Taking off the Training Wheels

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“Pedal faster! Keep the wheel straight. That’s it!”

“You won’t let go?” I asked her.

“No. I’ve got you.” She said, but something in her voice sounded peculiar to my young ear. I turned my head around, expecting to see her running lopsided behind me while holding the back of the flowered banana seat I was perched on, but she wan’t there. Instead of helping me balance on this contraption, she was on the other side of the vacant church parking lot laughing and clapping!

“Mama!” I cried out in anger and fear.

Her face reflected my fear and she yelled, “Watch where you’re going!”

I crashed in into the shrub-covered fence row before she finished her admonition. I lay there tear-stained and twisted in thorny bracken—my hands and knees bleeding from the painful prickles and pavement. It would be several months before I attempted to ride a bicycle again.

Remembering the difficulty I had in learning to ride a bike, (I finally did, thank you very much) has caused me to put the lesson off as long as possible for my own kids. However, for Christmas two years ago, they both got bikes. I, as the perpetually fearful mom, made certain they came with training wheels. They adored riding them, and I loved that the training wheels kept them upright and scab-free. They soon broke the training wheels and out-grew their bikes, and it became clear to me that they would need new outdoor play things this Christmas. To continue procrastinating the bicycle lesson, I searched for alternatives to the two-wheeled-thorn-crashing-machine. I finally settled on my items; getting one kid a knee board and the other a pair of skates. Based on their squeals and excited, “Yes!” exclamations, I nailed Christmas and congratulated myself for both appeasing them and steering clear of bikes for another year. Enter my awesome Uncle and Aunt from Knoxville.

We don’t visit with them enough throughout the year. Isn’t that what we all realize about our family during the Holidays? Each year, they drive down to celebrate with us, but have only recently started a new tradition of sorts with their great-nieces and nephews—a Christmas shopping spree. Essentially, they give each kid a wad of cash and set them loose in Wal-Mart. My kids are the youngest, so I accompany them on this much-anticipated outing every year. This year, I followed my talkative children to the toy section and watched their eyes light up as they surveyed aisle after aisle of potential playthings. Esther settled herself in the pink aisle full of dolls and teas sets, and Josiah wandered through all the Star Wars and Super hero figures. All was well. Then Josiah saw the bicycles.

“Mama! A bicycle! Look!”

Shit.

“Mama! It’s a blue bike! Look a blue one! You see?!”

“Yes, I see. It’s just, well, I don’t know if you have enough money for a bike, baby.” I lied. He had more than enough money for a new bike, but I was certain I could sell him on another toy of some kind.

Josiah was visibly heartbroken. “I don’t? Oh…are you sure?”

The mom guilt tasted like rotten potatoes and soured milk combined. “Let me check again for you.” I said optimistically. I pulled out his little zip-lock bag of cash and made quite the show of counting the bills. I gave him a toothy grin. “Wow, Josiah! You do have enough!”

“Can I get this blue one?” He was so full of happiness, he nearly yelled the question.

I couldn’t help but laugh from my own happiness as I looked at his smiling face, and checked the price of the blue bike. “It looks like the blue one is too much money, but look! You have enough to get this awesome red one here!” I pulled the cumbersome two-wheeler free from its hanging restraints and set it in front of him.

“WOW! That is so cool!”

Okay, Sharon Kay, suck it up, butter cup. He loves this thing.

I immediately went to the nearby aisle in a frantic search for training wheels which, we later discovered wouldn’t fit the back axle. To ride the bike, he is going to have to ride it for real. We are past the point of training wheels. This means that I will have to do what I’ve been dreading. I will have to teach him to ride a bike.

He will fall. He will get hurt. He will cry. He will be angry. He will be sad. He will hate it. He will want to quit.

I will encourage. I will cajole. I will console. I will doctor the scabs. I will help him balance. I will wipe away his tears. I will help him back on the bike.

I will let go.

I will let go, and he will balance without me.

I will let go, and he will shout, “Look, mama!”

I will let go, and he will laugh with pride.

I will let go, and he will ride his bike like a champ.

I will let go, and he will peddle away from me.

Maybe what I’m discovering—while writing this piece, actually, is that the training wheels were for me, after all. Maybe I’m still trying to find my balance—but not on a bike. This time it’s as a mom—the balance between keeping them safe and pushing them to learn to ride on their own, and I’m always afraid I’m screwing it up.

When we got Josiah’s Autism diagnosis, it knocked the wind out of us. We saw many of the dreams and ideas for our son blow away. I battled in the only way I knew how, I jumped right into research and advocacy. I’ve spent the years since his diagnosis trying to anticipate what may cause a massive meltdown with him so that I could help him side-step it. In doing so, I began to get a “feel” of how to parent him. To give you an example of what I mean, I’ll tell you another story. This one is about his birthday this year.

Josiah loves Rise of the Guardians, Star Wars, and Spiderman 3–”the black one, mama!”

I got him none of those things for his birthday. You see, I had suffered with him through too many, “I’ve lost/broken my very favorite toy” meltdowns to get him birthday gifts he would fall in love with. Typical children will throw a tantrum. Josiah will cry for hours, and obsessively grieve for months. (This afternoon, he began crying in his room over a toy lion he had broken beyond repair last year.) I decided that, to help him avoid being hurt, I’d keep him from falling in love. So, I concocted a mom-plan that became my mantra for awhile—get him things he’ll like, but not love. At his party, he opened all of his gifts from me with a general, “meh.” Exactly what you want from your kid when you give him a present. Apparently, my plan had worked like a charm.

After he was so crestfallen at his birthday party, I made the brave decision to get him all the things he would genuinely love for Christmas. Should meltdowns occur, I’d just deal with them. His squeals, laughter, and exclamations of happiness on Christmas morning were a balm to my worried soul. It felt, to use the word all families of children with special needs avoid, normal.

He’s growing up, and so am I. We’re both still figuring this thing out, and we’ll both learn how to keep the balance together. I can’t tell you that we won’t get hurt, or that we won’t feel brokenhearted, but I can tell you that I’m sure that now is the time. For Josiah and for me, it’s time. It’s time to shed the training wheels, give him a gentle push, and lift my hand off of the banana shaped seat—but not before checking the immediate area for menacing thorn bushes.

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Finding the Sibling Balance

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“Mama, what’s Autism?” she asked. “ ‘Cause Josiah has it.”

“How do you know that, baby?”

“He went up front at the balloon thing. They said if you have Autism, come up front, and you took Josiah.”

I smoothed the honey-blonde head on the pillow next to me, and smiled against tears welling up in my eyes. “Yes, baby. Josiah has been diagnosed with Autism.”

I knew I’d take part in a conversation like this someday, but never expected to have such heady and important dialogue with my six-year-old daughter. To my complete amazement, she took everything in and wholly digested it—asking questions like a professional researcher after I explained certain manifestations of Autism.

“Is that why he gets mad when things mess up?”

“Is that why he goes to the Reading Clinic?”

“Is that why he had seizures ‘long time ago?”

“Is that why he has so many teachers?”

“Is that why he doesn’t play toys with me?”

“Is that why he takes medicine?”

“Is that why he doesn’t listen good?”

Esther is two years younger than Josiah, but most everyone we meet mistakes her as the older sibling. This is understandable partly because of her height, (she will grow to be a drop-dead glamazon sooner than I’d like) but mainly for the way she has always looked out for Josiah. It’s not unusual for her to redirect him prior to a meltdown just like a seasoned behavioral therapist, keep a sharp eye out for him on the playground, make sure he has all his belongings and school materials before walking out of the door, or even give him “orders” like, “Josiah, you need to eat your supper first THEN you can have dessert.” To be honest, I find myself relying heavily on her. She’s such a mother hen.

There’s a certain mom-guilt that comes with having a typical child and a special needs child. At least, I’ve found that to be the case. I feel like I’m always playing “catch-up” with Esther to even out the mom-attention. I don’t mean for it to be that way, not at all, but Josiah takes up so much time. I drove Josiah to Nashville twice a week for an entire school year for tutoring. I spend tons of time researching effective methods of instruction. I spend hours compiling all his data for upcoming IEP meetings. I give him more one-on-one tutoring time than I give Esther–and this is all in addition to how Josiah’s needs sometime trump Esther’s.

Josiah is very particular about certain toys. He can share others just fine, but there are some that he refuses to share–Esther thinks this is unfair. Esther has had to settle for what movie Josiah wants to watch so many times that I feel badly for her. I even broke my “no TVs in the bedroom” rule just so Esther could watch her Princess movies. Josiah also doesn’t compromise well. If Esther wants to play tag, and Josiah wants to play hide and seek, they always end up doing what he wants to do. Explaining all of this to her is difficult. I’ve played with her numerous times to make up for the fact that she didn’t get to play with her brother. I know that I’m second best though—playing with your sibling is so much more fun than playing with your mom who gets winded too easily. Keeping a balance of my attention between them is really hard. Am I allowed to say that as a mom? Despite all that I do to keep it even, (hello, hours of cheerleader practice and Saturday morning football games) I’m terrified that in years to come Esther will emotionally vomit up all of her many woes and injustices on some therapists couch.

This is why I cried hopeful tears when the hot-as-hell-hubby showed me a video someone sent him. I was working on my research paper, which coincidentally enough is about using music therapy practices in the general music class to help children with autism, when he poked his head into the bedroom.

“Need some inspiration?”

“You gonna get naked?” I joked. (ok. Maybe I was serious.)

“Naw, for real. You need to see this.” he said and handed me his phone.

I then watched the viral video about the two brothers, one with autism and one without.

I cried. I cried and thought about my Esther and Josiah. I thought about how Esther will most likely always love and look out for her brother, even though it will be frustrating and oftentimes feel unfair. I thought about how Josiah will love her his entire life, and know that she has his back. I thought about how the two of them together have a story that is completely separate from the one that I have with them. I thought about how I can’t wait to read it.

Esther and Josiah compliment each other so beautifully. They’re like two sides of a coin. I have come to realize that I don’t need to worry and stress about keeping any type of balance—they already do.

Wishing on a star–or a green light.

I snap the Ziplock bag full of jewelry and find an unoccupied spot in my suitcase between my bras and blouses. Could this suitcase BE any more stuffed? (you read that in Chandler Bing’s voice, didn’t you?)

I’ve got everything I could possibly need and backups of them all just in case. You never know, right? I’ve been checking off mental lists–planning for this once in a lifetime vacation for the past six months. We’re taking the kiddos to the place where dreams come true!

Not Vegas, people.

DISNEYWORLD!

I’ve researched online, ordered and studied books, perused restaurant menus, read attraction reviews, planned our daily itineraries, secured dining reservations, watched planning videos, read blogs devoted to Disneyworld, made autograph books and coloring books for the kids, and overall tried to think of everything.

I want this to be perfect. For months I’ve dreamed of my kids’ faces smiling–glowing in the light of the fireworks as we stand near Cinderella’s castle watching the magic spectacle. I’ve played and replayed in my mind a fantasy reel of my delighted daughter running into the arms of Princess Aurora. I’ve secretly smiled thinking about my little boy getting dressed as a pirate to play with the characters. In my head cinema, the vacation looks like an Instagram filtered perfect week.

We leave tomorrow, and as I’m packing my last minute essentials, I’m beginning to get a nauseating feeling in my stomach.
I’m nervous. I’m really nervous and I can’t help thinking about Jay Gatsby.

Stay with me here.

Everyone has been rereading Gatsby since the new movie this summer–which I’ve yet to see– and I’m no exception.

Reading Gatsby as an adult is an entirely different experience than reading it as a high school Literature student, but that’s another story.

In school, we learned how Gatsby was really about the American Dream–the constant and crippling longing for what ultimately is just out of our reach. Desiring what is here and yet not really here at all.

Gatsby spent years in a dreamy state over Daisy. He stood at the end of his pier looking toward that green light with his guts knotted in an anxious pull toward his love.

When they began meeting at his infamous parties; their eyes having silent conversations across the tops of their champagne flutes, I’m sure he felt he was finally going to attain what he had long sought after and painfully dreamed about.

But when they did embrace, it was hollow. How could this complicated love triangle ever measure up to years of fantasies about their love?

I’m glad Gatsby ends up dead.

Oh yeah, spoiler alert.

I recently took a personality profile where, among other qualities, it listed me as a “Dreamer.” I’m prone to get lost in lofty fantasies about life. I serve up airbrushed versions of conversations and situations before actually experiencing them.
I’m sparkling and witty in my head. My friends say the perfect thing that makes me feel valued and loved. Everyone at my party has the best night of their lives. My children look up to me with eyes full of love and say, “Thank you for this vacation. I love you, Mama.”

I’m terrified that our vacation, much like Gatsby’s complicated romance, will turn sour. We’ll end up a modern day Griswold tale or family version of The Hangover. The kids will fight, whine, or get sick. The hot as hell hubby and I will be ragged at the end of each itineraried touring day, and regret the trip altogether. We’ll have horrible weather, a flat tire, and our money stolen.

Ultimately, I’m scared of reality coming no where near the level of awesome that is my dreamworld.

I’m relying heavily on Disney magic to help with this condition of mine; this overly analytical fantasy land I can’t seem to shake.
After all, there’s a very famous Disney song that says, “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”

I’m gonna hold you to that Disney.

Tales of Mothers’ Day

Growing up in a small church was great for my self esteem. I was the giant whale in that backyard pond! The star in every Christmas and Easter play, and lead singer to boot. Ok, so maybe I never played the role of Jesus on the cross–but still, I shouted “CRUCIFY HIM!” louder than anyone else. I even caused some to pray for my soul as a result of that.

When I got too old for the children’s productions, I began directing the plays. Nothing like a bossy, nasal-voiced 15 year old telling a young mother, “The angels simply HAVE to have white turtlenecks or risk ruining the show altogether!” to spread the joy of the season. Ah, precious memories, how they linger–and fester and rot.

We didn’t only do pageants for Christmas and Easter, though.  I remember several Mothers’ Day performances. Our pastor at the time, before my dad’s head was placed on the platter, always made a big hoopla on Mothers’ Day. The little kids in Sunday school would all write little tributes and read them aloud in front of the entire congregation. The pastor then grandly presented flowers to the youngest and oldest mother in the room.

Even at a young age, I felt this tradition was awkward at best and offensive at worst. What if your 13 year old just had a baby? “Here you go, here’s some flowers!” That didn’t seem to gel too well with all that preaching against fun-orcation. The oldest mother in the church? He’d call like an auctioneer from the pulpit, “30? 35? 40? 45? 50? 55? 60? 65? 70?” And all the mothers would sit down as he passed over their current age. I’ve never known a well-bred southern women to give an actual account of her age after 30, so I don’t know why they would drop the sham to vie for a five dollar potted plant. Hell, I’ll be 30 forever and buy my own damn plant.

This one elderly lady “won” it every year. What kills me is how surprised she acted every. single.year.

“Who? ME?! Well, bless my soul!”

My paternal grandmother was a couple years younger than the plant winner, and she hated it. I remember sitting in the car with her after services like these and she’d bitterly complain about the unfairness of it. I’d sit perched on the hump in the middle of the backseat, the place regulated to the least of these. My legs brushed against her rough lavender polyester suit as she detailed her list of grievances.

“It ain’t right to get a flow’r every year for her. T’ain’t no one near as old as her, bless her heart. But, it just ain’t right.”

“Naw, I reckon in ain’t, Granny.”

“He orta get a little flow’r for all the mothers or not get none at all, that’s what.”

“That’s a good idea, Granny. You orta tell’im.”

“Heh! I ain’t-a-gone do it. They’d just think I’s upset over not gettin’ a flow’r.”

“Well, ain’t’chee?”

“Hmmph!”

I can vividly recall reading my epic Mothers’ Day Poem that I wrote in Sunday school. All of the other, much less literary kids wrote pitiful verses like:

“Roses are red, violets are blue.
You are my Mama, and I love you.”
YAWN!

Or

“Twinkle, twinkle little star.
Mothers are the best things there are.”

Yeah, that extra syllable makes me cringe too.

I must’ve been in 3rd grade, so 8 or 9 years old when I stood proudly before the church with my three page poem complete with illustrations. I can’t remember all of it, but it was beautiful! I moved everyone to tears!
Oh, you want to read it? Well it seems that I’ve lost it through the years.
What I remember of it? Well–ok, sure.

“Mama–something magical when a baby says the word.
Mama–when she hears it, it’s the best sound she’s ever heard.
Mama–wiping away the tears when I fell of my bike.
Mama–reassuring me when I step up to the mic.
Mama–baking cookies and letting me lick the bowl.
Mama–and I always loved those stories that you told
Mama–looking back on all the things you’ve done.
Mama– I love you for each and every one.”

Ok, so it isn’t bloody Shakespeare. I was  8 for Christ’s sake! My Mama loved it and maybe even kept it, who knows?

My mom is the most practical person I know. She takes no flights of fancy, avoids sentimentality, is a hermit who hates leaving home and hearth, and doesn’t want to own anything that isn’t useful in some way. That last character trait I thankfully inherited from her–along with her fantastic hair and flawless skin. Our house is rather small and we’ve no room for the superfluous. I do possess a weakness for Christmas decor, quilts, and books and have more of those than I need. For the most part, though “can we use this?” is the base motivator for all purchases for the home.

My Mom is also one of the strongest people I know. She’s the oldest of six kids, and tells stories of living in a house with gaps in the floors so wide that you could feed the chickens through them, and growing up with only two dresses–both of which were hand me downs. She regretfully had to quit school in eighth grade to help at home. I’ve always thought that was a shame because she played basketball–despite her short little legs–and was student council president. You really have to BE somebody to be elected student council president, especially if you only have two dresses!

I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately, with regard to her education. Around the time of my epically moving  Mothers’ Day tome, (folks were moved to tears, I tell you!) she went to night classes and took her GED test. I remember not being very sure about what that meant, but knowing that we were proud of her. As an adult now, I’m fully aware of how challenging that is. I’ve heard many people say that the GED test is harder than the ACT. Learning four years’ worth of high school in a few months time is pretty impressive too. My mom is a rockstar for doing this. She taught us that it was never too late.

When I finally graduate with my B.S. in August, it will be because of that lesson I learned from her. I hope that my own two children will learn it as well. It’s never too late to be what you might have been.

I wonder if the MTSU president gives out flowers to the oldest graduate. I may admit to my actual age for that honor!