Friday, March 25, 2011

What is True, Regardless

"I lihke your rehd cayne, NetNet," Abby says, ever-mindful of aesthetic.

We walk through the parking lot to the hospital doors, and Abby asks a dozen questions about the two helicopters landing on the helipads. She holds her auntie's hand, the one not holding the pretty red cane, and in typical Abby fashion, she motors in every possible manner but walking: hopping, skipping, weaving--in starts and stops. I say silent, smiling prayers that she doesn't tumble us all.

We navigate through the corridors of this beautiful, new facility, and Abby exclaims over the coffee stand and asks to push the elevator button and wonders aloud why the hospital is an airport when she passes the large, portrait windows looking out over the roof and parking lot. When we reach the neurology department, we sit on the bench, and she asks to play with the cane--an endeavor that proceeds successfully for approximately twenty-three seconds before she attempts raising it skyward like a baton and then grounds it against another patient's ankle.

While NetNet fills out her paperwork, I settle Abby at the table with her pink legos, hopeful this diversion will provide the focus her ever-busy body needs. She builds and settles, but her voice retains its signature boisterousness and signature volume--loud--half-narrating, half-singing her three-year-old stream of consciousness.

Her presence is a lesson in contrast. The air of the center is quiet, somber, serious--as most hospital waiting rooms are--but Abby flashes joy like a beacon from the pre-disease world. Her pink boots smack of care-free confidence, and she brushes her hair out of her face with girly, business-like efficiency. She is wholly unaware of the dozens of people around her facing new diagnoses or inexplicable loss of function or a future full of questions marks. I am aware of people watching her. Some smile, some just observe. Her auntie and I exchange amused glances and discuss whether having Abby in the exam room will be too much of a distraction. We decide we'll all go in together.

Abby plays quietly with her legos on the chair while the professional checks my sister's eyes, reflexes, strength, and balance. There has been new weakness, new numbness for the first time in two years. Little Missy worries the flashlight shining in NetNet's eyes will hurt her eyes, and my sister explains what the light does and that it doesn't hurt. I am struck by the fact that, regardless of context or ability, my sister is simply NetNet to Abby, always. NetNet's personhood, importance, role, does not change, even if her body does. Abby's perspective is the most real, the most true.

She finishes her lego creation: a tall, tall house with a swing on top. I tell Abby I would like a tall house with a swing. My sister says, "Don't you miss those days, when you get to create whatever you want?"

I am grateful for her lightness of being. I read the signs proclaiming that Colorado has been identified as a high risk zone for MS and that MS is the leading cause of disability among young women, and I wonder about Abby's future. She is more likely to get MS given her aunt's diagnosis, and we live in a latitudinal hot spot for disease anyway. It is possible that one day this beautiful, exuberant girl will receive the same news her beloved auntie did the day before her twenty-sixth birthday.

I hope fervently not, but if so, my prayer for her would be the same as it is for my sister. That she would know she is not defined by her ability or lack thereof. That she would know to her core what is most real, most true. She is loved profoundly. She is unchanged in my eyes. She is a vessel of light in a world of serious, somber waiting rooms.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What is Fleeting--And What Isn't

They sat on the couch in the early evening light: Abby snuggled into Daddy's side, Ben resting his head just under Daddy's chin. Josh read the book aloud, and the kids--content in their father's arms--grew still, and quiet. I watched them from the nearby chair, memorizing the picture, reveling in this little miracle of family, already feeling nostalgic for this togetherness, knowing they will not always tuck in so close.

Even as I wrestle with this sense of fleeting time, I remind myself that we are in this moment now, enjoying our children at this age, savoring this era's gifts. Time may pass quickly, but we're not missing it. We spend time on the couch with books now, invest ourselves in these moments as they arise, in hopes that we build a relationship that will remain intact regardless of age and size.

Their relationship to us has already changed in the five and three years we have called them ours, but it grows sweeter, richer, with time. The nature of our interactions will continue to change as the kids grow older and more independent, as they are drawn out of the shelter of our family and into the lives they build with their own friends and, eventually, families--and we will miss this time when little bodies fit so cozily, and happily, in our arms.

But I choose not to believe that this evolution of our role will constitute loss, that the future will be any less precious than the present. I am trusting that our relationships will continue to grow ever sweeter and richer as we make space in our days, in our lives, to know them and to walk with them through their worlds.

Sometimes, I watch our kids sleeping, their still babyish bodies sprawled across their beds, their faces infantile in their peacefulness, empty of the day's activity--and my heart aches with love for them, with an overwhelming desire to scoop them up and snuggle them forever. I imagine this urge will always exist, even when Ben and Abby are in the throws of adolescence or watching their own children sleep. But while they may not climb into our arms in ten, twenty, or thirty years, our love can provide the same strength and kindness, the same respite and security, then as it does now. Indeed, I pray for the grace to make it so.

In the meantime, though, I'll squeeze them as much as they'll allow while our arms are still their favorite place to be.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

He Knows Me

In the car today after Ben's ski lesson, he carefully unpacked his end-of-session goody bag full of everything from cliff bars to stickers to maps of the mountain, all a gift from his instructor. He pulled the contents out one at a time and showed them to Abby, who admired them dutifully.

At one point, Ben said to Abby, "I'm not going to show this to Mommy because she won't like it."

At this declaration, I, of course, quickly glanced in the rearview mirror to see what might be too offensive to show me. I glimpsed a plastic skull ring on his finger and began thinking about how amazing it is that he can intuit my discomfort with all things grotesque or morbid and then began worrying that I've been, perhaps, too overt in my discomfort toward such objects so that he would feel, at five, that he needs to shield or protect me from certain things--or, perhaps more accurately, protect his loot. Because I was already plotting how I might get rid of that ring. Is that terrible? And if this is the dynamic now, how will he ever feel comfortable confiding in me as he gets older and the issue becomes more complicated than a skull ring.

So I said in my most encouraging, light-hearted voice, "It's okay, Bug. You can show me anything."

At which point, he held up another plastic treasure and said, "See, Mommy. It's a spider ring. You don't like spiders."

To which I exhaled a great sigh of relief and chuckled internally and confirmed, "Yep, you're right. I don't like spiders," and then proceeded to exclaim over his creepy crawly.

Spiders. I should have known.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Social Jungle

I watch Abby show her picture to her friend. "Do you like it?" she asks, and I see her heart hanging out there in the space between them--earnest, sincere, hopeful.

Her little friend, also just three, ignores her.

"Do you like it?" Abby asks again, this time a little louder, in case her friend didn't hear.

Her friend looks up from her own art, looks at Abby's picture, and puts her head back down, saying nothing.

This intentional act of ignoring leads Abby to press further: "Do you like it? Do you like my picture, [Friend]?"

And finally, the little girls speaks: "I don't like those colors."

My mama heart catches.

"What color do you like?" Abby asks, seemingly unfazed.

"Pink," her friend declares.

"I like pink, too," Abby says. It's true. She loves pink. But this picture of the world with the sun beams streaming out of it and the continents and a few people doesn't call for pink. Instead, Abby used blue and red and green and yellow, as most maps do.

Abby returns to coloring her picture with not-pink and says, "I'm going to give this to my mom." Her tone is as light as it was when she began the conversation. She puts the lid on her marker, folds the paper up a dozen times, and brings it to me. "This is for you, Mama," she says with eyes that sparkle with pride.

And I am so, so grateful.

It amazes me how early kids learn to be cruel. So quickly interactions among children can degrade into Lord of the Flies hierarchies and power plays and the use of others for one's own social advancement. They learn how much power they can wield through silence or imitation or feigned indifference. They test each other's reactions, intentionally provoking anger or frustration or tears because, whether they realize it or not, there is a thrill to having that kind of control over another.

But it's unfair, because children don't yet realize that these social games and relational rivalries are untrue. How many adults carry around the wounds of childhood, scars from the playground wars that left them feeling ugly or stupid or weak or different? Kids internalize the opinions of those around them, even if the messengers are only three or five or ten or fifteen and hardly qualified to make judgements about the value of another person.

I'm sure my children are not innocent of these interactions. I'm sure they try their hand at these cheap tricks. I've listened in the back seat as Ben has tried to tell Abby something, with increasing insistence, as she ignores him, reveling in the power of her silence to elicit such emotion from her big brother. Once we've experienced this treatment, once we've been on the receiving end of meanness, it is all too tempting to try it out, to propel oneself out of the role of powerless and into the role of powerful by turning on someone else. It is one of the great ironies of life that we tend to hurt others in the very ways we ourselves have been hurt.

In fact, many of the kids I see playing this way are younger siblings who have likely been treated this way by older brothers and sisters who learn to be mean from friends who've been mistreated by other parents and siblings and friends. There is a heritage of cruelty that trickles down to even the youngest and most innocent around us.

But still it pains me to watch kids, my kids especially, hand their hearts to little people around them who don't recognize the significance of the gift. Children trust freely, they believe easily, they offer themselves unreservedly--and this is at once the beauty and danger of youth.

My mama heart was so grateful Abby chose to give her picture to me, because I will always see the value in her creations because I will always see the value in her. By focusing on my response rather than her friend's, her little spirit remains buoyant, unfettered by the judgements of another. I want my children to listen to me and Josh above all other voices. The more they trust us and our word, the less vulnerable they will be to the falseness around them.

As they grow, they will be, indeed have already been, hurt by those around them. But I pray that my love, that our love as parents, helps to heal those wounds, to mitigate the damage, so they grow up with a true understanding of who they are, unmarred by others attempts to establish themselves at another's expense.

Friday, March 11, 2011


On October 17th, 1989, at 5:04 p.m., I was putting away laundry in my room--finishing up my final tasks before our family would settle on the couch to watch the World Series where the Giants and the A's would play each other--when the rumbling started and the house began shaking and then kept shaking and shaking. I ran to my doorway, as all children raised in California have been taught, and saw my youngest sister, just five at the time, trying to climb the ladder to her top bunk, too little to understand. I remember panicking for her and trying to coax her down. When the shaking stopped, I grabbed her and then watched my other sister finish her scramble up the stairs to my mom, her homework left on the floor of our family room where our TV had fallen.

Our thoughts went immediately to my dad, who drives all over northern California for his work, and we began trying to get in touch to make sure he was safe. He was fine, though we understood all too well how easily we could have lost him.  He was supposed to be on the Bay Bridge that day, which we learned had collapsed in part.

The Loma Prieta quake registered a 7.1 magnitude and lasted twenty seconds by some accounts, a full minute by others--a seeming eternity, regardless, when you're riding out the waves. But the worst part was the aftershocks, which triggered a rush of panic and adrenaline and fear that this one might be the one that changes our story. All three of us slept on the floor of my parents' room for a week, too fearful of being apart.

Eventually, we went back to our own rooms. Eventually, we went about life without the anxiety that it might end at any second. Eventually, we stopped running through the what if's that prepare us for life's hypthotheticals. But there were still times when I'd hear the rumbling of what I later realized was a semi driving by or, even years later in college, the approaching T in Boston, when my heart instinctively skipped a beat and my stomach fluttered with dread. The trauma of survival remains, not just in your memory but in your body. Survival changes you. Even when your experience is one one-thousandth that of brothers and sisters around the world.

When I heard about Japan this morning--their 8.9 earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami--I thought about the widespread grief and fear and panic that would ebb and flow for these people over these next several hours and days and weeks and months and years. I thought about the thin, tight feeling that takes residence in your chest whenever you wait out crisis, the feeling that makes it impossible to breathe properly and that leaves you bone-weary, teetering on the exhausted brink between stoicism and weeping.

Now they are being rocked by aftershocks as large as many countries' initial, catastrophic quakes. And they have the added mass destruction of the ocean rising out of its bed and sweeping away any hope of survival or recovery in some parts. It is heart-breaking. 88,000 missing. So many more waiting, hoping, praying. Homes, businesses, livelihoods destroyed. The enormity of their loss is unbearable. Impossible to fathom.

And the ripples of this quake reach the other side of the globe. It is extraordinary that the western coast of the Americas braced for their own waves, our global community separated--and now connected--by a mere ocean.

These disasters dash the illusions upon which we rely every day: that our world is safe and secure, that when we go to bed at night, everything will be the same as when we woke up, that we are somehow in control of our lives. It is a global wake-up call.

But even before I heard the news of Japan this morning, I'd been reflecting on how tenuous our sense of reality is. Our friends' infant son--seemingly healthy at birth--now waits in the NICU at Children's Hospital while doctors conduct test after test to determine the cause of his seizures. Each day, they wait for an answer, for any word that the crisis is over. They make it through an afternoon without a seizure and hope that perhaps they are getting close. And then his little body shakes again, and the hope gives way to unbearable disappointment and renewed anxiety. Over and over. They are suffering their own aftershocks, a personal tsunami, and I wonder how long it will take before their lives resume the illusion of normalcy.

My heart is heavy today. I know neither story is over, and I know that time will heal much, but first, these precious people must ride out the emotional marathon of the aftershocks, even as they try to piece together a semblance of their former lives.

Lord, help us all.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

In Process

There is a big world my children will walk into one day.

In truth, they already walk in this big world, but it is like the dream version where bad guys are mostly fictional and the golden rule is standard and black and white has not yet melded into the complexity of gray. Where they hold the hands of adults who love them and who make sense of inconsistencies and who carry the heavier things of this life until they are old enough to manage them.

There is a big world that we walk into everyday.  Where humans are trafficked and children are exploited and people's vulnerabilities and misdeeds are manipulated to keep them in slavery.

But sometimes it feels like I walk in the dream world, too.  My reality is so far from their realities.  And yet these miseries are not so far from me. A few doors away, maybe.  A few miles at most.

I've found my mind drawn to them recently, these anonymous sufferers.  They have taken residence in my head, and I'm left wondering how to reconcile their existence with mine, wondering what to do with the knowledge of problems so deep and wide.

It's an incomplete thought, I know. But I want to keep looking past the illusion until I find an answer (is there an answer?). This is life in process.
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