Keller vs. Sullivan, Part II: Is there an Annie Sullivan in the house?

The appointment starts with great promise.

The neurologist, young and eccentric, says he knows exactly how to help my daughter. Follow his recommendations, he says, and she’ll be talking, using the toilet and behaving like a typical five-year-old in no time.

I am giddy with relief.

It’s a feeling all special needs parents know well. In a world where no one “gets” our kids — and some just get them flat-out wrong — when you encounter someone who not only gets them but knows how to help them, it’s like Christmas, your birthday and the season premiere of The Walking Dead all in one.

I call it the Annie Sullivan Effect, for the woman who taught a blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate. Like Sullivan, these women and men come into your child’s life and flip a switch you didn’t even know where to look for.

We have been lucky enough to know several Annie Sullivans. They hold a special place in our hearts and prime real estate in our prayers.

But as much as I adore these people, there is a massive drawback to meeting a real life Annie Sullivan. It makes the disappointment that much greater when someone who appears to have Sullivan potential turns out to be a JAGBA, (Just Another Giver of Bad Advice).

If there is one thing special needs parents have in abundance it’s JAGBAs. They leap out at us whenever we venture forth in public with our children or post about them on social media.

“Do you speak with him?” one woman asked when I explained that my then-3-year-old son couldn’t talk. “I mean, maybe if you modeled speech it would help.”

I was beyond tempted to reply, “No, we communicate entirely in mime. Look! He’s doing the ‘I’m-trapped-in-a-giant-invisible-box’ routine! Haha. Good one, buddy!”

While JAGBAs exist for all moms and dads, they can be particularly vexing for special needs parents because, unless the person speaking has a degree in neurologically atypical development, he or she has about as much chance of giving appropriate advice as I do of being crowned Miss Argentina. (It could happen but the circumstances would be very suspicious.)

Even once you do explain your child’s condition, some JAGBAs refuse to accept that this negates their words of wisdom. That some kids are wired differently challenges, well, apparently everything they believe about the universe.

Having seen up close and personal how differently some children develop, I can very comfortably say it is more bizarre to believe the “one-size-fits-all” line of thinking than it is to reject it.

Take my son and speech. Everything that helped typical kids learn how to speak, such as modeling speech, didn’t work for him. And trust me, we modeled out the wazoo. At his pediatrician’s request I narrated everything we did, much to the concern of people who found themselves near us in public. “Here we go up the stairs,” I’d say, as people inched away from the crazy lady. “Up, up, up the stairs.”

Even things that helped the majority of atypical kids learn how to speak, such as speech therapy and sign language, didn’t work. (And no, despite what some JAGBAs argue, learning sign language does not discourage kids from speaking. It’s not like they have the keys to the kingdom being able to sign “milk” and “potty.”)

So what did the trick? A new neurologist and an occupational therapist who determined the problem was with my son’s vestibular system. (Essentially, his sense of balance.) Instead of trying to get him speak, this therapist focused on movement. She pushed him on platform swings and swung him in circles. Within a week, he said his first words. Probably to get her to stop.

When you witness something like this, you don’t just drink the neurologically atypical Kool-Aid, you chug it.

That’s why I am ready to follow every recommendation this young neurologist gives. He has already built a reputation within the local special needs community for “thinking outside the box” and getting results.

His first suggestion is to take a stool sample so he can prescribe a course of probiotics and supplements for my daughter. Sounds good.

He then sends us across the hall so his nutritionist can devise a special diet for her. I am THRILLED. Eating has been a major issue for my daughter ever since she started chemotherapy and the constant nausea and vomiting turned her off food.

Toward the end of her cancer treatment she was fed entirely through a tube. When she began her recovery, her doctors recommended a liquid meal replacement drink to help her gain weight and grow as we gradually reintroduced solid foods. It has helped us tremendously but we would love nothing more than for her to enjoy eating again.

Unfortunately, the nutritionist is no Annie Sullivan.

The trouble starts when this woman — let’s call her Twiggy — enters the room, turns sideways and disappears. Okay, I’m exaggerating but she was worryingly skinny. I know it’s not nice to be prejudiced against anyone for their weight but I have a really hard time trusting anyone who doesn’t seem to enjoy food. Especially a nutritionist. I mean, what was she going to teach my daughter to eat? Altoids and laxatives?

She asks for a list of foods that my daughter consumes on a regular basis. It’s a short list and when I mention the name of the supplement beverage, her head snaps up and her eyes grow wide over protruding cheek bones.

“That stuff is poison,” she says. “It’s full of sugar and sugar feeds cancer.”

“Her oncologist recommended it,” I reply. “Her tumors have been steadily shrinking the entire time she has consumed it.”

She looks surprised.

“Ok, well, let’s get her off that,” she says and then lists on her bony fingers several nutrient-dense foods I would be thrilled for my daughter to eat but I’d be lucky to get my husband to try.

“Great!” I chirp. “How do I get her to eat all this?”

She looks at me blankly.

“We have a lot of trouble getting her to try new foods,” I explain. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“Just put it in front of her,” she replies, pulling out her phone because apparently we’re boring. “She’ll eat if she’s hungry enough.”

That’s when I knew it was all over. Because yes, most children will eat foods they don’t particularly like if the alternative is going hungry. But kids with sensory issues or oral aversions won’t, especially if they are too young or developmentally delayed to make the connection between hunger and food.

Her advice was the equivalent of Annie Sullivan telling the Kellers, “Just force Helen to develop a concept of language and a method of communicating.” Great in theory, but how do you get there?

In that instant it became apparent that, although this woman was well-versed in nutrition (she could correctly pronounce “quinoa”), she was pure JAGBA when it came to eating and the neurologically atypical.

I wasn’t alone in this assessment. A few months later, the neurologist added a feeding therapist to his staff so children could learn to eat these incredible diets being created for them.

And once again I was reminded that they can’t all be Sullivans.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that big a deal. Two years on and my daughter has almost caught up developmentally, even without the help of kale. Some people have asked why I even bothered with all the therapists and doctors if she would eventually get there on her own. The truth is, we had no idea if she would.

Also, as a parent you see your kid struggling with the basics and you want to help. You want your child to enjoy everything other children her age do: giggling with friends; the sweet, sunshiny taste of an orange; the pride of not crapping her pants.

Although there is far less call for Annie Sullivans around our house these days, I will probably always be on the look out for them. This is largely because I feel so out of my depth as a parent to the two unique, fabulous people that are my children.

So to any and all the Annies out there, thank you for what you do.

And call me if you have any suggestions.

This entry is dedicated to the miracle-working Ms. Lee. Thanks for being our first Annie Sullivan.

 

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In this corner, we have Annie Sullivan.

Keller vs. Sullivan, A Two-Part Series

Part 1: I’m sorry, Mrs. Keller

I’ve always thought Annie Sullivan was the bomb.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Sullivan was a 19th century educator who taught a blind and deaf child how to communicate with the outside world, paving the way for the latter’s life as a speaker, writer, activist and all-around badass.

The child was, of course, Helen Keller.

While both Sullivan and Keller have been lauded for their achievements, there’s someone else who deserves credit for Helen’s greatness.

That person is, of course, her mother.

Don’t worry, this isn’t some saccharine tribute to a complete stranger simply for giving birth. Rather, it’s an overdue and sincere apology to a person who deserves more credit than she’s been given. At least by me.

Some background

I have been borderline obsessed with Helen Keller since childhood. What can I say? She’s one hell of an icon.

And while long ago I placed Helen and her teacher on pedestals, I dismissed her mother as sweet but useless. This was mainly because I was a judgmental a-hole before I had children, with an unmatched ability to dismiss people I’d never met and experiences I’d never had.

In my defense, most of the books written about Helen Keller mention her mother only incidentally, focusing instead on her relationship with Sullivan.

The most in-depth portrayal of Kate Keller comes from the 1959 play The Miracle Worker, which chronicled — what else? — the early days of Helen’s relationship with Sullivan.

In the ultimate good-cop/bad-cop set up, the play portrays Kate Keller as kind but weak willed and dangerously indulgent of her child. This is in stark contrast to Annie Sullivan, a fiery yankee with a no-nonsense attitude who swoops in to instill order in the Keller household.

There’s no reason to believe these characterizations are far off the mark. Kate was the mistress of a genteel Southern household. Sullivan was the child of Irish immigrants and spent a large part of her life in a asylum for the poor.

What the play makes clear early on is that to thrive, Helen needs less of her mother’s kindness and more of Sullivan’s tough love.

A child lost

Although a work of fiction, The Miracle Worker is considered, for the most part, an accurate depiction of what occurred when Sullivan moved in with the Kellers to teach their daughter.

When it opens, 6-year-old Helen is depicted as near feral. Without the ability to understand what’s going on around her, she has been left in a protracted state of infancy. She is filthy and disheveled. One can presume — if one is me, anyway — that she is in diapers.

In the first few minutes, she attacks another child with a pair of scissors. A few minutes later, she tips her baby sister out of her cradle.

There is yelling and crying, and like the setup in a bad reality show, the Kellers are depicted as a Family in Crisis.

The audience learns that Helen’s parents have been advised to put their daughter in an asylum for the mentally ill. So far they have resisted but unless they can get Helen under control, they may have no choice.

Sullivan quickly identifies, of all things, Kate as the greatest obstacle to Helen’s success. Kate refuses to discipline or train her child. She dispenses hugs and cuddles instead of punishments and allows her daughter to run wild, stepping in only if the child has hurt someone or could hurt herself.

When Sullivan attempts to instill some discipline in the child, Kate frets that she is being too harsh.

Sullivan decides the only chance she has of getting through to Helen will be if her mother is out of the picture.

She’s right. It’s only after Sullivan moves into a small house with Helen and works with her one-on-one that she is able to teach the child the concept of language, thus changing her life forever.

What a kick to the maternal nuts.

What Kate did for Helen

While there is no denying that Sullivan changed Helen’s life for the better, I believe Kate’s contribution was as great, if not infinitely more subtle.

Helen Keller is inspirational not only for finding her voice despite physical setbacks but because that voice was so remarkable.

Her writing and speeches — which are still quoted today — show a soul filled with wisdom, joy and compassion. This is astounding when you consider she spent the first six years of her life in what was practically solitary confinement.

Until she learned how to communicate, Helen largely knew only silence and isolation. She had no way to express her feelings or even understand them.

She was also aware of the fact that she was different. In her early years she would feel people’s faces while they were talking and move her own mouth in imitation. She knew she was missing a piece of the puzzle. She also had to sense that few people wanted to be near her. Even her father and older brother gave her a wide berth.

But because of Kate, she also knew affection and comfort. Her mother’s kindness and total acceptance taught Helen that, as different as she was, she was still worthy of love. It’s difficult to imagine who she would have become without that knowledge.

Kate also showed a heroic amount of empathy and patience. While most people dismissed Helen as wild or even insane, Kate looked beyond her behavior and tried to understand what was going on in her child’s head. She knew Helen didn’t act out because she was a mean child. She was frustrated. She was lonely. She wanted desperately to fit in but she didn’t know how.

Kate Keller did more than just defend and mediate for her daughter. She kept her tethered to humanity.

That’s some hardcore parenting right there.

Could she have done this and still instilled some discipline in the child? I guess. Hell, she could have been a real super hero and devised a system of communication for the child as well but she didn’t.

All I can say is, from one mother to another: Kate Keller, I get it now. I’m sorry I didn’t get it sooner.

You rock.

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One great mama.

Sign here to end the abuse

It shouldn’t happen to a child but it does.

Every summer, across the country, thousands of privileged, middle class kids are forced to attend institutions known as “summer camps.”

The travesties they endure in these cleverly disguised tear factories cannot fully be depicted in writing. Suffice it to say, “campers” are coerced into such “fun” activities as swimming, making crafts, playing games and singing songs, all when they would much prefer to be at home rolling around on exercise balls.

Forget what you think you know about pediatric suffering. Forced labor, starvation, domestic violence — nothing can quite compare with the indignity of lanyard making and games of “Hot Potato.”

The choice is obvious: children should be allowed to play video games for eight hours straight or trail two inches behind their beleaguered parents mumbling, “Bored, bored, bored,” every single day of summer vacation if they prefer, instead of being subjected to the hyper happy ministrations of attentive teenage counselors with names like “Tinkerbell” and “Meatball.”

Until recently, experts were divided as to who was most at fault for the existence of these licensed pits of despair.

Some blamed the school system for ceasing to hold classes for 12 weeks every year. On further scrutiny, it became clear that teachers forced to direct and focus the energy of the nation’s children year round would, in professional parlance, “lose their s—t.”

Others faulted parents, who selfishly refused to drop everything — or cease employment — for three months to direct and monitor the activities of their children every waking minute of the day.

Still others, mainly those who raised their children decades ago or don’t have children of their own, have repeatedly claimed this concern over filling children’s time is ridiculous. This group of experts, many of whom never removed the cigarettes from their mouths while putting their children to sleep in lead-based-paint-coated cribs, have said children should entertain themselves, playing outside with friends, roaming the woods, riding their bikes.

Of course, in this day and age this option is only available to parents who live on quiet cul-de-sacs with trusted neighbors not listed in the sexual offender registry who are within walking distance of woods not being used as shoot-up galleries by junkies. And then only if the children wear helmets, are slathered in factor 70 and checked thoroughly for ticks in the evening.

Even those who do enjoy such a prime real estate location would more than likely find any efforts to encourage this enjoyable independence in their children stymied by bystanders — mainly those who raised their children decades ago or don’t have children of their own — who would report them to authorities for neglect. (Click here to read about the arrest of a mother who let her 9-year-old walk to the local park unattended, or here for the woman investigated because she let her three children play in their own backyard while she folded laundry inside.)

Still, children shouldn’t be forced to suffer just because modern-day parents pretty much suck balls no matter what decisions they make.

Sign here to stop the madness. And consider our other petition against the indignities endured by teenagers whose parents drop them off right in front of the movie theater instead of around the corner, BECAUSE THAT IS SERIOUSLY F—KING EMBARRASSING.

 

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Seriously, this s–t needs to stop.

 

 

 

 

 

The ultimate guide to hosting your child’s birthday party

 

Six weeks out: Select a date, time and venue.

Tell your child it’s time to plan their birthday party. They will no doubt have tons of ideas and it is your job as the Person in Charge to effectively steer them in a direction which is both realistic and affordable. I wouldn’t call crushing dreams a perk of motherhood but — oh, ok, I totally would.

Explain that the kid in his class who had laser tag, a magician and a bouncy castle at his party was, in fact, compensating for something, perhaps the fact that his parents are dead inside and don’t really love him.

If you have venue options, list them now. In our house those venues are limited to home or the YMCA. We once looked into having a party at the science museum and discovered it would cost more than our wedding.

(That’s not saying much since we eloped and our wedding cost $300. Still, keep in mind that you are planning a children’s party, not a ceremony that legally binds you to another human being.)

If you must book a venue, you’re already about two months too late. All the dates and times you want will already be taken, and you’ll be lucky to get their 5 to 6:30 slot on a Sunday.

Party planning tip: Some parents will tell you now is the time to choose the theme for the party. This is a HUGE mistake, at least if your children are as fickle and obsessive as mine. Because I can guarantee that even if your child insists that she loves Dora the Explorer and definitely wants a Dora the Explorer party and let’s make everything Dora the Explorer, the night before the party she will loudly announce that Dora the Explorer in fact sucks balls and Elena of Avalor is the only character who brings any real joy into her life.

Four weeks out: Draw up a guest list.

Numbers will depend largely on where the party is held. My children know if they choose the YMCA, the sky’s the limit. If they want to do it at home, they are limited to eight friends. This is for the very simple reason that, in this day and age, many parents will stay at the party with their children. Some seem to think the the entire family has been invited. This means that for every child invited, you can expect between two to five guests, depending on how many siblings exist and whether grandma is visiting.

Three weeks out: Send the invitations.

Personally, I always do electronic invitations, not because I’m a huge ecowarrior but because I am lazy.

Some people will finalize the theme now so the invitations will match. Big mistake. I just go for a generic “Holy Crap! So-and-so is turning (fill in the age)!” in primary colors.

Two weeks out: Choose a cake

Really organized parents will have done this much earlier, especially if they want one of those fancy cakes that are popping up at kids’ parties these days. (Think fondant and hand painted edible flowers.)

I either buy from a grocery store bakery or make one, especially since my kids have really strange requests when it comes to cakes. This year my son wanted his to feature the star of the “My Big, Fat Zombie Goldfish” books. (Which are awesome, btw.) Try asking Costco if they make a zombie goldfish cake before being removed by security.

One week out: Finalize the guest list and shop for decorations and favors.

Hahahahaha, omg, I’m totally kidding. I mean, you can look at who has RSVPd but technically you’ll never have a real guest list until after the party. This is because some religions forbid people from RSVPing. At least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for not clicking “Yes” or “No” on an evite.

After reminding your kid this is it, no going back on the theme, load up a basket with themed cups, plates, napkins and banners. Place a balloon order. Look at the final bill and realize this party will cost more than your wedding.

Two days out: Start getting the house ready.

Of course, this is only the case if the party is at home, which is in itself a major argument for having it elsewhere.

Have your children assist you in putting away stray toys and cleaning up their rooms, even though their rooms will be off limits during the party. Realize you have become your mother.

The night before the party: Stuff the piñata.

Smile a little to yourself because “stuffing the piñata” is one of those domestic chores that sounds vaguely dirty, like “icing the buns” and “beating the rug.”

Stuffing the piñata. Giggle.

The morning of the party: Hang the decorations.

This is when you realize that birthday banners are either way too short or two long. Too short and you can’t find a doorway to hang them from. Too long and the guests will be clothes-lined when they come through the door, even though they are only four feet tall.

Two hours before party starts: Clean in a blind panic.

As tidy as the house seemed before, you are now seeing it through the eyes of a guest.

Decide the kitchen counters need to be clear of items. Realize the books on the shelves look sloppy. Ask yourself why you never noticed what looks like a blood stain on the skirting board.

When you are finished, realize your house hasn’t been this clean since when the previous owners showed it.

At the party:

If you are at a venue, everything will go swimmingly.

If you have the party at home, you can expect the following:

All four children who RSVPd will arrive, all with their parents, some with siblings. In addition, the other four children WHO DID NOT RSVP will also show up, along with their parents and siblings, forcing you to make do as best you can, grateful you bought extras of everything.

One particularly obnoxious pint-sized sibling WHO WASN’T INVITED will sniff at your homemade cake and declare “This is way too small.” Consider whispering in his ear “Nobody likes you.” After all, there would have been PLENTY OF CAKE had this little tax write off’s parents not INVITED their extended family WITHOUT RSVPing.

When it comes time for the piñata, explain to the children there is extra candy inside the house, so there is no need to kill each other over the chance to pocket the last roll of Smarties, which suck anyway. They ignore you and proceed to reenact various scenes from “Lord of the Flies.”

Cut the cake into postage stamp sized slices so there will be enough for everyone. The kids will finish in one bite and lick their plates, looking at you plaintively as if they are in an ad for UNICEF.

Some people will advise that now is the time to open gifts but I never do this at the party because my children are terrible liars and will give their honest and ungrateful opinion on every gift, even the good ones.

One minute after the last guest’s extended family has left the party:

Vow never to have another party.

Frankie cake
Zombie goldfish cake, anyone?

 

Six “truths” all parents know about dance recitals

1. The idea of a recital is better than the reality.

Don’t get me wrong, it is beyond fantastic to watch your little tyke in the spotlight, wearing an enchanting costume and appearing more groomed than you’ve ever seen her (or him) in her (or his) short life.

But your joy will deflate into butt-numbing despair as troop after troop of pint-sized Pavlovas stumbles on to the stage for their turn.

Heading into Hour 3 of this extravaganza, you will die a little inside when yet another class assembles to perform an interpretive dance to the extended version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

2. These things are ridiculously expensive.

On top of the tuition you’ve paid all year, you will be expected to fork over for a costume, and, in some cases, a recital “fee” to cover the cost of a venue.

For my daughter’s show, those charges were $95 and $75 respectively. I paid less than $95 for my prom dress. Some of the older students had three or four different costumes, so I can only imagine what their parents had to pawn to cover the cost.

Add in professional photos and the obligatory bouquet of flowers and you will walk away from the theater feeling like you’ve been mugged.

3. The otherwise normal and lovely staff at you child’s dance school will turn into lunatics.

I can’t even imagined the pressure these people are under to put on the perfect show. In addition to the fact that parents can be over demanding a-holes, the whole event serves a marketing purpose for the school. Personally, I wouldn’t want the fate of my business to rest in the hands of a 3-year-old’s ability to execute the perfect jazz square to “Hakuna Matata,” but that’s just me.

The woman who runs my daughter’s school is lovely and kind and speaks to the children in a calm voice and makes each one feel special.

During the week of rehearsals leading up to the show, it was as if she ate guano for breakfast.

Her staff shrank in her presence. She yelled at a mother because her 4-year-old child’s ballet shoe lace had come undone. She screamed at the narrator, who I believe is her grandson.

The night before the big show she sent out an email at 10 p.m. that was so desperate you could almost smell the gin on her breath through the screen:

Please, please, please, send your child in with CLEAN tights — no rips, holes or stains.

Please make sure your child’s hair is slicked back OFF HER FACE. Stage makeup should be applied in advance.

PLEASE BE ON TIME.

The subject line was “Listen Up, You F—king Idiots: I’m Not Going to Have My Business Ruined Because Your Children Are Borderline Feral.”

Ok, I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea.

4. You will find yourself getting a little offended by something.

Maybe this is just me.

In my daughter’s show, several classes danced to parts of the overture from “The Sound of Music.” Because presumably we wouldn’t get that, even though it was printed in the program and introduced by the narrator, there was a segue number featuring a pack of teenage girls dressed as nuns pas de boureeing across the stage.

I’m not particularly religious, but when I saw this during dress rehearsal, I had to push my mouth shut. It just seemed a little irreverent, even though the nuns were executing lovely adagio moves and not break dancing. All I could wonder is, what’s next, a rabbi kick line? Imams executing the perfect splits?

In addition, at least one number in every dance recital will feature little girls looking really… unlittle girlish.

When a pack of 8-year-olds in harem pants starts twerking, you know that someone’s lost the plot.

5. The best place to be is backstage.

This year I volunteered to supervise my daughter’s class backstage. Was it stressful? A little. Boring? Not at all.

Me and the 14 six-year-olds in my care had a blast, even though it takes a lot to keep kids that age from rioting when they’re hyped up but have to wait two hours for four minutes on stage.

After rousing games of “Simon Says” and “I Spy,” they were edging towards “Lord of the Flies” territory until I remembered my son’s favorite Internet page featuring kid-friendly Christmas jokes.

Or so I thought.

“What’s Santa’s favorite sandwich?” I read from my phone.

“What?”

“Peanut butter and jolly.”

They giggled.

“What does Tarzan sing at Christmas?”

“What?”

“Jungle Bells.”

They guffawed. Shouting to be heard, I called out:

“Who is Santa’s least friendly elf?”

Then I read the answer and my eyes went wide.

“Who?” they all asked.

“Um, Jeff. It’s Jeff,” I lied.

They pretended to get it. I switched off my phone. The real answer was “Gof—kyourself.” Seriously.

6. No matter how broke and exhausted you are by the time it’s over, you will look forward to the next one with great anticipation.

Because parents are suckers.

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The Kids Are All Write

It’s a given: all parents are inordinately proud of anything their children create. From the first rudimentary crayon etchings to the hand-made popsicle stick picture frames, we simply live to marvel over anything they’ve put their hearts and minds to.

I’ll never forget the absolute thrill I experienced when my son produced his first “drawing.” You see, according to my sleep-deprived, slightly deranged mind, this was the first sign that he was communicating with me. Up until then, I had been doing all the talking, keeping up a non-stop stream of conversation in which I asked and answered all the questions, made all the observations, cracked the best “A priest, a rabbi and a lawyer walked into a bar” jokes.

When he finally put Crayola to paper and left a permanent imprint, I felt like, for the first time, I was privy to what was going on in that sweet little head:

 

Crayon

I know, I know: he’s a friggin’ GENIUS, right?

When he started preschool it became my daily thrill to dig through his Thomas the Train backpack and pull out his drawings, his paintings and his collages.

The excitement only grew when his sister started school. Now that they’re old enough to write, opening their backpacks every day has become even more interesting.

My son has become a particularly prolific author, although his earlier work tended to get bogged down with details:

Ages

Chapter One spring break   

It was spring break and Alice was going to Ashley’s house. I can’t wait to be there Alice exclaimed.
All right calm down said her father. She was 9 1/2 years old and Ashley appeared to be 10 or 11 years old. But Ashley’s half birthday was tomorrow. She’ll be 10 1/2 tomorrow her father exclaimed. 
Her father was 47 3/4.

 

It evolved as he discovered new elements of punctuation:

Exclamation

Chapter 2 It Begins to Snow
Let’s read books said Ashley! Okay said Alice! You read! said Alice!
Chapter 1 Piano Lessons!
Ohhh! said Ashley! one day Lily was going to get piano lessons. She was 10 years old. Ohh! just like you exclaimed Alice! Then Mr. Handmachine stepped up to Lily!

(He also obviously had issues with chronology. And I don’t even want to know who Mr. Handmachine is.)

After reading six pages of the following, I had a talk with him about pacing:

Wahahaha

 

For a while, many of his stories focused on super heroes, such as the high-concept character known as:

Super Naked Hero

 

And the dignified:

Captain bottom
Finally, a hero we can all get behind. (Get it???)

When he began reading ghost stories his own writing focused more on the macabre. Let me tell you, as a parent nothing makes you prouder than to know your 8-year-old produced the following:

Razor blade

“Thooommmassss and Crrrissss haavvveee a nice triiipp, moaned the ghost. And the ghost got out a razor blade and it cut out Thomas and Cris’s stomach and blood was everywhere. The End!”

So stinkin’ cute.

The real hero in this situation, though, is his teacher. Not once has this lovely man suggested professional help or called my son a psycho. Instead, he writes the sweetest, most encouraging notes in the margins.

Considering the following passage:

Parents on wall

“It was a dark and stormy night and Thomas and Chris were heading back to their house. And when they opened the door and their parents were hanging on the wall.”

If you squint you can see that his teacher wrote the following:

“I bet they were surprised!”

Of course, my son isn’t the only talented author in the class. Two of his friends have written a series of novellas dedicated to my son recounting the adventures of a hamburger named Sesome (deliberately spelled incorrectly, they assured me). I must say, Sesome is one of the most three-dimensional characters I’ve come across in recent memory.

Consider this passage:

Sesame Frenchie

“One day Sesome could not get out of bed. He could not stop thinking about Mrs. Frenchie. She was hot, well, at least to him.”

They are truly masterful authors to let the reader decide whether Mrs. Frenchie was, indeed, “hot” by objective standards, or attractive only to Sesome because of some detected spark between the two.

Nearly as impressive is their ability to weave modern American slang into their prose. Consider this passage, after Sesome successfully thwarts a bank robbery:

Sesame Popo

“…Sesome grabbed the bag and ran. He gave it to the PoPo (police).”

Aren’t kids awesome???

This isn’t to say that they limit themselves to the short story genre. Here is a poem my son wrote and then tried to charge me for:

My mom

My mom’s poem
My mom is cool because she is really nice. She let’s Stella the cat in. She is 40 years old. She is very nice to us. She cooke’s dinner. She stays healthy and calm!
The End!

You know what? I am cool. And nice. And I do spend all day letting the cat in and cooking dinner.

But he didn’t get a dime.

Then there was this public service announcement masquerading as fiction:

Ugly Lady

Chapter Two
The Very Ughly Lady
Once upon a time there (three) sister’s. Two sister’s were good. But the third was smoking. She was super ughly!!! The End

I could be wrong here, but I think he is trying to say that smoking is bad and anyone who does it is not only bad but ugly. Not just regular ugly either but UGHLY, with an “h.”

Of course, I don’t always understand everything I pull from his bag. Since I’ve never played dodge ball (let alone “doogeball”) in full protective gear against an angry village mob, this threw me for a loop:

Doogeball

And I’m beyond curious as to what is happening to the unfortunate creature on the right:

Tinker Bell

This is not to say that my son is the only one who makes my heart burst with maternal pride. The following missive recounting our cat’s hygiene practices was penned by my daughter and shall remain in my possession for eternity:

Stelle butt licker

Just. So. Proud.

 

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The very real emotional void filled by my cat, who is a major a–hole

 

My family doesn’t have a great track record with pets. Until recently, our one and only foray into animal ownership was with neon colored fish who kept dying at the worst possible times.

While everyone kept telling us a dog would be therapeutic for the children, I was concerned it would be less-than-therapeutic for me, since I would no doubt bear the brunt of feeding, walking and cleaning up after the thing.

I’ve wanted a cat for years, but my husband is “allergic” to them in that he hates them.

He managed to get over his “allergies” when the children and I fell in love with a sweet white cat with dazzling green eyes who began lolling about in our garden shortly after we moved into our new house.

“Can we keep her?” my kids asked.

I desperately wanted to say yes, but didn’t want to “take” her if she belonged to someone. We put up posters around the neighborhood and tucked hand made fliers in people’s mailboxes. I joined the neighborhood Facebook page and posted her photo but heard nothing.

So, one day I scooped her into a cat carrier and took her to the vet. It turns out she was microchipped and did belong to someone, who didn’t seem at all surprised to hear she was out making eyes at another family.

“She just never bonded with us,” her owner explained, when I called her from the vet’s office. “She comes in at night when we are asleep to eat but otherwise she avoids us.”

I realized I was holding my breath. My children were crazy about this sweet cat, especially Jack, who would spend hours sitting by her side and talking to her.

I was hugely relieved when the woman said we could keep the cat, who my children had named Stella.

To say Stella has brought joy into our house is an understatement. The children adore her. They argue over who gets to feed her, they are thrilled when she chooses to sleep next to them.

As a mother, anything that makes your children happy that isn’t bad for them has a special place in your heart.

But I’ll admit that I have selfish and slightly unhealthy reasons for loving this cat. She is, after all, the baby who will never grow up.

My children are still at the age where they like me. I know that will all change. As part of their growth and development they will need to break away from me, and nature’s preferred method seems to be a spontaneous and organic lobotomy that convinces adolescents their parents are lame idiots who exist merely to embarrass them.

Oh sure, they’ll pass through this phase. (I hope.) But it will never be the same as it is now, when they throw their little arms around me and tell me I’m the best mommy ever, or fall asleep cuddled up next to me, or run to me in excitement to show off the drawings they’ve made or read me the stories they’ve written.

I get that it’s all a part of a healthy emotional development, that without this rebellion they could end up living in my basement as adults, making suits from the skin of slaughtered invalids.

I get it. It doesn’t mean I like it.

Raising children is like being madly in love with someone you know will some day break up with you. You just hope that, in the aftermath, they’ll still want to be friends.

But pets? Pets are different.

As long as I keep the Meow Mix coming, Stella will like me.

With Stella, my kisses won’t suddenly become “lame.” I won’t embarrass her for reasons unknown. I won’t be pinpointed as the cause of her irrational fear of clowns, just because I happened to jump out of the closet in a Bozo suit dripping fake blood and screaming her name as a prank those five nights in a row back in kindergarten.

Of course, because cats are part angel, part a—hole, there are times when I wish we could rethink this unhealthy relationship. While all cats chase and kill small animals, Stella is somewhat of an overachiever in this regard.

Not a day goes by when the carcass of a bird, mouse, rat, lizard or squirrel doesn’t turn up by the back door. Unless I bury their corpses incredibly well, she will DIG THEM BACK UP and play with their rotten, maggot-infested bodies. And then come inside for kisses smelling like death.

One day I discovered she had tucked a couple of lizard corpses under the front door welcome mat and so I tried, unsuccessfully, to sweep them into the bushes. Because their lower halves had been flattened into the front step, their heads flopped back and forth like windshield wipers. I finally managed to scrape them off with a trowel.

It almost made me reconsider the wisdom of making her my emotional crutch.

Aw, who am I kidding? I’ll forever be a sucker for that adorable, contempt-filled face and sociopathic spirit.

 

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The little lady who’s going to help me deal with my children growing up. Here she is striking the classic feline pose known as “Get that effing thing out of my face.”

 

My new favorite kind of birthday party for kids: The “Parents, GTFO” kind

 

As any parent will tell you, March and April are brutal months when it comes to kids’  birthday parties. Starting around February your inbox will be flooded with eVites so numerous you’d almost welcome a plea for help from a member of Nigeria’s royal family.

The past few weekends my husband and I have hardly seen each other in our quest to get both kids to their designated party points. I spent spare moments wrapping gifts. Our bank called and asked if we wanted to do a direct deposit every month to Toys R Us.

In some ways, these parties are great because they give your kids something to do, neatly killing a little bit of dead time with minimal effort on your part as a parent.

But unfortunately, these days it is assumed that you will stick around to keep an eye on your kid and make awkward conversation with relative strangers. (Kind of like modern play dates.)

By now, I’ve watched countless magicians — or “illusionists,” as they prefer to be called — ply their trade, wondering if they date much. I’ve seen scores of little girls lose their minds when they come face to face with teenage girls in Elsa costumes. I’ve enjoyed the banter of pint-sized athletes as they go face-to-knee with the refs at basketball games. (“I guess we’re not calling traveling?” a 6-year-old asked the teenage boy overseeing the game at a party last weekend. I looked into adopting him but his parents didn’t go for it.)

It can be fun if you know the other parents but that’s pretty rare. It can get uncomfortable if alcohol is served and a parent overindulges and acts weird, such as the dad at a party last year who kept bugging me to admit I was Jewish. (I’m not, he was. I took his assumption as a compliment, although it got old the fifth time he slurred, “Are you sure you’re not Jewish?” “Pretty sure I’d remember being one of God’s Chosen People,” I replied.)

But lately, a new kind of party invitation has been coming through my inbox. Among the details of date, time and location, parents have been adding a note along the lines of, “Please leave your child here and pick him/her up when the party finishes.” You know, the way birthday parties used to be.

The first time I received such an invitation, I almost wept with joy. It was a double score because I didn’t know the hosts well and the party was near a superb shopping center I don’t go to much because it’s so far away.

I was so excited to have an hour and a half to myself I considered slowing down and pushing my daughter out of the car when we arrived at the birthday girl’s house just to save time. In the end, I walked her to the front door, rang the door bell and jogged backward down the driveway blowing kisses. (“Have fun! Be good! Love you!”)

For the next 90 minutes I lived like a rock star. That’s right: I went to a Marshalls Homegoods store. It. Was. Awesome.

When I’d had enough of that I sat in a coffee shop and read a book. It was one of the most relaxing Saturday mornings in recent memory.

Coming up this weekend I have another “drop off only” party and I can’t wait. This one is for three hours so you can only imagine the shenanigans I’ll be getting into. That’s right, Burlington Coat Factory, prepare to be DOMINATED.

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Thanks for coming! Don’t let the door hit ya where the Lord split ya.

 

 

How my ‘career’ prepared me for motherhood

The other day, my son threw open the door to his room and called out, “Shop! Shop! The shop is open!”

I took my cue and went in to browse. My son pointed me toward the bed, which was strewn with an array of random objects.

“The stuff in the way back is all clearance,” he explained. “But those items are final sale.”

“Good to know.”

I left the “shop” with a snow globe, a teddy bear, a single sock, two pencils, a cat toy, three books, a pillow and an earring I had lost months before, apparently behind his bed. Apart from the pillow, everything had been packed into two carrier bags.

The total had come to $5,000.

“Where are we? Venezuela?” I had asked.

He nodded seriously.

“Yes. Yes, we are.”

While swiping my imaginary credit card (he wouldn’t accept imaginary cash) he asked me to put my name and email down on his mailing list for special offers.

What can I say? The kid knows his retail.

When his dad arrived home from work, Jack scurried back up to his room.

“Shop! Shop! The shop is open!”

My husband, good sport that he is,  went to have a look.

“Sorry, sir, that’s the wrong door,” my son said.

My husband stood looking confused.

“You have to climb over that barrier first,” my son said, pointing to absolutely nothing.

“I climb over the barrier,” my husband said. “Okay.”

“Now you have to duck under the other barrier.”

He ducked.

“Now you go down the slide.”

He slid. Or pretended to.

“Am I in the shop yet?” he asked and my son nodded.

“The items in the back row are clearance. They are final sale.”

My husband’s haul came to $10,000.

“That’s outrageous!” he cried.

“It’s a game, dear,” I reminded him.

He shook his head and paid, although I could tell his Scottish sensibilities were gravely offended.

“You know, your business model could use a little work,” he said, eyeing the store hours sign that read “Open: 10-11, 4-5.”

“And the entrance doesn’t make it easy for your customers to get in.”

My son shrugged and skipped down the stairs to play something else.

“Actually, I know a few stores that operate like this,” I said. “They’ve stayed in business for years.”

And herein lies the difference between my husband and me. Since finishing university he has always worked in the corporate world, where things are (for the most part) practical and make sense.

My background is in journalism. Did I wield my Fourth Estate powers as a hard-hitting correspondent for a major news network, uncovering corruption at the highest levels of government?

Let’s just say that no one got the results from the 4-H show unless I got to work on time.

As a small-town newspaper reporter I got to see it all. In some cases, twice.

Name a strange situation and I’ve been there. Think of the most outrageous lie someone could tell and I’ve heard it.

I once interviewed a woman who hoped her vast collection of Strawberry Shortcake memorabilia — rumored to be the largest in the world — would be enough to draw customers to the bed and breakfast she’d spent her life savings opening.

I spent several freezing hours making conversation with a cop next to the body of a man who had committed suicide by jumping from the highest building in town, a 6-story parking garage.

I nodded knowingly when an elderly woman hooked up to an oxygen tank and sucking back a beer at 2 p.m. informed me that the crappy post-industrial town she lived in was “God’s country.”

I’ve been cursed at by an Episcopalian priest, hugged by a prison warden and informed by a Somali refugee that I needed to gain weight. (Lovely woman, she was.)

It’s quite a job, one many ambitious young reporters use as a stepping stone to the big city dailies. That was a transition I would never make as I had little aptitude for the profession, in part because I have the world’s least developed news sense.

Here’s an approximation of the sort of conversation I had several times a week with my editor:

Me (hanging up the phone): “Gotta run! Someone’s found a frost heave in their driveway that resembles Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine. Should I bring a photographer?”

Editor: “We just got a tip that one the selectmen in [name of a town I covered, usually ending in -burg, -boro, -bury, -ford or -ton] has been arrested for embezzling municipal funds. He planned on using the money to run away with the police chief’s wife.”

Me: “Hmmm, tough call.”

Editor: “Not really. Cover the selectman story.”

Me (shrugging): “Okay but what’s my angle?”

So when my son pretended to open a store with crappy hours, inflationary prices and an impenetrable entrance, it all felt familiar. I was immediately transported back to one of countless “Make Downtown Relevant Again” meetings I used to sit through in any number of towns that ended in -burg, -boro, -bury, -ford or -ton.

The objective of each meeting was to draw visitors to the long neglected main retail drags people were bypassing to shop at the big box complexes opening up everywhere in small-town USA.

I distinctly remember the owner of a shop selling things no working class family needed or wanted — hand-thrown coffee mugs for $25 and monstrous-looking wire lawn ornaments hand-twisted in India for $75 to name two — lamenting she couldn’t compete with large retailers.

Because a journalist is never supposed to “get involved” in the story, I refrained from suggesting she’d have better luck selling things that more than five people in town could afford to buy. Or that her restricted hours 11-4, NO JOKE, might make it difficult for prospective customers who worked 9-5 to avail themselves of her pricey goods.

So I sat through meeting after meeting while artist coops and fair trade jewelers scratched their heads and fumed about losing customers to Walmart.

This resistance to logic was in no way limited to retailers. The upside of encountering these attitudes is that I never need to negate things when it comes to imaginary play. (I mean, not that I would.)

Your shop is at the end of a water slide? Cool!

You are a ballerina zombie who was brought back from the dead to fight evil? Rock on.

You made that pie out of dog s—t and rocks and you want me to have a slice? Ha-ha! Nice try. Put it down and wash your hands.

thomas-sign-e1488378491338.jpg
The sign my son made after I tried to shop with imaginary cash.

No more scans

Twice a year, we don’t get to pretend life is normal.

On these days, I drive my daughter to the hospital still in her PJs, usually fussy, sometimes crying because she is hungry and thirsty but can’t eat or drink before the tests she is about to have.

She is the youngest patient in the waiting room by decades. The nurses give her Disney princess stickers or abbreviated coloring books titled — I kid you not — “My Trip to Radiology.”

Every single time, I fill out the same form:

Has the patient had surgery?

Are you kidding?

If so, give the dates.

I list months and years because the actual dates have blurred together.

Has the patient ever had cancer?

Duh.

Does the patient have a penile implant?

Giggle.

We wait for an hour, sometimes two, once for three. When they finally call her name and lead us to the procedure area, I give her long and extensive medical history to the anesthesiologist and beg him (it’s always a him) to please, please, please put anti-nausea medicine in her IV. It will mean the difference between her vomiting once or twice when she wakes up or for the rest of the day.

The doctor always present a syringe filled with the pink liquid sedative Versed. Since I’m not allowed to walk her into the treatment room due to the completely safe levels of radiation, they want her calm when they take her from me.

When she was a baby she took the medicine easily. In her toddler years she pushed it away, or took it and then promptly threw it up. Now that she’s a mature child of 6, we have an agreement, one that many — but not all — anesthesiologists can’t get their heads around. I don’t make her drink the medicine, she goes bravely into the treatment room without melting down.

Many — but not all — anesthesiologists don’t believe she can do it, so I have to bust out my own medical credentials, namely an advanced degree in She’s My Kid, This Isn’t Our First Rodeo, So Kindly Step Off. The nurses always come to my aid, although from the way they shake their heads I can tell they are used to being ignored by Those Who Must Be Obeyed. (If it sounds like I have contempt for doctors, I don’t. I adore them, especially pediatric oncologists, who are g-d—n unsung heroes in my opinion. For some reason, though, most — but not all — anesthesiologists drive me crazy, probably because I disagree with their assessment that God wears a name tag and Crocs.)

They take her from me, weeping but not bawling, and I wave good bye smiling. Inside I am screaming.

The hospital has a chapel. I don’t know if God exists but I go into that room, get on my knees and beg. Please let her sleep soundly, please comfort her when she wakes up, please ease her pain. It feels hypocritical to pray when I’m not even sure what I believe but a parent in this position will do anything.

It’s a sentiment perhaps best summed up by the protagonist of one of the greatest novels of our time, Peter Benchley’s Jaws. At one point, when the beleaguered police chief is powerless to stop attacks on swimmers he declares, “If someone came in here and said he was Superman and could piss the shark away from here, I’d say fine and dandy. I’d even hold his d—k for him.”

Man is this is ever true. Except for the pee and d—k parts. Gross. But if someone told me standing on my head and coloring my face green would ease her pain, I’d flip over and grab the paint. It someone told me the universe is being presided over by a cosmic Elmer Fudd, I’d tell him which way the Wascally Wabbit went and ask him to grant my child mercy.

After the praying comes the waiting. At least four hours, sometimes more than six. For some reason, without fail, there is a band playing Irish music in the hospital lobby, and I don’t mean U2 or the Pogues.

Now, I love Irish folk music as much as the average person. Probably more since I have a few albums. But when this band’s music bounces off the cold marble floors off the hospital lobby, it sounds discordant and irritating, like a 3-year-old sawing at a violin or an accordion being dropped down a flight of stairs.

It’s a huge relief when the call comes in that they have finished the tests.

Upstairs in the recovery room, my daughter is a tiny body in a room full of giants. Groggy and quiet she clings to me as she slowly wakes up, while other patients groan or even rant in alarm because they don’t know where they are. If they shout I cover her ears. The nurses are remarkable at settling the patients down. They must be great with drunks.

On the drive home my daughter usually vomits, a surprised look on her face as the bile erupts from her mouth and nostrils. At home we cuddle and wait for the doctor’s phone call.

With a few exceptions it has been good news: the tumors are the same size, or they’ve shrunk the tiniest bit. We all exhale with relief. I say a prayer of thanks. We are officially granted leave to live in denial for the next six months, which is how we roll in this house.

But last week, when I steeled myself to schedule her next set of scans, I was given a pleasant shock by her oncologist. It’s been three years since she stopped chemotherapy, something I hadn’t realized in the daily chaos of life.

At this point, it is so unlikely the cancer will start growing again that the scans to check their size are considered more harmful than useful. Instead they will check her urine and test her blood once a year.

It’s a joy and a relief. She is no longer the ghostly pale baby who practically lived in a hospital bed. She’ll never again be the bald toddler with track marks in her arms. And now she won’t be the kid who is dragged out of school for debilitating tests and assessments.

She’s not completely out of the woods. She probably never will be, a thought that hangs over our heads when we let it, usually on Christmas and her birthday.

But for now, her life has gotten that little bit better. And for that, we are grateful.