One of the best gifts any parent can get is a sign that they’re raising a nice guy or gal. The boots drying by the woodstove yesterday morning were my signs.
Thing1 came home from college for the day Friday to schlep his brother home from school and to help out around the house while the Big Guy and I were at the hospital.￼￼ He had the wood bin loaded by the time we got back and, with the Big Guy, helped get me up the front stoop into the wheelchair.
He’ll go back to his glamorous life of studying (yeah, studying, all weekend 🤪) later this afternoon, and I’ll keep the picture of his boots drying by the woodstove as a reminder what a nice guy he’s become.￼
I don’t tend to be a mourner. I shed a few tears, maybe a sob here and there, and then the person I love lives on in my memories and, if I’m lucky, in the lessons I’ve absorbed from them.
I’m blessed to have been born with a small army of Great Aunts. I don’t mean that they were a generation removed from mine. I mean that they were and truly are great – awesome. They adventure. They dive into learning. They are helpers and nurturers. They have always been what I want to be when I (eventually) grow up. Kind. Brave. Extraordinary.
One of my League of Extraordinary Women passed away on Sunday night. She was a prominent fixture in our lives when Thing1 was born, helping us navigate the German healthcare system (where he was born). A counselor and mother, she helped me learn to trust myself and my love of Thing1 when I was getting my parenting sea legs.
I am thinking of her even more intensely this evening as I take a break from writing IEPs to absorb Thing1’s news from his latest visit to Dartmouth Hitchcock where he spent a good part of his senior year and what should have been his freshman year of college. We are learning, yet again, that having a chronic illness means that he has, what his doctor once warned was, a permanent diagnosis, inspite of having had a colectomy. Now, instead of thinking about summer jobs, he is faced with another, riskier surgery or the very real possibility of cancer by the time he’s in his thirties.
He always seems to take the news in stride, but I know he’s frustrated and a little frightened. Hidden in my office where he can’t see me, I give into a few sobs before acting on the lessons my very awesome aunt taught me everyday.
I know if she were here, she would offer a hug and tell me to trust my love for Thing1 as we help him over this next hurdle. She would remind us that we have the strength to get through this together and that it’s okay to cry. And, as she showed us everyday of her life, even when her own child faced a debilitating illness, she would remind us to care for others around us. She would show us how not let fear steal the happiness we do have with each other.
I will sob for a few more minutes before I get back to writing IEPs, and then I’m going to remember her by living her lessons.
This time last year, I was holding Thing1’s hand as he recovered from major surgery and navigating an unwanted gap year. I was still working at home, and Thing2 was still getting his feet wet in middle school. They were the center of my world and the center of my life, and I thought I knew who I was – a mom, writer and artist. The last twelve months, however, have changed all of that.
When I first started this blog seven years ago, I was a work-at-home-mom. The boys were 12 and 6 and, in addition to being the center of my world, were the centers of my days. At the time, the messes and chaotic rituals that go with raising creative kids in the country were endless sources of entertaining and, sometimes, heartbreaking, inspiration for post after post. Trying to preserve the moments, I got back to drawing/illustrating and then found my way to painting.
While Thing1 and Thing2 starred in many posts, I resisted making this a “mommy blog“ for reasons I couldn’t explain then but, after this year of change, I am starting to understand now.
I changed work venues and careers at the beginning of summer. Then Thing1 left for college after a summer of work. Thing2, a case study in extroversion, waded enthusiastically into the middle of middle school, and, while they are still the centers of my life and my heart, they are not always at the center of my day. Thing1 is carving out his own life. Thing2 is working his heart out to be better than his brother at everything. I’m getting to know them both as young adults, and it is an exhilarating experience. It’s also a confusing one.
The kids seem to be forging their identities almost effortlessly. I’ll always be a mom, but with each snip of the apron strings, my ‘mommy’ days seem to be slipping away. I’m still new enough at teaching to think of it as something I do and not yet as something I am, and that distinction has, over the last few months, repeatedly prompted a question about the other important part of my life of “What do I create?” Am I a writer who paints or an artist who writes?
With our family stories evolving away from the kitchen table near the wood stove, for the first time in seven years, I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to paint. I even started taking internet personality tests (always a reliable source of wisdom), hoping the results would spur an obvious answer and direction.
Then a friend reminded me that an artist is an artist, regardless of the medium. That meant the answer was simply in getting back to creating again. The task, now, is to start with writing something – anything – every day.
I know he’s right.
I know that the act of creating will be the discovery of the next stage of life. So bear with me as I get my new bearings. All topics are on the table, and the journey has just begun.
I went out for a treasure hunt after work, sure the entire blueberry crop would have been poached by Japanese beetles. Fortunately, the heat that every Vermonter has sworn they won’t complain about and the humidity we will gripe about seems to have produced a harvest big enough for us and the bugs. I should be happy with enough for a few desserts, but, this year, I want more.
This time most summers we’re planning a trip out to Lake Michigan for an almost annual, unofficial family reunion near South Haven, Michigan. We’re not this year.
I’ve been going to that spot in Michigan since I was a fetus. My grandparents are buried there. We’ve solved the world’s problems sitting around the table on the porch there, watching the sun set over the lake, noting how much the wind in the trees sounds like wave lapping the shore. We’ve forgotten the answers before bed and celebrated the fact of family there for almost every summer of our existences.
But It holds another meaning for me.
Eighteen years ago, the Big Guy and I missed Michigan for the first time. In April, my job had moved us to Germany while I was six months pregnant, and Thing1 was due at the end of July. There would have been no travel that summer.
Thing1 refused to vacate my womb until the last possible minute. The extended family had convened along the lake. Early in the morning the first week in August, the Big Guy phoned th gang in Michigan. They huddled around their speaker phone, as the Big Guy, Thing1 and I took turns talking, crying and babbling about the newest member of the family.
The next year we were all together along the lake.
We celebrated Thing1’s first birthday there.
We celebrated his second birthday there and, because his birthday falls smack dab in the middle of blueberry season, we celebrated with blueberries and cake.
Thing1 has celebrated almost every birthday there with his parents and grandparents and cousins, always with blueberries, and for the last four or five years, blueberry pie.
This summer when Thing1 turns eighteen, we won’t be in Michigan because the Big Guy is getting ready to get a new knee. It’s a good reason to stay home.
As I write this, however, we’re getting ready to take Thing1 back to the hospital for the second time this week to address his anemia, to talk about a new medication and possibly stronger measures to get his auto-immune disease under control.
He is barely eating. He is getting winded after short walks. He is not looking like his normal almost eighteen-year-old self, and we need for him to get at least a little of his own back before he flies our coop.
Last summer, just before we left for Michigan, Thing1 marked his birthday with a hike up the back of Equinox Mountain. He texting us updates of storms and bears on the path until his cell phone died and shortly before he home announcing that he felt truly alive.
We don’t know what the next few weeks or even months hold, but, barring a miracle in the next few weeks, there will be no 10 mile hike. There will be no blueberry festival or typical 18th birthday bash.
There will be a celebration, however. Even if it’s just our family of four cuddled on the couch, we will make sure he knows that, no matter what the circumstances, his being part of our clan for the last eighteen years, his having made us a clan, is something worth celebrating. And, if I have any say in the matter, it will be with blueberries.
Summer camp hasn’t started yet, so the boys are enjoying the fully unscheduled portion of summer. They go to bed, mostly, when they want. They get up when they’re done sleeping, lately, only time to binge watch Avengers movies together until friends call or dinner time.
This morning Thing2 was finishing up the umpteenth viewing of Spiderman – Yet Another Spider-Man Origins Movie and getting ready to move onto The Unknown Hero – A Filler Episode About A Guy we just made up but that You Need Your Parents to Buy If You Want to Understand All The Sequels when I realized I hadn’t heard the gentle sounds of found two boys not arguing all morning. I checked the clock and realize it was lunchtime.
Thing1 is normally very good about getting himself out of bed early enough in the morning to make sure he gets enough food to get his medication. At ten I had texted him it was time to get up. I saw the text was delivered, but by noon, it still hadn’t been read, and I knew today he needed a push.
I called up the stairs to his bedroom but got no answer and climbed up as quietly as possible. When I got to the top, he was curled up on his side, and, knowing he usually favors sleeping on his back, I got nervous. I called him again and still got no answer. Resisting the urge to channel my inner all Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment, slapping my kid awake to be sure he hadn’t croaked in the 4 hours since I’d first called to him, I went over and gave him a gentle nudge on the shoulder. He didn’t answer, and I called again.
I knew he wasn’t dead. Very few people die from his disease. I did know his medications have been as reliable as my first Pinto, and if his flare up was turning into a scorcher, we might need to take a drive down to the ER to treat the acute symptoms until the pharmaceuticals and cannabis oil could regroup in his intestines.
Six months into his flare up, and Thing1 has learned that he’ll never not notice it. What’s changed over the last six months,though, is how quickly we let it derail a day or a life. Without being sanguine about the need to address and treat symptoms and stay in touch with doctors, we’ve also learned when to race to the ER and when it’s okay to wait for a call from the doctor. We’ve learned to distinguish the signs of a little more inflammation merely exhausting him into extra naps for the days and when the disease is firebombing his insides until he’s on the road to anemia again.
Most mornings, my main concern is that he gets good about getting himself out of bed before he moves out in the fall. We’re still making plans for fall, not always sure if we’re being determined or a little foolhardy. The reality, however, is that anything could happen between now and September, even things that have nothing to do with a chronic illness. Those things could help him on his way or completely derail him, but until those possibilities become realities, we keep plotting the points on his journey through the summer and into his future.