From Heavy Boots to Hope for my Biracial Boys

Years ago I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” set in the time of 9/11 from the perspective of a 9-year-old boy who lost his father. It was such a powerful book and one that I was glad to read, despite the tears. I have always remembered little Oskar and the way he described his intensely sad emotions as “heavy boots.” That phrase rings in my heart on many different occasions.

This week has been one of heavy boots – from the Middle East to the Ebola outbreak to the death of another African American teen and the tension that followed. I am faced with the reality of how fragile life is and how one can get comfortable expecting a “tomorrow” when there really is no guarantee of one.

There’s no tomorrow for Michael Brown. I will not pretend to know all the facts and realities of what happened in that scenario. But I will say that it cuts to my core – in sadness for parents who suddenly lost their precious son and in heightened worry in my heart….for my boys are brown. Heavy boots upon my soul.

This is one of those posts that I’m not really sure how to write. My brain still swirls around this subject. I’ve read posts from an African American women pleading with her white friends to do more. I’ve read posts from a white mother acknowledging the white privilege her children have. I sit and ponder – where am I fitting in? – a white woman raising biracial boys.

The year I adopted Super Tall Guy was the year Barack Obama became president. I’ve often thought that rather than celebrating our “First African American President,” we should be celebrating our “First Biracial President.” We should celebrate the fact that families can unite. There can be peace and harmony.

Yet often there isn’t. A discord simmers below the surface until the spark and then it blasts wide open with an ugly face. We’re shocked. Outraged. It’s too ugly and we want the lid back on. Cover it, and yet it’s not over. It’s not over until we deal with the truth in turmoil beneath.

I don’t know how to do this fully, but I’m seeking. I’m seeking ways to help my sons understand that the color of their skin will actually influence the way people look at them and respond to them. We’re just in the early stages of the boys recognizing a difference. This summer at the pool, 5-yr-old Mr. Ornery looked around and said, “Mom, there’s not too many brown skin people here.” True. And sometimes we put our arms side by side and Super Tall Guy says, “Look how white Mommy’s skin is. Why do you get freckles?”???????????????????????????????

Two years ago, Super Tall Guy learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. in kindergarten. We bounced down the staircase of the school talking about the day and all he had learned. I asked him in the course of many questions, “So, Super Tall, are you black or white?” “White,” he responded as he jumped the last two steps to the landing.

You see, though his skin is browner than mine, he is growing up in a “white world.” That’s my world and that of my family. Yet I am conscious of the fact that he is biracial – all three are despite how light or dark their skin is – and that matters. I look for diversity for the boys – in their school, in their neighborhood, in our church. Yet I know that I need to do more for deep in my heart, I worry about what they will face in this world. Heavy boots.

I need to learn more. I need to talk to others more. And I need to talk to my sons. I havet yet to say, “Son, because of your skin, people are going to judge you and make assumptions about you and treat you differently…..and they won’t do the same to Mr. Trouble because he’s white.”  Hard.

Maybe I’m hoping that one day I won’t have to say it. Maybe I’m hoping that someday it won’t make a difference to anyone. Maybe I’m hoping my boys can keep growing up in the Mommy-cocoon of protection. It sure would be nice, but I also know this world is not going to change enough in the next year or five years or even ten years to spare me the difficult talk. And it’s not going to change enough to spare my boys some very painful experiences. I ache already for them.

Yet part of that world change has to begin with me. And you. And everyone. Together.

A change in the way we look at each other, whatever our differences. A change in the way we respond based on our judgments.

So when you see me out with my kids, don’t assume the “Black Baby Daddy” is at home. Talk to me and learn about this single woman who has adopted a set of brothers.

And don’t look at my sister’s African American kid and assume the poor little guy lost his Mommy when in fact he is standing right beside the woman who loves him more than the moon. Ask and learn about The Flipper’s challenging beginning and how far he’s come and his hopes for the future. He is amazing. My sister is amazing.

Please….don’t assume. Don’t judge. Begin the conversation. Open up. Be real. Invite others into your home and into your life. Share the fears, the heartaches, the pain. See beyond the surface and honor the person within. Lift each other up. Love. For we all need to be about the business of changing the world. There’s no sitting around hoping.

I don’t have all the answers, but it matters to me.

Lift the heavy boots.

Then he bled….

Every few months I settle into my bed a little before exhausted-brain time and write a short “letter” to the boys in a journal for them. I know that I’m not going to remember everything that they do. I know that I will forget so many details of their lives and will regret that. So I try to chronicle some of the “momentous” moments. (Naturally, boy number three keeps getting the short end of the straw….same way that there are fewer professional photos of him!  Why are some clichés so real?!).

Last night I picked up the pen to tell Mr. Ornery how exciting it is that he finished his “season” at the day care center. He has been there almost every single week of his life since the age of three months. There were times that he waved good-bye to me, times that he needed just one more kiss, times that he needed to run and jump into my arms, and times that I thrust him into Miss Kathy’s arms, knowing that her embrace would soothe him and he’d soon be on with his day. But there were many days that I walked out of the door with tears in my eyes, pausing before I could drive on. Being a working mom with my precious children with someone else every day was not something I had dreamed of. And yet, I also knew that they were well-loved, well-cared for and that they were growing and learning and thriving. And so….I would whisper comforting words to other mothers as they walked out with glistening eyes as well.

Last night I also wanted to write to Super Tall Guy to tell him in his own private journal (rather than the Open Letter) about his experience over the past two weeks. Yet as I chronicled the events and glowed about his bravery and how much I had been worried about him, I realized that I just couldn’t put the emotions into words. For almost two weeks, I have been wound so tense. I have lived with a baseline level of worry and stress and anxiety about my boy’s recovery.

How could I describe the panicked look upon his face when he bolted upright in bed at 9:02 pm last Monday? How could I tell him my fear when streaks of blood stained the tissues that he spit into? The shake of his head when I told him we were going to the hospital? The wide-eyed gazes of his younger brothers who had aroused with the sudden change in energy level in the room? The concern in my heart as I chatted with his ENT doctor during my almost red-light-running rush to the hospital? The determination in my voice as I announced to the Emergency Room attendant that he was bleeding after his T&A and we needed to go straight back?

The panic in my stomach as I watched him spit out clots of blood and saliva? The fear as they wheeled him into the operating room even though the on-call attending physician hadn’t made it to the building yet? The beat of my steps pacing an empty surgical waiting room at 11:15 at night? The silence in my response to the cleaning staff’s amicable question, “How are you?” (I had no answer….I had no idea how I was….).

The tears that eventually escaped in staccato bursts as I tried to pull myself together. The texts sent into the air to reach out to family and friends for prayers. Sister and mother who stayed awake throughout the night for electronic updates. The kind response from a friend over an hour away willing to come to the hospital (“You shouldn’t be alone now.”)  The warmth of the hug from a nearby friend who did jump in her car and sat with me for a bit….catching up on family happenings as if we had just met up for a cup of coffee.  Plain joy and gratefulness to once again look down at my son, my boy, my angelpost bleed….sleeping once again in the recovery room.

All of that and more, I just couldn’t write for him. Not last night. Not in his journal.

But maybe….someday…..he might read the writings of his mother who sends out her heart to friends and family across the void. Because it is through connecting that we are real and through loving each other that we carry on.

For now, I hug him every moment I can and whisper “I love you” so much more than I did.

And I rejoice in the cheeseburger that broke his 11 day fast and the smile that skirts his face as he jumps on his bike once more. Every day stronger. Every day more alive.

Every day more lovely and surrounded in love.

 

An Open Letter to my 8-year-old on his 6th day after tonsil surgery

Dear Super Tall Guy,

I’m actually not surprised by your anger this morning. I’m not surprised that you kicked out at me with your 80 pound body (now 7 pounds lighter than it was a week ago). I completely understand when you then curled into my lap and tearfully whispered in my ear, “Why did you let them take my tonsils out?” I felt your pain, the warmth of the tears, the wet of the drool.

You had no idea it would be like this. You had no idea how much pain there would be….that you wouldn’t be able to swallow anything for days….not even your own saliva. You were not fully informed. Oh, just a little day at the hospital while you sleep and then all TV-watching, ice-cream-eating bliss for a couple days is what you were told. You did not sign up for all of this.surgery

You should be angry in the middle of the night when you feel like you are going to choke. You should be angry that your brothers are running around having fun and you don’t have the strength to get up off the couch. You should be mad that even the offer of unrestricted ice-cream, popsicles, jello, or any kind of liquid including soda has no appeal to you at all. It stinks.

I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was going to be like this either. I watched the video sent out by the hospital. I read all the handouts given. “Keep the pain medications going around the clock for the first couple of days.”  “Offer cold liquids and transition to a soft diet as tolerated.” “Head to the emergency room if there’s any bleeding.” It seemed straightforward.  I had no idea the pain would be so bad overnight that you would stop swallowing completely. I had no idea we’d be back in the emergency room two days later for some IV fluids as I watched your lips and tears dry up and you couldn’t even take the pain medications for over 24 hours. I didn’t know you would have absolutely no food of any kind for six days.  Your moaning in the middle of the night breaks my heart. The tears well when you turn to me at 1:00 am and say, “Mommy, say a prayer for me please.”  I see your hurt.

I’m so sorry for yelling at you when you combined apple juice, koolaid, and the melted freezer pop liquid and then spilled it all over the table and floor. I’m sorry for snapping at you when you kicked out at a passing brother who brushed your foot. I’m sorry for being impatient and demanding that you just swallow!! You’re right….I “don’t know how it feels.” I don’t know how much it hurts. I don’t know how it feels to think that you’re constantly about to choke and die. I don’t know what drives the panicked look in your face in the middle of the night.

But I do know that we needed to do this to get you sleeping better and healthier in the long run. I do know that two weeks may seem like forever in your mind, but they are actually such as short window in your wonderful life as it plays out.

And I do know that I love you. I do know that I’m incredibly proud of you for hanging in there. I do know that I’m amazed by your brave face as the nurse tries to get an IV into small dehydrated veins. I do know that you have shown such amazing strength and courage over this past week. You have surprised me. You are no longer my little baby….you are becoming my big man.

But thankfully you still fit in my lap….because I still need to hold you.

I still need to kiss you.

And say, “I’m sorry.”

I love you, my big guy.

Mommy

Same Day Surgery

Scanning the surgical waiting room, I know that every parent here has just done the same heart-wrenching thing I did….turned and walked away from one of the most precious things in their life….their child strapped to a narrow Operating Room bed.

I had my hand on his arm as his eyes closed from the “magic air” flowing through the mask on his face. “Sometimes they do just drift off so quietly like that,” the anesthesiologist offers. “Now kiss his hand good-bye.”  “No wait!” I wanted to scream ….from that tiny voice in the back of your heart that always wants to scream and warn “this may be the very last time you see your child. This may be the image forever burned into your soul. This could be it. Cherish the moment.” But the moment is fast. When you need just a few more seconds, they usher you out of the cold, efficient, sterile room as the surgeon, nurses and techs stand poised ready to spring into action – willing you to leave their domain.

The tech makes pleasant conversation as you join her to “follow the green squares on the floor” that lead to the waiting room. Her rattling tries to push your fears aside. You walk alongside, numb to her words. You check in with the waiting room attendant but can’t remember her instructions; you’re too busy memorizing your child’s “number” so you can jump up every few minutes to check the “board.” It doesn’t change. “11788: OR in.” You wait. “11788: OR in.” Wait.

A couple sits side by side, absorbed in their respective iPads. A pinkified two-year old skips circles around the man playing solitaire and another couple hiding in their magazines. Parents pop up and down to check the board. Phone calls beckon families back to the recovery rooms. Surgeons gather families to talk in the “consult” rooms. A constant hum, constant motion, constant and welcome distracting dance of people’s lives. I put my book down. I can’t read anyway. I wait.

On this day, there’s no greater joy than in seeing your baby’s face again – even if he is 4-foot-7 and 87 pounds. He’s still my baby. But the alligator tears that spill from his eyes at the sight of me pierce my heart. His bravado, his cool, his composure melts at my touch, at the warmth of my arms around him, and the gentle kiss. This is when the tongue really hurts and the tears flow. I search briefly for a tissue, but wipe the wetness away with his blanket. I ache to soothe him, but my words and touch are of little comfort. Within minutes, another bit of medication through the IV site sends him back into sleep. My baby snores. I stroke his face.

Knowing that he’s safe again, I sit back and cuddle into the warmed blanket offered by the gentle nurse. I pause to be thankful that my touches of the “health care system” have all fallen within “the normal kid stuff” – the tonsils, the stitches, the corneal abrasion, rashes, sprains. I can cope with this normal. Yet my heart aches for the families who sit in the waiting room for the ninth or tenth time for their child. For the parents who never hear the surgeons say, “It was all routine. No problems. He’ll be just fine.” For the ones who walk away from their “sleeping” child on that cold table and never hold them again.

There are deep dark fears in loving and parenting. There are deep dark moments that remind us to cherish each breath and each smile and even each time the boys hit each other. As my heart swirls and thunders and catches itself today, I look upon my baby and lift up a prayer for him….and for all the other families.

Let the images be burned into my soul forever.

I shall cherish the love.

Wasn’t expecting to be so verklempt this weekend

Every few weeks, the moment that Super Tall Guy stumbles into my room and climbs into my bed coincides with me getting into bed myself. I would sit and read and spend a few minutes counting the length of the pauses in his breathing. It never reached my doctor definition of “scary”….but the fact that he would just stop breathing never sat right with me.

So at the end of June, we spent the night at the sleep center with him hooked up to a tangle of wires and enough “goo” in his hair to send us for a buzz haircut the week after.  He was a good sport about it and proclaimed it as “fun.” I was exhausted for days after.

Super Tall Guy is a mouth-breather. He drooled until he was 4 and a half (who does that?). And, he has mild to moderate Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

And, he’s scheduled to have his tonsils out in two days.

And so – I’m an emotional wreck. Because I’m a mom and I’m worried. Because I’m a doctor and I can tell you all the things that can and do go wrong. Because I’m a human and I’m good at getting stressed about the new and the foreign.

So I came into the weekend with this nagging in the back of my heart. After two nights of little sleep in preparation for a community yard sale, I spent ten hours yesterday encouraging deal-finders to spend more for the “kids at the crisis nursery.” Just as the sale was wrapping up, I took Super Tall Guy down to the church that had hosted his summer day camp. He was getting ready for his very first night away from me. He didn’t seem concerned at all. Huh. Not like his mom

I came back to the church for the 6 o’clock service to see Super Tall Guy sing and sign four songs at the start of the service….and I fell apart. Tears streamed down my face. They sang

“Savior, He can move the mountains

My God is mighty to save; He is mighty to save”

I was a wreck.

I wiped the tears. There in the front row was my little boy – the one that God had saved and was saving. The one that was born to a woman caught in the cycle of homelessness, prostitution and drugs. The one that was born so tiny and is growing so big. God saved him from the life that he was born into and moved him to a new life.

Anyone who knows Super Tall Guy knows this was a momentous weekend. He was chosen to be part of the kids’ choir and he accepted. He was invited to spend the night at the church and he did (AND he stayed dry ALL night!!). He sang and signed in front of 5 different groups of worshippers and he hates to be in front of people!!  He sat almost perfectly still (except for a bit of fiddling and nose booger-fishing) during five sessions of communion before singing again and begging me each time to “save me” some grape juice. He pulled it all together and kept it all together.

And then he fell asleep in the car….right after I asked him if I could drive past Gammie’s house and just keep driving for a bit so that he could sleep. He nodded.

He was emotionally and physically tired.

As was I.

I watched my baby boy grow up a little this weekend. I watched him do things I never thought he ever would this weekend.

It’s been a long journey.
There have been some pretty high mountains
And some pretty low valleys.

 

There have been battles
And rules drawn
And struggles
That have challenged us and caused heartaches and pain.

 

And yet, there are these huge moments of joy
There are these glimpses of grace
There are reasons for great pride

 

Those moments hold me
They remind me
They assure me that the long hours
And the physical and the emotional weariness of parenting

 

It’s all worth it
In the moments.

 

And so I wept in thankfulness that he was saved and that he came to me

And I wept in nervousness about this week and what the surgery holds.

And I wept in joy.

 

 

 

 

 

A New Birth Certificate

In the cool of these July evenings, it has been surprisingly delightful to sit on the back steps and “supervise” the chaos in the postage-stamp backyard (how did it ever get that description, I wonder? Merriam-Webster online says that phrase was first used in 1938 to describe small sizes – I think mostly yards! “You are quite welcome” for that bit of trivial).  Mr. Ornery kicks a soccer ball repetitively and with enough inaccuracy that I wonder which pane of glass he’ll break next. The Little Guy plows his tricycle passed plastic dump trucks, over swim flippers and across my toes. My mom arrives with Mr. Trouble and the two older boys after picking them up from summer day camp.

Super Tall Guy thrusts a laminated 8 x 10 piece of paper onto my lap and exclaims, “There…..now I’m going to Heaven for sure.” I look down at his “New Birth Certificate” and smile. This is his third birth certificate – an original one at birth, a new one when I adopted him and now this.

new birth

So wonderful….and yet….and yet my heart pauses just a sec. What is this I’m feeling?  Somehow I am sad. For a minute, I feel cheated out of a “moment” with my son – the moment when he commits his life to God.  Oh yes, I am happy. Oh yes, I know that this is what I want for him. But somewhere in that really weird Mommy heart, I guess I wanted to be there.

Of course, this oddness is soon followed by a question of does he really know what he just did? Does this really mean he has made the commitment….or was it something that “everyone” was doing at camp and he joined in? Has he been thinking about it for awhile and then definitely decided? Or does he just want to “secure” his way to Heaven in a very 8 year old boy way? Because he’s pretty sure he doesn’t like going to church and doesn’t care to attend a Christian school anymore :).

Does it matter what I really think?  For the truth is – God knows. To me, though, it’s another one of those moments as a parent where you have to relinquish that desire to “know” and to have “control” over the child’s life. It’s that time where I have to say, God, you know what’s in his heart. You created him and you know him deeper and better than I. And sometimes that’s hard for me – to think that someone knows my boy more than I do.

So, I rejoice.
I rejoice and I pray for Super Tall Guy
and I thank God for him
and for bringing him into my life
and for giving me the chance to love him and parent him despite all my flaws and imperfections
and for giving him new birth.

 

And I think I now need a “New Parenting Stage Certificate”

mom cert

I have so many parenting certificates to earn – but this, this is one of the Prize ones!!

 

 

 

Roll of the moody dice

It’s not really quite possible to describe the “typical” amount of chaos that just hangs in the air at our house. I suppose that if you are neighbors, you probably hear it quite regularly. I suppose that if you really wanted to experience it, you’d offer to babysit all five boys by yourself for the day for free (haven’t found that person yet). Or if you’re brave enough, you would stop by for a couple hours….get a hefty dose….and tell yourself, “Wow, I am so lucky to live alone/only have one kid/only have two kids/(fill in the blank!)”

We’re not really loud and chaotic all the time, though. Generally, after 9:00 pm, you could actually give us a call and maybe hear just one little squeaky voice in the background. You could also stop by around midnight when I’m up working in the office….and it’s pretty quiet right now. Super Tall Guy will come stumbling down the steps any minute to be tucked in again and The Little Guy is slated to need someone to “cover me” around 3:00 am and again at 4:30 and then likely at 5:42….or he could be up for good at that time.

But in these few, entirely delectable quiet moments of the night (when I’m energized by Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz…mixed with Chocolate Therapy delight….a combination I just discovered yesterday and is guaranteed to add a few pounds to my slowed-metabolism midriff), in these ephemeral glimpses of peace….

Hmmm….seems like I should be able to think of something profound to write about. Huh.

Ah, yes – brain reconnecting now…

The thing about these quiet moments is that they absolutely never happen when the boys’ eyes are open. Even if you put on the most engrossing movie possible, you’ll only get 138 seconds of stillness before The Little Guy loses attention and moves on to beeping the walkie-talkie followed by the predictable, responsive barks of “Quit that!!” “Be quiet!” “I can’t hear!” “MOOOOOOM!!!”

The other day I thought about this constant flurry of activity and how the escalations and dips really vary depending on so many things and a great deal on the personalities and quirks and behaviors and current moods of each boy. (Oh….it’s 11:21 pm…and there’s The Little Guy whispering, “Mommy…I want you to cover me.”  Must go tuck….Will be back….)

The days are a game of chance….a roll of the dice. Five dice constantly being shaken. If the mood is good (a number 1 or 2), those 1-3 boys escape up to the toy room, drag out the bins of train tracks and set up an elaborate system in the tiny hallway at the top of the stairs and demand that no one remove it or trip over it trying to go downstairs.

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If a 5 or a 6 is thrown, the sour angry pesky rage kicks back at a brother who accidentally brushed passed. The seething narrow eyes find their prey and deviously trip the happy 1 or 2 bouncing down the stairs seeking someone to admire the train track at the top.

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It’s almost impossible to predict from one moment to the next. How will these dice get along? When will the next shake-and-roll jostle the current interaction patterns? How much can we the parents control this chaos?

 

A couple weeks ago, I took my boys to a friend’s house for the Fourth of July. We stayed up for the community fireworks and the “family” fireworks party at the grandmother’s house afterwards. We played hard the next morning and returned to Pittsburgh happy, yet exhausted (moods teetering, dice weighted heavily).  My sister took her boys to spend the night at another friend’s house and they got home a few hours before us. The moment we walked in, the battle lines were drawn. The brothers chose family sides. A constant exchange of verbal and physical attacks ensued followed by an occasional retreat and regroup. It didn’t take long before adult-intervention was clearly needed to separate the spinning dice.

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(By the way, we’re not even going to add the variable here of our new little completely unpredictable, nonverbal canine pal….who can get all the dice wound up and running squealing around the indoor Victorian home track!)

So….my job as a parent is to monitor the current playing field. Re-shake when necessary. Remove a couple dice if needed. Tip an angry 5 to a more content 3 range.

And when all else fails…..cheat.

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Ahhh…..peace…..