Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tupperware and Tree Branches.

Last year for Christmas, Mr.A and I surprised Miss J with a pet of her very own. During the weeks before Christmas I had purchased the necessary items to house and feed this little creature. On the morning of Christmas Eve, I picked up the small, buff colored teddy bear hamster I had put on hold the week before.

We have a family dinner at our house on Christmas Eve and we traditionally let the kids open a gift or two after dessert. Miss J entered the living room and was greeted by a large, plastic tote. I motioned to it and invited her to open her gift. I could see she was confused and had no idea what might be inside the large, unwrapped box. She lifted the lid and her gaze was met by two black eyes and a sweet fluffy face peering back at her. She squealed with delight and scooped up the small ball.

He was named Chester. Most mornings and every night before bed, Miss J would hand Chester to me so that I may say hello or good night to him. Chester enjoyed the many treats Miss J would give him, especially walnuts and apricots. (For which I would frequently scold Miss J and tell her to stop feeding Chester the ingredients to my morning oatmeal.) She'd bring him outdoors in the summer sun and created obstacle courses from cardboard boxes for him to navigate. Somehow, Miss J even convinced her teacher to allow her to bring Chester to the school to meet the class. It was amazing how happy a furry little rodent made Miss J.

And then, it happened.

I had sent Miss J to clean her room and reminded her to also clean Chester's cage. She screamed.

She flew into the living room where I was folding laundry. Her voice, filled with anguish. "He's dead! Chester is dead, mom!"

She fell into my lap and curled herself into a ball and sobbed. Her hair stuck to her wet cheeks, her face red, her small back heaving with each sob.

"Why mom? Why did Chester die?"

I had no answer for her.

She left the room to be alone. I found her by the cage, gently stroking the fur of her dead friend. Big tears spilled over her eyes and dripped off her chin and cheeks, wetting Chester's fur.

After she'd had some time with him, we had to decide what we would do with the body. Miss J insisted on a proper burial, but this is January in the midwest and the ground is frozen solid. (Not to mention the ice-storm that was taking place during this time of mourning.)

Ever so carefully, Chester was wrapped in Bounty paper towels and sealed him in a plastic bag. Miss J took the body outside and we walked to behind the shed at the edge of our yard. Miss J, fearing that Chester's remains would be eaten by animals, hung the bag in a tree. (My neighbors can clearly see this bag from their house and I do wander what they must be thinking.)

I stood in the freezing rain with my daughter, holding a makeshift funeral as she grieved the loss of her beloved pet. I had done the same myself at her age. I was about Miss J's age when my first hamster, Japser, went to the big wheel in the sky. I remember feeling he needed a special send-off so I laid him in a blue jewelry box I had just received that Christmas as a gift from my aunt. It had a crank in the back the you could wind up and a tiny ballerina would twirl around when you opened the lid. It played the music from The Nutcracker. I laid my hamster in the pale blue satin lining and covered him with squares of toilet paper and stored him in the chicken coop (it was winter) until the spring. My dear friend J officiated.

Other deceased pets were laid to rest in Tupperware, stolen from my mother's cupboard and lined with cotton balls and buried in shallow graves.

I feel for my girl and I ache to see her hurting. I watched her gaze at the tree branch from which Chester hung and I imagined Miss J in the future, a mother herself, doing the same with her own child. I imagine her offering comfort to her own child saying, "You know, your grammy used to bury her pets in Tupperware and I tied mine to tree branches."

We spoke a few words about Chester and shared some memories and together we headed back into the hourse.

Friday, January 25, 2013


M is eight years old. His August birthday makes him one of the youngest, if not the youngest, child in his third grade class. His IEP dictates that his day will be divided between this typical third grade class and his special education "Functional Academics" room.

Every Monday, I pull a stack of papers from M's backpack. The stack, surprisingly and wonderfully thick, is his homework to be completed during the week and turned in on Friday. The stack includes short stories with comprehension questions, vertical addition sheets, worksheets to practice time and money and handwriting exercises. Each afternoon, I sit with M at the kitchen table as he works through the stack. It is a cozy spot, tucked into a small nook of our kitchen and facing two windows that overlook our front yard. I will usually set out a cup of tea for me and crackers for M to snack on as we work. I guide him as needed and help him stay on task, but M's ability to do these works independently is increasing. I am fortunate to have a son who loves school, loves to learn and happens to be surprisingly motivated to do his work.

M and I sit together as he adds coins and tells time to the hour and half hour. He reads sentences to me and I help him with the words he unfamiliar with. I am well aware that his third grade peers are perfecting multiplication tables are devouring Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.

But take a good look at me....see beyond what you think a mother of a child with special needs might look like, and you will never see a prouder, more appreciate mother.

You see, once upon a time, not so long ago...we were told that none of this would be possible. We were cautioned that perhaps we should lower our expectations for our son. All too often conversations about M always seemed to include words like 'won't' and 'never'. Harsh words that fall hard onto a devastated parent's ears.

These lessons, while never easy, were essential. This adventure, which at times has admittedly scared the hell out of me, has made me a better mother. Today I am a mother who is wiser and more confident and I am grateful to sit with my boy at our kitchen table on a snowy afternoon watching him do what we were once told was impossible.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


I tucked a ten dollar bill into M's wallet. It's the velcro kind, red and blue with an airplane on the front. I bought it for him years ago hoping that someday he might have a need for it.

Once per month, M and the other children in his special education class have a "community outing." Sometimes they go to the grocery store with a shopping list and pick up supplies for a cooking project, other times they might visit a local eatery for lunch. On these days I make sure to tuck his wallet into the zippered pouch of his backpack.

Today M and his classmates would be going to a diner. The purpose behind outings such as these was to learn the life stills they would need outside the classroom. The students will learn how to behave in the public restaurant setting, how to order off the menu, how to pay a bill.

I readied M for his outing. I always make sure M looks nice, but I take extra care on his community outing days. I dressed M in his dark wash jeans, his new grey striped shirt and put on his dressier brown shoes over his usual gym shoes. I gave him a spritz of his cologne and made sure his hair was brushed and gelled just the way he likes it.

I already know what he will order: a cheeseburger and fries, both smothered in ketchup. And to drink, lemonade. Possibly a milkshake.

Miss J came into the kitchen to grab her lunchbox before heading out the door to catch her bus. She noticed just one lunch box was packed and ready on the counter and asked, "Is he going out to lunch AGAIN?" She peered at the contents of her lunchbox and grimaced at her peanut butter sandwich and sighed heavily. "It is SO unfair." She said a heavy goodbye and trudged out the door.

As the door closed behind her, I responded to the empty room.

Yes, my girl, you are right. It certainly is unfair.

Unfair that only one of my children will spend a day in school, their mind challenged with information that will prepare her for college and life beyond.

Unfair that the other is being taught a life skill of how to order a cheeseburger and count change.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Snow Day!

During Winter Break, we got a decent amount of snow in our area.  Miss J asked if we could got sledding at a hill nearby.  Mr. A and I tossed sleds into the back of the truck as Miss J and M bundled up.  Sledding (well, not so much the sledding part, but climbing back up the hill) is a physically demanding task which would be a challenge for M.  I let Miss J know that our time on the hill would probably be brief.  My hope for M was three runs down the hill.  I figured that was about the amount he'd be able to handle, then he and I would head back to the truck to warm up while Mr.A and Miss J continued sledding.  I was so certain it would be a quick trip that I attempted to temper her likely disappointment with promises of hot chocolate with extra marshmallow when we returned.

We arrived at the hill and I was happy to see that M was excited to go sledding.   He'd been once before, but it proved to be too difficult and tiring a task for him.  Exhausted, he fell into the snow and refused to stand back up.  Our time on the hill that day was under five minutes.  

As M and I walked through the ice and snow, Miss J was already at the top of the hill and on her sled. Eager to follow his sister, M quickened his pace to meet her at the top of the hill.  I positioned the sled and helped him in.  Together we zipped down the hill.  As we slowed in the fresh and untouched snow at the bottom, M announced, "Again!" and made his way back up the hill.

M rode down the hill with Mr. A and with Miss J and again with me. He rode by himself and held on to the sled's rope and pulled it back up the hill all by himself.

One of the times I was riding with him and he called to me, "Don't hit the tree, Mama!"  He gave a loud belly laugh we we did.  Another time he told me, "I like this!  I like the snow!"

Needless to say, M surpassed my hopeful goal of three runs down the hill.  I stopped counting but I am guessing he made at least a dozen runs before telling me he was too tired to go again.

He amazed me.  My boy, sledding down a hill and climbing back up again and again and again.  And for a second, it almost made me forget that once upon a time  one of the 'top docs' cautioned us that M may never walk or talk.