Wednesday, August 17, 2016

First Day of the Next Four Years of His Life, Take Two

On August 17th, 2011, my oldest son embarked upon his four-year journey through high school. On that day, I wrote what I wished I could have told him (
First Day of the Next Four Years of His Life) but didn’t dare due to the whole teenage angst thing he had going on.

Some of what I wrote I may have mentioned to him as I nervously tried to prepare him for what I could not prepare him for. However, no one could have possibly braced me for what those four years would bring – and that’s an understatement. My advice then seemed so normal, but what we experienced during that time was anything but.

So here I am – exactly five years later – same date, same high school, same nerves, different kid. At first I thought to myself, "My advice is the same – there’s no reason to write another post on this". But as I re-read that blog, I realized, no, it’s not the same. While my mainstream suggestions are still valid (keep your schedule in your pocket, don’t freak out if you forget your locker combination, respect your teachers, etc.) they’re not what first comes to mind now that I have my second and final child entering those precarious high school years. 

Why? Couple of reasons. One, he’s a different kid. Thankfully, I’ve been able to keep the “Mom’s a complete idiot and I’d rather eat dirt than be seen with her” scenario at bay longer than I did with my first son, so I can talk to him about some of these things. Two, I learned too late that while I had the best of intentions, I tried too hard to save my son from every mistake or consequence or hurtful situation he might encounter. And in doing that, I did him a huge disservice.

With that said, my words of wisdom come not only from me, but from both of my sons: one speaking from first-hand experience; the other vicariously through his older brother. And while these nuggets may not be as “common” and “sharable” as my post five years ago, I can tell you right now it’s all pretty damn good advice.

From my youngest son: 

“I’m going to have to choose my friends carefully.”

My youngest wasn’t immune to the changes his brother went through during his high school years, his struggles or his revolving door of “friends”. In his mind, these were the people who took his big brother away from him piece by piece, dragging him down into a life that ended up making high school a living hell for all of us. My youngest doesn’t want that for himself (or for me), and is pretty good at seeing the forest for the trees.

We’ve talked about choosing the friends who don’t make you feel bad, or pressured, or nervous about doing something that doesn’t make you feel right. We’ve talked about friends who use you, and that true friends shouldn’t make you feel like you have to make a decision that goes against that feeling in your gut. I never thought I’d be a little thankful for my son’s anxiety, but if nothing else, I hope it’s that emotion that helps keeps the bad influences away, as well as keeps him from being a bad influence, which I would be hard pressed to believe he would be.

From my oldest:

“As long as he’s involved in a sport, he’ll be OK.”

I wish I would have asked for a further explanation of this statement from my oldest, who begrudgingly completed a season of tennis before settling on a couple of weeks of working lights and sound for the school play as his completion of my rule that “You must join SOMETHING”. Perhaps it’s the nature of the school: it’s somewhat affluent (we are not), with a high participation rate in sports and extracurricular activities. Those who choose not to participate in either kind of fall into that “other” category you might remember from your high school days. And in a school like that, it’s a dangerous place to be.

The good thing is, my youngest started track three years ago. I saw he was good and enjoyed it, and I have “encouraged” him a bit harder than I may have with my first, for just this reason. It’s not that I want him to be a track star. I want him to be INVOLVED. I want him to feel a part of a team, and a community of other students. I want him held accountable for his grades. I want him randomly drug tested (as they do the athletes). I want him busy. I want him healthy. I want him as far away from the “other” category as I can get him, and I make no apologies for that.

And finally, from me, more of a wish than a piece of advice for the next four years:

“Know you can talk to me.”

I don’t know why some kids push their parents away and others keep them close. I don’t know why some child/parent relationships are adversarial and others less so. Perhaps it has to do with the makeup of the child as well as the experience of the parent. 
I learned more than I ever wanted to learn during those four years with my oldest, but my experiences I feel made me a better listener versus advice-giver with my youngest. I try to ask him what he thinks he should do; not tell him what I think he should do. I am painfully aware that trying to shield and save him from every disappointment and crisis is only doing a disservice to the development of his coping skills he’ll need later in life.

Doesn't matter if he sees me.
My oldest knows I'm there.
I told my oldest he could always talk to me, and I meant it, but my desire to give him answers to questions he should figure out for himself, coupled with his oppositional nature, rarely made this possible. My youngest and I have some pretty amazing conversations, and at 15, I’m constantly impressed at the questions he asks and the topics he brings up. Will that continue into high school? I can only hope. Whereas now, I can feel the butterflies in my stomach as I struggle to find something non-confrontational to talk to my oldest about, I pray that my youngest and I can have as trusting of a relationship as a mother and her teenage boy can have.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think that he’s going to tell me everything – not by a long shot. I guess what I mean by “talk to me” is, “Don’t not talk to me because you don’t think I’ll understand, or that I’ll yell at you, or judge you.” I’ve come a long way and if he’s willing to keep me in the loop and open up to me, I’m willing to trust him which will translate into more privileges and freedoms that his older brother didn’t earn.

Despite my best intentions and most fervent prayers, my oldest son’s high school experience was downright brutal. The other night, he gave his brother some “advice” on how to get through those four years. Suffice it to say, it was more of a strategy on “how to get in and out with the least possible effort” as opposed to “how to get the most out of the next four years”.  And though certain aspects of high school are the same as they were 30+ years ago, I’m hesitant to dole out advice to him like I know what the hell I’m talking about today. But there is one thing that still holds true from five years ago; something that will never, ever change as long as I am living and breathing:

I will be there.

Not to fix things. Not to “save” you. Not to enable you. But to just be there.

When the girl says “yes” to your invitation to the dance, I will be there to help pick out your suit and her corsage.

When a girl breaks your heart and you just want to cry, I will be there with apple pie and a horror movie to help get your mind off of her.

When you and your friends need a place to hang out after the football game, I will be there with a comfy basement and plenty of snacks.

When you feel pressured by friends to do something you know you shouldn’t do, I will be there as your excuse to leave.

When you get an “A” on that project you worked for weeks on, I will be there waving a college catalog.

When you bomb that test that lowers your grade a full letter, I will be there, probably with a set of flash cards or something.

When you win that race with a personal best, I will be there screaming your name at the finish line.

When you lose and feel like quitting, I will be there to remind you that you run because you love it, not because you win.
I'm right behind ya, kid.

The rest is the same – and I’m able to copy it (nearly) verbatim from that blog five years ago:

"I will be there. And I think you know that. I am hoping that these next four years will be some of the best years of your life. These will be the years you will learn - both academically, socially and emotionally. You will have amazing ups and horrible downs. You may fall in love. You may experience heartbreak. You may find the friends who will be your friends for the rest of your life. You may discover your passion and realize that it's what you want to do as a career. You may discover yourself - at least a little bit. And through it all, I will be there, walking 50 paces or so back, but there just the same."

Happy first day of freshman year, my son of the Class of 2020.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Tales of the Bad News Mom

I wasn’t really prepared for this.

Not that I was prepared for ANY of it. As I’ve said numerous time, I never thought I’d get married, let alone have kids. So my learning curve in both of those areas might have been “curvier” than most.

That said, I’d like to think I kind of rocked the whole mom thing, as best I could rock it, anyway, given my general maternal ignorance, lack of rocking my marriage and a plethora of my own issues that seemed to make being what I wanted to be that much more difficult.

It was kind of like I was the Bad News Bears of mothering. You know, the baseball team made up of total misfits with good intentions but absolutely no idea what they’re doing who come together in the end and win the big game? Yeah, that’s me, except we’re like in the gazillionth inning and I am not seeing a W in sight.

That said, I’m kind of at that stage where I’m wondering if all that training and conditioning and sacrifice all those years was really worth it? To take the analogy one step further: If the Bad News Bears did everything they could and STILL lost the game, would everything they did really even matter?

Now I know your first instinct is to say, “Of course!” if nothing else just to make me feel better. But I’m honestly not sure. Now, I don’t say this to play the martyr card at ALL, and if I had it to do all over again, I would have done a good portion of it the same way. BUT, looking back, I really, really stressed about what I did and didn’t do for my kids and around my kids. I took them into consideration in pretty much every move I made. For instance:

— I want them to have a head start in kindergarten so we’re going to work on colors and shapes and numbers beforehand.
— I refuse to use the TV as a babysitter so I’m going to limit their screen time.
— I need to make sure any serious adult discussions don’t take place around them so they aren’t privy to things that are too old for their young minds to comprehend.
— I need to feed them nutritious food so they’re healthy (and so I don’t have to completely lie when we go to the pediatrician and he asks how many servings of fruit and veggies they get each day).
— I  need to go to church and step up my God game because I want them to know Him.
— I will read to them every night as long as they want me to, and maybe even longer.
— I’ll find a job with a flexible schedule because their dad doesn’t have a normal schedule and I want to make sure someone is always there for them after school and at all their sporting  and school events.
— I will be the mom that will always say “yes” to shooting some baskets, throwing the football or fishing.
— I will have “the talk” with them even though it’s totally uncomfortable and I’m not sure it’s a mom thing to do but I can’t NOT have the talk with them.
— I will not talk badly about their dad in front of them and I will encourage their relationship with them, even if it means us all spending every Christmas morning together because that’s how they like it.
— I’ll make sure they are gentlemen by insisting they open the door for someone and always look people in the eye and say please and thank you to the waitresses.
— I’ll talk to them about girls and how the nice guy doesn’t finish last and being a gentleman is far better than being a showoff.
— I’m certainly not going to introduce them to anyone I date unless we are serious, and if for some reason they don’t like him or get along with his kids, I will choose my kids over him.
— I'm going to make them aware of the importance of doing well in school, learning good study habits and staying motivated.
— They will volunteer because once they’re 16 and can get a paying job, they’ll have something to put on their resume and be way ahead of all the other 16 year olds.
— I’ll be frugal with my money and teach them to shop sales and that just because you want something doesn’t mean you can get it right now – or sometimes ever.
— If they are ever in a position where someone is trying to pressure them into doing something they know they shouldn’t do, they are more than welcome to use their “hardass mom” as an excuse.
— I will make sure they know they can talk to me about anything – that if they don’t know where else to turn, even though I’m “Mom”, that I will be there for them.
— I will make sure they know that they are loved, and that they are fortunate.

I look back on this not-even-exhaustive list and think, “Well, I tried all these things, that’s for sure.” How successful was I? In some areas, pretty good. In a lot of areas, not very.

But this is what I have spent the past 19 years stressing over, and here I am, 19 years later, and it’s virtually done.

It’s over.

There’s no more to teach.

Sure, mothering is never over. I know that. I needed my mom even when she lay in that hospice bed taking her last breaths. I need her even more now. My kids may not think they need me right now, but hopefully the older they get, the more they’ll feel comfortable with the fact that when all else fails, they can still come to mom.

But all the stuff I tried to do right – to raise them to be kind, productive, good people - that part’s pretty much over. And I have two questions.

1. While I feel like I was successful in a few areas, why do I feel like I failed in so many others, and
2. What the hell do I do now?

I hadn’t anticipated the immense amount of time and energy that parenting would take. I had NO idea what was entailed when I brought my firstborn home from the hospital and looked at him with complete bewilderment. I used to tell people, “If being a mother was an actual job, I would have quit a long time ago.”  I mean, that shit is TOUGH.

Maybe in time my feelings about failure will change. Sure, I could have been a much worse parent. Considering I was completely pulling the whole motherhood thing out of my ass on a daily basis, I think I did as well as I could have with what I had to work with. But I don’t think that was good enough.

And now, here I am, 19 years later, wondering what to do next. It’s kind of like working for CAT for 20 years then suddenly getting laid off. You may have known it was coming, but you just weren’t prepared to wake up one morning and not have that job to go to. And you may even be hesitant to try for a new job, because you just spent SO much time at the last one and look what happened. So you stay at home and binge watch Netflix shows and clean your house a lot and wonder what everyone else in your shoes is doing (my shoes being: single, not a ton of money, and still half-mothering a teenager, but even he’s one foot out of the nest.)

I suppose I’ll figure it out. In the meantime, I selfishly wonder what my kids think of me as a mother (and yes, I realize that at this point, they really don't think anything...). Since my oldest has moved out, he doesn’t contact me very often, if ever. If I contact him, It’s usually met with a sign or rushed conversation. And yes, I recall being his age and my mom insisting I call once a week from college. I rolled my eyes, yet I never missed that call – because even I knew I needed her, and talking to her kind of centered me. It was like there was not only one person in this world who knew what was going on with my life, it was one person who actually cared.

I hope they know I care about their lives. I hope they still need me, even if they think right now they don’t. I hope they know that I tried to do the best I could. That I really did give my all and then some for them. Now I have to turn the tables a little and give that all back to myself, which I haven’t done for a long, long time, and I’m not sure what to do or where to go to even find any of it.

In a way, I kind of feel like the right fielder. I played on a softball team when I was a kid, and I sucked. Bigtime. Like, every-time-I-got-up-to-bat-the-dugout-would-groan sucked. So of course they stuck me in right field, where I’d be safe from any action. That’s kind of where I'm at now. I used to be in the game, but I’m kind of past my prime now, so I’ve been put out to pasture in right field. And apparently it’s up to me to make the call that this game is no longer my “thing” and find another sport.  

I wonder if the Average Joes need another player?



Sunday, June 19, 2016

You Go On

Sometimes, people come into your life – and they change you. Such is the case with Mary.

It’s true – there is “something about Mary”. And I’m sure it started with her mother.

Norma and me, on her porch.
Now THERE'S a story. 
Norma was a force to be reckoned with, and though I was so very lucky to know her at all, I wish I would have known her earlier. She left this life on her own terms, but selfishly, I wished she would have stayed around a little longer.

It takes quite a bit to impress me, if you’re a person. Norma blew me away. I liked her SO much. Her authenticity. Her bluntness. Her wisdom. Her humor. Her insight. Her tough nurturing. Her strength. She took me in like an old stray cat and made me feel like one of her own. Selfishly, I felt I took from her WAY more than I gave.

I didn’t know Norma well – as in, I didn’t know her for a long time, and I didn’t see her often. I couldn’t regale you with stories of our trips together, inside jokes or “remember whens”. So when I make comparisons between Norma and Mary, it is only in what I have witnessed as an outsider with one foot on the edge of the inner circle.

"We won't get to grow old together,"
Mary said as we watched an old couple
walk down the street holding hands.
When I think of Mary, the same characteristics as Norma come to mind. First and foremost, her strength.

Mary lost her husband tragically this past September. Mary and Gregg were a good team. They complemented each other well, and it was clear to me that despite their mutual sarcasm they adored one another. Gregg’s death was literally one of those “and then he was gone” situations. I didn’t know him well, either. I met him in Peoria during Norma’s chemo treatments and visited their house multiple times over the past few years. My tears I cried when I heard the news of his death were for Mary. God, why do You hurt Your good ones so?

Mary’s in Idaho, and I’m in Illinois. We keep in touch primarily through Facebook. I hope she knows I thought of her way more than I contacted her between September and now. When things like this happen, your first instinct is to back away. “I don’t want to bother them.” “I don’t want to upset them.” “I don’t know what to say.” However, I didn’t want to back away. I wanted to call her and ask her every detail of what happened and what she was feeling. I wanted to hop the first plane out there and hug her and cry with her and be there for her. I wanted to check in on her every day and just ask, “How are you today?”

But I knew she had support. I knew she had friends right there, and her sisters who would come at the drop of a hat without being asked. And I knew she was strong and would not have much patience for what she might call pity. So what I told her was, “When all of this calms down – you know, everyone goes back to normal, but YOU’RE not normal – THAT’S when I’ll come out.”

Scheduling conflicts aside, I made it out there this past week. And I have to say, whatever admiration and love I had for her before then has doubled in size now.

Why? Because she goes on. The Mary who greeted me at the airport with that boisterous voice, big hug and three tubes of lipstick (inside joke) was the same Mary I had seen last time I was here – yet not the same Mary. There was nothing “wrong” per se, just a little “different” – imperceptible, but something that would occur to me time and time again during my visit.

Since her husband’s death, Mary sold the house in which they lived. It had been the plan all along – she had talked about getting it ready to put on the market the last time I had been there. But instead of building their dream home as they had planned, Mary instead bought something that “Gregg would have never done,” she said. An old, Victorian house, circa 1900, nestled on the corner of a tree-lined street and within walking distance to the quaint downtown, where residents and visitors peruse the little shops and enjoy dinner or coffee al fresco with a view of the mountains.

A labor of love.
The house “has good bones”, Mary says, and it does. While I’m sure it was livable upon purchase, Mary had other ideas, and by the time I got there, a garage and mud room had been added, the kitchen completely demolished, her master bedroom in complete disarray with the construction of a full bath and closet. Not to mention that the day I got there, the entire house was yellow. Two days later, it was blue. Workers were everywhere, led by Adam, who Mary was sure was brought to her as a blessing from God – or perhaps Gregg. He ran the show, was knowledgeable, efficient, detailed, communicative and pleasant. But what got him hired, she said, was that he told Mary “no”.

Mary will be the first to tell you that more times than not, she gets her way. She’s not a diva. Well, OK, maybe a little. But not in a bad sense. She knows what she wants and she’s smart about it. She had specific ideas for this house and it was obvious that she is an integral part of this construction team. While most of the time Adam’s response to Mary’s “This is what I want to do…” was, “Sure, we can do that,” every once in a while he’d say, “No, Mary, I don’t think so.” And Mary would say, “OK.”

Though she knew Gregg would not have chosen the house, she is adamant that he live there in spirit. Touches of him will be everywhere, and the workers are aware of the importance of this aspect. From the rolling island he built years back that will serve as a focal point of the kitchen to the old barn door he made that was salvaged from the old house, his legacy will live on here. At one point she told me, “I know he’s complaining about the house; the money I’ve spent and what I’m doing here.” In my mind, he’s looking down on her and saying, “It’s not what we would have done together, but you, Mary, you go on.”

It didn’t take me long, living in the disarray and dust and construction workers on the roof at 7 am, to realize that this house is a gift. It’s a gift to Mary that says, “You experienced one of life’s greatest losses – unexpectedly and tragically. You didn’t deserve to have this happen to you, but you are living with it. Not just existing; living. So live here, and go on.”

This house gives Mary hope. This house will be an ongoing labor of love that she can throw herself into because it’s something she does well and it’s something she enjoys. She has decisions to make, options to weigh, and a team of people around her every day to help her make it all happen. She says this is it – this is the last house she will have. She is home.

And that almost imperceptible difference in her? I understand it now. I remember last winter, talking to her on the phone, and she sounded so upbeat. I was discouraged with some things going on in my own life, and was just bewildered at how she could be so optimistic about life when something so tragic had happened to her. How could she go on without the love of her life? She said to me, “I think of all the people who only got to see him every once in a while, or who only knew him for a short time. I got to spend more than thirty years with him. I’m the lucky one.”

But the grief? How to grieve? “It’s there,” she said, “and I allow myself to feel it, but not for long.”

You go on.

At breakfast one morning, we talked. Though I was hesitant to ask some of the questions I asked, I had this compulsion to know. For some reason, I had to know the whole story – and not necessarily the details surrounding his death, but how Mary reacted to them. How she dealt with them. How she was able to go on.

It was emotional, our conversation, but cathartic I think for both of us. I now understood this subtle difference in my strong friend – this amazing woman raised by an equally amazing matriarch. It was wisdom, a touch of acceptance, and hope. Norma had taught her well – and Mary had listened. Life is life, and it comes with the good and the bad. That’s a given. How you choose to deal with the bad dictates how good it will be for you. And as long as you choose wisely, and have – and accept – the support around you, you can go on.

Mary's husband took this picture.
There is certainly something about Mary. She makes me laugh and she makes me think. She gives me a new perspective on things, like when I was lamenting that I didn’t have “a person” and she said, “You don’t need one; you have people.” Or when she insisted that I shouldn’t ever leave the house without lipstick because “you just never know.”

I left her as I had left Norma, feeling inspired, yet once again feeling guilty that I had gained so much on my trip and seemingly given so little. I left the house in the care of the workers – she had taken off earlier on a spontaneous trip her niece had invited her on – part of the “say yes to everything” we had discussed earlier. I left wishing I could stay, but knowing she was in good hands, if and when she needed them. I left knowing that imperceptible change in her would probably always be there, but that was OK. She’s going to be OK.

You go on, my friend. You go on*.

*"The Show Goes On", Bruce Hornsby, 1990