“Today,” he texted back.
I had tons of baby pictures, but we hadn’t snapped many pic of Thing1 or Thing2 since Christmas and none that were remotely yearbook-worthy. So that’s how the Big Guy, Thing1 & 2 and I found ourselves packed into my Jetta, zipping toward the mall portrait studio after I got done with work.
The ball-drop was my fault. I had messaged a friend about senior portraits a few weeks earlier and then forgotten about it when round 3 of this year’s flu started up. Thing2’s classroom has been a petrie dish that would make a bacteriologist green with envy and gangrene, repeatedly recycling flu and strep that caught Thing1 in an especially vicious spin of the cycle.
Thing1, understandably, has had to work to remind himself of the good things that have happened to him this year — getting into most of the schools he applied to, a job he loves with people he likes, and miraculously managing to be in the hospital mainly on days he’s not scheduled.
Still, he’s been out of school a lot. Normal bodily functions require planning. A fitness buff, he struggles to remember the healthy version of himself, and it has definitely affected his mental health.
“I just wish he’d get a break,” the Big Guy says every so often.
The entire family has learned that breaks are rare, brief and never scheduled. So, even though it was our first family outing in months that didn’t include a hospital, none of us was ready to let our guard down Saturday night as we sped toward the mall for the last minute appointment I’d booked.
The Big Guy, however, quickly started doing what dads do best, using his special talent for turning innocuous road signs into the finest eighth grade humor, and Thing1 and Thing2 were, as always, an appreciative audience. They segued into fart jokes, and we all started bawling. I focused on trying to drive as I surrendered any pretense of trying to minimize the inappropriate humor.
The shenanigans ceased only briefly as we walked through the department store to the portrait studio, but as soon as Thing1 and then Thing2 got in front of the camera, the Big Guy went to work with his Family Guy impressions ensuring that the two of them smiled for every shot.
They smiled for their individual sessions and then together with Thing2 putting Thing1 in a headlock or grinning up at him as if to say, “I’m willing to be the bratty brother the whole way home if it would get a laugh.”
And in every shot, I can see them completely forgetting their troubles. The only thought they seem to be sharing, as every kid does at least once, is how embarrassing parents can be in public.
Trouble started back up for Thing1 the next morning as his body refused to respond to medication and fart jokes.
We had known the fun would be short, but at least for a few hours on Saturday night, we had been reminded of an important truth which was the only unspoken thing that night. You have to take the bad, but when breaks come your way with a bit of good, you positively need to enjoy them — even if someone has to tell a fart joke to get you started — because you don’t know when they’ll come around again.
Saturday & Sunday I went over the mountain to help with and participate in a blog workshop at Pompanuck Farm in Cambridge, NY.
Sunday I got there early to have a little time to paint, but I had been up till 5 in the morning nursing Thing2 through a fever, and I kept nodding off as I sat in the sun-warmed car. The other members got there just as I was adding the first green wash for the lawn.
I went in thinking I would paint and listen – I always think it helps me concentrate. Instead I had to work to keep focused on the painting, as each member of the group voiced their reasons for wanting a blog, recognized that those reasons were partly about wanting to stand in their truth.
I felt like I found mine over the summer when I took just a travel sketchbook and a pen on vacation. We went to the Palouse in Washington state, and the rhythm of the wind bending the yet-unharvested wheat fields was hypnotic, spurring meditations and frenzied drawing sessions. Drawing, and later painting, was an act that pulled me closer to my truth – that the only work that would ultimately fulfill me is creative work.
It was a truth I began to sense and acknowledge with my decision to illustrate my first blog ‘Picking My Battles’. What began as a spur-of-the-moment strategy to cut the cost of royalty-free photos and the kids’ sleep schedules evolved into a reawakening of an artistic drive I had tried to smother for years.
The revival led to doodles and sketches, scribbles and watercolor cartoons. The blog became a cartoon, Picking My Battles (it’s have a little vacation as I reorganize my schedule around school and projects) and added another (HOGA), and I began feeling like I was on a multi-line tightrope between painting and cartooning and writing.
Diving into drawing with abandon, I found my truth and something that I had only felt a few times – pure joy. Interesting that the joy and truth are so closely linked. Embracing my truth – feeding a need to draw and paint – saw words re-emerge, supporting the blog’s art the way art had once played a supporting role for the words.
Joy also let me see the silly situations that had made blogging so fun in the first place, and a few weeks ago I took a flying leap and embarked on an Alphabet book for parents. As we talked about blogging and truth over the weekend workshop, I realized that each new post and page of my book is proof that there’s room for more than one truth in a life.
My new blog (My Sketchy Life) – with the serious painting and the silly cartoons isn’t a tight rope I walk between two sides of my creative life I need to choose between. It’s a collage of my life and, like my life, it’s a more than a little sketchy.
I went home thinking there’s nothing like a good workshop in a sunny farmhouse living room to open your eyes to the world right in front of you. Wish you’d all been here.
Sometimes it isn’t a crash.
Sometimes everything just recedes.
You go from feeling everything to feeling nothing. To wondering why you’re here.
To wishing you believed in a higher being that had a purpose for your life and being fine with not knowing what it is because knowing it exists is enough.
To realizing every battle can’t be fought and others can’t be fought at all without ammunition. To picking the fights of getting up for the job and the kids each day and retreating from the others until the arsenal is stocked with little pills that still need a glowing fuse to work.
“Mom, I have a new superpower!” Thing2 barely had his seatbelt on. “I can create wind!” That neatly explained seven-year-old Thing2’s energetic, skyward gestures as he hopped off the bus.
“What do you mean?” I asked. Thirteen-year-old Thing1 smirked as he tried not to inject eighth grade into a heretofore innocent and imaginative conversation.
“I can,” Thing2 insisted, launching into an explanation of how to get the weather to bend to your will.
We quickly figured out that the weekend’s Frozen marathon – halted when Thing1 threatened to get a court order to get Thing2 to stop playing it – had inspired the afternoon’s flight of fancy. It’s the result of a pattern that’s threatened to force us into using the worst parenting platitude ever devised. It’s one I prayed I’d never use, but here we may be.
Thing2 had zero interest in Frozen until last week. He, along with the rest of the boys in his class, were left off the guest list of a girl’s slumber party (a story unto itself). Discovering the party’s theme and certain he was off the list because of his ignorance of the plot’s complexities, he promptly began begging to see it.
“I’m the only one in my class who hasn’t seen it,” he told me, digging out the other most over-used phrase in parent-child relations .
“Where have I heard this before?” I asked, resisting the temptation for a traditional answer. The question was rhetorical – I’d heard the complaint two weeks earlier. It was before ‘Everything is Awesome’ from The Lego Movie became the newest tune Thing2 used to torture Thing1’s highly sophisticated musical ear and he’d been the only kid whose parents were keeping him in a cultural wasteland devoid of talking Lego characters.
I was a teeny bit curious about Frozen, however, so when the Big Guy and Thing1 were busy with homework hit the download button. The rest of the weekend was history.
I’ve avoided completing the other half of the ‘Everyone else is doing it’ equation for thirteen years not because I’m a parenting genius, but because Thing1 is a born skeptic. If his friends were jumping off the proverbial bridge, he’d ask if they had insurance and a rope.
Thing2 is a different matter. He doesn’t go along with the crowd just to go along with the crowd. He goes where the fun is.
When we got back from the bus stop, Thing2 offered to demonstrate his wind powers. I fetched firewood as Thing2 climbed to the top of a snow drift, raising his hands in the air and gesturing to the clouds. The top of the pine trees continued to sway. “See?”
Weather control soon bored him and he began jumping from drift to drift.
“You’re going to get hurt,” I said.
“No I won’t. Look, Mom,” he said as I filled the canvas wood carrier again. “I’m jumping over the Grand Canyon.”
I stopped and watched him leap between two solid snow drifts. He really did look like he was getting ready to jump over a gorge, and I realized I’ll never get to ask the oldest, most-overused query in parent-child relations. The answer was already there in his flushed cheeks and every new story he was imagining with each leap. More jumpers would just make it more fun.
In my inner world, I fight dragons. I take on armies and villains, triumphing over any challenge with wit and courage. Did I mention this was a fantasy?
In the real world, I've wrapped myself in the notion that my dreams are the result of an active imagination. Lately, though, as I look at my life and the things I haven't achieved or the real demons I've been afraid to fight, I've come to an uncomfortable admission. It's not just the inner triumphs that are fictional. Everything in that world is imaginary – especially the courage.
Before thirteen-year-old Thing1 was born, I never thought of myself as especially kind or patient or even steadfast. When he came into our world, however, right away he needed me to learn all of those things and, for him, I did. My kindness or patience still wouldn't win me any awards, but because of him I learned to keep trying when the breast milk wasn't flowing right away. I learned to stick by someone who was screaming in my face and to put someone else's needs before my own.
Right now we're navigating the first year of adolescence with all the pitfalls I'd expect and some I didn't. And even though he's getting stubble on his chin, I still look at him and feel the same powerful push to be better. He needs me to be brave now. So, not just for him but because of him, I will be.