Friday, October 14, 2016

So This is How You Pray, Part Two: The Waiting

If you missed Part One, start here.

Let's review the facts up until this point, something I have done over and over since that original call from the doctor:  I have a lesion on my optic chiasm which is making me have blurry vision. The first doctor's interpretation was that it was an optic glioma, a brain tumor. The second doctor, Dr. J,  thought it could be either an optic glioma or optic neuritis, inflammation.  The course of action was to wait 3 months and rescan. If the lesion grows, we would proceed with a neurosurgeon and talk about biopsy.  If the lesion shrinks, we would treat it as optic neuritis, which may or may not mean I have MS.

I'm sure you are thinking what I was thinking and everyone else in my family was thinking:  Why on earth, when this might be an aggressive malignant tumor, would you wait 3 months to find out?

I consulted with two more local neurologists and went to see two specialists (recommended by Dr. J) at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Everyone said the same thing:  You wouldn't want to biopsy the optic chasm unless you had to.  It is major, risky brain surgery and will mess up your vision even more. 3 months is a reasonable amount of time to wait before proceeding.

Unless your vision gets worse.  Haunting words!

I have a canvas (made with love by Marlee) with the lines from a Mary Oliver poem on the wall of my bedroom, and the very first thing I did every morning was look up to see if I could read the words of the poem.

"so this is how you swim inward, so this is how you flow outward, so this is how you pray." --Mary Oliver

The poem looks a little blurry, right?  Sometimes it did. Sometimes I could read every word.  Is my vision better? The same?  Worse?  It really was hard to tell, and added to my angst about my condition. I was constantly covering one eye, squinting, looking around to see what I could or couldn't see.

Here is the thing: I am already an anxious person. I already have an irrational fear of brain tumors. I already have an intense fear of dying before my kids are grown. I am already psychosomatic and can convince myself of the existence of symptoms merely suggested to me. That is why this particular situation felt like a special kind of hell designed specifically for me.

I needed to try to live my life, put on a brave face for my kids, be optimistic. I did a good job at this about 40% of the time. The rest of my summer was ruined by worry. I was either crying, trying not to cry, or faking a positive attitude. Day in and day out. I somehow managed to keep moving forward, cooking meals, school supply shopping, getting the kids ready for school.

I considered taking a leave of absence from work but decided against it.  What would I do, sit home and google optic gliomas? Plus, I knew for my kids I needed to keep living as normally as possible. And so I did. But if I saw you out and about, and I was less than friendly, this is why. I couldn't small talk, I couldn't look cheerful or friendly. I might have waved but not come over to talk to you, or cut our conversation short, or avoided eye contact, and now you know why.

People would ask me: "How was your summer?"  And I'd think:  brain tumor, rapidly fatal.
The grocery store cashier: "How are you today?" Brain tumor, rapidly fatal.

"Fine!  Good! Thanks." I faked my way through the back-to-school frenzy. I welcomed new students to my classes. I did football games and cross country meets and open house.

But here is what it felt like inside of me. In the evenings, I would walk up and down the road at the lake, the same road where I took those early phone calls, and cry (with sunglasses on if the kids were around me). Honestly, I had to come to terms with the fact that I might die, I had to "go there." And I could have accepted my death if it weren't for Skyler and Reed. I am not actually afraid of dying. But my most primal fear, what brings me to my knees, is leaving them motherless.

Everything that happened in the last few months was viewed through the lens of "What if this is it?"

Was this my last first day of school?

Was this my last year watching Skyler run for her school team?

Was this my last football season?

Was this the last birthday cake I will make for my daughter?

I may have fooled you that I was keeping it all together, but I had so many dark moments. I had moments of total panic, moments of begging and pleading with the universe.

These kids. They need me. Please God, just give me five more years with them.

Walking up and down that road is where I would let myself really fall apart with self-pity and fear. Some days I was a mad woman. I felt crazy with pain and fear. I imagined all the insane things I would do if it could guarantee me more time with my babies. How close to the fire, how close to the edge of the cliff can a person get?

I was staring down two distinct paths.  One path, my normal life: Before the threat of brain cancer and death, I was surrounded by love and happiness. I am married to someone whom I cannot wait to see every single day. We had just decided to move to our lake house permanently and we were planning an addition and a kitchen renovation. We were planning on going to Puerto Rico for New Years. All four of our kids were thriving.

The other path: hospitals and scans and surgery and radiation and chemo and crying children. I'm ashamed to admit the places I let my mind go, the funeral, the obituary. I couldn't stop. I was cursed with looking into a future where my kids did not have a mom. I would have to shake my head to get rid of the image of Tim in our bed alone.

People told me to "Stay positive" and "Don't think about the scary stuff." Well, I love you all for saying that, but YOU try not to think about the 50% chance of having terminal illness.  Go ahead.  For me, it was not possible. The two people in my life who seemed to truly not panic, to show the ability to delay their fears until we had more information, were my husband and my brother. They were both logical and pragmatic in their approach to this. Is this a male thing?  Because logical and pragmatic in the face of impending brain tumors I am not.

I would bang my fists on my forehead to make myself see clearly, to make the blurriness go away. (It didn't go away. It still has not gone away). I felt like an animal trapped in a cage, and I wanted to claw my way out.

And then, after these occasional fits of rage while walking the road, I would wipe my tears and pull myself together and head into the house to cook dinner or pack lunches or fold laundry, help with homework. I would organize the closet or sweep the kitchen again. So this is how I pray.

There were some days, even strings of days throughout this, when I never cried at all, when I just soldiered on somehow. If I started to feel overwhelmed, I would just focus on what I needed to do next (get up, brush your teeth) and then next (make the kids breakfast, pack school bags) and then next (smile, greet your students). Some days I didn't FEEL everything so deeply, which is a good thing, because I may have broken right in half.

Okay, fast forward.

In early October, I had a follow-up phone call with the neuro-opthamalogist that I had seen in Boston. She had put me on a 12 day course of steroids as an attempt to shrink the inflammation (if that is what it was), and I was now done with the steroids. 3 days of IV infusion and then a week of 60 mg of oral prednisone equals a whole other kind of special hell, and for anyone who has to be on prednisone for any length of time, I bow down to you.

That Boston doctor said the words that I thought I'd been waiting for since August 2nd. She said: "I think we should go ahead and rescan you early to see if anything has changed."  I swallowed hard. I did not react with relief. I actually reacted with panic. I was surprised by my own tears in this moment, but what I quickly realized is that I had spent every molecule of my energy since August 2nd trying to be okay with the not knowing. And faced with this turn of events, I had to be honest with myself.  I didn't want to know. I wanted to wait the 3rd month. I didn't want any new information. This was hard enough as it was.

But of course, I scheduled the MRI for one week from that day. My anxiety levels were through the roof for the rest of that week. Any progress I had made at getting used to living in the dark about what was happening inside my head quickly dissolved. Dr. J, the amazing woman who had made herself available to me for questions and encouragement, was on stand by to look at the scans for me and give me some feedback. On Friday, I had a teacher in-service but I had my scan done early that morning. Here I was again, trying to get through the day, holding my phone in my hand.

I expected to hear from her around 4 or 5 pm, but at 1:00, a text popped in from Dr. J. (May God bless this incredibly kind woman).

I ran out of my meeting and into the parking lot. I was shaking and sobbing and trying to send her message as a text to Tim but my fingers weren't working. This was the first tiny ray of sunlight to shine on me in a long time, and I came a little undone. I walked up and down the sidewalk in front of my school (always with the walking!) while I forwarded the screen shot on to my mom, my sister, my brother my best friends, everybody who I had with me that day, standing by with their phones in their hands. Honest to God. I had a small army right with me.

Everyone wrote back with some version of: "AMAZING NEWS.  But can we get something a little more definitive?"

And we did, at 5:00 when Dr. J called me and confirmed the lesion had shrunk.  According to Dr. J, it shrunk "significantly" but according to the radiologist's report, it shrunk "slightly." (This is why I love Dr. J; I'm going with "significantly"). While they can't prove for sure it's not a tumor without a biopsy,  Dr. J said this seems to be looking like Optic Neuritis. The radiologist said: "Rescan in 3 months."  Dr. J said: "I'm so happy to get to call you with good news."

(I have never met Dr. J, though I did deliver flowers to her office today after school.  I am not even officially her patient. And she took such amazing care of me.)

So, where are we now?

I have moved away from total panic in my thinking, though it is not yet over. I feel reasonably optimistic that our worst fears are not true, even though I may not know for sure for a long time. I thought that with any good news from the brain scan, that I would feel like celebrating, that I would feel relief in my whole body. I imagined a whole group of us all going to Geaghan's for wings and beers, and ordering dessert. But I couldn't. I just went inward, wanted quiet.

Just like the time I found out the lump I had removed from my breast was benign, I actually feel very little joy.  I feel relief, yes, but more than anything, I feel beat up. I feel in shock from what we've had to go through. I still have blurry vision. I still have a headache every day. I still have fatigue. I still have doctors to see and tests to run, and I still have the threat of MS. 75% of people who get Optic Neuritis go on to get MS. All these things mean I really didn't want to have a party.

I spent the long weekend hugging my husband and kissing the heads of my children, taking walks and naps. I can feel, very very slowly, over the course of days, myself releasing some of the pain out of my body. I have a lot of work to do, as I have been clenching my jaw and tightening my shoulders for 67 days, and everything hurts. And once again, I cannot believe that a world exists where a mama may have to die and leave her children to grow up without her.

It is like there was a room that I had to live inside for 67 days, and even though I get to step outside of that room now, I can't quite shake the damage that was done by living there. I will never, ever be the same.

Next up:  Part Three.  I don't know what that chapter is called yet. It might be about all the people who served as shelters during this storm, or about what happens next. I am blown away by all of the love I have received through the sharing of this story. Thank you for reading. xoxo

So This is How You Pray: Part One

I know that once I start writing this story, it will pour out of me with a frenzy and a fever and I won't want to stop writing. I've been writing it for months in my head, but haven't typed one word of it until now. But it's a long story, so I need tell it in parts.

"so this is how you swim inward, 

so this is how you flow outward, 

so this is how you pray." --Mary Oliver

This past July, I was sitting at my dining room table writing an article. The kids were gone for the week, their very first sleep away camp, and Tim was at work. Half way through the article, I noticed there was a small blurry blind spot in my field of vision. I blinked a few times but it didn't go away.  I kept writing, but it started to bother me. I got up and went for a walk and it stayed right there. It was like a flash-bulb had gone off in my eyes and left a spot that didn't fade away.

This blurry spot got bigger and more prominent over the next week, sort of like a migraine aura that didn't move. I went to my optometrist to get checked and she couldn't see anything wrong with my eyes. She gave me eye drops and told me to call her in 2 weeks.  I carried on with my happy life.  I picked up the kids from camp, who had an absolutely amazing week.

Tim and I flew to Key West to see our dear friends Meredith and Sam get married.

While in Key West, in the midst of celebrating love and exploring and going scuba diving,  my vision continued to get worse. I noticed that colors looked a bit off, and nothing was sharp. On the drive back to the airport, I called and made another appointment with my eye doctor.

The next morning, my doctor ran more tests and again told me there was nothing wrong with my eyes. She had no explanation. She said I could see a neurologist if I was worried about it, but that may take 6 months to get an appointment. I called my doctor and she decided we could skip the neurologist and go right for the MRI of my brain, which is what the neurologist would likely order.  I gulped.  "What are we looking for in my brain?" I asked.  She said we wanted to see if my optic nerve was inflamed.  I said:  "And what would that mean?"  And she said:  "Let's just wait and see what we see."  I had a bad feeling.

That weekend, we went on a little family vacation to Sugarloaf. The upcoming MRI, scheduled 3 days away, weighed heavily on me all weekend. I hardly slept.  Lying in bed in our condo, I told Tim I was afraid I was dying. I was already fearing the worst almost every moment, except for the rare moments I told myself I was being ridiculous and shook it off. We still had fun, but I was not relaxed.

On August 1st, back home at our lake house, I took this photo of the kids riding behind our new boat. This was my life on August 1st.

I had the MRI early in the morning on August 2nd. The MRI wasn't as bad as I feared (I'm claustrophobic).  My mom sat in the waiting room and we went out for coffee after. My brother and sister-in-law, Hamilton and Mary, were visiting from Ohio, and we were all spending the day at the lake. Kids were swimming. Adults were lounging, reading in the hammock. I made enchiladas for dinner and my mom and my mother-in-law Ansley came over. I had my phone in my hand all day, waiting to hear from my doctor. When 5 pm came and went, and I hadn't heard, I thought that was a good thing. I gave up on hearing anything that day. After dinner, I was sitting at the table on our deck showing Hamilton and Mary pictures of Meredith's wedding when my phone lit up with my doctor's number.

I walked out to the front of the house to take the call ; it was a doctor who was covering for my regular doctor. She said she wanted to go over the scans from that morning. Something in her voice. She said it did not look like my optic nerve was inflamed, but... she paused.  I went weak in the knees.  She said that it looked like there was a mass. A lesion. On my optic nerve. A glioma. An optic glioma. This is a kind of brain tumor, she said.

She kept talking, but by this time, Skyler and Reed, who have a very weird and incredibly sharp sensor for trouble, were next to me, one on each side. "What mama? What is it?" I pointed to the house, urging them to go back inside.  I thought I might throw up. They each grabbed on to one side of my shirt and walked up and down the road beside me. I tried to concentrate on what she was saying. I asked some questions that I don't remember, I think about what I should do next.  She told me I needed to get in touch with a neurosurgeon in the morning. I asked about treatment.  She said "probably surgery, chemo, and radiation." She kept saying: "I'm so sorry, Emilie."

 I was full-on crying now.

"What is it, mama?  MOM!  What is it?" Skyler and Reed were both crying, searching my eyes for an explanation about what could be this bad.

I asked the doctor one more time:  " I'm sorry, but what am I supposed to do tomorrow again?"  Call a neurosurgeon.  Right.  Okay.  I hung up, moved onto the front porch, Tim was there, the kids looking up at me.  I somehow managed to get the words out.  "I have a brain tumor."

The kids sobbed. Tim hugged, silently. I knew what he was thinking, but I also knew the kids didn't know what these words meant. What they were reacting to was me crying.  "What does this mean, Mom?" They were desperate, panicked, because I was. And here is what I remember that I said: "It means that I have a battle to fight.  And I need you guys to help me. We can do this together."  I know I said that last part, because over the next couple days, Reed kept saying to me:  "We can do this together, Mom."

I will never in my life forget the look on my children's faces on the road in front of my house on August 2nd.

The next thing that had to happen was I had to walk through my house and onto the deck where Hamilton, Mary, Ansley and my mom were waiting for my news. I turned the corner and I'm sure my face said it all.  The kids' red, teary faces said it. "I have a brain tumor." I sat down and the kids sat on top of me. They stayed on top of me, their weight pressing me into the chair.

Everyone alternated between hugging, crying, shaking heads. "I can't believe it," everyone said.  My poor mom. Here we go again.

Over the next few hours, we sat in silence.  We stared.  It was a beautiful, sparkling, thick-of-summer kind of night.  I suggested we take a walk with the kids. I listened to myself saying upbeat things to them like:  "We totally can do this. It's going to be hard, but we can do this, right?"  They squeezed my hands and stayed as close to me as they could.

I called my sister and said the words: "I have a brain tumor. " (My brother was biking in Peru, so we kept him out of the loop for now.) We told Hillary and Ellis. I called my friend Sandi who is a nurse anesthetist and knows all the local surgeons. She was super calm.  She said I would likely have surgery quickly and she said "They will pop it right out." I remember thinking that made it sound too easy, but that her matter-of-fact reaction to my news was extremely reassuring. She told me later she was so worried that she didn't sleep that night.

I don't know how I felt that night or how I didn't lose my mind. I can't totally remember. I alternated between crying and feeling numb, surreal, dreamlike.  I had an image of myself with my head bandaged up from brain surgery that I couldn't shake. I somehow got the kids to bed. I somehow went to bed.  I didn't sleep, but I went to bed.

That night, Sandi had told me about a neurosurgeon that she worked with who she said was amazing.  We will call her Dr. J.

Sandi had emailed Dr. J to tell her my situation, asking for advice, because apparently this is a tricky place to have a brain tumor. Sometime before 5 am, Sandi texted me and told me to call her when I got up. I was up.

Dr. J had agreed to look at my scans and give me advice about which surgeon I wanted to consult. She was going to call me sometime that morning.  I got up and started sweeping the kitchen and making breakfast, folding towels, wiping the counters over and over. I couldn't stop moving. I couldn't sit down. When Dr. J called my cell phone, I went out the front door again to walk up and down the road. She had looked at my scans, and this is what she said:

She said it looked like either a small optic glioma (tumor) on my optic chiasm (the spot where your optic nerves cross) but it COULD be just inflammation of the optic chiasm, which might be Optic Neuritis. Optic Neuritis often is a first indication of Multiple Scleroses, so she asked me some other questions about MS symptoms, but I had none. She said you couldn't tell by looking whether it was a tumor or inflammation. She said the only way to determine what it is would be to biopsy it, but that you couldn't biopsy that area without taking away some more of my vision, so that the recommendation was going to be to wait 3 months and rescan, unless my vision got worse.

I was so confused. Wait, I don't have to have immediate surgery? We aren't headed to the hospital right now? This might NOT be a brain tumor? Then why did the first doctor phrase things so differently?

Dr. J told me that I was going to have to wait to see. Wait to see if I have brain cancer? Aren't there any other tests? I actually can do nothing but wait for 3 months?

Yes. Wait 3 months. Unless anything changes. She gave me her cell phone number and told me to call or text with questions.

Did I feel better knowing my diagnosis was unclear? Actually, no, I didn't. I guess I was glad there was not urgency, but on the other hand, I had stayed up all night gearing myself up for swift action and then everything stopped. I was left with nothing to do except fear the worst. I walked back into the house thinking "What do I actually DO right now?" Getting through the next 3 months was one thing. Without any kid of a plan, I didn't know how I would get through the next few hours.

Later that day, Tim had taken the kids out on the boat; they were very relieved about the new plan to "wait 3 months before anything happens," and I was putting on a brave face and letting them enjoy their relief. I found myself with a quiet moment in the living room. I did the thing everyone told me not to do, the thing I knew was a bad idea, but I couldn't stop myself.  I picked up my phone and googled "optic glioma."  It took me about 3 seconds before I saw the words I wouldn't be able to un-see.

"Optic Gliomas are often benign in children, but are almost always malignant and aggressive in adults." I clicked on one more link and saw the words: "Optics Gliomas in adults are rapidly fatal. Death in 1-2 years."

I frantically clicked out of the website and threw my phone on the couch as if it had burned my hand. I was going to be sick.

In the next fifteen minutes, before my family came back into the house, I had a decision to make. Lose my mind or do some slow breathing. I was going to have to find a way to think about this that wouldn't destroy me. The 3 months of waiting loomed ahead of me like an ugly monster that I had to look right in the eye. I splashed cold water on my face and shook my head back and forth, trying to clear out the image of those stupid words on my phone. I looked in the mirror and said out loud:  "Stop it. This is not happening. You are not dying. "

Next chapter:  Part Two, The Waiting.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

From Maine to Arizona, for love.

This post is for my Creative Writers who have been holding me to task for not blogging enough lately: M, B, D, K, and E, here you go  :)

My sister Liesel told me ahead of time that when I landed in Arizona I was going to feel like I was on a different planet, and she was right. In Maine right now we are just barely leaving winter behind; our trees are still barren and brown. I’ve been cold for seven months but as soon as I stepped off the plane and walked onto the tarmac, I was warm to the core. The air smelled like honeysuckle and sunshine even though it was evening, and the curving road that led us out of the airport was lined with palm trees. We drove 20 minutes to the resort and bam, just like that, I was sitting with my sister, barefoot by the pool next to a cactus garden with a mojito in my hand.

Sometime last year, Liesel and I decided it was time to initiate a mid-year sisters retreat, that the once-a-year visits during the summer just weren’t enough. She lives in Utah and I live in Maine, so as we were staring at the US map trying to figure out where to meet halfway, we thought: Kansas? Missouri? Kentucky? And no offense to Kansas, Missouri or Kentucky, we wanted some place warm and a little bit exotic. We chose Scottsdale, Arizona, which is definitely closer to Utah, but I was totally game to make the trek west, into the sunshine and into the loving arms of my big sister.

During our two days in Arizona (which is not enough, but all we had), we talked and talked like it was our job. When we are usually limited to 10 minute phone conversations while my kids are pulling on me, or her kids are waiting to go to soccer practice and dinner is simmering on the stove, two days of uninterrupted sister time (in the sun! surrounded by wild flowers!) was a welcome change. We caught up on all the regular stuff, what the kids and our husbands are up to, the stresses and joys of work, and updates on friends. And then we got to wander through all of the other stuff, the funny anecdotes that you never have time for on the phone, the good books we have read, the observations we can make about ourselves as working mothers. We know we are both missing out on a lot because we accidentally put down roots in places that happen to be 3000 miles apart. But we made up some ground in Arizona.

Some conclusions we got to by the side of the pool, in brief: our kids are changing in both predictable and totally surprising ways, we can learn things about ourselves as we watch our children grow up and other relatives age, we both worry like our mom does, and we are both blessed beyond measure.

I am an anxious traveler but I don’t want to be. So whenever I travel, I create more internal conflict by judging myself for struggling with things that I so wish could be easy. I don’t mind the actual state of flying; I watch out the window as much as I can, and I love the feeling of being suspended between two places. But I just don’t like being in a closed space with no exit, and airports with all of the security measures and lack of fresh air just make me nervous. But most of all, I am just anxious about getting anxious. My heart races and my palms sweat. Travel takes a toll on me.

I want to be this carefree woman who just flies over here and flies over there and doesn’t think twice about it. I am not. But here’s the rub: I used to be. I keep thinking I can get back to being that person, and therein lies the struggle. Maybe I know too much, or love too deeply, or care too much about the life I've created and I have become more sensitive with age. Maybe becoming a parent has changed me inexorably, made me more vulnerable in the world. I don’t know. But despite the fact that traveling has gotten more challenging for me as I've gotten older, I still won’t stay home. I will go anyway, and white-knuckle my way around the world because I don’t want to give in to the alluring pull of home/ the kids/ Tim, a comfort zone that is more comfortable than ever. Traveling reminds me of the quote I posted when I was about to do my first half-iron triathlon:  “I can’t do this, but I’m doing it anyway.” With anxiety, it is tempting to want to just stay home, live a small life, where everything is safe and predictable, but I resist. There are too many places to see, and too many people whom I love that don't live in Maine.

On the second day of the Arizona trip, Liesel and I drove to the Desert Botanical Gardens outside of Scottsdale. What a different land. The sun was high and hot by 9 am, the desert sand was dusty on my sandals, and there were way more species of cacti than I had ever imagined. I find the desert beautiful in a slightly haunting way; the earth is so dry and the vegetation so prickly, but the sky was a deep blue and the flowers smelled sweet. When I go west now, after living in New England longer than I’ve lived anywhere else (16 years), I realize what a New Englander I truly am. I prefer a lake, an old-growth forest, and a crumbling stone wall marking old foundations in the woods to any other landscape feature. It’s fun to walk around and point at a cartoon-looking cactus and desert bird, but at the end of the day, I find myself thinking about the cool breezes and damp earth of home.

But not so fast. Liesel and I had more to discuss, more drinks to order, and some incredible Mexican food to eat (oh my God, the pork belly tacos with cola and lime; and the spicy Mexican street corn; and roasted butternut squash tacos with spicy black bean sofrito, poblano, pickled jalapeƱo & cotija; and the skewered chicken in mole with sesame, peanut, cocoa & pepitas) at The Mission (voted best Chef in Arizona). We sat in the sun, each read an entire book, alternating between sun, shade, and pool. We ordered drinks from the very attentive wait staff. We ate chips and guacamole in lounge chairs.  We exercised not at all.

For people who don’t know my sister, I describe her as an older, wiser and much more relaxed version of me. I soaked up as much of her good vibes as I could at the airport before we parted ways for our separate gates and each flew home. She flew north, I flew east. We both returned home to our loving husbands and children, and our piles of responsibility, and unfortunately, to some late spring snow storms that didn’t help showcase our suntans. 

I am so thankful: for comfort zones, sunshine, window seats, and the greatest sister in the world. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Parenting Pre-Teens: I've got an eye-roller over here.

This post originated in the Bangor Metro, March 2016

Dear parents of pre-teen kids, can we talk? 

Have you noticed as our kids turn the corner from kid toward teenager that our job description has changed pretty dramatically?

My daughter is now 11 and has grown up so much in the last year. The tricky part of parenting her seems to be that I am supposed to simultaneously acknowledge how capable and independent she is while not forgetting that she still needs me. Some days I feel like we are walking such a fine line along this new boundary that one tiny step in the wrong direction, and suddenly she is running upstairs to her room, and I am eating Nutella straight out of the jar.

On any given day, it’s just not as easy to know whether I’m being a good mom to her. Even though I swore it was challenging at the time (the sleep deprivation!), the baby and toddler stages were a breeze in comparison. Am I right? As long as I fed her, smiled at her, got her to take a good nap, rocked her and patted her little diapered butt before bed, I felt like the champion of all the mothers. The parenting books I had dog-eared on my bedside table always told it to me straight. 
“At 18 months old, your baby should be able to: say several single words, shake her head no, point to one body part, drink from a cup and eat with a spoon.”
I always passed these little tests, giving me the false impression that I had this parenting thing figured out.

Now the answers to all of my parenting questions are “maybe” or “it depends” or “not a clue.” Should I follow her up to her room when she retreats there? Should she have an Instagram account because most of her friends do? Is it unforgivable that I nag her about deodorant and hair brushing? How candidly should I answer her questions about sex? Should I intervene when she thinks a teacher is being unfair, or let her sort it out? Can I educate her about food and exercise needs without giving her a body-image complex? Some days she wants help, some days she doesn’t, sometimes I embarrass her when my intentions are only to help.

Last week, she was upset about something, and we were lying on her bed. After some major eye rolling and frustration, made worse by my assumption she was just being “moody,” she said: “I just feel like I’m trying so hard to be a grown up but I still feel like a little kid,” I thought, well, there it is. My daughter actually has a pretty special knack for articulating how she feels, and I should have just asked her. I should have absolutely known that this push-and-pull between little kid and grown up  is at the forefront of every moment for her.

I’m starting to figure out that as she gets older, I don’t need the parenting books anymore. I have this tremendous resource right in front of me. Lying on her bed that night, I vowed to accept that I may not always know what she needs, but most of the time, she knows. And even when she doesn’t know, she needs me only to be patient, to listen, and to offer love, love, and more love.

My job now is to keep the lines of communication open. I need her to keep telling me what Susie said at school, and how she isn’t sure Jane is a good friend anymore, what she is worried about, and what she’s looking forward to. It’s true that sometimes she wants to be alone in her room, but other times she wants to hang out and be silly, and still other times she wants a heart-to-heart. I need to keep asking good questions, to be quiet and listen, to let some things go, to apologize when I get it wrong, and most importantly, to just be there for her.

Our growing kids are working especially hard to make sense of the world and all of these new feelings, bigger responsibilities, changing bodies, and complications with friendships that had previously been easy. The last thing they need is a parent who refuses to see them as the adults they are becoming.

Maybe parenting pre-teens and teens is challenging because we are clinging to the vestiges of being the one who had all the answers, who passed all the tests. It’s humbling to have your kid, who needed you for every single thing, suddenly morph into this smart and opinionated person who needs you less, or at least differently.

Just remind yourselves, and remind me when you see me in the corner with a jar of Nutella, that kids who want to establish independence, to do things their own way, are proof that we are, as a matter of fact, passing the test.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Things I never thought I'd say about football

I was not raised on football like most Americans. My father was a German immigrant and my mom is a musician who spends her Saturdays at the Opera. My parents only watched sports when their kids were playing in the game. I never watched football and didn't understand the people who did until I became a Throckmorton. Even then, I was still resistant, but when football is all around you, it starts to rub off.  
Once a babe, always a babe:  Tim as a UMaine Black Bear.
Ellis, my 6-foot 3-inch, 235-pound stepson is a linebacker for Husson University, and watching Ellis play football has (truly) become one of my favorite things in the world. Ellis is one of the most gentle and loyal and sweet people I know, but on the football field? He is big and strong, and you best get out of his way. Watching Ellis play has taught me to love football, and even more miraculously, to understand it. I swear to God you guys: I lived my whole life until I was in my 40s without actually knowing what a down was.

I now even like to watch an occasional football game on TV, and not just because of the hot wings. Living in New England, I caught the Patriots fever. I love Tom Brady.

I look forward to Ellis' games every week. On about half of the plays, I follow the ball because it helps me learn the game, but what I really love to do is follow Ellis and watch him knock people over. One time Ellis popped one of his opponents so hard that the poor guy's helmet went flying right off his head. I stood up and cheered, wanting everyone to see the 47 on my back so they'd know that the giant linebacker is with me, and I thought: Who have I become?

He looks mean, right?  He is not.

When Reed turned 8, he started talking about playing football. How could I be surprised?  Tim, who played college football and generally loves the sport, has been playing catch with Reed out front since they first met. And Ellis? Well, as far as Reed is concerned, the sun rises and sets on Ellis. Anything Ellis does, Reed wants to do too.

Ellis, age 4, with Tim looking on.

I spent a long time being undecided about whether we'd let him. I read all the concussion articles and worried about my sweet boy and his sweet head. But in truth I was more worried about the culture of football. I had heard that youth football coaches can be harsh with kids, that they push them hard and yell at them in practice. 

I asked Ellis: Did your youth football coaches yell at you?  
He said: Yes.  

I drilled him about his thoughts on the subject, and Ellis promised me that Reed could handle it, and that his tough coaches had been really good for him. Football, he explained, was the turning point that helped him figure out how to stay focused and disciplined in the rest of his life, specifically in school. Hmm. That was pretty convincing.

Reed told me we would “crush his dreams” (he actually said that) if we didn’t let him play football.

We signed Reed up for football.

I was more nervous than Reed at his first practice. I warned him this would be different than rec soccer and baseball, where Reed picked dandelions and sometimes stood on his head in the middle of the field, and that was perfectly okay. The other parents stood on the sidelines, shouting to their kids as they ran laps around the field in the hot sun. The kids were big and their dads were bigger. The parents chatted about drills and plays and positions, and I felt really out of place. I only participate in sports where no one touches anyone else. I listen to NPR and shop at the farmer's market. These were not my people.

Five coaches shouted commands at the team as they circled up for warmup drills. I resisted the urge to yell, “I love you, baby!” as he trotted out to join them. They started with "up-downs," where the kids drop to the ground on their stomachs, and then pop up and run in place, drop to their stomachs, pop up, repeat. The coaches allowed no slacking. If one kid didn’t do it right, the whole team had to start over. I kept my eyes on Reed as he struggled through the drill. I swallowed a lump in my throat. I was rooting so hard for him to keep up.

I admit it. I wanted to cry several times watching him out there getting barked at by the coaches. People told me football would “build character” for Reed, but maybe we could  just build character by baking cookies together and cuddling on the couch? I considered grabbing Reed, running right through the end zone and to my car. Out on that field, though, Reed amazingly followed every specific direction the coaches gave. He did not want to be the one who made the team have to redo a drill. Reed isn’t exactly an expert at following directions at home, but these coaches and their whistles had his attention.

At the end of that first practice, when he pulled off his helmet, I first noticed that his hair was soaked with sweat and his cheeks were blazing red, and then I saw his smile. The kid was seriously happy.

For the next few months, three nights a week, in all kinds of weather, Reed worked harder at football than I’ve ever seen him work at anything. He ran. He did push ups. He did up-downs. He got knocked down and got back up. He ran some more. 

I stayed for most of the practices, watched and learned alongside of the team, and talked with the other parents who, it turns out, are totally my people. All of the moms I talked to were also worried about the concussions and the intensity and the yelling, and we all watched our kids figuring this football thing out together. I made great friends on the sidelines while Reed made great friends on the field. I learned to check my own judgments about football and football moms, which is a good thing, because it turns out I was now a football mom.

Reed always looked forward to practice, and always walked off the field smiling. The coaches did yell commands to the kids in loud voices, but no coach was ever unkind to a player. One night I heard a coach yell at Reed: “Why are you hesitating on your tackles?  You need to drive through!” And I thought to myself: OK, that wasn’t very nice, but he’s right. Reed isn’t driving through. In the next drill, Reed tackled correctly and earned a coveted high five from the coach.

If he was told to run a lap because he had forgotten to put his mouth guard in during a drill, he’d do it and say later: “It’s OK, Mom. I deserved it.” How is it that my son was responding so positively to such a rigid, disciplined program? Ellis was right. This was a rite of passage for Reed, and it was truly surprising to see how he seemed to understand that what was hard was also good for him.

At the end of every practice and game, the coaches gathered the team into a circle. In these meetings, the kids took off their helmets and chugged water while coaches acknowledged what had been hard and specifically discussed what they did well. There was no gratuitous praising going on here; the kids were commended only when they had worked hard and executed what they had been taught. During these team meetings, it became obvious to the kids and the parents that these coaches truly loved our kids.

Football has its own subculture and takes some getting used to. I was lucky to have Tim by my side to explain what was happening and why, and Ellis to serve as living proof that football can provide direction and structure for a kid like Reed.

No one is more proud of Reed than Ellis.

Reed has grown up a lot this season, and no matter what happens with his future of football, he will always have this year. He learned that he can survive a challenge, and that hard work and perseverance pay off (the kid has some new muscles). He wasn't one of the best players, and he stuck with it anyway. He started off the year tentative and afraid to tackle (and his pacifist mama doesn't blame him). He got more confident and more brave with every passing week.  

photo courtesy of Tony Llerena

photo courtesy of Tony Llerena

This past Sunday, he played his last game, and it was by far his best game. The coaches all made a big deal about him and how much better he got. "You are on fire out there!" they said to him. It was perfect. Football isn't too tough for Reed. My boy can handle stern and direct instruction. He does not need to be babied or coddled. He can hold his own in tough situations.

Coach Tony was Reed's defensive coach.  He pushed Reed pretty hard and got huge results.
 Reed LOVES Coach Tony.

Reed's season is over and Ellis only has a few more weeks, so soon our weekends won't be consumed by bundling up and watching football games anymore, and I'll have to wait until next fall. Good thing I have the Pats and my Fantasy Football team to tide me over.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gifts for yourself: surviving your busy weeks

I haven't even posted all of our summer photos yet.  Case in point: Back-to-school month is crazy busy, and a major adjustment from our relaxed summer pace, but you all know this already.  I'll get to the summer post eventually.

We are back in action:  The kids started 3rd and 5th grade, and I started my 16th year of teaching.

Skyler is rocking a henna tattoo on her hand, and Reed is rocking the knee socks.  Skyler still lets me pick out her clothes and Reed is EXTREMELY particular.

We are living at our house on Phillips Lake, about 20 minutes outside of town for the month of September. We decided to do this to see how we liked living out here while driving the kids into town every day as a possible trial run for a future move.  It's September at the lake, so it's gorgeous, plus, we have had the hottest September on record.

That means, our first school nights at the lake looked like this:

And this:

And this:

I love it out here. When I come home from work, and the wind off the lake is filling the house, I feel like I'm holding on to some pieces of my summer self.

Once the after-school activity schedule kicked in, we had no time to lounge on the dock.  Instead, I was frantically running around and trying to get dinner on the table.

Reed started playing football, and I definitely have at least a whole blog post of thoughts about that.  

I'm conscious about not over scheduling kids, but somehow, we feel over scheduled.  Reed has football 3 nights a week and guitar one night.  Skyler has girl-scouts, piano, soccer and Nature club.
We are busy, and it's a challenge to get it all done.  So, I came up with this Sunday-cooking-day idea that I want to share.

Disclaimers:  Let me be clear about a few things, because I hate it when I accidentally come off as some sort of know-it-all-mama.
 1.) I have an awesome husband who does at least half of the work around the house;  he cannot cook dinner most nights because he gets off the air at 6:25.  But he always jumps right in to help and then cleans up. He takes great care of all of us and I know how lucky we are.

 2.) We share custody with the little kids' dad, so there are 2 week days that they aren't with us.  This gives me a chance to run errands, clean, workout, grocery shop and go to appointments.  I know that gives me an enormous advantage in terms of staying organized, but before you get jealous, remember, I don't get to kiss their heads every night at bedtime.  I would trade with you in a hot second.

The first few weeks of this school year, for a bunch of reasons, I was just off my game, and I was in that mode where I was running to the grocery store on most days to grab something easy for dinner.  This is a stupid waste of energy and I know it.

This past weekend, I was presented with a rare opportunity:  a Sunday all to myself.  The kids were with their dad and Tim was in New York with Hillary, and so I set out to cook the whole week's worth of dinners in one massive cooking session.  It was super windy and cool out and it felt like fall as the leaves were whipping around outside.  I was inspired.  I made a plan and turned on NPR and I was HAPPY cooking for 3 straight hours.  I promise you, this makes me happy. It felt like giving myself a present, or a life preserver, for the upcoming week.

My goal is to have mass-cooking-sessions once or twice a month. The plan is to spend a few hours on Sunday cooking, and then I will thank myself every other day of the week. Some friends requested the recipes that I did this week. I'll be honest and tell you that I mostly make them up, but I'll try to recreate what I did.

Here is one week's worth of meals (if you eat meat, that is) from my first mass-cooking experiment.

I made 4 dinners and prepped a bunch of stuff for lunch.  I'll give you the recipes and then tell you about my approach for tackling them all at once.

Chicken and Cheese Enchiladas, Super-NOT-fancy edition:

I don't even want to insult you with this recipe, because it's as basic as you can get: Chop up two large chicken breasts into cubes. Saute them in a pan until cooked through, then shred/ dice them into even smaller pieces. Stir in one package of taco seasoning. Let the chicken cool, mix it with a couple handfuls of Monterey Jack cheese, divide the mixture between 8 flour tortillas and roll 'em up, sprinkle with the rest of the cheese, cover with foil, put it in the fridge or freezer. When it's time to eat it, bake it with foil at 350 for about 30 minutes (assuming it's not frozen).  Then serve with salsa, sour cream and shredded lettuce.

Chicken Pot Pie:  
I use whatever veggies I have, and this week I had a bunch of good stuff from our farm share. I sort of made up the recipe, but this is the one I used as inspiration.  I use one top layer of store-bought puff pastry as the crust instead of a top-and-bottom pie crust as this recipe suggests. I also use less than half the butter that recipe uses.

Pork and Veggie Stir Fry with Peanut Sauce:
Mix together in a bowl:  1/2 cup water, 2 teaspoons sugar or honey, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 2 teaspoons salt, 2 tablespoons sesame oil, 1/4 cup rice or apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons natural peanut butter, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, and 1-2 garlic cloves, minced.

Chop up pork chops into 1-inch cubes.  Put in a zip lock bag with the Peanut Sauce, above.
In a separate zip lock, store all of your pre-chopped veggies.  I used broccoli, red onion, and green beans.

When it's time to cook it:  Cook the veggies separately from the pork because of different cooking times in two saute pans.  Once it's all cooked (make sure that marinade comes to a boil/ simmers hot in the pan for several minutes, otherwise it's not safe to eat), toss it all together.  Serve with rice.
The pork and veggies are pictured in the back here, in two separate zip lock bags.

Turkey Meatballs: 
Skyler likes these on plain pasta, Reed loves them with spaghetti sauce.  It's very easy to customize.

I have no exact recipe for this.  I just mix together a pound of ground turkey, one egg, a handful of breadcrumbs, some diced onion, a handful of Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and oregano.  Then, mix it up, form meatballs, brown and turn in a frying pan with some spray oil until cooked through.

I combined these with one bottle of Marinara plus two cans of Tomato Sauce and it's all in the freezer.  Just boil some pasta, warm the sauce, and done.

Mass-Cooking Strategy:  I roasted 4 chicken breasts in the oven at 350.  2 of them went into the pot pie, 2 of them went to Curried Chicken Salad (greek yogurt mixed with curry powder, cubed chicken, celery, and dried cranberries). I saved the last 2 chicken breasts for the Enchiladas.  While the chicken was in the oven, I also roasted a cookie sheet of diced sweet potatoes (tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper). I then made the Peanut Sauce and prepped the pork and veggies.  Then I assembled the enchiladas and pot pie, then I made the meatballs.

I used most of the sweet potatoes on 3 salads I pre-made for myself for lunches.  I saved another serving for a snack or another day's lunch.  I NEVER get sick of sweet potatoes.  With these salads, I also pack some extra toppings on the side, like cranberries, blue cheese, and sunflower seeds.  You can pre-package these in small tupperware for your lunches too.

Once the dinners were made, I took a few minutes to portion out some snacks, cut-up veggies, granola, diced melons, and cheese and crackers that the kids take for lunches.

All of this prep took me 3 hours.  And then I collapsed on the couch and thanked myself for making my week ahead so easy.  

I have other thoughts about helping yourself during the week. Once I got into the habit of doing everything the night before, I can't NOT do it.  I think I would freak out if I had to pack a lunch in the morning.  All I have to do is drink coffee and take hot showers. I also get up in time to have at least 30 minutes of quiet time to myself.  Everything else is done.

Things I do the night before:
-Set up the coffee pots (Tim drinks caffeinated and I've switched to decaf).
-Put out clothes for the kids.  Right down to the socks and underwear and shoes, it's all in a pile in the morning.
-Make all the lunches.
-Put all the bags (school bags, soccer stuff, piano music, whatever is going with us in the morning) by the door.
-Iron my clothes and put an outfit out.
-Tidy up the house.  Tim and I both believe in going to bed with a clean house.  Even when he gets home at midnight from work, he'll empty the dishwasher and/or fold laundry before bed.

If I'm swimming or going to the gym before work, my bag is also packed and by the door.  I have a bag that stays packed with shampoo, conditioner, brush, deodorant, lotion, make up, and a hair dryer, so all I need to remember is the day's clothes.  Investing in two of everything just makes your life easier.  

I'm going to stock up on more ideas for make-ahead meals.  If you have a favorite, or a strategy for making YOUR life easier during your busy weeks, please share.

Carry on, busy people.  xo