Monday, January 11, 2016

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Stress is insidious, it sneaks up on us as we are busily living our lives, handling a little more...then a little more...then a little more...and then one day, we simply can't handle it anymore and something snaps.

I heard that awful snapping sound like a taut rubber band letting go this morning, and I think both Dominick and I were awakened to the fact that both of us, but I in particular, have an enormous amount of stress in my life right now that neither of us realized was present to the degree it was.

I have spent the past two months sleeping no more than an hour and a half at a time each night, as joint pain has caused some real sleep disturbance, and I am sure as thoughts have run through my head.   A new mattress may help, but that loss of deep, regular sleep is certainly a contributing factor.

But you know what?  It's not just that.

We talked a lot today, after I had an early morning Sob Fest, which is quite unusual for me.  I am far more of a "Get in and get 'er done!" kind of gal, not an "Oh woe is me!" kind of woman.  I suppose I am no different than most moms at this stage of life, sandwiched between an aging parent and kids still in need of parenting.

But the past couple of years have been doozies, and it isn't getting easier, and in fact it is gradually getting harder.  Little by little, more and more has been dropped in my lap, and I sort of soak it up and keep moving along.  Today it caught up with me, and that was perfectly ok.  Sometimes that has to happen in order for us to release some of the pent up frustration and move toward healthier solutions.

There have been major changes in our lives, while still trying to keep everything afloat.  Purchasing the store meant financial sacrifice for hopeful eventual long term gain for the entire family.  We knew the first 2-3 years would be difficult, and we were correct.  Unexpectedly, Dominick's inflexible work schedule has proven to be harder on the family than we anticipated.  It has not only added another part time job of bookkeeping for myself, but has meant I am essentially single parenting as he semi-permanently works 12 hour days.  Because of where we live, many of the medical appointments or other activities for the kids are no less than a five hour drive away, with Kenny and Matthew both being treated out of state. 

We are also coming to a firm understanding that parenting Kenny through adolescence and into adulthood is going to be a tremendous task, one gladly accepted, but one that has seriously been overlooked by me as being as all encompassing as it really is day to day.  It has been such a gradual ease over the years into a more caretaking role with him, that I guess I never really noticed how much thinking I do for him throughout every single day.  I don't SEE myself as a caretaker, I see myself as just a mom, but it is way more than that and I am just beginning to allow myself to view that role differently.  Maybe I don't like it and have avoided the thought, I don't know, or maybe I really haven't understood it to the degree that I am beginning to.

I told a friend today that if Kenny had gray hair and had the label of "Early Onset Alzheimer's", everyone would instantly have an understanding of what our life is like.  Because he is young, and presents as such an intelligent and thoughtful young man, no one has a clue what life is like for all of us, particularly Kenny himself.  The truth is, Kenny could not wander around town without getting lost...just like an Alzheimer's patient.  Kenny loses things ALL the time, it is a daily occurrence... just like an Alzheimer's patient.  Kenny can't always remember things like personal information, facts, or phone numbers...just like an Alzheimer's patient.  Kenny can't keep himself safe around traffic, or in the kitchen, or with strangers...just like an Alzheimer's patient.  Kenny can't remember his personal hygiene every day like sometimes forgetting to change clothes or shave or brush teeth...just like an Alzheimer's patient.  And Kenny can not follow directions well, unless they are giving one step at a time... just like an Alzheimer's patient.

And yet no one would look at a 17 year old affable young man and see all of the above, but it is how we are living... we live with the equivalent of a happy Alzheimer's patient.  

We are beginning to understand that caretakers of Alzheimer's patients need regular respite, and so do I.  I have to think every day not for one person, but for two all day long (and that doesn't even take into account the typical thinking a mom of five teenagers has to do to make up for "Teen Brain") . I not only remind him of his personal grooming, but I have to provide him with the words he is trying to say when he can't come up with them, or I have to straighten out his explanations when they aren't understood.  I also have to explain him to others, as I did this morning before church with one of our long time friends working with him on teaching Sunday School who had no idea Kenny had the challenges he did.  I interpret the world for him, and him for the world.

For example, today we had a long conversation about goals for Kenny, as he has seemingly slipped a lot in recent weeks, no doubt due to lack of a schedule around holiday time.  So we sat at the table, the three of us, and talked about what goals he needed for the next couple of months.  One of them was to master his morning routine.  How many 17 year olds do you know would take 15 minutes to try and remember all the steps for his morning routine to make certain he didn't forget things like shampooing his hair?  I walked him through it, trying not to provide the answers, but letting him try and recall each step.  Finally, he came up with all of them.  

When we were done, Dominick looked at me and I could tell he suddenly had much greater clarity about how hard this is.  He understands to a degree, of course, but because he is not working with it day in and out, he hasn't really seen the extent of Kenny's deficits regularly.  

So, as we are coming to internalize on a deeper level that I am Kenny's Life Coach, as well as educator...and educator to Matt, Angela, Olesya, and Josh...and sort of single mom for at least another couple of years...we are understanding I need real regular breaks or I will be the one breaking.  With Kenny, this is forever.  We anticipate that he will eventually work at the store, with me side by side as his job coach for perhaps years in order for him to be able to eventually develop a routine enough to be able to do anything there without supervision.  And I do mean years and years of side by side assistance and reminders, coaching...and it appears that even then he will need full time close supervision.

Because this isn't going to get better.  It's not.  He can learn, he can become better educated...and for some reason remember that sort of teaching as long as I am teaching specifically to how he learns.  But his organizational skills will never get better.  His memory will never get better.  His judgment will never get better.  His auditory processing will never get better.

This is my "Working it Out" place, and maybe I need to say this here a few times so I can really take it in.  I need to come to an understanding around this because it helps me be a better mom and Life Coach for him.  It helps me keep expectations appropriate, but right now, I think what I need to understand more than anything is that I am the mother of an Alzheimer's patient of sorts.  That helps clarify for me what my needs are so that I may be able to be there for him in all the ways he needs me.

I need to put my own oxygen mask on first, and until very recently, I haven't understood that need.  It was Angela who pointed out the startling fact to me this week that I have almost no adult time at all these days, that if I get an afternoon or evening a month in adult company outside of church on Sundays I am doing good.  Life just hasn't easily allowed for it right now.  

Dominick and I have also talked about how I never get to leave "work", and it makes relaxing at home harder.  Angela kidded me today that even though none of them try to bother me if I am on the phone, if they all come to just say good night that is five interruptions!  While Dominick works incredibly long hours, he gets to leave his place of employment behind and come home and truly relax, where grading, bookkeeping, teaching, laundry, shopping, cooking, driving, "churching", mothering and other tasks mean I am on the job 24/7.  While they may be the most lovely people in all the world, it still means a level of stress I never get to leave behind.

Homeschooling at this age is not what it is for other families.  I read through every single page of every single textbook with the kids, then question them using Socratic methods.  Other families aren't dealing with the cognitive issues we are faced with, nor the language learning issues, and when their kids are this age, they throw them a textbook and send them on their way.  Our homeschooling is intense, and is truly a full time job for me.  While very enjoyable, it is weighty.

We have a long haul to go here, with at least three more major surgeries ahead of us in the next year and a half or so, years more robbing of Peter to pay Paul, at least five more years of homeschooling plus being career guidance counselor and post-high school academic coordinator.  We have disability advocate and job coaching to add in, aging parents out of state to visit and handle finances for, and friendships to somehow try and maintain.  

My oxygen mask has to stay on.  We are going to be intentional about getting me out of here more often and for decent stretches of time so I can begin to breath again, and think more clearly.  I am going to jump in more in ministry work at church because that fills my soul tank up, which has become depleted over time.  I am going to try and find some way to play a little more, and who knows, the Steam games Matthew purchased for me for Christmas might just help in that regard.   I am going to try and squeeze in more time with friends, my ever faithful troops who put up with me and my lack of availability.  That oxygen mask is darned important, and this morning proved to us that no one put it on me, but I have been putting it on everyone else.

All is well, awareness and willingness to fill gaps is all that it takes.  Accepting hard truths helps allow for changes in thinking as well, and we realized today that Kenny's needs are hard on me in gentle ways, but hard nonetheless, and that shouldn't be overlooked.  As careful as we are to meet his needs, we are now seeing I need to be cared for as well, or the lifetime stretching before us of me thinking for two of us will seem impossible to handle.  

And now, at 3:20 AM, maybe I have dealt enough with the turbulence that sleep will finally come.  Writing always helps me "put it away", though it likely makes for boring reading for blog visitors!  And I purposely don't go back and edit my content, as I would for any writing project, for this place is my personal "luggage compartment", it needs to be.  I just leave the bay door open so you all can take a peak at the mess.  So, my oxygen mask is firmly in place, and as pilots will assure you, a little turbulence never killed anyone...they always make it through.  So will we, there's certainly enough love here to ensure that.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Living with my Lesser Self

He stands there, lanky body draped over mine, heaving great sobs of frustration.  My tears mingle with his, as I ask his forgiveness for being so upset and angry at the wrong target...him rather than his very broken brain.

Kenny lost his wallet again.  He can't locate his Christmas stocking to pack away despite JUST having it in his hands yesterday...or maybe earlier in the week...he doesn't really remember that either.  He just received a replacement paycheck after losing his last one.  Every time he turns around, he is doing something incorrectly, he understands people incorrectly, he is always, always wrong.

The ache of being Kenny is palpable, yet he has a graciousness about him unlike any other human being I have ever met.  He forgives me, oh how he forgives me!  He forgave me over and over again early on when we had no idea this was more than just obstinate behavior.  He forgave me as a ranted and raved at him over losing his 4th or 5th jacket, who knows, I lost count.  He forgave me every time I looked at him in a state of confusion over how such a seemingly bright kid could do such...stupid...yes I said it...stupid things.

Tonight is one of those "crappy mom" moments, the kind of night when I heard myself raising my voice at him this afternoon, exasperated beyond belief because I am tired of this fight.  I raised my voice, and I expressed my frustration at him, as if he could actually change anything and wouldn't in a heartbeat if he could.

You see, I forgot.  I forgot that I have to deal with it, but he has to live with it forever.  I can escape it from time to time, he never can.

And still that young man loves me, desperately, completely, not because I am his lifeline or the only one who really understands him, despite not always acting like it.  No, Kenny loves me simply because I am me, as pure a love as ever there was.

You had no idea we lived with Jesus, did you?

Yea, reminders day in and day out.  He comes to me in the morning and says ever so cheerfully, "Good morning mom!!  How did you sleep last night?  Let me give you a hug." and then he bear hugs me for as long as either of us wish.  He rushes to help me walk over ice, he opens car doors for me, he carries anything I might have to carry, a true servant's heart.

Today, yet again, I failed him.  I expected something from him that his brain will never ever allow...memory.  I made it about him, and not his brain.  He was at a breaking point I just hadn't picked up on, probably because I was so busy wallowing in my frustration with him that  I couldn't step out of my own thoughts and compassionately put myself in his shoes, something I try to do as much as I can, but today it didn't work.

My lesser self gained a temporary victory today.  Unfortunately, I'd love to pretend I am one of those super perfect, wonderful blogging moms who always gets it right, or who has just the right way to put into words their "humble acceptance of their failures".  Alas, I am neither...I am a mom with a very challenged kid who lives in a family full of challenged people who totally blew it, and does so far more often than I care to admit.

I am tired.  I am tired of beating my own head against the wall trying to get answers and figure out a future for a VERY bright yet VERY handicapped young man.  I am tired of not knowing what happened to my sweet son, or how to fix it.  I am tired of hurting for him.  I am tired of having no clue how to help him feel he is maturing into the adult he is becoming when none of the maturing experiences are easily available to him.  I am tired of dashed dreams, not knowing at this stage when to step in and when to step back...and having him tell the nurse he was born in October of 1895 when his birthday is November 15, 1998.  I am tired of no one ever understanding how hard it is sometimes to just be us.  I am tired of trying to make laughter come to lighten the moment when all I want to do is groan inwardly.  I am tired of running back to church for his iPad which he left there THREE WEEKS in a row, and doing so with a smile.  I am tired of doctors and others who work with him for 10 minutes saying, "He is a bright, capable young man, not much wrong there." and yet he can't follow the simple recipe on the back of a cake box...not ever.  I am tired of being told by others more in-the-know with kids like him that, "He is going to fall through the have almost done too much for him so he appears far less disabled than he really is based on certain test results.  He can't get services, he is too smart...and yet he will likely never be able to hold a job."

As tired as I am, I can't begin to imagine how tired he is...of never hearing a single thing correctly, of never being able to get directions correct and act on them, of always losing every single thing, of seeing siblings succeed and move gradually into adulthood and talk about things he will never be able to do, of having to choke down and swallow a future that will never look "normal" and try and find meaning and worth in a life that has SO MUCH DEPTH and yet so much that doesn't work right.

My lesser self won today, but yet again, I was forgiven, yet again, I was held and hugged and treated with respect afterward.  My better self lost today.

But his better self won.

Maybe that is all that is important on this night.

I love you so much, Kenny.  I will keep hanging in there with you, if you keep hanging in there with me.

Friday, January 01, 2016

2016 Attitude Adjustment

As 2015 wound down and 2016 is sparkly and new, I have a somewhat heavy heart, and I have no solid clue why.  Something is off, something is feeling like I am not really me right now.  I think we all go through periods like that, but I am determined to pull myself out of it.

Maybe it is because 2015 was a year filled with more than I can possibly put into words for us in terms of stress, shifts, and life changing "stuff".  Maybe it is because there has been a lot of relationship sadness surrounding me this year with those close and far.  Maybe it is because I feel a little lost at this stage of my life, behind the scenes in just about every way, slogging along, doing the mom and wife thing as best I know how and always feeling (Not just feeling, if I am being honest, but KNOWING)  I could be doing it better

And maybe, just maybe it is my fault and I have not done the things I know fill my heart.  Maybe I need to take some responsibility for it and not wait to magically feel cheerful and lighthearted.  Maybe I have fallen pray to the insidiousness of "Facebook-itis" and comparison, fallen prey to the "I am not ever going to be good enough" syndrome, fallen prey to forgetting to Whom I belong and that alone gives me worth and value.

I shared some of this with a friend in an email this week in an effort to try and work through it in my own head, and it is hard to explain the malaise that has settled over me.  I realized a couple of things last night...I need to blog more, because blogging really refocuses my attention on the things that matter.  It serves as my Gratitude Journal, and forces me to reflect on all that is good...and my life, and the act of blogging reminds me that what I have and who I am is enough, and that what I see reflected in traditional media and social media is not "real", it is merely smoke and mirrors, representations of halves of lives, or is complete fiction.

I also need to be more proactive about pursuing that which fills me up, much of which has been missing this past year or two.  All of my reading has been for tasks, not for fun...I need to have the immersive experience of being called to read "just one more page".   Giving up singing with Sweet Adelines took the one thing away that was really all for me, but trying to fit it in right now proved too difficult.  Church choir is not singing as often, either, and I realize that music is one of those things I need to seek out in the ways that make sense for me with my life right now.

How often in the past have I written about how much is "enough"?  And here I stand, needing the reminder yet again.  This must be my personal cross to bear, the thing that will sneak in and steal my joy lickety split.  It has been a hard year, but "hard" doesn't mean bad.  The first half was quietly terrible, filled with concern and fear for our future, worries about losing everything and having to leave our home.  The second half was almost miraculous, requiring the single most enormous leap of faith we have ever taken, accompanied by lots of learning and more hard work, but God provided so well for us, though we have a very, very long road ahead before we feel "safe".

And as I write that, maybe I have hit the nail on the head, for I just felt that "ah ha" that sometimes occurs when we ramble.  I don't know if I have been able to let out the deep breath I took and held last winter.  I don't know if I have been able to let go and trust that God has our back on this, that we would not had been led down a path of financial doom as long as we really, really listened...and we did.

I forgot to breath.  I forgot to trust.  In the "doing" I forgot the "being".

Reading a blog post today from Glennon Melon Doyle, I heard her speak to my heart...

I don’t want a new, better life in 2016. I just want new eyes to see that my life is already staggeringly beautiful. Tweet: I don’t want a new, better life in 2016. I just want new eyes to see that my life is already beautiful. @momastery 
I don’t want to be a better mom in 2016. I just want new eyes to see that the miracle is not good better best — the miracle is that these people are mine and I am theirs. Full stop.
And I don’t want to be a BETTER ME in 2016. Screw that. I don’t want to chase after some imaginary more fabulous version of myself. I AM what the people I love need. I already AM. And when we are always BECOMING we have no room to BE. So I’m done striving. I’m fine, thanks. I’m showing up to love my people and you and the world this year JUST AS I AM. 
So here we are, January 1, 2016...the year I will turn 50, the year I will celebrate 30 years of marriage, the year I will live more intentionally and accept that me and mine are enough and that others don't get a vote.  I will not ruin what is beautiful and holy because I refuse to live up to some sort of standard others have established for me without my permission, or because others have no understanding of what it takes to live my life.  I will be unapologetically, wholly, me.   I will attempt to live each day in joy and gratitude, and perhaps I will fall back into my own skin.  I will chase God with a vengeance, because I need the Spirit to be walking hand in hand with me in order to be happy.

Watch out, 2016.  Cindy is comin' and she is gonna grab you and shake you for all you are worth!

Being together, that is what matters.

The Bread of Life, that is what matters.

Enough food, decent shelter, and medical care, that is what matters.

Friendships that are true...that is what matters.
  Happy New Year!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Couldn't Possibly Ask for More

Oh Holy Night...

Oh Come Emmanuel...

The First Noel...

Silent Night...

It's not about Santa and stockings, though those things may be included.  It's not about the gifts prettily wrapped and resting beneath an ornate tree.

This season was, by all accounts in our family, the best yet.  I was told by Angela that it was ushered in with a Thanksgiving to remember, and ended with a new tradition and a double dose of Jesus and carols.

We are no longer in the little kid stage.  I loved it while we had it, I miss that we didn't have more of it with our kids who came home at older ages, but what we have now is so rich, so meaningful, that it leaves little to yearn for.  

And I know to others it might seem a little empty, a little lacking...too few packages to unwrap, too little time without work as the store remains open, too many who ought to be around the table but aren't.

I look around that same table and see abundance.  I see love.  I see overcoming.  I see gratitude.  I see friends who are family.  There is no lack here, and it is beautiful.

Leading up to the holiday, we had a choice between a few more gifts, or money spent on baking ingredients.  So much fun was had, as Olesya made her butter mints even prettier than last year, and Joshua and Kenny decided to go on the hunt for the best chocolate chip cookie recipe, finding one at that was a sure fire winner.  Angela made peppermint bark.  Matthew simply ate it all!

Sunny offered moral support from her throne in front of the fireplace...

 Tonight we continued our tradition of having friends over for Mexican food, then hustled off to church so the kids could help set up luminaria lanterns prior to the evening service.

The candle light service was beautiful, and as I sat there and watched all five LaJoy youth participate in one form or another, either by taking the offering or with candle lighting, I was struck by how time has passed so quickly. They are so mature, still not quite yet adults, but certainly no longer children by any means.  They step up so often to handle things around our home, the business, and church, and are moving gently into adulthood having been guided by the very people that surround them in our congregation.  This is a group of kids who have been well loved by so many, who have been nurtured and cared for in ways that are hard to describe, but for which I am deeply grateful.  

When the service was over, off we went to work at the store for the remainder of the evening.  There was snow to shovel, a sign to change,  trash to throw, and customers to greet.  The amazing thing?  Every one of them had a blast and said they LOVED our new tradition of being there to help cover one of the busiest nights of the year.  Not a complaint was heard, only joyful laughter and giggles along with the "Merry Christmas" greetings offered every customer who entered.

Angela and Matt changing the outdoor sign in the snow.

A Snowy Kazakh Man~

An equally snowy Russian woman!

And a shot of dapper looking Joshie, just because we all thought he looked quite handsome.

As the evening grew late, and things started to slow down at the store, someone mentioned the Catholic Church and midnight mass.  I offered to take whoever wanted to go with me, as we had enough help at the store.  Who has teens who want to willingly attend two different church services on Christmas Eve?  We do.  Olesya and Kenny decided to remain behind to help Dominick close up, and Josh, Angie, and Matt all eagerly wanted to attend and see what a Catholic Christmas Eve Mass was like.  We bundled up, and off we went...and it was beautiful, different for us, and helped extend the meaning of the evening just a little longer.  Sitting there beside the three of them as we sang together, and fumbled our way through an unfamiliar service, there were new scents, sights, and sounds to take in.  Afterward, in the car driving home, all three suggested that we make this a part of our Christmas Eve tradition as well, now that we will likely all be staying out later with the store on this special night every year.  

Listening to their warm comments about the evening, I was thrilled that presents weren't once talked about, but "presence" was in many different ways.  Christmas Day itself is an afterthought, according to them.  Christmas is about Christmas Eve, about "Framily", about music and faith.  I really have no idea quite how we got to this point, how we managed to make it about the things that really matter, despite cultural pressures, but I realized tonight it is firmly cemented, and though they might all one day walk a different path and things might shift, there is no doubt that something meaningful is now ingrained and it won't easily be abandoned.  

Tomorrow will be a little different, as the boys all head off mid-morning for a road trip to Colorado Springs to get Matt delivered to his leadership camp.  Weather is ugly, roads are bad, and we are praying for safety for them.  The girls and I will send them on their way, and then settle in to spend some time together uninterrupted.  It won't be as adventurous as the boys, but I trust it will be a sweet time.  How can it not be when I will be spending the day with two of the kindest young ladies on the planet?  We will open gifts before the menfolk leave, and take a few photos, no doubt.  But our hearts are already as full as can be, and here in the silence, I know that for this night, all is right in my world.  

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Major LaJoy

We have a Major in the house!  Cadet Major Matthew LaJoy received his promotion at the Civil Air Patrol Christmas Party last night.  Another step on the road to his goal of earning the highest rank possible in the Cadet program, Matt has 2 more phases to complete out of 16.

Watching him last evening, it was hard not to recall the shy, reticent 12 year old boy who had been looking forward to starting CAP since he was 9 years old.  That first evening I accompanied him, and seeing those older youth who had worked hard, looked sharp, and presented as so mature, it was hard to imagine Matt one day following in their footsteps.  12 year old Matthew lacked confidence in himself, and his introverted nature meant he was often in the background.

Advance four years, and his experiences in Civil Air Patrol have been formative for him in ways I never would have expected.  We talked once about how I wished each of the other kids could find something similar that would offer them similar opportunities for development.  Matt wisely turned to me and said, "Mom, I wouldn't worry.  None of the other kids needed it.  They are all more outgoing, and more comfortable in social situations.  Without CAP, I never would have been.  So God gave me what I needed, and God'll give them what they need."  I love being "schooled" by my kids, and it wasn't much longer after that when Kenny stepped onto Leadership at church and there, found his place.  In time, each one will find their unique place, if we just keep exposing to new things.

Matt was surprised on the spot, and was told he was leading the evening, which meant he had to speak in front of almost 100 people, and was asked to explain the Cadet program to the families in attendance.  He sat down and quickly created a brief outline of what to speak about, using key words, and then did a nice job as he spoke of following his outline, fleshing it out with details, and staying on topic.  It was clear he had anticipated what parents and new cadets might want to know about the program.  I have to admit I was super pleased, as he was putting into action skills he had been taught at home in school, and I was so happy to see he could apply them in a real life pressure situation.

Here are photos from last night:

Relaxing before the event

Everyone was eager to see Matt be promoted

OK, so maybe these two were eager for the pizza! Haha!

Looks like Dad isn't so tall anymore!

Entertaining ourselves, everyone kept grabbing my camera and playing with it,
so I finally got a few pics with ME in them!

Two "retired" Cadet leaders were present for Matt's promotion.

We are at the point where this is a Big Deal.  Achieving this rank and above is something few cadets ever accomplish, so few that he is now the first in the history of his Squadron to ever reach Major, let alone the ranks that follow.  We were told at his last promotion that, in fact, no other cadet on the entire Western Slope has ever reached this far.  

As we support Matt's efforts, it means sacrifice...hahaha!  In order to promote beyond this stage, he has to attend a Leadership School, and it was scheduled for the same time frame as his church camp this summer.  Matt had made the decision to put off promoting so he could attend church camp for his last eligible year, a decision we whole heartedly agreed with.  However, we learned a couple weeks ago that they were squeezing in another Leadership School between Christmas and New Years over at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, so guess who gets to leave Montrose possibly Christmas Day to drive him over?  Weather may allow me to leave the next day, we will have to see, but at least the other boys are accompanying us so I will have a nice little road trip with my men!

It is so much fun to watch the kids blossom, to see them work hard and achieve dreams.  Each of them is doing so in their own ways, some with more public recognition, some with less, but each is growing and maturing, figuring out their way in the world.  Nothing could be sweeter as a parent, nothing at all. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Traditions Matter

Traditions matter.  They cement families in a way nothing else will.  Sometimes they are silly traditions, like walking down Main Street in the winter and stopping for hot chocolate, or making the Elf on the Shelf have at least one scenario each year where he is pooping on something.  Other traditions are more meaningful, like singing "I Love You Forever, I Like You For Always" when you read the book by the same name 4,682 times, or when you insist that a certain meal has to be served for a certain holiday because, "But mom, it is our tradition!  We can't change it!"

When you have children who spent half their childhoods in orphanages, those established traditions become ever more important, and with each passing year they speak to a constancy that they cling to.  Now home 6 years, the girls are so rooted in these traditions that they really, really matter.  They speak of their old traditions from their life in the orphanage with fondness, but THESE traditions, the FAMILY traditions are the ones that will be carried forward.

As we ease our way through Advent, we are participating in our family rituals that have happily become more important than the cultural Christmas expectations.  We are stretching to try new ones out, too!  The week or two before Christmas is becoming an ever more pleasant time for us, as we have let go of the commercialization and embraced the things that are far more important.  Each year I notice the stress level drops and the enjoyment factor increases.

This past week was SO much fun!  We tried on a new tradition, and it fit beautifully, as we got up quite early last Sunday and traveled to the next town over to prepare, serve, and eat breakfast at the homeless shelter there.  We had been looking for some volunteer opportunity we could have together as a family, and this was a big win.  Everyone enjoyed it, despite the 4:30 awakening necessary to get there on time.

Familiarizing ourselves with the kitchen

Olesya is SO good in the kitchen these days!

Pancakes for 20 or so, we are good at assembly line work!

No surprise to see Josh volunteer to handle the bacon :-)

Kenny is an excellent flapjack flipper

As we ate with the guests at the shelter, I looked around the room and our family had strategically spread itself out among the entire group.  Everyone was warmly visiting with the guests, listening to stories of long haul truck driving careers, jobs being looked for, and more.  The ease with which each of the kids participated in conversation with complete strangers was surprising to me, particularly "strangers" that others often avoid talking with.  We were complimented on the meal, and left the guests to their expected chores of cleaning up.  As we drove home, Angela cracked us all up as she said, "Wow, this time of day really IS pretty!  I don't want to get up this early every day, but once in awhile it is nice."  As a lovely sunrise presented itself to us, we all confirmed that this felt like something we wanted to continue doing, so we have a new family volunteer project two Sundays a month through the winter months the shelter is open...and yes, Angela and Olesya even agreed it was worth getting up that early for :-)  A new tradition has begun.

The evening closed out with what has, without equivocation, become a highlight of our holiday season.  For many years now, we have helped our adopted Grandpa George decorate his Christmas tree.  We share a meal he has prepared, we goof around, we visit, and have a sweet, sweet time of being one another's extended family.  The kids are pros after all these years, and tackle the decorating with enthusiasm.  20 minutes later, with all those hands, the job is done, and George has a little bit of Christmas surrounding him.

This man is a treasure to us.  He has loved us through so very much, prayed for us, and been present via email through very difficult times when we were far from home.  Our entire family appreciates the wisdom he shares, and the acceptance he offers such a large group of kids being in his home.  Over the years, George has taken ALL the kids to the movies (What guy his age would ever tackle that, even when they were all younger?), has offered great encouragement to Kenny, introduced Matt to a wide variety of music, taking him alone on "dates" to local concerts when Matt was only 5 or 6 years old.  

Loving George comes very, very easily.

I realized I had never grabbed a group photo in all these years!

And THIS is what Christmas is

Being loved...

Knowing you are loved...

Actively loving.

This is a tradition that has shaped our family in subtle ways.  It makes us recognize the need to be there for others, to BE family for those whose family is far away, to share our family as we can. WE have been blessed with remarkable people in our lives, people who have literally formed the LaJoy's into who we are...and are helping us "become".  They have encircled us and supported us in tangible ways.  Their love will never, ever be forgotten...and we hope they see us pay it forward as often as we can.  Because that matters.

Then, another newer tradition is Miss Mary taking us out for a LaJoy Academy Christmas Party at the same Chinese buffet in town every year.  What a spoiling moment that is for us, as going out to eat at a "real" restaurant is a rare occasion for us!  We bring little gifts and cards to share, we laugh over fortune cookie messages, and we really just relish being together...our friendship runs so very deep.  Our homeschool efforts simply would not be the same without Miss Mary participating a couple mornings each week in lively debates, and bringing her many gifts to the table in working with the kids on book studies.  And I, personally, would never have made it without her steady encouragement and constant praise.

Love the smiles, always hard NOT to smile with Miss Mary around!

So thankful for every single person around this table.

So yet another tradition of the season is behind us, one that makes it feel like the holidays have truly arrived.  They are all little traditions, nothing spectacular, but they have meaning, they create a sense of rootedness that is important, and every year they burrow into the heart just a little deeper.  Tonight we head to Matt's Civil Air Patrol Christmas Party, something that has also grown to become part of our tradition.  On Christmas Eve we will have more traditions with friends for dinner then church candlelight service, which really makes the holiday for us.  

Not necessarily a Christmas tradition, but one I hold just as sacred is curling up in the winter with the kids and reading.  Do you know how lucky I am that in the late teen years, I STILL get to snuggle with my Big Kids and "read them a story" as we explore new books?  Wow.  I never, ever thought that when I was rocking Josh and Matt in their nursery and reading Curious George for an ungodly number of times that I would still be able to feel their warmth nestled in next to me 15 years later as we read.  Of course, I missed out on it with Kenny, Angela and Olesya, so being able to grab a little piece of that now is extra sweet.  We missed so darned much with those three, but I think we have done a terrific job of making up for lost time, and revisiting much beloved traditions.  Here, thanks to Pastor Karen's loaning of a book, Angela and I are tackling a new tome from Rabbi Kushner explaining Judaism.  Angela was enthralled by the book and wanted to read it with me, so here we are, off on another reading adventure!

I was as surprised as anyone else might be that THIS was the book that captivated Angela, but it is quite a good read and we are thoroughly enjoying it.  She has highlighted so much in just the first 2 chapters.

A rare selfie

Kenny and I are reading together as well, but I found I can't read with both of them in the same day, as it is too deep and requires too much brain power.  He and I are tackling  Reza Aslan's No god but God:  The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.  Yea, not exactly bedtime reading.  That boy challenges me all over the place.  His reading is not as fluid as Angela's, and he is processing some deep material with that one, so I think it will take us a looooong time to read it.  However, it is fascinating and we are having some interesting discussions about it!  

And, for the final new tradition, when it snows, Dad calls in The Crew for the store to shovel!  Our liquor store is quite busy, and Dominick can't get the shoveling done by himself, so, it looks like our new tradition is that Snow Days are Shovel Days at House of Spirits!  Luckily, with 5 kids, the job is relatively easy, and Montrose never gets that much snow, so it won't be a frequent occurrence.

I like our traditions.  They are traditions of service to others, service to family, traditions of enjoying education, of enjoying the arts, and traditions of love and friendship shared.  Sure, there are decorations and a few gifts, there is a tree and a creche, but that is all "window dressing".  Being steeped in meaning is what we value, even if others look at it and see nothing of value at all.  Discussing making Christmas candies, which is on its way to becoming a new tradition versus cookies,  I was surprised to find the boys were disappointed to think they might not get to participate, even Dominick, so we will make a few today, then hold off and spend Saturday night as a family of 7 crammed into our kitchen working together, laughing together, bumping butts together, creating sugary, chocolaty goodies and making a huge mess.  I am sure that singing Mary Did You Know? will be part of the evening as well, loudly and totally off key.

We don't have a Better Homes and Garden Christmas.  We don't have a Martha Stewart Christmas.  I think we have more of a Charlie Brown Christmas :-)

What more could a mom ask for?

Saturday, December 12, 2015

'Tis Always the Season

'Tis always the season...

The season to be kind
The season to offer our hearts to others
The season to put aside that which doesn't matter for that which does
The season for love...for hope...for noticing

'Tis always the season...

We just aren't always ready

Today, at the grocery store, I had a moment.  Those moments are woven throughout our daily lives, if we are listening, watching, present.

I had Olesya, Joshua and Kenny with me as we did a little grocery run.  A little for us turned out to be $125, and that IS little for us! Haha!

As we were near the bakery, I was perusing the rotisserie chickens, when I looked up and discovered I was suddenly left all alone.  Olesya had wandered off to get something for herself, and the boys had been chatting away and then, silence.  I looked around after grabbing my bird, and there it was, in the middle of the market on a busy holiday weekend.

The Spirit was right there, and it came in the guise of teenaged boys.

I grabbed my camera a moment too late, I missed it by a split second, but I'll always remember it.

Josh and Kenny had rushed over to visit with two friends in town, Roger and Ivan.  Both men are older, and are developmentally delayed.  We brought Christmas to Roger several years ago, and he has never, ever forgotten it, and Ivan has worked at the food bank with us and has sometimes needed a "partner" to help him with his work, and Josh or Kenny has often been that partner for him.  In the moment prior to me pulling out my phone to take this picture, Josh was holding Roger in a long, warm embrace, and the delight on Roger's face was so evident, as was the glimmer in Ivan's eye as Kenny leaned over to table to more easily hear what he was saying.

These men might be different.  To some, I bet, they are even a little scary...because in our America today, sadly, "different" is scary.  But funny how the Spirit works, once you get to know the "other", they often become dear ones, and the fear dissipates.  

We are all one, there are only walls of ignorance and hate.  We erect them, and we have no idea what we are missing out on.

Reading online forums about connecting parenting, and seeing how desperately parents are trying to hang on to the souls of their children who have been battered and broken by a cruel world that has been unfair to the extreme with them, it is hard for me not to recall those early years with Josh, who fought love so mightily, whose own soul was one of those bruised so deeply we wondered if he would ever be able to feel secure enough to accept love, let alone offer it easily.

To watch this almost 13 year old young man rush eagerly to offer one of life's "others" hugs, warmth, and love almost brings me to my knees in gratitude.  Really.  The year has been filled with hard stories for me to hear, stories of relinquishment, of heartbreak, of loss of hope.  There ARE families who don't make it, there ARE kids who are so shattered that no amount of love or expertise will ever put them back together again.  At times, it feels hopeless.

But...there are the ones who make it.  There are the ones whose beginnings do not dictate their endings.  There are the ones who are courageous enough to reach out for love, trust it, and it changes them forever.

It also changes all of us, doesn't it?

This is the face of Reactive Attachment Disorder.  This is what stared back at me for 2 years straight, and that I often saw for 2 more years as his tormented and broken heart began the long road to healing.  This is the face of a child, who if he had not healed, would have had no empathy, and would have grown into the soul deadened adult you find in every prison:

To those not parenting it, this looks a moment that every parent has that makes them crack up as they try to sound serious when disciplining their child.  To those parenting a RAD child, this is a look of defiance, of perpetual explosive anger just waiting for the next opportunity to spring forth.  

And believe me, it is damned hard to hang in after day, month after month, year after year.  It is damned hard to keep your own heart pliable and accessible when the daily onslaught leaves you raw and hurting...and you know you have no choice but to trudge back into the connected parenting trenches the next day, doing the hard but invisible work of even something as simple as trying to help your child accept a hug from you without squirming, or having them look you in the eye.  That took until he was 6 years old.  

11 years from the time that picture was taken we have a healed and whole son, an incredibly affectionate, authentically loving and kind son.  An occasionally insecure son, but one who can talk about his fears, share those concerns appropriately, and can use coping strategies gained through years of long, hard work.

This is a season in which so many families are feeling empty, filled with despair, wondering if they can even hold on another day.  Their children are disregulated even more due to the holiday stress, old memories surfacing, and feelings they can not name.  For some families, merely surviving the holidays is considered a "win".

We've been there, we know what you are going through.  I am here to tell you, to reassure you that it CAN get better for many, many of your children.  It can if you can just hold out a little longer, keep your heart from closing permanently a little longer.  You are it, you are often their only hope, a large number of children absolutely can heal.  I know, I live with a houseful of them, and trust me, we are not exceptional parents.  We are not any different than any of you.  Well, maybe we are a little more stubborn, given our combined Italian and German heritages :-)  We have no secret formula, we screwed up a million times, and Grace brought us through.  It doesn't take "Super Parents" to help kids make it, it takes committed parents who never give up until it just becomes too unsafe.  I get that sometimes, there are no alternatives, but often we just need to hear from someone who has made it safely to the other side that it can, indeed, be done.  

My prayer for each and every one of you is that you can grab hold of something this season that gives you hope.  It may be just a moment when a child allows you to hold them, or smiles at you, or calls you mom to your face.  It may be another parent who offers respite care, who offers a listening ear, or who simply nods in knowing understanding.  

'Tis the season for hope, my friends.  May you blessed with a bucket full when you most need it.