Sunday, September 23, 2012

Back to School

Little Grrl’s old preschool had a stairway to nowhere, propped against a wall in the church courtyard. When she was three years old, her favorite thing to do during outdoor playtime was to simply climb to the top of it and stand there, perched like a cat, taking it all in.

When the preschool relocated to a bigger space the following year, she opted for the new swing set. Always the same swing, in constant motion, safe and soaring.

This year, on the second day of kindergarten, I walked her and her brother to school. The Boy raced off to find his friends on the crowded playground. To my utter amazement, Little Grrl ran off, too. “Look what I can do!” she called as she ran past the play structure to the small staircase that leads directly to her kindergarten classroom. There, she climbed to the top of the wide brick railing and stationed herself at the top. Above the fray. Again. This is how she finds comfort in a new space.

I meant to bring a camera with me the next day to get a picture of it. Instead, I found myself taking those first tentative steps down the hallway of a whole new school on the other side of town. My first assignment as a special education parapro sub. Yes, I’ve gone back to school too.

Mr. Black does pick-up and drop-off now, thanks to a generous flex-time arrangement from his job. He had his first “teacher pulls you aside” moment the other day. Oh how I used to dread those, especially in the pre-IEP days when most of them thought The Boy’s Aspergian behavior was simply a discipline problem. But wouldn’t you know it, the teacher only wanted to tell Mr. Black what a great job The Boy is doing this year. Fathers have all the fun. Oh well.

I have a recurring moment every afternoon, usually when I’m waiting at the light at Stone Way, almost home. It feels like I’ve somehow stepped into another body or jumped forward in time or some other science fictiony scenario. All of a sudden, here I am coming home from my job that I get paid to do. Just like that. When I realize I’m about to see my own kids, my heart absolutely leaps. That seven-hour separation somehow makes them absolutely golden to me in that moment.

Some days they stampede to the door and nearly knock me over with reunited joy. Lately, though, it’s more likely to find only Mr. Black at his desk, finishing up the day’s work while the kids do homework, read, or draw in their rooms.

I flop down on the couch while Little Grrl brings me armloads of worksheets and drawings, regaling me with all the latest kindergarten tales. The Boy makes an appearance to let me know his stats for the day – how many lines he wrote in his journal, how many minutes he ran in P.E. class, what percentage of his homework is finished, the number and title of the Simpsons episode he wants to watch later. Sometimes he even asks me about my day. (“Did you get promoted? Did you get fired?”)

There are elements of a Happily Ever After here. This career just might be The One. Of course, there are elements of a 1980’s training montage here too. It’s not an easy job, and it’s clear that I still have a lot to learn. But my instincts are sharp, I’m learning quickly, and somehow I’m able to let the setbacks roll off my back and stay focused on the matter at hand. I flow with this work in a way that I’ve never really experienced before. And for the first time in my life, I get it. I get how a career can be more than just making a living.

Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t just do this in the first place. Those early months when I first moved to Seattle, dragging my graphic design portfolio on bus after bus to interview after interview. All those migraines, deadlines, fluorescent lighting, and micromanagement. Why did I stay in an unfulfilling corporate career all those years when I could have been doing this instead?

And then I remember. I didn’t know how. Most of what I know – most of what serves me incredibly well in the classroom – is not what I learned in school, but what I learned from the time I spent with my own children.

I learned it in their classrooms, in the parenting classes offered by their preschool, in the books upon books I read trying to figure out how to parent a child with Aspergers. I learned it from the talented and dedicated teachers, parents, and professionals who are a part of our village. I learned it from trying and failing and trying again. Don’t tell the Mommy Wars people, but it looks like being a stay-at-home mom was the best career training I could have hoped for.

And now, here we are. Not quite an ending, not quite a beginning, but we’ve definitely taken a new and irreversible turn on this path. The baby days are long gone, the stay-at-home mom years are fading fast, and there are many more years of trying and failing and trying again as this new “career” phase of my life ever so gradually takes shape. Onward.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Standing There, Stupid

This mom I know from the Offsprung days, this mom I didn’t know very well but who was a vibrant, funny, sharp-as-nails presence in our little community, this mom who disappeared for a while to battle cancer and then came back, sharp as ever, keeping in touch even after the cancer returned…she died yesterday.

Words fail. And yet, here I am grappling with them anyway. It’s either that or just stand there, stupid.

I’m usually not much of a “rage, rage against the dying of the light” kind of gal. But come the fuck on. She was in her late thirties. She leaves behind a little boy. Whatever tenuous faith I may have had that we live in a Universe that somehow knows we’re here and cares deeply about us as individuals has been rocked to the core. I can only see this as a cruel and random accident, period.

I turned 43 a few days ago. While my own health is, thankfully, only plagued by the minor little annoyances of aging, I can’t help but notice that cancer is becoming less and less of a stranger. A former coworker. A friend’s husband. A favorite writer. A neighbor we haven’t seen in a while suddenly sporting a head scarf. A dear old friend from college with whom I shared some of the most joyful, raucous, carefree days of youth.

It’s absurdly and morbidly reminiscent of when we were in our twenties and those first few friends started to get married. You go to that wedding, sit at the Gen-X kids table and indulge in the open bar while you marvel over how “old” we’re all becoming. Next thing you know, everybody’s having babies. Next thing you know…this. Suddenly the “We are SO old” thing seems a lot less funny.

Everyone makes their peace with mortality in different ways. Or not. It’s a deeply personal business. I’m not here to tell anyone how to feel. I don’t even know how I feel. In the abstract, I can manage a beginner-Buddhist-like peace with it. But when flat-out faced with it like this, it becomes an impossibly bitter thing to simply breathe in, breathe out, and accept.

How could anyone possibly make peace with leaving all this behind? All these attachments that are, in Buddhism, the cause of suffering – wanting to live to see the kids’ science fairs and high school musicals and weddings; wanting to blaze new trails for special education; wanting to finally take that trip to southern France with Mr. Black; clocks ticking and mama’s sunflowers and food and coffee.

And how can we possibly make peace with this friend of ours simply being gone? With this little boy losing his mother? Is there any peace to be made with that?

Well…I suppose there must be. I suppose the other options are even more heartbreaking and exhausting in the long run. This is the path, whether we rage against it or not. And somehow, impossible as it seems, life moves us along. A mother and a friend is gone, and I’m just standing there, stupid.

It makes me simply want to apologize.

I’m sorry, my friend. What a cruel and ridiculous mistake it was for you and your family to go through this. I wish it hadn’t happened to you, or to anyone, ever.

I’m sorry life will keep moving, gradually making us more and more familiar with the loss until it’s only a sharp little pin sticking poignantly under layers of day-to-day minutiae.

I’m sorry I didn’t do or say everything I possibly could have done or said.

I’m sorry we get to still be here when you’re not. We are no more deserving of that privilege than you. The unfairness is beyond comprehension.

I’m sorry that all I can do now is to offer deeply sincere condolences and wish you and your family all the comfort and peace in the world. I hope that somehow that can be enough.

As for the rest of my friends…well…it’s like this.

The older I get, the harder it is to hang on to the “carpe diem” idealism of my youth. You can’t just go around telling people how much you love them all the time. They think you’re nuts. Or needy. Or secretly in love with them, which makes them nervously duck into the other room when they see you coming. But at a time like this, it needs to be said.

Friends, I love you anyway, in spite of all the world weariness and Zoloft-alleviated sensibilities. I love you a lot. You keep me inspired, energized, highly amused and intrigued. You’re the reason why I can’t drag my sorry ass off Facebook. You are the wind beneath my madly typing fingers.

There’s not much we can do in the face of a tragedy like this one. But at least we can be there for each other.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

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