Tuesday, October 16, 2012

That Little Old Lady in the Wheelchair Can't Possibly be My Mother

My parents are old.  I always thought that, but it wasn’t always true.  My mother was 23 when she had me… 23!  That is so young! And I was her third child. ( I have a son who is 23, and I can’t possibly imagine him as married with 3 kids.)   When I got to be about 12 or 13 and began thinking about life, the universe and everything, my mother was 35 years old - old being the operative word to my adolescent mind.  I can remember discussing with friends how old we would be in the year 2000.  Our magic number was 44.  Forty Four!  Yikes, but that seemed ancient to us.   I have a 13 year old daughter.  And I’m 56.  Fifty six.  Oh, the picture of me that must be running around in her teenage brain.  I don’t even want to know.

My mother will be 79 next month.  Now she really is old.  It’s not just a distorted teen image.  She’s old.  She’s frail.  She’s been falling.  She can’t remember things.   She needs help in many ordinary aspects of life.  For the last few weeks she’s been in a care center trying to get strong enough to go back home.  I’m not sure she will be able to… at least not in the way she thinks.  She will never be able to live on her own again without someone nearby to help her manage life’s daily tasks.

This is a hard thing to watch.  When I come to visit and see the small, frail lady in the wheelchair, I wonder where my mother went.  This person who can’t seem to hold onto a thought from one minute to the next can’t possibly be the women who raised me.

My mother wasn’t perfect… far from it.   She was troubled.  She had an addictive personality that found comfort in alcohol and prescription drugs.  When I was 10 she had what was politely called back in the late 60’s as a “nervous breakdown.”  She spent that summer in a state hospital.  There was tension in our house and my parents had some all-out screaming fights.  When I was 12 she fell at work and hurt her back, resulting in several surgeries and a downhill slide in her overall health that never seemed to completely resolve.

As a teenager, I resented her for what I thought of as weaknesses.  She could have chosen not to drink, or smoke or take pills or scream at us or my dad till I was sick to my stomach.  I resented having to take care of my mother and run the house for my father and siblings when I wasn’t much past childhood myself.  I resented being shoved into adult cares and concerns far too soon.  There was a lot of anger about my upbringing and most of it was directed at this woman.

It’s a hard thing to realize that your parents are people, with flaws and faults.  As an adult, and a parent myself, I can look back and cut my mom some slack.  Not completely.  There’s still a part of me that mourns for my lost childhood and what I wish could have been.  But I don’t carry all that anger around anymore.  It’s too exhausting.  And it’s a waste.  My mother doesn’t remember.  What would be the point of digging it all up.  And besides, there were good things too.  I know my mother took care of me when I was little.  She cooked and cleaned and tended 5 children without much help from my dad, since in that era manly men didn’t do much around the house.

So my life at home wasn’t perfect.  But that’s in the past.  For now I’m dealing with a little old lady who loves me and can only remember the good things.  And she needs me.  How can I be angry with her?  She’s just a little old lady in a wheelchair.  She can’t possibly be my mother.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Graduation Thoughts

My son Ian graduated yesterday from Chiawana High School in Pasco, WA.  It was a hot morning, and the sun glared down on the crowds of parents, grandparents and other family and friends as we sat outside in the football stadium waiting for our children to march in, wearing cap, gown and grin.  The same scenario was being played out all over the Tri Cities this weekend, and all over the country during the last few weeks and in the next few weeks to come.  From the smallest of kindergarten graduates, to the loftiest of college commencements, the ceremonies were all pretty much the same.  People marking a passing from one part of their life completed, and looking forward to the unknown future.  A lot of pomp and circumstance and speeches about changing the world.  It's pretty cool if your kid's head is under one of those mortar boards.  It can bring tears to your eyes.  Tears of joy certainly, but also tears for the little one you raised who isn't very little anymore.  In my case, or rather, in Ian's case, my tears were for both of these things, but also for other emotions.... a little regret, and a lot of uncertainty.

Ian is twenty one years old.  A little over the normal age of a high school graduate, but then Ian isn't your average high school grad.  Ian is autistic.  Not the quirky, asocial, Aspberger-y condition you see in TV characters like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory (although I love Sheldon), who manage to live with and work with their condition.  Ian is autistic, plain and simple.  There's no sugar coating on his diagnosis.  He can speak when he wants to ask for something, or when he reads, but that language doesn't cross into the realm of conversation.  He'll never sit down and ask how your day went.  (I guess Sheldon doesn't do that either.)  But he can ask for crackers or ice cream or to go outside, or to have somebody fix his computer. This is much more language than we ever expected when we were told our not quite 2 year old, who had lost his little bit of language and was only jibber-jabbering while he flapped his hands, was autistic.

This was in 1993.  Autism had yet to become the huge diagnostic umbrella, almost trendy thing is is now.  I guess we were in the vanguard, though we didn't know it.  At the time it felt like a death sentence.  It wasn't.  Though it is a life sentence.  Not sure if I appreciated the difference back then.  Even now, when I see people talk about the leaps and bounds their kids with autism have made with this therapy or that treatment, I get a little cranky and wonder how autistic their child really was. I resent the widening of that umbrella that now included kids into a club that I hardly recognize anymore.  I see so many people spotlighted who are considered autistic and are so higher functioning than my son I wonder how it can even be the same disorder.  My kid will never take those huge leaps.  He had to be satisfied with baby steps.

Graduation is a time to look ahead, but also a time to mark milestones.  Ian's milestones may not seem like such to most people.  In fact the only people who can even begin to appreciate them are our family and the friends who were an integral part of his growing up and helped him in more way than I can express.  But as I heard the familiar music playing and found Ian in the crowd of caps and gown, walking with his aid and the rest of the graduates, my mind flashed back to many things.

I see a little face with big eyes and a gap-toothed grin that could reach ear to ear, but could also go on a crying jag that could last for hours.  I see diapers til he was 6 years old, but also the sudden joy of underwear.  I see Disney movie after Disney movie and jigsaw puzzles put together upside down, without the picture showing.  I see locks on my windows to keep him from getting out of the house, but I see the absolute joy he had in running, swinging, swimming.  I see temper tantrums, kicking and screaming, but I also see the happy boy who lives in my house today.  I see doctors I wanted to smack and insurance companies whose rich execs will probably spend some time in hell for not paying for treatments of things they couldn't "cure."  But I see loving, patient teachers and aids who worked for far less money than they deserved to get my son to behave, to read, to play with others, to laugh and be happy.

So now, as Ian graduates and has reached the point in his life where public school no longer has any obligation to educate him, I'm left wondering "what now?"  In this day of financial uncertainty, when government can no longer just pay for anything and everything, there is no money to continue my son's training.  I don't know what will come next for Ian.  But then does any parent really know what comes next for their child?  I suppose, in that regard, I'm not much different than the rest of the parents who sat and sizzled in the sun yesterday morning.  We were proud, we were sad, we were a little afraid.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

To be... or not to be.... an English Major - or Why I Hate the Way We Teach English
I chose to major in English at BYU.  There were many times I regretted it - the major, not the college.  I'm not even sure now why I did, except I was young, had non-college type parents, no real counselor at high school to guide me, I was afraid to try anything that required math or chemistry ( I guess that left medical school out.).  So I fell back on what I loved the most.  Reading.

I love to read, although, unlike Scout Finch, I wasn't born reading.  My parents tell how I came home from the first day of first grade indignant that they hadn't taught me to read.  (that was back in the "old days" when kindergarten was for playing with blocks, painting on easels, dressing up, bringing milk money to school tied up in a handkerchief, eating graham crackers and taking naps.  There's a whole 'nother blog in me about state standards and placement tests for kindergarten.  Grrrr)

But from "My Little Red Storybook" I took off on my own.   The early years I probably only read what I was given at school.  My memories are dim.  They get very clear by the time I was about 9.

We'd moved from Orange, California (in 1965 it was a growing, well off, thriving, Republican enclave, still filled with orange groves and new housing tracts) to Bloomington, an unincorporated part of San Bernardino County where people were mostly blue collar, they owned horses that weren't exactly thoroughbreds, my best friend lived on a chicken ranch, we rode our bikes on trails  through dusty fields and grape vineyards, and there wasn't a whole lot of money.

As a child, I didn't know the word dysfunctional.  (well, I probably knew what it meant, just not that it applied to my family)  But I knew my parents didn't get along most of the time.  There was tension and fighting and lots of other crap.  My older brother and sister handled things in their own way.  My sister found friends and wasn't home a lot.  My brother found trouble... smoking and fighting and other things I won't go into.  Being only 9 or ten, I didn't have a lot of options.  So I turned to books.

Books were wonderful.  Books were my escape.  When home got too tense, I could solve a mystery with Nancy Drew, or Trixie Beldon, escape to the Mushroom Planet with Mr. Bass, learn about life and love with Meg and Charles Wallace and Mrs. Whatsit in "A Wrinkle in Time." Indulge my love of horses with Black Beauty and cry when Ginger dies.  As I got older, the books grew with me.  I discovered Dickens, and Conan Doyle.  (Oh, thank you, thank you for Sherlock.)  And I found Harper Lee.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" has been in the media quite a bit since last year was it's 50th anniversary.  I read it when I was about 12 or 13.  On my own.  I don't even remember where I found it.  Maybe my sister or brother had to read it in school and brought it home. I'm not sure.  I do remember knowing it was a little "adult" for a kid my age.  I kind of knew what rape was.  Probably about as much as Jem knew when he tried to explain it to Scout.  But that didn't stop me from reveling in the book.  Atticus, Jem, Scout, Dill, Tom Robinson, Mr. Ewell, and Boo Radley - they were all real people to me.  Not in the sense that I didn't know truth from fiction.  I knew they were fictional.  But they were real in the way that counts.  I felt I knew them all and could tell you everything about them.  Just from the marvelous words Harper Lee had put down on the page.

I have re-read that book at least once a year from them on.  (Anyone who can't figure out why you'd want to re-read a book, I'm sorry, you won't understand any of this blog.)  It is my all time favorite, I wish I could write like that book.  Which made it sad that my kids didn't feel the same way.

I have 4 kids - 2 of whom have had this book as an assignment in high school English.  They read it, they liked it, and that was that.  Of course, I made them watch the movie with me to try and get them into it more, but as much as I love the movie, and Gregory Peck is a wonderful Atticus, it's just not the same as the novel.

I had a talk once with my youngest son, Andrew, about it.  He told me how they'd analyzed the book to death.  How they'd beaten all the enjoyment out of it.  He wondered why they couldn't just read the book for what it was.  A great read.

That got me to thinking.  Nearly all the books I've really enjoyed have been books I've found on my own or were recommended by someone.  Not an English assignment.  Not something someone made me read for a grade.  Which is probably why most of the stuff I had to read in college was painful.  And I wonder why we think we still need to read everything that was ever written.  What is some of that stuff is really just crap?  But because it's always been studied in English classes, we still have to study it.

I remember being in a class early in my college career and the teacher asked everyone what their favorite book was.  One kid next to me raised his hand and said Anna Karenina.  Even being a wide eyed freshman in awe of college didn't keep me from rolling my eyes.  Tolstoy?  Really?  And by favorite, does that mean you've read it more than once?  Good grief.  I suddenly realized I was probably in the wrong major.  Oops.  Too late now.  I didn't know till years later I could have (and should have) changed majors.

After 4 painful years of studying, with only a couple of classes I really enjoyed, I graduated with a BA in English.  I also had a teaching certificate.  But I have never taught school.  Maybe I should have.  From the vantage of my fifties, I look back now on the decision I made in my early twenties and wonder.  Could I have made a difference in the way books are studied in public school?  Or at least in one school?  Probably not.  Bucking traditions in public education is not easy, and not for the faint hearted.  But hopefully there are some schools out there where kids are allowed to read books just to read them.  To get out of them what they will, whether it's the "right" answer or not.  We say we teach our kids to think and then we tell them they're wrong if their perspective on a classic novel isn't what the state curriculum says it should be.

For once can't a class study "To Kill a Mockingbird" and just enjoy reading about the people of Maycomb?  Or just talking about them?  Who decided that everything ever written had to symbolize something else?  I think they ought to be fired.

So there.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

So here's the gang. This was taken in our friends' back yard, near their pond.