Monday, April 4, 2011

Life is Like a Box of . . . Tulips

Maybe it was a rare moment of male “nesting.” More likely, some sale on mystery tulip bulbs at Fred Meyer was too good to pass up. Whatever the reason, Mr. Black spent one autumn afternoon in 2003 planting bulbs all over the front yard. Our neighbors gave us some of their extra bulbs, too.

I was pregnant with The Boy, just entering the dreamy second trimester and blissfully ignorant of so many things. I didn’t know what color those tulips would be when they came up. I didn’t know I’d be losing my job in a few months. I didn’t know our underground oil tank was leaking, or that we’d discover this fiasco mere weeks before the baby would be born. And I certainly didn’t know how intense and relentless the undertow of parenting a new baby was going to be.

I didn’t know how much I was going to love it, either.

Mr. Black drove us home from the hospital in my trusty old Volvo. I sat in the back with The Boy in his infant seat, bracing myself in terror each time we hit a bump, checking to make sure the baby was still okay. He was, of course, snoozing away with those velvety eyelids. Soon, we were home.

And there were the tulips! For weeks I’d been watching them inch their way up from the ground. Now, seemingly with the birth of our son, they’d burst into bloom – red, yellow, orange, pink, scattered amid the cool greens and greys of the shrubs and bare branches on that cold spring day. Welcome home, little baby.

Those tulips would return every year, blooming just in time for his birthday. I’d see them and instantly remember the early baby weeks: Those first tentative walks up and down the street with him in the sling. Marathon breastfeeding sessions in front of “Love Boat” and “Little House on the Prairie” reruns. The psychedelic depth and dimensions of sleeplessness that the mere word “sleeplessness” doesn’t even begin to describe. The near simultaneous waves of anxiety and overwhelming love.

With each birthday, though, we get a little further away from the baby nostalgia and a little closer to “Who is this kid and what is he becoming?” The day before his third birthday party, for example, I had to drag him out of a group playdate for ferociously tackling the other children. Before his fourth, I was getting e-mails from his preschool teacher about his aggressive behavior and tantrums. Right before he turned five, we had our first diagnosis – an incorrect one, it turned out, that only caused more confusion and worry than necessary.

Even now, knowing that it’s simply the gifted/Aspergers combo and not some demonic possession or epic parenting fail…it’s still hard to get the birthday warm fuzzies for this kid. There’s lots celebrate, of course – his joy and sweetness; his pure love of math, Legos, and any kind of building project; his burgeoning interest in all things non-fiction, from world religions to oceanography; the fun he has with his little sister.

But I’m so worried about him, too, and the worry tends to override the other things. He still hits. He blurts out hurtful observations. He delves into his interests to the exclusion of just about anything or anyone else. He can be moody and sullen as any teenager, using his sharp vocabulary to pick semantic fights with me. Sometimes I try to talk to him and all I hear is the voice of a nagging, ineffective mom with a screw coming looser every day. I’m glad we finally have access to services at the school, because much of the time I have no flipping idea what to do.

But last fall, when things were particularly bad, I was sure of one thing: I wanted more tulip bulbs. The old ones hadn’t been blooming much lately, crowded out by the encroaching trees and shrubs. And when they did bloom, that clash of colors that I’d found so charming before just didn’t work anymore. I didn’t want mystery tulips scattered all around. I wanted unique, color-coordinated tulips that I picked out myself. So, while I sat at my desk hoping the school wouldn’t call that day, I pored over pages and pages of tulips online. I studied and compared, finally deciding on a girlish cotton candy pink and a subtle, creamy yellow fringed variety.

The Boy helped me plant them. He insisted on making a pattern with the pinks and yellows, which wouldn’t have been my choice. But I let him do it anyway, because it was good to see him feeling so proud and self-assured about something…anything. We even worked it into a homework assignment about patterns, and he did a very detailed drawing of each bulb in the ground.

And now, just in time for his seventh birthday, here come my new tulips! Except…they’re not what I ordered.

Instead of the yellow-creamy-fringey ones, we’ve got these coral pink ones with pointy petals. They clash with the cotton candy pinks, which are a little more two-tone than they looked on the Web site. And we planted them way too close together. It’s not what I was expecting at all.

Well. Is any of this what I was expecting? I suppose not. Turns out those tulips are my own little version of Forrest Gump’s box o’ chocklits. You never do know what you’re gonna get, do you? I know, I know. But when real life gives you a heavy-handed metaphor like that, you take notice.

My tulips are a well-intentioned, joyful mess out there. But The Boy is so proud of them. And I’m so proud of him, quirks, challenges, and all.

He’s working so hard to adapt and cope. Think of how hard it is to change our own thinking about something (even something minor, like letting one’s partner load the dishwasher the “wrong” way). Now imagine doing it as a first grader. Seems damn near impossible, doesn’t it? But he’s doing it. I can see him putting his new coping skills into practice. Every professional he’s worked with remarks on how sweet he is, how eager to please. And they’re right. There’s a lot of love in this kid. Joyful, messy, imperfect love.

Happy seventh birthday, little boy. Let’s see what comes next.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Floor Pie on Salon

Gentle readers, I had my first piece published on Salon today. Couldn't have done it without your support and encouragement! Go check it out if you like, and I'll have something new up here in a few days!
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