Miracles occur naturally as expressions of love. The real miracle is the love that inspires them. In this sense everything that comes from love is a miracle.
Mindy was my best friend growing up. When I was six years old, my mother went to the animal shelter to get a hunting companion dog for my brother, Kevin. Lo and behold, she came back with this shaggy black and white mutt! Kevin sputtered, “Mom, what the heck? This dog is clearly not a hunting dog!” Mom replied, “She was the cutest one there and the only one that looked quietly into my eyes and told me to take her home, so I did.” I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
Mindy and I had a connection immediately and I knew we would be great pals forever. She let me dress her up as a baby and take her for walks in the stroller. She became the friend I needed so desperately growing up as an introverted child.
As I grew into an awkward teenager, our bond grew even stronger. Mindy’s coat was gray now instead of black. I knew she was aging, but did not want to admit that to myself.
When I was sixteen, I lost my dearest Aunt Laurel to emphysema. She was an inspiration in my life and treated me like her own child. As long as I had my Aunt Laurel and Mindy, I was happy. Aunt Laurel lived in Missouri but would often drive up to Minnesota for long visits. She took the time to listen and get to know me. She made me feel important and loved in so many ways. I worshipped the ground she walked on and cherished the time we spent together. I was not prepared to lose Aunt Laurel, and Mindy comforted me greatly in the grieving process.
About three months after Aunt Laurel passed away, Mindy developed a large tumor above her right eye. My parents knew they had to try to save her life because I still needed her dearly. The surgery was complicated and expensive, but it bought her a little time. Sadly, about three months later we had to help her to let her go.
Losing both Aunt Laurel and Mindy in the same year devastated me. I cried each night for two weeks and asked God to bring them both back to me to say goodbye. Then one night, I had the most comforting dream. It didn’t feel like a dream at all, but something miraculous and extraordinary. I stood by a beautiful hillside with glorious flowers and tall grass all around me. A gentle breeze swayed at my back and it smelled of fresh cotton. A fast flowing river ran through the hillside, which was covered by lush oak trees. I took it all in before I realized that I was there to see Mindy. Suddenly, panic set in because I could not find her. I called and called for her, yet she was not coming to me.
Then I saw Aunt Laurel walking slowly up the hillside with a drenched Mindy. I knew immediately that Aunt Laurel saved Mindy from the river by pulling her to safety. Now they walked up the hill toward me! Aunt Laurel smiled serenely at me as she guided Mindy over the hillside to a small path that led up to heaven. I could see that Mindy’s tail was wagging joyfully and she was no longer in pain. Aunt Laurel could now breathe easily and no longer need her oxygen tank. I was not allowed to interact with them and they could not stop and greet me. The sky opened up and the light radiated toward them as they walked into heaven and just disappeared. I felt the warmth of the light enter my body, which filled me with peace and love.
I woke up in tears. What I had just witnessed was a true miracle sent to me by God. For the first time since I had lost my two best friends, I was at peace.
The next morning at breakfast, I excitedly explained my dream to my mother. She looked at me in astonishment and said, “I had the very same dream last night.” We both knew we had witnessed something magnificent and life altering, and we were grateful.
“This is such a hard journey,” I thought, as I looked around the circle of caregivers gathered for our monthly support group. “What if I didn’t have these friends to help me along the way?”
I exchanged brief smiles with the two women and one man who in the past year and a half had become three of my closest friends. One woman’s mother had Alzheimer’s. The other woman and the man cared for spouses with Alzheimer’s like I did. As my husband Ray’s confusion and anxiety increased, the road sometimes got so bumpy I felt I couldn’t navigate it without these people.
When I first met Erika in a six-week Early Memory Loss Series offered by the Alzheimer’s Association, I was immediately drawn to her. I noted the way she gently touched her mother on the shoulder and eased her into a chair, then sat beside her and took her hand. She was soft-spoken, with a broad smile for everyone and infectious enthusiasm for every topic that came up.
As the series progressed, I listened to Erika’s excellent questions. They stimulated my own thinking. I’d read that caregivers often experience a sluggish mind because of the stress of the job, and I was no exception. I welcomed the intellectual stimulation she offered along with her example of kindness.
Erika and her mother began coming to our house for coffee before an art class at the Alzheimer’s Association. One morning she started talking about her work in the early childhood program at a community college near her home, and I jumped up to retrieve a copy of a book on parenting styles I had written two decades earlier. She held the book to her chest, her eyes shining.
“I love these theories,” she said the next week as we sipped our coffee. “Come speak to my class at the college.”
I shook my head. “I can’t count on my brain to work.”
“You’ll be fine,” she insisted.
Reluctantly, I agreed. As she introduced me to her class, I wondered if I could sort out and clearly explain ideas as I once had in workshops I taught. But when I began to speak, the ideas flowed.
“Thank you,” I told her afterward, “for showing me I can still think.”
I also met Marilyn and her husband in the Early Memory Loss Series. A lovely, silver-haired woman with sparkling blue eyes, Marilyn had a serene presence that literally awed me. I was anything but serene. “Don’t you want to drive off a cliff sometimes?” I asked her one afternoon after class.
“Of course,” she said with her tranquil smile. “Or push my husband off.”
I laughed. Even Marilyn felt as frustrated as I did.
“When I feel like that, I focus on all the things we can still do together,” she continued. “A hug. Dinner out. Going to a movie even if he can’t follow all of it.”
I thought of how I sometimes snapped at Ray when he asked the same question for the third time in five minutes, even though I knew he couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to be like that. I needed to be around Marilyn more.
We took a series of classes together, Powerful Tools for Caregivers, and afterward I plied her with questions about how she managed such a calm, peaceful demeanor.
She said it was her experience. She had been on this Alzheimer’s journey three years longer than I had, and had once cared for a sister with special needs. She also went to Qigong several times a week, a Chinese practice of aligning breath, movement, and awareness, and she regularly meditated.
Inspired to build more companionship into my days with Ray, I found that if I recorded television shows we both enjoyed, I could then pause them to answer his frequent questions, and rewind if I missed something while he talked. I hadn’t watched much TV for years, but found we could enjoy many tension-free evenings that way.
When summer came I went to several Qigong classes that Marilyn helped teach, and I started meditating every evening. I still got overextended and anxious as Ray and I struggled with his capabilities, but I slowly developed more patience.
I met Milt at our adult community center’s support group for caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s. Every month I listened to this gracious man talk about his love for his wife and his unwavering commitment to care for her. Like Erika and Marilyn, he exuded an amazing warmth and kindness. Milt’s wife and Ray shared some of the same aspects of Alzheimer’s, but Milt sounded a lot more at peace with caregiving than I was.
Ray and I enjoyed both Milt and his wife, and the four of us began to meet regularly for coffee or lunch. We talked about the principle of “a day at a time” — how we needed to concentrate on the task at hand. While generally planning for the future, if we looked down the road too often, we overwhelmed ourselves with “what ifs,” and couldn’t do as good a job of solving current problems.
We talked of making sure we practiced gratitude for the things we had instead of stewing over the things that were no longer ours. And we grieved together. Our spouses couldn’t do many of the things they had once enjoyed; the disease brought personality as well as physical changes, which affected our relationships.
I watched Milt take his wife’s hand, or put an arm around her, and there was such tenderness in his actions that I wondered what the secret was behind his patience, understanding, and acceptance. Eventually I learned a deep faith in God sustained him. I had grown up in a religious family and believed in God and the power of prayer, but not with Milt’s level of devotion. He was completely grounded in his love of the Lord.
Ray and I went to church several times with Milt and his wife, and afterward talked about the service over lunch. I had a hundred questions and he answered them, but never pushed his beliefs on me. Still, little by little, his influence seeped under my skin. I had experienced periods in my life when I felt close to God and turned to him often, but I wasn’t in one of those times when Ray received his diagnosis. Slowly, following Milt’s example, I found my way onto a more spiritual path. When my mood was grim, my patience short, I prayed for a quiet mind and peaceful heart, and was calmed and comforted.
Milt was speaking to the group now about how hard it was to watch his wife’s decline. Erika and Marilyn nodded agreement. Who but these friends could truly understand what it is like to lose a loved one to this horrible disease? I took a deep breath. I could make this Alzheimer’s journey, I thought to myself, because I had the example and support of these wonderful friends.
Siblings are the people we practice on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring — quite often the hard way.
It seemed like there were shouting matches every evening. My children were always fighting over their chores and their privileges. They never agreed on who had last washed the dishes, or who had last picked the TV program. I was tired of constantly keeping score and refereeing.
One day, I mulled over what my life was like a decade earlier — before marriage and little ones. In my reverie I stumbled on it — the simple, obvious solution. I recalled my high school days when the terms “O” day and “E” day meant something. My class schedule alternated between “O” days (odd days) and “E” days (even days). On O days I might attend Phys. Ed. And on E days I’d go to another elective class, such as First Aid or Art.
So I explained our new system to my second- and fourth-graders. “Jolee, you were born first,” I said. “Is one an odd number or an even one?”
“It’s odd, Mom.”
“And Al, you arrived second. Is two odd or even?”
“Two’s an even number, Mom.”
“Okay, so Jolee, from now on, every odd day is automatically your own special day. That means you get to pick what to watch, or where to sit, or which board game to play. Al, the same applies to you on even days.”
He thought about it a minute, then said, “But there are more odd days than even ones in some months. Jolee will get ‘her day’ two times in a row when a month ends in 31, and the next one begins with a one.”
“True,” I said, “but that also means she’ll be taking the smelly, disgusting trash out, scrubbing the dishes, and doing other less-enjoyable things two days in a row, and you won’t. It’s part of life’s give-and-take.”
For the first few days after that, whenever one kid shouted, “Mom!” I’d just call out, “Whose day is it?” That settled it. Soon, the bickering ceased.
The first sign of maturity is the discovery that the volume knob also turns to the left.
~Jerry M. Wright
The den floor is covered with toys as the boys wrestle and roughhouse. Yelps of glee punctuate the air. But I don’t have any small children at my house.
My college kids are home with their dogs.
Adam is home with Brother, a young Spaniel mix, and Emily brought her rambunctious Puggle, Otto, home for a visit. As a result, the two old Chihuahuas who live with me have been transformed from gentle, sleepy pets to tiny warriors defending their turf.
The Chihuahuas snarl and snap as the college dogs gallop through the house like two frat boys on spring break. Stuffed toys are shredded, the white cotton scattered to every corner. Slimy rawhide bones squish under my feet while tennis balls bounce about, narrowly missing lamps and pictures on the wall.
I never gave Emily or Adam my permission to adopt dogs—but, of course, they didn’t ask. Both acquired their pets spontaneously. Emily called one Saturday to tell me she and her boyfriend were going to look at puppies, just for fun.
“That’s like going to a bakery to look at cookies,” I told her.
An hour later she walked up my front sidewalk, a tawny, black-faced Beagle-Pug mix in her arms.
Adam’s dog arrived late at night while his reclusive neighbors eluded their enemies and skipped bail. Before they slipped out of the apartment parking lot they knocked at Adam’s door and handed him a leash; the black dog was almost invisible in the dark. “We’re moving and can’t take him with us,” they said.
The next day I received an e-mail from Adam with a warning, “Don’t get too attached.” He told me about the dog and enclosed a grinning photo of himself and a serious-looking Spaniel he named “Brother.” I had seen that smile on Adam’s face before. He was attached.
Emily and Adam grew up with the Chihuahuas. They loved to play with their pets but rarely noticed an empty water bowl and didn’t seem to hear when the dogs barked to be let in or out. Occasionally, “a puppy” showed up on their Christmas lists, but they never seemed too disappointed when one didn’t turn up on Christmas morning.
They both adjusted well to the responsibilities of college life and never implied that pet dogs would make their lives complete.
I was concerned that my son, whose bank account often hovered at $1.86, couldn’t afford a pet. I knew that universities and animal shelters dreaded semester end when cats and dogs often were abandoned. I also knew other parents of college students who inherited pets that didn’t work out as college roommates.
I need not have worried.
“Do you have pet insurance for the Chihuahuas?” Adam asked, on his first visit home with Brother. He was stunned to learn that his single mother of three children, two in college, did not have pet insurance.
He already had taken Brother to the vet for his shots and had him neutered for $35 at an animal clinic for low-income pet owners. With his monthly allowance from me and a part-time job, his income fell well within their range.
When we took Brother on walks, Adam was careful to keep him out of the street. Brother stayed near Adam without a leash, just a whistle stopped any wandering. When we came inside, Adam gently plucked stickers and bits of leaves from Brother’s fur.
Was this the same boy who left baby Chloe crying herself to sleep in our garage just months earlier? He was Chloe’s father for a day as an assignment in a high school child development class. A battery-powered baby, Chloe sounded her realistic cry when she was hungry or wet. When Adam’s efforts failed to stop the crying he stashed Chloe in the garage and closed the door.
I had another worry about Emily’s pet. She and her boyfriend bought the Puggle together. Emily was the noncustodial parent, her apartment didn’t allow pets.
My youngest son asked the question that hung in the air.
“Who will get the dog when they break up?”
“I don’t think they plan to break up,” I said.
I was very fond of Emily’s boyfriend, but I wasn’t quite ready for the implications of joint pet ownership.
I watched as they raised Otto together, training him to sit and stay, buying him toys and nursing him through stomachaches. Together they taught him to nudge a bell by the apartment door when he needed to go outside. David wrestled with him on the floor, Emily bought him a turquoise and lime green Vera Bradley leash for their long walks. I don’t think David liked the leash but I admired his silence on the matter.
They beamed with pride when they brought Otto to my house for visits, in spite of his battles with the Chihuahuas and tendency to munch on my zinnias and crash through my bed of perennials.
The college dogs quickly warmed up to me; they could see that I was the leader of this pack, but their loyalty was to their owners. When Adam left my house, Brother sat by the door, sad-faced, until he returned. Otto slept at the foot of Emily’s bed when she visited and gave a low growl when I opened her door to wake her.
I’ve read that maturity is defined as “the ability to put another person’s needs first.” I would add dogs to that definition. Somewhere between tripping over the empty water bowl and her first years of college, my daughter learned to interrupt her own sleep to take her dog outside on cold mornings. Adam’s bank account still hovers dangerously low, but Brother is well-fed, groomed and medicated against fleas.
Last fall Emily received an engagement ring carefully attached to Otto’s collar. He was dressed in a top hat and bow tie for the occasion. Her new husband, David, is a welcome addition to our family.
Sometimes it can be hard for a mother to acknowledge that her children are growing up and starting their own lives. It took two youthful and well-cared-for college dogs to convince me that my children have taken giant steps to an important milestone—maturity.
Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.
“I want to marry Comet,” I announced to my family when I was nine years old.
“You want to marry someone fat, unemployed, and hairy?” my dad replied sarcastically.
Yes, that was exactly what I wanted. Comet, my white, and slightly overweight tabby cat, was all I could ever hope for in a happy marriage. His character was impeccable, and I couldn’t imagine any human male meeting the high standards he had set.
I grew up a sickly child, and due to my complex medical condition, my parents had to drive me to an elementary school almost half an hour away from our house that had a full-time nurse on staff in case of an emergency. After school, the summer months were a little lonely since most of my friends lived thirty to forty-five minutes away.
Early in the summer of my eighth birthday, our cat had her first litter of kittens. I stared in rapture as each small body came into the world, took a gulp of air, and let out the first squeals of life. One by one they came. The first three of the four kittens were dark calicos with small patches of gold across their backs. Then the last kitten came rolling out, covered in snow white fur with large patches of orange that looked like my three-year-old sister had finger painted them. I saw his small pink mouth open, swallow a breath of air, then unleash a sneeze that shook his entire newborn body.
I watched as his eyes opened for the first time, revealing gold-colored eyes. I stared into them intently, wishing for telepathy to connect us. It was love.
“Your name is Comet,” I wanted to tell him, “because your spots look like stars.”
I saw him walk and experiment with his first bites of solid food. Completely devoted, I felt as proud of my kitten as though I had given birth to him myself. Weeks of begging my parents to let me keep him proved successful and we became inseparable. He followed me everywhere, even to church. He learned how to climb my bunk bed to sleep on my pillow, and would, on rare occasions, leave me “presents” like dead mice or small birds.
As I grew older, my condition worsened. Nights spent in the hospital weren’t uncommon, but after a successful surgery, I was sent home. My exhausted parents fell into their first peaceful sleep in weeks, believing the worst was over. It may have been an hour or two before I awoke, my temperature spiking and the sheets clinging to my wet limbs. I wrestled away the fabric and gingerly climbed from my bed to the floor, only to convulse from heaves coursing through my body. I stumbled into the bathroom, clutching my stomach, hoping for what was inside to stay there. It was to no avail, and as I felt the thrust of my stomach again, I whispered into the dark, “Mom, Dad, help,” and then I blacked out.
Hours later, I awoke in the hospital, hooked up to highways of tubes and wires. I heard the words “infection,” “dehydrated,” and “it’s a miracle.” As my vision became sharper, I looked into the eyes of my mom, holding my hand, telling me that I would be fixed up in no time.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” I croaked.
“You were very sick, sweetheart. Your dad and I wouldn’t have known if Comet hadn’t woken us up. He was throwing a huge fit, and wouldn’t leave us alone. When I got up to throw him out of our room, I heard you and we got you here as fast as we could.” Mom looked so tired, but I saw relief in her face.
Comet rarely let me sit in a room alone after that night. I called him my knight in shining fur, made plans for when we would be married, and ignored my dad’s comments about him being unemployed. As I have grown older and learned that interspecies marriage is frowned upon, I know I am well on the path to becoming the crazy cat lady on the corner. Love is blind, and a little crazy, but I believe it is worth it with a cat like Comet.
Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.
Every spring my Floridian in-laws returned to Michigan to visit their eight grown children, and my husband and I were first on the list. When they arrived in 1996, it didn’t take long to notice my mother-in-law’s memory was worsening.
My mother-in-law, who I called “Mom,” was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age sixty-five and prescribed a medication protocol to help manage her symptoms. The meds seemed to help, but over time, her memory lapses became more frequent and caused more concern. There were dinners burnt beyond recognition, repetitive stories and the constant struggle to remember names.
Then she came to stay with us one spring. It was difficult to find things for her to do around the house. I knew she loved working with plants and flowers, so pruning the dormant plants after our Michigan winter seemed a perfect fit.
I paraded Mom around the yard like she was some kind of master gardener with full control of her mental senses. “This can be cut back, but not this, this, and this.” What was I thinking?
As I watched her work from the kitchen window, it was evident I needed a better plan.
The Japanese maple tree, yes, the one that had taken more than twelve years to grow to a mere four feet, was stripped to stubble. But I refused to let the disease have the upper hand.
Once again, Mom and I walked the perimeter of the yard, this time with a can of spray paint.
“Okay, Mom, cut back any plant sprayed with red paint. If you don’t see red, don’t cut.”
“I can do that,” she replied.
And it worked!
This was just the beginning of the many challenges Alzheimer’s would bring to our family. There was the time Mom professionally cleaned my bathroom mirrors and glass shower doors with deodorizing spray. I watched as she worked intently to remove every self-induced streak. Occasionally she would tear a sheet from the roll of paper towel tucked under her arm. It was a brief “life as usual” moment for Mom; she felt useful and I didn’t have the heart to stop her.
When a family member has Alzheimer’s, you learn to laugh when you want to cry. Laughter becomes the healing balm for the isolation and loneliness we feel caused by our inability to communicate with someone we love. That 1996 visit with my mom-in-law was a precious gift.
I remember a long drive home from a family gathering with Mom seated next to my husband, Chris. The conversation went like this:
“Christopher, it is so nice to see you again.” (10-minute pause)
“Christopher, it is so nice to see you again.” (10-minute pause)
“Christopher, it is so nice to see you again.” (5-minute pause)
That marathon conversation lasted two hours. It’s now a cherished memory that makes us laugh every time we mention it.
I was surprised that the more time I spent with Mom, the more I longed to delve into the corrupted thought process of Alzheimer’s disease. I spoke with home care nurses at the hospital where I worked. Many cared for those with Alzheimer’s on a daily basis and their shared insight of the stages of the disease process was helpful. The Alzheimer’s Association website (www.alz.org) and message boards were another great source of information.
For instance, I couldn’t help but wonder what compelled someone to hide used paper placemats beneath the kitchen sink. When we would visit, Mom proudly displayed the food-stained placemats.
“Look, Christopher, I have been saving these for you. How many would you like?”
On our way out the door, they were discarded with the knowledge many more were sure to follow. If Mom wasn’t gathering paper placemats from the dining tables at the extended care facility, she was stealing toilet paper from their public restroom. One Christmas, the family was invited to attend a sing-a-long in the community room at Mom’s care facility. As my husband walked his mother back to her room he noted she was walking slower than usual.
“What’s wrong, Mom? Are you tired?”
“Oh no, I’m fine.”
As they rounded the corridor’s corner, the two rolls of toilet paper hidden beneath Mom’s sweater fell to the floor.
“What’s going on, Mom? Are you lacking in toilet paper?”
“Well, I didn’t want to accuse anyone,” she replied, “but someone is stealing my toilet paper.”
“Do you want me to report this to the front office?”
“Oh no,” Mom responded, “I can get all the toilet paper I need from the public restroom next to the cafeteria.”
We never knew what to expect when spending time with her and, looking back, it was laughter that helped us cope. We have no idea why she placed empty toilet paper rolls under her mattress, or why holding an infant brought clarity to Mom’s confused mind. Sadly, the mystery of Alzheimer’s disease is locked in the mind of those who suffer its debilitating effects.
It was difficult to watch Mom’s sharp mind spiral downward. She had taught nursing at a well-known university and had given birth to eight healthy children, all who had graduate degrees and successful careers. Watching this once vibrant woman live in a world of void was heartbreaking.
My mother-in-law’s life came to a quiet end as she watched her caregiver decorate the Christmas tree. I can only guess her thoughts in those last minutes before death.
Ultimately, I would like to believe God renewed her mind with flashbacks of all the amazing ways she touched the lives of her family and friends. Even as she failed, she continued to add value and be an important part of our family.
“Do you think they see us?” I whispered as I peeked over some sweet-smelling cantaloupes. My almost-grown daughter, Sarah and I hid in the produce section of our local grocery store.
“No. They’re too busy inspecting chicken breasts. I thought you said we only had fifteen dollars to spend. What if they go over?”
“They forfeit, and we win!” We high fived each other.
Thus began The Great Family Cook-Off.
We drew names. Fate paired the men against the women. Though I lacked the killer competitiveness prevalent in other family members, and the only prize was “bragging rights,” I could literally taste victory.
The rules were simple. Each team would create a dish from a fifteen-dollar budget and any extra ingredients on hand in our kitchen. We traveled home from the store in our family van, tight-lipped about our purchases, joking about our upcoming victories.
Our opponents secured their position near the refrigerator. Sarah and I set up adjacent to the pantry. After much consultation, Sarah and I opted for chicken quesadillas since we had all the ingredients. It was colorful so it would plate well, and who doesn’t like quesadillas? Plus, we had an extra culinary surprise up our salsa-spotted sleeves.
My husband is a master in the kitchen. While I tend to “throw” together various items from the fridge, Tom crafts his entrées. He carefully chooses and inspects for visual appeal and freshness. After his meticulous choices, he begins to create. A pinch of this is added to a smidgeon of that. He tastes and stirs. When he is satisfied, he plates the food. Tom can serve buttered toast that makes you gasp with delight.
My daughter described our cooking differences to a friend like this: “Mom makes four things at once from whatever is in the fridge, and I usually like one of them. My dad concentrates on one item, and it’s fabulous.”
Even with my seeming handicap, I persevered. The reputation of womanhood throughout history hinged on the outcome of our contest.
Our male counterparts cut, sliced, and diced. The aroma of sundried tomatoes and garlic permeated the kitchen. I almost panicked.
“Micah, get sweet onions out of the fridge,” Tom instructed our son.
I started to sweat.
We sautéed and simmered. Both sides sneaked sideways glances at each other.
It was time. The men served sautéed lemon chicken with capers, cilantro and sun-dried tomatoes. They plated the food on a large white serving dish with two sprigs of asparagus shooting off from a cut lemon placed strategically in the center. Paprika adorned the edges, composing a perfect balance of colors, complete with a heavenly aroma.
We spread the quesadillas artistically around an Italian ceramic platter painted with whimsical flowers. We added a sweet corn and tomato relish over each piece of chicken. Colorful peppers and sliced limes dotted the dish. A bowl containing sour cream, salsa, and two small yellow peppers that surrounded a lone peapod sat in the center of our creation.
Time for the taste test. We adjourned to our dining room, placed cloth napkins on our laps, and asked the Lord for a blessing — as I silently petitioned Him for a victory.
Both were tasty, almost dead even. Tom and Micah’s masterpiece was pretty and moist, but lacked Tom’s usual panache. Ours was attractive, and yummy, but your run-of-the-mill quesadilla. Still, we hadn’t decided.
After we finished the main course, Sarah and I pulled out our secret weapon. Dessert.
We had enough money in our budget to purchase store-bought cookie dough. We spread rocky-road ice cream between the warm cookies for an amazing culinary delight.
Time for the vote. Tom mumbled something about cheating and declined. Sarah and I registered our vote for all women everywhere. Micah remained silent.
“So what do you think, Micah?” Sarah asked.
There was a long pause and then Micah looked up, hands covered in chocolate and vanilla ice cream. “I don’t know. All I can think about right now is this cookie.”
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.
~John W. Whitehead
Extra-long twin sheets, comforter, pillow, laundry soap, boxes of granola bars and snacks loaded miraculously in the trunk of my small car. My son, Matt, celebrated his eighteenth birthday a few weeks ago and now we are driving him to college. I feel proud. He won a scholarship, participated in sports and did it all without succumbing to the many temptations facing teenagers today.
It happened somewhere between unloading the car in the college parking lot and the hug goodbye. The separation. My son, no longer mine solely, now another member of the human race. The job of watching over him now rested on the shoulders of the world.
It’s a moment just like any other, but the silence marks this one as profound. Driving home in the car without his voice, his presence. That is when it hit me — gratitude, from the depth of my bones to my goose-bumped flesh. Gratitude for being a stay-at-home mom. This was the day it counted — the dirty diapers, the late nights when he was sick, his first days at school, homework, all of the inside-out grimy socks, the cold bleachers, his messy room, and the fender bender. It all led up to today. I am grateful for all the times I stopped and listened and all the moments in between. Especially those.
When I got pregnant I assumed I would be a working mom. I liked working and climbing the corporate banking ladder and I felt that I could continue with my plan even with a baby. But you know what they say, “The best laid plans often go astray.” Three days before my due date, I began to have contractions. It took another day and a half before my water broke. Forty-two hours later, and after three hours of pushing, my son arrived right on schedule, forever changing my world.
The doctor placed my beautiful boy in my tired arms. The feel of him, warm and comfortably heavy, wrapped tightly in the soft pale-blue blanket caught me by surprise. Feelings of wonder and a tremendous love overwhelmed me. I wanted to protect this little piece of heaven forever. He looked at me with big brown eyes and said wordlessly, “Hi Mom, don’t you want to spend every minute you can with me?”
My heart responded with an intensity that surprised me. “Absolutely!” A wave of motherly love flooded through my body, rearranging all of the plans I had made, in just a moment’s time.
“And just how will we make this work?” my mind asked my heart. “We need to get Dave (my husband) through his last year of law school. How will we pay the bills and who will cover our medical and dental plans?”
The entire silent conversation took place in the time it took Dave to walk from the chair a few feet away to my side. “How am I going to tell him that I do not want to return to work?”
“Wait, there will be a right time,” my heart offered. “Do not worry, it will all work out.”
After eight weeks of mothering, walks in the woods, late nights of rocking and a surprising number of dirty diapers, I returned reluctantly to my job as a branch manager of a bank. I never found the time to broach the subject with my husband. Two more months went by, our bank went through a “buy-out” by a larger national bank and I began to hear rumors of cutbacks.
“Just be patient,” my heart said on those days when I cried the entire way to work. My desire to be with my son and watch him grow became more urgent with each passing week. “Have faith! It will all work out since you desire it so,” the twinkle in my baby’s eyes seemed to say.
Three months later my boss stopped by my branch to meet with me. Butterflies in my stomach alerted me that something big was coming.
“We are going to close your branch. The new bank feels that this branch is not needed, with the larger one only a mile away. You have two options: walk away with a six-month severance package, insurance and pension, or apply for any other open position within the system.”
“Wow, I’ll have to think about it,” I replied with my best poker face, knowing full well which option I would choose.
“Oh, and you have thirty days until we close,” she added.
Around the same time, my husband got an early offer for a great opportunity in upstate New York. This meant my severance salary would take us right up until his new job started.
I watched my son’s first steps, encouraged his first words, witnessed his first soccer goal, bandaged his cuts, dusted him off after he fell, and greeted him at the bus every day. After a few years we had another boy, Mitchell, and I renewed my resolve to stay home. Despite the fact that it was not always easy, I never wavered, never doubted the silent commitment I made to both children to be there.
This inspired me to think creatively and to build work around my children’s schedules. I ran a small interior design business from my home for the first nine years. The birth of my second son also inspired me to begin teaching yoga and meditation classes. Eventually I opened a yoga studio, working mother’s hours of course, with the goal of helping people release stress and live healthier, happier lives. A number of my teachers are stay-at-home moms, desiring to contribute something to the world while raising their children.
I have five more years of moments to savor before we reach this milestone for Mitchell, our youngest and I intend to make the most out of each and every one of them.
The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book.
Two years ago, my husband and I took our daughter school-supply shopping for the first time. Armed with our list, we searched for the requisite items, allowing her to pick out the colors and designs. We were nervous about her first day. I was emotional, wavering between excitement and pride, and fear of putting my precious little girl into someone else’s hands. We talked it up to her and made a big deal out of it, allowing her to choose a special first-day outfit and hair clips. Then we walked her into her classroom, helped her find her cubby and seat, kissed her goodbye, and left. I teared up as I left, like many mothers — but knew in my heart all would be well. And at the end of her day, we delighted in hearing from her about each and every new experience.
Last night, we made preparations again, this time for her little brother’s first day of school. We went to the store to buy school supplies. Only, this time, we picked them out ourselves. My son, mostly nonverbal and autistic, doesn’t have an opinion about his lunchbox. He doesn’t know his colors yet, nor does he express a preference. He doesn’t even understand that he is going to school today. This experience of the first day of school is altogether different for us. And at the end of his first day, he will not tell us what he thought or how he felt.
In a couple of hours, we will — supplies in hand — walk him into a very big building. In it will be hundreds of children who can follow directions, feed themselves with a spoon, use the toilet, and can — if frightened or in pain — express their needs. My son cannot. Yet I will be placing his tiny, almost three-year-old hand into someone else’s — someone who does not yet know and love him. Someone who will not be able to understand the few words he has and the peculiar ways he attempts to communicate. Someone who will not know how to soothe him when he inevitably gets lost in confusion and frustration. I cannot begin to convey the terror I am feeling right now. He is so little and helpless. And it is such a very big bad world out there.
I met you last week at his IEP. I tried to use every instinct I had as a teacher to get a feel for you. My instincts tell me I made the right choice. You weren’t assigned to him by chance. Teachers know all about homework, and I did mine. Yes, I shamelessly queried every connection I have made in my years in the school system to find just the right classroom for him. You are rumored to be the best. I can tell you that some mighty fine people whom I like and respect think very highly of you.
Having done that, I now have to step back and let you do your job. I have to trust in your experience and love for special little ones like mine. Let me assure you that, though I feel confident in my choice of you as a teacher, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. For, somewhere in your classroom, there is a cubby with the name of the little boy who encompasses my entire world.
And though I am trying, there really are no words.
As a teacher, I know what you need from me. I have been where you are. And I want you to know I plan to support you. I will take into consideration that you are a person — not a saint. I know all too well how bone-tired you can be at the end of the day. How hard it is for you to see child neglect and parent apathy. How critical the powers that be in education really are. I know how all of your planning time is stolen for stupid meetings and unhelpful consultants.
So, here is my pledge to you. I am not going to make your life a living hell over the little things. You are allowed to be sick, sometimes you will have to come up with things on the fly, have your head turned during a minor bump on the head, and even forget a note home or phone call. You aren’t superhuman. I pledge to not expect perfection from you.
In return for this, I would like something from you. I would like you to remember that this little boy is mine. I would like you to remember — when he is being difficult — that he cannot speak for himself, cannot share his fears, his desire for mommy and daddy, and his confusion over the new expectations placed upon him. I would like you to remember how fragile and defenseless he is while learning how to navigate this world. I would like for you to grow to love him for the sweet, loving little boy who cuddles with me and holds my hand each night. I know that, having chosen to do what you do, you already know these things and have already made that commitment. But, please — on the most difficult days that all teachers have — remember you are holding my world in your hands.
Thank you for your sacrifice. For though we both know the rewards of teaching are many, I know the time, dedication, and expense you put into it — for little pay and a great deal of hassle. May you be blessed with patience, love, determination, optimism, realism, and the stamina that I know is required to do what you do well. If you need anything at all, please pick up the phone and call. For I know for certain that, in this sacred trust, I am calling on you already.