When Doing Becomes Redoing

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The four of us sat around a bar, two on one corner and two on the other, because there was no room for us in the inn…or at least at the table one of us had reserved for the occasion, where four other women remained, lingering over a gift exchange. No worries, though, as the restaurant provided us with free cocktails for our trouble, and now, an hour into our time together, it was as though no time had passed since we saw each other months ago. The only thing that had changed, besides hairstyles and a delivered baby among our lot, was that we’d grown closer. So we talked, about family and friends and our favourite antidepressants, as always, and it could have been the same dinner as last year.

It could have been the same sendoff as last year, too, when our exit to America from Sydney for the holidays coincided with the end of The Kid’s school year and he and I stood in the schoolyard among friends, tears welling up in my eyes as they poured down the face of his therapist, a grown man who’s moving on to have his own kids, and I embraced the women who have become my friends, my life, their children an extension of my own. It could have been last year because we left feeling loved, feeling known. In two places now.

There are these reminders all around, repeats really, that pop up and each in their own way convince me further that there is design in this grand, beautiful mess of life. There is TK telling me he wants a dog named Max and one day, I’ll tell him that I had one–for one night during my residency–and that the next morning I was so sleepless and overwhelmed with the not-being-ready-for-it that I drove to the breeder and gave him back, my tears sourced by both grief and guilt, a fitting reaction and prelude to becoming a mother of anything. There is the trip to the grocery with TK while Little Brother, my usual companion, is at school, but on this afternoon TK has absconded early due to a Christmas assembly and early pickup, and as we amble conversationally through the aisles I remember trips here before that were not so similar, meltdowns barely managed and anger not even concealed, and I think that the repeats also serve to show us how far we’ve all come. How different things can be. Like the morning after a rough night with LB, when I left him to The Husband and exited his room to the sound of his crying and my seething after an hour spent lying beside him, trying to get him to sleep, and upon waking a few hours later I hear his tiny feet padding up the stairs. Next he’s at my bedside, holding his hands out, and I lift him and place him beside me, where he nestles in: all is forgiven. All is different.

Then TK enters the scene, grabs the iPad and lies down with us, and the familiar strains of Super Mario reach my ears both from this moment and from my own childhood. Everything old is new again. I read about the miracle of the loaves and fish, how Jesus snuck that one through management twice, the second time to a lesser degree, and after a moment I wonder, instead of why, if: if maybe these reminders are themselves acts of grace; there’s a reason the words assurance and reassurance both exist. I so need the re. The fact that it is given–through fish or moments–is a gift that feels made for me.

And at our Atlanta home, we’re lying in the same beds we were a year ago, yet so much is different. Outside the air is cooling and the day darkens and it’s Christmas once again, this season of second acts, and chances.

It’s a Bit Different!

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I’ve never associated the scent of gardenias with Christmas. But this year…it’s a bit different.

It was the first thing that hit me as I approached the new house we’re renting for the first time since we’d gotten the key last week. The fragrance of the white blooms by the front porch took me by surprise–I’m always surprised when there are things here that also exist in America–and I took it as a welcome into our new home. Much as I did the bottle of champagne waiting on the counter with a note to that effect, left by the owners. “I think we’re going to be very happy here,” I thought, atypically and unabashedly optimistic.

In the past week we’ve packed up one house, moved to another (one street over), unpacked there, and hosted The Kid’s sixth birthday party. The physical and emotional whiplash of such a combination of efforts has been eased by the fact that we love this house, and it’s on a street full of kids from TK’s school. And the party…it was like almost everyone we’ve come to know and love in Australia was gathered in one place to celebrate TK, and it was beautiful. Beautiful enough to bring tears to my eyes. Beautiful enough to give me a hangover the next day. Beautiful enough for me to see how far we’ve all come–like when TK’s friends started singing the Happy Birthday song and he ran around the corner, overwhelmed by all the attention, and when I went to encourage him back in, I was greeted with his grin–then we were greeted by the knowing laughs with, not at, him, the “Oh, that’s just James” acceptance that has been such a touchstone of our experience here. Not long ago, his running off would have wrecked me. Now, I laughed. That’s just James.

Also last week was his school’s dance performance, with each class performing their own routine, and The Husband and his therapist and I waited, not knowing for sure how he’d do. It was our moving day, and I was sweaty and tired and irritated, and then his class came on–and he was amazing. Not because he was perfectly coordinated or didn’t miss a step, but because he was there, doing it. He belonged. And most importantly, he loved it. At both (yes, both) performances. I sat beside TH and friends and we celebrated our kids together, from the one who nailed the whole thing to the one who overcame a history of stage fright to push through.

And his therapist told me later that at school, they had been talking about what makes each of them beautiful, and TK had said, “My brain is special. That’s what makes me beautiful.” Later in the week, his teacher told me about all the other teachers who had commented on his comfort onstage, and she said, “I know what his gift is. He makes people happy.”

It was a different week. It was a hard week. It was a wonderful week.

At another visit, I was talking to his occupational therapist about the adjustment to having a Christmas season in the heat–how different it feels. The beating sun and long days, they don’t feel like Christmas to me, as back in the States the snow falls. That feels like Christmas. Butt sweat does not. She articulated what I’d been trying to–that it lacks atmosphere here–and I realised that sometimes it helps just to name a thing. Different. The simple act of identification can lessen the grief over what isn’t.

So I listen to more Christmas songs to compensate, and stare at the tree a lot. The view from our new home doesn’t hurt, either.

When TK was born, and then Little Brother, they were the first boys in the family since my parents’ generation. I’d always wanted boys but quickly realised that some babysitting in my teens had not prepared me for the difference between growing up around girls and learning how to, for example, dress circumcision wounds. Or toilet train with different appendages. The differences to what I was used to were glaringly obvious, and I wondered what I had to offer this generation of small men. I’m slowly coming to understand that being around women much of my life is exactly what prepared me to raise them–that this is what I can give them, this different perspective, an awareness of who women are and how to treat them. The different, it becomes the integral. It becomes the beautiful.

TK often screeches in frustration, “It’s a bit different!” when he encounters a situation that presents him with the unexpected. It’s a negative commentary, usually. But last week at school, his therapist told me, there was a day where the schedule was chucked and everything was out of the ordinary. And at one point, TK turned and–with a glee-filled smile on his face–exclaimed, “IT’S A BIT DIFFERENT!” His joy at the new and unusual becoming an act of celebration.

Sad Things Happen in Australia, Too (Part 1 of?)

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Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems. –Sadness

I was walking home from the hairdresser’s, my newly lightened and shortened locks swinging in the sun, when the phone rang. Along with my hair, I felt lightened, the product of longer days and pleasant weather I guess, along with the wrapping up of a pretty amazing first year here. When I saw the name of The Kid’s therapist on my screen, though, I felt a pause in my mood. And as he delivered the news that he would be taking another job next year, my peaceful easy feeling dried up into ashes, the pendulum swinging wildly in the opposite direction from where it had been moments earlier.

He explained the reasoning, which was all sound and rational, and we spoke about it for a few minutes as I walked into the house we would be moving out of in a week’s time. When we hung up, I set the phone down and tried to catch my breath. Then I started sobbing.

It’s been awhile since grief visited us here.

The past few months–ever since our initial adjustment, my near-breakdown, and a fine-tuning of my meds–have, looking back, been somewhat of a dream. Daily drives by the beach, purple blooms on the sidewalk, glowing reports from both boys’ schools, growing friendships marked by bottles of wine shared and stories told. We’ve marked milestones and celebrated holidays, touted triumphs and made our way through this Sydney life as a unit of four growing closer all the time. It has been gift after gift. Sometime, the other shoe had to drop, right? Sometime, it all had to fall apart?

This is what the phone call did to me; this is how I operate: in the face of a bump in the road, I shake my head, say “I knew it,” and begin to despair.

And I used to stay there, hopeless and afraid, until denial floated along and I would grab it, or distraction came by and I’d cling to it. The urge to just dull my aching via Netflix was strong; I’ve never wanted to glaze my eyes with Facebook updates more. Instead, I cried. Hard. For awhile. Alone.

Fun, right? The End. Except…not.

I’m convinced that of all of our emotions (and I know everything there is to know about them, having watched Inside Out countless times with my kids), one of the truest is grief. It gets twisted into so many others–anger, irritation, fear–but underneath so many feelings is the grief that has a rightful place in our hearts, reflective as it is of the chasm between how things should be and how they are. In my draw-up, TK’s shadow therapist would remain with him until the end of high school, maybe on into adulthood (because that’s not weird), never requiring of me a hard conversation with my son, or a goodbye that breaks our hearts. Then again, in my draw-up, Australia was never on the table. I never would have met the two friends I told first: one who texted back that she’d be coming over that afternoon, and the other who booked me on her couch the next evening.

But in that intervening period, before wine and commiseration, even before I called The Husband in breathless tears, I just cried. I cried as prayer, a “WHY?!” that will never end this side of eternity, a “HELP!” that won’t either. I cried for the changing of a relationship that has meant so much to TK–to us all–this year. I cried for the loss of a constant for him, and us. I cried for all the goodbyes that should never have to happen, for all the sad that has yet to become untrue. I cried because I was sad, and I let myself be, and as I did, I felt less alone. I felt the peace–not of a good haircut and a sunny day, but the real, raw, abiding peace beyond myself–descend upon me, the knowing that the same grace that brought us here and gave us the gift of one good thing will not suddenly stop showing up. I cried, and I’m still crying, though less, yet always, because this side of eternity there will be grief and I’ll be damned if I numb myself to it.

Turns out we’re going to have to do real life in Australia too. Dammit. I wish someone would have warned me.

And as the Christmas season kicks in, salt rides on the hot air and I’m conflicted. It doesn’t feel like Christmas here, without icy breezes and crunching leaves. Yet Advent happens no matter how I feel.

I sat the other night on the deck that will soon be replaced by another and cried some more. I looked for Christmas and felt only heat, tasted salt. The wind blew mightily, another weather pattern here that does not fit into my Yuletide profile, and above me, a bird clung to the branch of the tree outside our window: the tree we love, that TK said looks like an alligator. I wondered if he was afraid, the wind seeming to push against him, to do battle against the wings he was given that should take him where he needs to go. He gave a few false starts and I began to think he might just stay there, in one place, forever. Then the wind blew a last time and he let go, riding on it or pushed by it, carried by it exactly to where he was meant to be.

Will Write for Attention

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Sydney is currently seventeen hours ahead of my beloved EST, the time zone occupied by my former homes of New York and Atlanta. Funny how waking up so many hours ahead can leave me feeling so far behind.

Most days our king-sized bed holds three to four people by the time of my sons’ circadian-induced awakening around 6 am. Our older son is burrowed underneath the covers between us, his feet unfailingly within inches of my face, and our younger boy is typically planted on the pillows between my husband and me, or upon my husband’s chest, telling the “lazy bum” to wake up (can’t imagine where he learned that turn of phrase). By 7 am, we have broken a half-dozen of the rules I set before having children, chief among them screen limitation and sharing our bed. Meanwhile, my anxiety over that thickens with the addition of overnight (for me) messages I’ve received and the urge to respond promptly (not because I’m such a good friend, but because I’m afraid my people back home will forget me).

What I’m saying is that what seems to be my biggest personality trait–anxiety–starts the day at a baseline level of “off the charts.”

Read the rest over at Mockingbird!

Too Much

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“So tell me about Will,” he said from across the table, and everything about and leading up to the moment was unusual: the way I’d kissed the male three-quarters of our family goodbye at church and set off across town on foot solo; the December sun beating down on me while Christmas songs played through my headphones; the quiet of a two-adult Sunday lunch; the bottle of rosé sitting between us. The company: one of my closest friends since our meeting in New York a decade ago. The question: an opportunity to discuss Little Brother, so rare in comparison to queries over The Kid’s well-being and my own progress reports on him. LB’s wellness is cared about, but not obsessed over. I battle guilt over that difference even as I often assume his happiness myself.

So I talked about LB: about his brashness and sensitivity, his boldness and shyness, his gentle reminders, when we’re focused elsewhere, about his presence. His specialness. My concerns over the potential of him feeling left out, less noticed.

We talked about that, then everything else. We laughed, and shared, and drank. It was soul-healing, being with someone who’s known me through time zones and across countries and through realness and over phone lines. So it had to go on, naturally, for six hours.

These spots are coalescing: the visits and the new people and the web of interactions and support and beauty that is making this place home. They’re each growing bigger and touching each other: old friends meeting new over a Thanksgiving dinner, my first big project in our Australian kitchen being a turkey for ten and a TOTAL SUCCESS, but not without the help of those friends, or their company. And when we gathered before the meal for what is customarily a prayer, I just said I was thankful, for all of them, for how we got here, which…is still a prayer. I forgot to serve dessert, so we had wine instead, the kids playing inside, the men around the table, and me with the only other woman in the lot, sharing life and our gratitude for each other.

The next morning I was hungover–of course–and the boys piled into our bed, the mattress overflowing with people, and it all felt like too much. The same kind of too much as a few nights before, when TH was at a work dinner and so I let the boys fall asleep with me, one on either side, their bodies pressed against me and my hands full of them, so little space for myself. “This is just too much,” I had thought. “Too much…” and I realised the word I was looking for was love. They love me too much for comfort, too much for space. What a wonderful problem to have, frustration and gratitude dawning simultaneously but less and less equally, because the love…it changes me.

It’s the only thing that changes me. The trying-for-a-better-attitude, the fear, the rule-keeping, none of it works or ever has. Now, when bad news happens–when a policeman pulls me over for turning left ten minutes before it’s allowed, or TK’s therapist calls to let me know he’s taking another position next year–the range of emotion, from irritation to grief, it doesn’t dissipate; if anything, it’s more intense because my heart is more open. But the question afterward–what am I going to do?–it’s gone, replaced by a new one: what are YOU going to do? I ask it to grace, to God, to the love that got us here in the first place. That has never stopped showing up. That fills my bed with family and my deck with people and my life with friendships. It fills my hands on Sundays, the blessing at the end calling me to upturn them, the weight on them, every week, mysterious…but not inexplicable.

And this love that is within and beneath and before everything, it shows up seemingly unexpectedly, but the surprise tends to wear off the more you look for it. My friend who, when she asked how Thanksgiving dinner went and I told her about the red wine explosion from my mouth all over my bathroom, instead of head-shaking responded with “I really do love you” alongside a laughing-crying emoji. Then there’s TK, who says it so rarely in comparison to LB’s constant attestations. The other morning, when we were the only two awake, he sat up, turned to me, turned back to the window with its view, and proclaimed, “I love you.” Apropos of nothing. Apropos of everything.

Full-On

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Motherhood: it’s full-on.

“There’s always magic.” –James Phillips

We’re moving house, which is Australian for moving into a new house, in a couple of weeks. The change will be swift–two weeks to pack up our Aussie life and unpack it again–but not far, as we’re relocating to a street just across the road, a couple of minutes closer to The Kid’s school on a block where several classmates live. It was a property that The Husband and I gazed adoringly at on our phones. There’s a wine fridge. Still, it will be strange to say goodbye to the walls that welcomed us our first day here and have held us every day in the year since.

But, as I mentioned, there’s a wine fridge.

I will miss the balcony off our master bedroom, which, when my first friend here saw it, prompted her to exclaim what a great place it would be to drink wine. Then she faltered, asking if it was a bad sign that she associated wine with everything. I don’t remember how I assured her this wasn’t the case, but I remember thinking that we were perfect for each other and she was always welcome here. I thought about that the other day, as I sat on that balcony while TH bathed the boys down the hall, and the sun dipped below the horizon. I took it in: the view of the suburb beyond ours, the countless trees, the harbour, the boats. I took it all in and considered how a glass of wine, like a good rug, would really pull the moment together, but I was done with my quota for the evening, and then I wondered, like my friend, why I felt I needed the boozy add-on when there was already so much beauty. And for once, it wasn’t guilt or accusation that spoke first, but this idea: that this need to celebrate beauty as fully as possible, with all resources available, could be a gift. A thirst that is a sign of design, of the ever-present more that is just beyond our grasp.

I mean, I’ve had a lot of therapy, and we’ve ruled out alcoholism.

The Australians have another phrase I love: full-on. What I’ve gathered from context tells me that this means intense, unabated, complete. What an appropriate time in my life to learn it, as I’m pelted with hundreds of questions a day from two boys, one of whom is making up for four years of silence and it shows: “what if we don’t” and other contrarian positions constantly offered up for my explanation; discussions of the shape of brake lights and other conversations I never expected to have; and, perhaps most fraught and wonderful, questions about his special brain and entreaties to tell me its story again and again. We have identified so far that within his head lies an Apple operating system while his brother’s is an HP; that he hears sounds, and sees lights and the world, differently, and that, as he repeated to his therapist the other day, God gave him this special brain for a reason.

It’s a weighty responsibility, to provide the framework for a narrative that will so powerfully impact how he sees himself for years to come. It’s all the things: hard and awful and wonderful and not enough and too much. It’s full-on.

On Saturday the boys and I went to a birthday party that, between lunch and cake, included a disco room filled with lights, music, and a vaguely menacing life-sized plush monkey who doled out hugs and high-fives. Taylor Swift blasted from the speakers and my two–at turns shy and bold, serious and comical, all in their own ways–took to the dance floor without a second thought and began breaking it down, limbs flying, knees bouncing, heads bobbing. It was gorgeous. Then they pulled me with them, and I hesitated before noticing the other parents out there. In another life or locale or from a more commonplace cynical attitude I might have later identified the moment as absent of dignity, but what it actually lacked was fear. We partied alongside our children and it was unabashed and beautiful. It was full-on.

The next day we had the family of one of TK’s classmates come over for dinner, and the adults sat on the deck while the kids played. “Isn’t it so amazing that we get to live here?” the other mum, a lifelong resident of this suburb, observed, as we all stared across the harbour. Before their arrival I had taken my first Xanax in months because of my social anxiety and, in the moment there on the deck, I embraced the help of it rather than the guilt that is so often more readily available. I had sorted out dinner for eight people and I was actually relaxed. Minor miracle there, perhaps. Or, as the kids might call it, magic.

I’ll go with grace. Like the rain that began falling while we sat protected under a roof, or the wind and salt that had ripped through me on a solo trip earlier to the beachfront: nothing lacking. Full-on grace.

Dying Again

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This morning I was awake at 3 am, hacking up pieces of lung while The Husband slept peacefully beside me and The Kid lay between us, having crawled into our bed at some point in the night as he always does, despite the rules I set about cosleeping before having children. I could barely catch my breath, inhaling raggedly just to sputter into my pillow. This happened, naturally, in our bedroom, which some recent child-sized guests referred to as a playroom because of all the toys on the floor there, despite the rules I set, pre-kids again, about not allowing such objects to take over our decor.

We actually have a real playroom. It is currently being used for storage.

Mondays are our (my) hardest day: Little Brother is home at “mommy school,” I have to clean up and leave the house for hours to accomodate the cleaners (#typeA; #firstworldproblems), we pick TK up early from school and rush from there to our suburb’s village area for speech therapy, then we rush from there to another suburb for his behavioural therapy. All the while I’m with either one or two kids, answering questions and refereeing fights and driving on the left side of the road. By the end of it, I’m too tired for even wine. We open the door to our takeaway dinner and I review, from a hot bath (#firstworldproblems), whether I have any deep regrets over how I’ve parented over the last twelve hours. Then two small boys fall asleep in their bedroom on either side of me and I sneak away to my own room, where I pass out and occasionally awaken briefly to hack up a lung.

This is the list-form version of our life. Of our–ugh–Mondays. I have lived so much of my years in list form, hopping from one activity to the next, setting goals and reaching them/re-assessing them. Ticking items off lists. This morning, I struggled to drink what coffee hadn’t spilled from my mug when someone or other bumped into the table where it was sitting. Two boys climbed all over me, demanding to play. I took my sore ribs into the kitchen and set out the makings for TK’s lunch, and he followed me over, whines accompanying him, yelling for me to play Monopoly with him even as he directed me on how to prepare his food. And I don’t know, maybe I was too tired to snap. I do know that I wanted to, and that I’m usually so up for it. But something’s been happening lately; I don’t know if it’s spring and its longer days and cool breezes, or the relationships here that are becoming part of my emotional scaffolding, or the book project that has, with my writing partner, become a lifeline, or the very real divine love I’ve been feeling more strongly than…maybe ever. But I looked down on him and in some other person’s patient voice explained the situation and that I’d be there in a minute.

Then I gave myself some mental space to acknowledge how f#cking ridiculous it is to have two small people making insane and impossible demands on your time, and how normal it is to grow weary of that.

Then I checked Twitter.

Then…then I sat down. And I played Monopoly. And as I did that, I looked at TK across from me and LB, who had by now climbed aboard my lap, and I could see, briefly, what was really going on here–what I miss when it’s all become a list. Which is that they want more of me than I can give. But I can give some. In this case, I gave five minutes. And it was enough. They were thrilled. It filled them. And, contrary to expectation, it didn’t empty me, but filled me too. In five minutes, something dead within me was raised to life.

Not bad for a Tuesday morning.

TK has been asking a lot of questions about death lately, and heaven, and man is that shit hard. I want to engage his curiosity even as I feel not up to the task in any way. But we’re all doing it, together, and I suspect it won’t all be resolved by tonight at dinner, and that has to be okay. Can’t tick it off the list yet. What we’re ticking off instead, which is adding up, really, are moments. Moments of friendships growing deeper, of kids their age coming over and falling asleep beside them while the adults laugh and drink way too much downstairs. Of being welcomed into other homes ourselves. Of having full calendars and exhausted bodies. Of putting up a Christmas tree by an open door in seventy-degree weather at 7 pm when it’s still bright outside and feeling so wrong about it, even though I’m listening to the Christmas music channel on Amazon, because some things may never slide completely into place and that has to be okay too.

This morning I drove home by myself, both boys ensconced in their beloved schools, and felt the quiet. I considered how it is most of the time, with one or two in the backseat keeping me awake. Killing the quiet. And how one way of looking at it might be that they are waking me up. Bringing me back to life.

Falling and Staying

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“They’re called jacarandas,” she told me, as we stared out the window after The Kid’s therapy session. “They have those purple blooms and they all come out at the same time. You see them everywhere.”

She wasn’t lying. A couple of weeks prior, I’d pointed out the trees to the boys on a car ride. “Look at the purple flowers!” I told them, and we all stared. Now they notice them everywhere we go, Little Brother pointing and exclaiming, “Look, Mommy! Purple flowers all over the ground!”

Because that’s what the petals do: they fall, covering the ground beneath the trees, concrete and grass alike, in purple. A floor of purple, the same colour as the hydrangeas at my wedding. They’re everywhere, and I love them.

Because I’m falling too, in this season of spring, our first spring here in Sydney. I’m falling for the sea of purple outside my window that, from the corner of my eye, looks like yet another body of water next to the bay that’s always there. I’m falling for the kids in my boys’ lives: the way LB’s friend ran up to him at school and grabbed him into a bear hug and they both fell to the floor laughing; the mum who told me through tears in her eyes about how her own boy came home and told her, “Sometimes I don’t understand James,” and as she wondered how to respond to his inevitable questions, he instead concluded, “because he’s American.”

I love him.

I love the rest of the mums, who all gathered around a table for dinner and way too many drinks the other night, discussing our kids and life and everything. For the friendships that were formed and continued and solidified then and now. For the friends who read my writing (and like me anyway) and whose kids bounce toward me during reading and call me by my name and walk to school with us.

I love the speech TK gave to his class last week–his life thus far, because damn has it been a doozy–and I love how he giddily and shyly stood in front of them and they all clapped and he finished by yelling, “TA DA!” I love the tears in his therapists’ eyes at his progress and joy over his accomplishments, to which they remain committed. I love the way TK bounded into school this morning, when months ago he would have fought it, to pass out an invitation to each kid in his class for his birthday party, shouting some of their names across the school yard.

I love going to the movies (cinema) and not feeling compelled to immediately locate an exit in case a deranged gunman shows up.

I don’t love hangovers, but I’m working on that.

I love seeing my kids grow here, and remembering that phrase I used to hear before they were born, when people would say they were falling in love with theirs, and I would gag on the sweetness of it. Then mine came along and I knew I loved them, but in love? That was a stretch. But feeling TK nestle into me on the couch, or hearing LB say, “I keep you safe, Mommy. I love you,” I feel it: the falling in love that is so sporadic but true, fraught but there, interspersed among moments of insanity and irritation and discipline and fighting, but there. And it strikes me that the truest part of love isn’t the falling, nice as that is (especially in New York with The Husband over endless tapas and wine), but is this:

The staying.

We love most not by feeling the fall but by choosing to stay.

And I wonder what that means for us here, when TK told me over dinner the other night, “I want to stay in Australia forever.” Will we? We have years to decide and a new house to pick in the meantime. We have progress to make and homesickness to endure and fights to weather and tears to dry and laughs to release. We have stories to tell, and chapters to add on to those stories. For now, though, there is so much life here. And I love it.

TK’s teacher told me the other day that she heard him tell it to another teacher, the thing I’ve been telling him: “My brain is different.” She and the other teachers present all looked at each other and felt the beautiful weight of it, this difference and his awareness of it and pride in it. I think about the crepe myrtle outside our house in Atlanta and how much I loved it, how I dreaded missing it, and how it’s been replaced by the jacaranda: something different.

I’m living, and loving, the different.

Do You Know Who You Are

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Sometimes the world seems against you
The journey may leave a scar
But scars can heal and reveal just
Where you are
The people you love will change you
The things you have learned will guide you
And nothing on earth can silence
The quiet voice still inside you
And when that voice starts to whisper
Moana, you’ve come so far
Moana, listen
Do you know who you are?

“What will you be for Halloween?” I asked her, when her grin had greeted us on the school grounds. “I’m not very excited about it,” she answered, and I asked her why. “Because if I’m bad today, then I don’t get to go out for Halloween!”

I laughed. “Can’t you just be good then?” I asked.
She considered it for a moment, glum. “But being bad is my THING!”

There are days like these, when the boiling heat of yesterday has given way to cool breezes, and The Kid holds my hand on the way into school and, hours ago, sidled up next to me on the couch, placing his hand on my back and smiling conspiratorially at me over the antics of Little Brother. Days when life feels easy and light and full of promise, and I notice the blooms on the trees and tell TK and LB about them on the way to school, mentions of spring in the air directing our conversation.

Then there are the days that are supposed to be easy: the weekdays I’ve claimed for myself that instead become reclaimed by stomach bugs and sick kids. The weekend days that are claimed by birthday parties that end up becoming existential crises.

Saturday was one of those. Birthdays and their parties have been dropped across our year like gifts, invitations extended in a gracious series of welcomes into other lives. For me, though, they are fraught. I gear up mentally, coaching myself: Let him be him. Don’t hover. Just relax. Meanwhile, I stay clenched and sweaty for the two-hour duration, monitoring his social involvement and snack consumption while ruing over my own unavailability for adult conversation or just the sheer exhaustion that leads me to the periphery with him, gritting my teeth at his need for me expressed in a constant pulling of my arm even as I know what it feels like to be an outsider and want nothing more than to be his safe harbour.

Fraught.

These social events are full of kind people, one of them asking me in typical Australian phrasing, “How’s he going?” And I replied in positive terms. Later, I wished I had been more honest: That during the week, when he’s with his therapist at school, he’s going great, the reports are uplifting, his involvement certain and comfortable. But now, in this non-structured environment with a Batman entertainer who looks like he just stepped out of a bar and would very much like to go back, TK struggles to find his place, and it’s often right beside me. That this worries me and takes me years into the future, wondering how he’ll fare socially–whether the kids will continue to be kind and embrace him, or if they’ll leave him behind. I want to say that when I compare him to himself, he’s doing phenomenally well, but that when I watch his classmates climbing trees and interacting easily, I feel like crying. At how each step forward for him is a victory but also a battle. I forget sometimes about the battle part. I want that part to be done.

I don’t say any of that, because six-year-old birthday parties aren’t the place to empty your heart and guts in polite company over deep talks about identity. So I smile, and save it for later.

And there is, thankfully, a later. There is prayer and there are talks with The Husband and voice messages sent across the sea and there are chats here, around tables while our kids are playing, with friends who fight their own battles and who dive into the depths with me. There is another Aussie phrase–“Ah yeah, but look”–a preface that I’ve grown to love because real shit usually follows, not the polite Southern cliches of my youth. This particular day, over morning tea, I mentioned to my friend a story I’d heard recently, of a young mom with an awful diagnosis, and when I told her that comparing my life to hers made me aware of how grateful I should be, she said it:

“Ah yeah but look, you can’t go comparing to everyone else.”

And it didn’t end the conversation, but started it, the talk turning to how we take inventory of our own existences in comparison to others, and how there must be room to vent, to grieve, to talk about all of it. When we went to a movie later that week and I felt tempted to sneer at the neatly-wrapped ending, she had a different take and suddenly, I was free to shed my cynicism.

I am the sentimentalist and the cynic, the one in denial and constantly confronting, the warrior advocate and the one at the edges wishing to curl into the fatal position. I am all over the place, my fears and grief and love and anger and faith and lack of it propelling me over an emotional spectrum that leaves me exhausted and wondering:

Will we all be okay?

LB showed up to soccer ready this week, his lack of participation last week eclipsed by a near over-participation this time around, as he responded to every command from the instructors whether they were addressing him or not. My on-the-periphery TK suddenly arose and turned to me. “I want to go out there too,” he said. “I want a soccer team.”

We can all bring out the most surprising things in each other.

And after a birthday party that amounted to psychological warfare for me, TK and I walked out hand-in-hand before he bounded ahead, my fears eclipsed as he skipped, superhero cape trailing behind him, and smiled back to me conspiratorially at the secrets only we share.

Replacement Therapy

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I don’t even like soccer.

Our family of four was at the drill hall on a Saturday morning at 9 am, though, because I pushed us there. A friend from church told me about a preschool-age soccer league meeting there weekly. Her son was on it and she wondered if Little Brother might be interested? I am a Yes person when it comes to my kids, motivated partly by love and largely by guilt, and I considered the fact that LB accompanies The Kid and me to so many therapy appointments, waiting patiently (usually; with the occasional “This is fuck” thrown in, but bygones) for his brother to emerge. It’s time for him to have his own thing, I thought. So we talked it up all week: “You want to play soccer?” And he responded affirmatively: “YES!” he’d exclaim, with a little jump thrown in. Skies were blue, the coast was clear.

Then we arrived. The other kids, who already had one session under their belts, were socialising and kicking and playing. The room buzzed with activity. And LB was all, “Oh HELL naw.”

He wouldn’t put on the shirt. He wouldn’t touch the water bottle. He wouldn’t grab a ball. He climbed up on The Husband like a jungle gym and refused to have anything to do with it. TK begged to go outside; LB begged to go home; TH managed them both while ducking out to take a work call briefly.

And I? I did what I always do in these situations. Outwardly, I drew toward the activity, to remind the kids and instructors that we were still here. Our family was represented, and I was its placeholder. We would make this work, dammit. But interiorly? I retreated. I curled up into a dark corner of myself and the dark thoughts began.

It’s happening all over again.
This was the kid who was going to be your chance to escape from the sidelines, from the questions, from the explanations, from the stares.
But here you are, standing alone again while your child cries. Here you are, in inner turmoil with a fake smile plastered on your face, your insides seething at yet another thing not going the way you planned. At yet another child making things more complicated than you chose.

And, finally…
Life is never going to get better.

These are the whispers and hisses I battle daily, that I confront in the glow of my computer screen and manhandle until I’ve managed to unearth the beauty, or at least choose to believe it exists whether I see it or not. I don’t start there–it’s a road, and the first steps are in darkness. This is no “chin-up” exercise; it is clawing and sweaty and tear-streaked and blood-stained. It’s real, and it’s hard.

(That’s what she said. Thank you, I’ll be here all week, oscillating between extreme moods!)

TH asked me if we should just leave, and I dug in my heels, gritted my teeth, and refused. I’d paid good Australian dollars for this and I’d be damned if we’d give in too easily. I looked at LB, lying on his stomach on the ground at this point like some kind of asshole, and my anger grew. Why are you making this so hard for me? I seethed silently, and then he looked up. He saw whatever horrible look was on my face. And I felt the knife-wound through my heart of all the demands I’ve placed on my children, on myself, on my God, to capitulate to my plan. To what I think is best. And I think, further, of how none of my plans would have gotten me here: to this country, to this family, to this computer.

I want to run, yet I stay. And this, somehow, is grace.

Later, at home, LB puts on the shirt. He kicks the ball around and says he’s going to play soccer next week. And I grin, while thinking that I’ll believe it when I see it. He has about ten weeks to prove it, and maybe it will take that long. Maybe it will take even longer. Maybe it won’t work out at all this season. I’m learning that it takes time for a kid to unspool, to bloom.

At one of the many therapy appointments later that week, LB is not with TK and me. TK climbs into the occupational therapist’s hammock swing, the one he hated and ran away from the first time he saw it, much like LB at soccer practice, and this week he doesn’t want to climb out. He laughs, spinning himself tighter so that we can’t see him, and when we act playfully in return–asking where James is, wondering if he might have fallen asleep–he starts his fake snoring, and giggles from within what now looks like a cocoon.

His therapist turns to me. “He’s had an amazingly successful year, hasn’t he?” she says, and the words are like a balm to the many knife-wounds of the heart of a mother, some self-inflicted by trying to choose my own path, my own sacrifice; some inflicted by the troubles of this world and the hurts our children must endure within it. I think about how often I inwardly accuse my children of misplacing things, plans, goals I had, when the truth is that they’ve replaced them. With what is often harder, and better.

There is room for grief, the space that must be made when the plans we had must die so that new ones can be born in their place. Grace makes the space for that grief, and it has the power to transform it into something different: not the “yes, finally” of triumphant parenting and living and faith that meets our expectations, but the “oh, I see” recognition of what we’re actually meant for. For sidelines and fields, for explanations and silence, for pain and joy. TK slowly unspools from his tightly-wound state and pokes his head out of the cocoon, grinning, and the only word I have is yes.