back to a year ago, when he was just stringing three words together; how a year before that, when there wasn’t a sound. He asks about feelings, what they mean, and tells me about his day at school: who got in trouble (or “told off,” here) and was sent to reflection time. He mentions his classmates by name. He is seeing them, and knowing them.

And they are knowing him.

On Monday, the school handyman walked over to me with a box in his hands. Inside it was a model Chevrolet, still screwed into its stand, white and blue paint gleaming. “I’ve got more at home. I’ll bring them,” he said. The other kids gathered around, exclaiming. The next day, the girl named after a flower brought a sack of cars herself. “They were at my granny’s,” she said. “I knew James would like them.” On the way home that morning, H’s mom told me that they want to have him over for a playdate, and that they need to have popcorn and chocolate chip cookies because “those are James’s favourite.” That afternoon, his teacher told me that the other kids fight over who gets to walk with him to the playground. I emailed the mother of the boy in his class who’s looked out for him from day one, and when I saw her husband the next day he told me that she’d cried before she emailed me back to arrange a playdate.

Meanwhile, Little Brother sits in the waiting room with me at the therapy centre and approaches strangers who exclaim over his cuteness and teach him Chinese. His language is like an avalanche, building every day. He tells me when he’s sad or mad or happy, casually tosses out over lunch that “I love you, Mommy.” He tells me the feelings that I struggle to define to The Kid. We are parenting two different people. I am two different moms. It wasn’t what I planned. It’s hard as shit sometimes. It’s also pretty fantastic.

When the little redhead, one of two of them (three if you count me), comes out to me on the bench for reading, she tells me that the kid I sent to find her thought she wasn’t there. Like she was invisible or something. Oh girl, I think. I know THAT one. And I consider the threads that run through all of us, that make us more alike than different. How an email can make one mother cry while sending it, and another while reading it, for the same reason: this complicated, raw, pulsing love that tears us apart while it holds us together because it all comes from the same ultimate love: the one that has designs on all of us, weaving our stories together in ways we never expected or would have chosen. Never would I have wanted this to be the way TK would become so beloved. Never will I be the same because it is.

This love that is present perfect tense even as nothing is perfect but it, that transforms executions into coronations and death into life, that forces us past the first layer of ourselves and others, so that no matter how many times we relive it, each time is like the first. But different. But the same.

This love that is sitting with me as one of the other moms sees TK’s new car and tells him: “What a lucky boy you are!” And the me who would have bitterly laughed not long ago, internally reviewing all the scans and doctor visits and surgeries and therapies, she scampers off to a different space as I inhabit this one: this one where he is quite a lucky boy. This one where James? Oh, he’s the one who…has a brother who always asks after him, who won’t calm down until he knows he’s okay, who embraces him and gazes at him with wonder. He’s the one who…loves cars. And everyone knows it.

Unblinded by the Light

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I pick him up at 3 on Tuesdays and Fridays.

But only on those days. So far. That is when school ends, after all. But every other day, I pop into the office and sign him out with the same reason–therapy–even though that’s not the whole story. Sure, most days we actually do have therapy, but that’s not the sum of it. The reason I’m there at 1:40 instead of 3–the reason I get to peek into the window and watch him finishing lunch and am rewarded a secret smile, often with Little Brother barreling in ahead of me–is because after his first day, his teacher suggested that maybe we ease him into this, his kindergarten year in a mainstream school. I nodded, sadness sharing space with relief, because even with our early pickup, even with this “special” arrangement, we’re still so much further along than we were before we got here. We’re still in such a different class than we would be back in the States. This 5…it’s still our 10. And when we started, it was every day at 1:40. Now it’s just three of them.

So the journey continues, our non-linear progressions still progress. Still a story unfurling.

Last weekend we went to the local amusement park and purchased our annual passes and revisited all the spots we saw for the first time a few weeks ago. The growth in familiarity might have contributed to The Kid’s bravery, but it wasn’t the sum of it. He approached the ride with me–the one we didn’t get to try last time–and pulled me along. He waited slightly more patiently than last time. And this time, we climbed into the seat together. This time they pulled the safety bar down and we spun around the track, glee across both of our faces, and he checked the crowd to make sure his dad and brother were watching. That there were witnesses. And as soon as we pulled to a stop, he yanked my arm. “I want to go again!” he shouted. He would do it all over again, all the ups and downs, the terror and the joy. What bravery.

Would I?

These are the moments that mothers share with each other when they’ve dug deep in, when they’ve built trust and shared glances and laughs and tears, when they’ve huddled closely over drinks or phones and told each other the darkest things they’ve thought: that sometimes they dream of running away. All the best mothers I know have admitted it. Because–and here’s the thing–all the best mothers I know, know they’re not up to it. Because “it”–this raising of young hearts and minds–it’s a big fucking deal. And the best mothers I know, who are also the best people I know, know that they are not the best mothers. They’re just the ones called to the job who keep showing up. And some days, this must be enough. Because sometimes it’s all there is. So we show up at each other’s hard days, on each other’s last miles, and we bring water and wine and words, and we talk and listen and know that we’re in this together. And that some days we want to quit.

But some days…oh. Some days.

Last night, TK was asking me more. Asking me about everything, like he’s been doing lately, and over a fifteen-minute conversation (THE BOY WASN’T SPEAKING A WORD FIFTEEN MONTHS AGO), it came out that someone in his class had gotten into a fight with another kid and the first kid had gotten in trouble and sent to the office. And the fact that he told me this? Okay, the fact that he gave me enough information for me to surmise this? This is what miracles are, people. He asked, and I answered, and I asked, and he answered, and piece by piece we unraveled the mystery together. And after the litany of questions and answers and not a small amount of frustration on my part over what it takes to communicate sometimes, this fleeting thought happened:

Maybe I’m actually made for this.

This dual life, this grief and joy and upheaval and peace and these questions and answers and these traffic-laden trips to therapy with shits in the backseat and apologies afterward (mine) and moments on the couch talking about other kids having to go to reflection time, and he and I finally, FINALLY speaking the same language? Maybe the arduous moments and the easy ones and the ugly and beautiful fit me better than I even know. Maybe the fact that it took over four years for him to say what LB says so easily now–“I love you, Mommy”–is what makes it matter so much more to hear from both of them. Maybe the trust we’ve built together that has brought them to saying it is what makes everything matter. The sum of it held in those words which are so much more than just those words.

Because our grief and joy and upheaval and peace and questions and answers are so much heartier and thicker and heavier than they would have been were it not for those dark and digging moments. Those backseat shits.

And in church on Sunday, as I sit by myself in the pew while TH takes them to kids’ church, the light is streaming through an upper window and right onto my lap, where the words are printed on a sheet of paper. I think about how TK is so sensitive to light, how it’s good he’s across the way, how he’s right where he should be. Because this light, it’s nearly blinding me, hitting me like it is. This light that feels like it’s making the words so hard to see, even while it’s exactly the thing that’s making me see them.