Denny’s: A Love Story

Denny's

Several years ago, the former pastor of the church I worked for sent me an email a few days before Christmas, and we exchanged brief updates on our lives and plans for the holidays.

Chris and his family were going skiing in Michigan the week before New Year’s; I reported that Daniel would be home for the day on Christmas Eve, and we had our own big plans: dining at Denny’s, his favorite restaurant.

Apparently our upcoming yuletide celebration sparked an idea for the Christmas Eve sermon Chris was pondering for the new church he’d founded in Chicago. He hoped to illustrate the Magi’s likely bewilderment upon finding the humble manger, when they had anticipated grander surroundings befitting an infant king. He wondered if my feelings about going to Denny’s for Christmas perhaps echoed those muted expectations.

As it happened, I’d just learned that a letter I’d sent to the Chicago Tribune would be published on the 26th, and I sent Chris a copy of the text. In it, I described my adjustment to simpler holiday traditions, the gradual lessening of expectations as autism changed our lives.

Chris’s sermon was well-received, he told me later, my story of Christmas at Denny’s the hook he’d been seeking to hold his message together.

For years when he lived with us, visits to Denny’s were a high point for my son. We loved it too, as the franchise near our home was never too crowded to find a booth in which to ensconce Daniel while he waited, impatiently, for the meal he always ordered.

I remember in particular a Saturday evening shortly after Daniel’s twelfth birthday. His sister Natalie had her own life by then, rarely stuck with her parents on a weekend except under the most dismal of social circumstances. So it was just the three of us, Daniel anchored between Andy and me in a spacious, semi-circular booth, his eyes glued to the swing door that led to the kitchen across the dining room. Despite his elation at being there, he remained watchful: the food had not yet arrived.

A paper kid’s placemat lay in front him, on which he sporadically scribbled, when prompted, with the worn crayons provided by management to keep children occupied until their meals were served.

There was no distracting Daniel, though. Repeated assurances that his food would come soon didn’t cut it. I sensed him trying to relax, to trust us and his own previous experience, that his coveted “Sampler Platter” with a side of fries was forthcoming. Yet every minute or so he’d ask again for his food, tapping the laminated menu for emphasis.

“Frah? Cheh? Chica?”

And at last the Sampler Platter appeared, a heaping, monochromatic mound of fried mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers and onion rings, augmented by a plate of French fries. As it emerged from the kitchen he sat straight in his seat, his gaze riveted on the server’s progress toward our table, reaching for a fry before she had set the plate in front of him.

In moments his mood changed as he let his guard down at last. Only then could he truly enjoy the experience, smiling and chuckling while plowing through each delicious, deep-fried morsel, gulping his soda between bites.

That night seems like a lifetime ago, when hope still glimmered for at least a semblance of the normal life we dreamed of for our son. We’d recently begun tentative exploration of the scant, unappealing choices offered by our state for adults with disabilities, advised by transition specialists that it was never too early to begin preparing for this possibility.

But in 2004 nothing yet had been etched in stone; we were several years from the bleak December day we moved Daniel to residential care. He was still young, adaptable, impressionable. Dramatic, life-altering change was still possible, with maturity, continued therapy, the eleventh-hour intercession of God. It was possible.

Wasn’t it?

I still see him that night, his anxious face reflecting concern carried, unspoken, for a lifetime; that his simple request, finally discerned among so many unarticulated, misunderstood desires, would yet be denied him.

And once the food came, his worry allayed, he relished his modest treat, a meal of his choosing, oblivious to the world beyond the walls of the restaurant: the world of sports and video games, of roughhousing with peers or movies with fledgling boys whose voices were changing, a world of first, tentative contact with girls, a world of moving forward.

Is this what life holds for my son, I thought, the bright spot of his days eating at Denny’s with his parents on a Saturday night? This isn’t forever; it simply can’t be. This can’t be what God has in mind for my son, my beautiful, bright child. There must be more for him one day…

I didn’t realize that one day even Denny’s would be out of reach, that the disorder that limited his focus to a platter of fried food would render even that pleasure unattainable.

It’s been a year and a half since we took Daniel into a restaurant, even a fast food venue. Past incidents of upset and aggression haunt me. I don’t care if he hurts me; I’ve survived that before. I fear him hurting another, an unsuspecting stranger, standing in the way of the obsessions that seem to drive him now where food and beverage are concerned.

The team at his group home have taken him into eateries for over a year, McDonalds, Panera, Olive Garden. We’ve joined them there, amazed and encouraged by Daniel’s demonstration of acceptable behavior when monitored by professional caregivers. His case manager hasn’t encouraged us to try this ourselves, however, cautioning that Daniel must learn new patterns, breaking rituals and expectations formed over years of parent-child interaction.

Yet increasingly these last few months, I knew we needed to try. Andy and I chose mid-morning last Friday to give it a go.

We stopped at a Denny’s a few miles from Daniel’s group home before picking him up, finding it more crowded than the one back home. A few booths were unoccupied, however, and I asked the manager to hold one for 20 minutes until we returned with our autistic son. He didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic, but a booth remained vacant when we returned. Flanking him on either side, Andy’s finger hooked in Daniel’s belt loop, we walked quickly through the parking lot and into the waiting booth.

We must have looked odd, hustling our 6’1’’ son through the restaurant. Andy suggested I relax just a bit, that we needn’t behave like prison wardens escorting a convict to his cell. My heart pounded, though, the tension I intended to conceal thrumming off me in waves, the limitless calamities Denny’s held in store streaming like ticker tape through my mind.

Our booth ran parallel to the galley where orders were dispensed and the soda fountains were housed. Daniel craned his neck to get a better view, and I flashed on the image of him leaping over the partition, a maneuver of which he is entirely capable.

“I can’t believe it’s come to this,” I remarked mournfully, once we’d settled, a sticker book replacing the kid’s placemat on the table now. Andy remained calm, though, despite my anxiety, despite Daniel’s repeated demands for pop and restless gestures toward the kitchen. He covered my hand reassuringly. “Relax, hon. We’re doing fine.”

And then the beloved Sampler Platter arrived, complete with a side of fries. And Daniel relaxed, just as he used to do, wolfing down his food in customary fashion before we could change our minds. By the end of the meal he was beaming, giggling, encouraging our tickles, just as he did as a boy.

It was a tense outing. But it was a beginning, a return to a pleasure once enjoyed.

My son’s life now bears little resemblance to the life once hoped for, yet I recognize that those hopes, those expectations, were my own. I wish more than anything that I knew what Daniel hopes for, what dreams he holds dear, what experience he longs for.

Yet he remembers Denny’s. It holds meaning for reasons I may never fully understand. But he still loves it there.

Would he have been just as happy with his caregiver by his side? Maybe.

I think he remembers, though, that this experience, this treat, is part of our life, together.

Bond in My Pocket

Daniel Craig as Bond

I have rather a thing for the actor Daniel Craig, specifically as he portrays James Bond, and I’d venture to guess I’m not alone.

What woman can deny the appeal of a man so intriguing, so in control, so incredibly capable of handling whatever bad thing may barrel her way, like a unpinned grenade?  Throw in the vulnerability Daniel Craig brings to the world’s coolest spy?  You’ve got the ultimate package, right there.

I suppose such impervious women exist, but I’m not one of them, and I’ve not hidden the fact since I first saw the new 007 brandishing his Walther P99 in Casino Royale.  (Yes, it’s true: I Googled that.)

My husband Andy doesn’t mind my infatuation, as it tends to surface only in the weeks preceding the release of a new Bond film. I imagine he has his own celebrity crushes as well, but has the sense I lack to keep such thoughts to himself, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider notwithstanding.

I would have preferred, however, for him not to learn, a few years back, the extent of my obsession in quite the way he did.

Having wasted the better part of an hour trolling the internet for photos of the actor, I figured, why not print off a few for future perusal?  These choice exemplars I then hid in the pocket of an old down coat I wear when feeding our porch cats or digging around in the garage.

This act of foolishness coincided with the purchase of my first iPhone, and Andy’s admonishments to look after the pricey device. Duly warned, I embarked on my weekly visit to Daniel the next day, stopping first at Whole Foods for a bagel for the road.

Daniel was in a fine mood, and I dug in my purse for my new camera-equipped phone.  It wasn’t there.  Upending my bag’s contents on the floor proved fruitless, as did a frantic search of my car.  Well done, Kristen.  This would never have happened to Moneypenny.

Using the phone at Daniel’s group home, I called my daughter, instructing her to drop everything and contact Whole Foods to see if they’d found the phone there.  Having done all I could do for the moment, I returned to Illinois, phoneless, photoless, feckless.

Meanwhile, Andy returned from work to find Natalie’s scrawled note on the kitchen counter: “Whole Foods — Mom’s phone??” Dismayed, he launched a preemptive house-wide search, through sofa cushions, kitchen cabinets, drawers, seldom-used purses on the back of my closet door.  And the pockets of every coat I own.

Including my old down jacket.

I can’t remember where the phone eventually turned up, a detail eclipsed by my humiliation at the discovery of my secret Bond stash by the grinning, thoroughly amused man to whom I’ve been married for 16 years today.

It wasn’t easy for Andy to make a commitment to marriage after 42 years of bachelorhood.  It took years for me to fully understand his fears, his doubt at his ability to successfully assume the responsibilities inherent in legally binding himself to another person, and her two children, as well.

His devotion was never in question, as he demonstrated his love for all three of us in ways both tangible and implied.  I didn’t understand his concerns as I should have; I saw only the man I knew him to be: one of insight and integrity, of quiet humility and strength.

His wariness was painful, though, as he faltered toward the covenant I valued, as a woman and the mother of young children. My ego was bruised; I wanted to be a catch he was eager to snag, not an appendage reluctantly assumed at the altar.  I wanted to be Helen of Troy.

Marriage after 40, I learned, is challenging.  We both had expectations, dreams already lost and mourned.  But we’ve made it so far.

And I’ve come to realize that his reluctance proved more meaningful than heedless enthusiasm ever could have done.  He was afraid to get married, but did it anyway.  He made one of the most difficult decisions of his life, for me.

Not the fairy tale l’d concocted, certainly.  Yet those have a way of tarnishing over time.  And while the years since our eventual union have offered more challenges than even he dreaded, he remains.

Not Daniel Craig, perhaps.  But, Andy, you’re my James Bond in all the ways that matter.

You didn’t bail when a financial planner told us years ago to expect to pay privately for Daniel’s longterm care, that 80 grand a year for the rest of his life was a conservative guess.

You painted Natalie’s bedroom three times in the house you didn’t want to buy in the first place to achieve the perfect shade of yellow, even though no one could tell the difference but me.

You laid across my hospital bed after my unexpected surgery, cradling me while I cried out in pain.  You recognized the bond I shared with my father, although you met him just briefly before he died.  You held my grief as my mother was lost, inch by inch, to Alzheimer’s; you were the one to wake me gently in the night, to tell me my brother had called, and our mother was gone.

You schlepped to music recitals and theater performances, to therapy sessions and IEPs, from elementary to high school, to schools miles away from home.  You’ve dragged boxes and dressers and mattresses into dorm rooms and first apartments; you’ve soothed disappointments and set backs, the first tender ache of a broken heart.

Your arrival home in the evenings brought Daniel running from his bubbles and videos, laughing and joyous, to greet you.  You taught him to wipe his face with a napkin, and knotted his tie before eighth grade graduation.

It was you who patiently coaxed him through the door of his school in Wisconsin on that fraught, fretful day eight years ago, so he’d be entering his new home on his own terms.

You taught Natalie to drive when I was too freaked to do so; you sat up in those late hours when I was spent for the day, guiding her through the torments of adolescence; you shouldered the cost of graduate school so she wouldn’t be saddled with debt as she entered adulthood.

You held fast during that ghastly meeting with the psycho attorney, when the stakes were so dreadfully high, and endured my screaming in rage and bitterness and fear all the way home from Milwaukee.

You consoled me after a friend I adored turned on me, crushing my spirit and confidence, rueful that you hadn’t been there to protect me from her scorn.

Strapped to a stretcher in the back of an ambulance after our car crash in Wisconsin, you implored paramedics to look after your wife and stepson, because in his agitation, our son might hurt me.

You’ve submitted to innumerable, spontaneous readings of prose I happen to find fascinating, usually during a crucial movie sequence; you’ve helped clarify my thoughts when I couldn’t understand them myself, much less express them coherently in words.

You’ve never once in 19 years said a negative word about my first husband, and have built a solid, generous relationship with him, and his wife; you attended the baptism of their twins, spending most of the ceremony in the parking lot with an uncooperative Daniel, because you understood that Dan should be there, as part of the family.

You told me that as stepfather, you will always defer to my parental authority, but have borne every thorny problem of parenthood by my side.

You assumed a responsibility you never thought you wanted, and have lived up to it every day.  You became a man you didn’t intend to become, and are man enough to admit that you are grateful for having done so.  And as my partner, you’ve made me more than I was before.

For years, when I’ve been scared, you’ve told me, “Relax, sweetheart.  You’re golden.  You’re in God’s pocket.”

I have my doubts about that sometimes.  But no matter.

I’ve got you in mine.  I’ve got you.

ka25

Pizza, interrupted

eye-watching-you-707028

It should have been a good visit.  My son had been asking for me all week — “Mah?  Mah?” — and even had an outing in mind. “Pee-zah!” he’d declared, again and again.  “Mah?  Pee-zah?”  It seemed he couldn’t wait to see me.

As soon as Daniel spotted me, though, I knew something was off.  Rushing toward me demanding “pop,” he gestured to the soda dispensers near the front of the restaurant.  His beverage obsession is nothing new, and extra soda is a treat he anticipates when I visit.  It’s one of the few pleasures he asks of me, a modest joy I’ve willingly indulged through eight years of structured residential care.

His aide, Brittany, however, was telling him no.

“Uh-uh.  No way,” she said firmly.  “You’re having juice.”  My heart sank, realizing he must have stolen a soda, coffee, or other random beverage that morning, and now had to pay the price.  And I knew we’d pay the price with him.  His conflict with his caregiver would infect our time together, too.

Daniel grasped my chin, forcing me to look him in the eye.  “Pop?” he repeated desperately, his dismay and frustration palpable. “Pop!”

“I don’t know how we’re going to do this without soda,” I told Brittany, longing to grant his simple wish, fearing an ugly, public scene if I let him down.  She seemed to waver, then shook her head decisively.

“You can have juice, or we can go home right now,” she told my son.  “You rather go home?”  She pointed toward the door.

“No!” he cried in alarm, throwing off his coat as he flung himself into the booth my husband and I had claimed.

Would Daniel even understand the connection, I wondered, between stealing pop at his group home, and being denied it now, with me?  Brittany’s consequence may do nothing but taint the few hours we had with him.  We’d reached a no-win situation five minutes into our visit.

We’re in a unsettled place these days.  My son’s aides manage him as I no longer can, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I am his mother, but no longer his caregiver; his most ardent advocate, yet outside his circle of daily life.  Their fondness for Daniel is obvious, but tempered by a professional objectivity I can never provide.  His team aims for the long term; I live for the fleeting moments of tenderness, of meaningful contact with my son.

He wasn’t fooled by the paper cup holding the Hi-C I dutifully poured for him instead of the Diet Coke he’d been counting on. He knew he’d been cheated. I felt cheated, too, yet obliged to support Brittany’s authority, authority we granted by placing Daniel in her care.

He tore through the sticker book I’d brought him, scattering its pages across the table, requesting pop every few minutes, clenching his hands in anger when we told him no.  Andy tried to calm him, squeezing Daniel’s hands in his own as he’s done for years to soothe him.  But our merry visit was going south fast.

Making matters worse, we’d caught the attention of a young girl sitting with her parents a few booths away.  I noticed her furtive glances when we first sat down, and imagined her mother’s whispered explanation of Daniel’s likely disability, her admonishment not to stare.

Unfortunately, the girl couldn’t seem to resist.

She peered over her shoulder compulsively, regarding Daniel like an exotic carnival attraction.  Cautious at first, she quickly grew bolder, staring opening as the minutes ticked by.

Annoyed, I caught and held her eye.  I’m on to you, toots.  Knock it off.

She returned my stare unabashed for a good ten seconds, finally dropping her gaze, only to renew surveillance of Daniel moments later. When her mother left the table briefly, she shifted position, stretching her legs across the seat to observe the spectacle more comfortably.  Her father, meanwhile, was oblivious, his nose stuck in his phone.

I reported this all to Andy and Brittany, who were sitting with their backs to the girl.

“How old do you think she is?” I asked Brittany, whose own children are eight and nine.  Perhaps I was expecting more courtesy than a child her age could reasonably demonstrate.

“Oh, she’s old enough to know better,” proclaimed Brittany, glancing behind her.  “She must be 11 or 12.  She definitely ought to know better.”

I met the girl’s eyes again, my disapproval pulsing across the few yards between us.  She stared back, her expression an unsettling cross of innocence and cunning.  She knew, I was sure, that staring at my son was wrong, perhaps even distressing. But she did it anyway.  I couldn’t imagine my own daughter behaving this way in the face of such obvious adult reproach.  It was disconcerting, creepy, even, her brazen gaze an unwelcome spotlight on an already strained, dispirited experience.

Perhaps I’d known from the start that something would blow that day.  Or maybe it was the epic struggle for Andy’s drink that broke me.

One momentary lapse of vigilance, and Daniel had snatched the forbidden cup and began sucking frantically on its straw.  Andy grabbed back and a tug-of-war ensued, my husband the final victor, but not before iced tea had splashed across the table and onto Daniel’s lap.

Tossing a sodden napkin aside, I looked up to find the girl’s gleeful attention glued to the bizarre scene we presented: a 24-year-old “normal” appearing man’s frenzied struggle with his stepfather over a soda cup in a pizza parlor.

“That’s it,” I muttered, abruptly rising from our booth.

Alarm and guilt washed over the mother’s flushed face as I stood before their table.

“Your daughter has been staring at my son since the moment we got here,” I said in a low, controlled voice.  “He is severely autistic and I understand his behavior is unusual.  But we are trying to share a meal with him.  And apparently your daughter doesn’t understand that it is rude to stare at disabled people.”

Without waiting for a reply I returned to my seat.  Glancing up, I saw the girl’s face crumpling as she met her mother’s appalled glare, and heard her belated whimpering: “I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!”

I looked down at our napkin strewn table.

“I think she’s apologizing,” Brittany murmured, but I didn’t look up.  I didn’t want an apology.  I just wanted her to stop staring at my son.

Did I do the right thing?  Did I overreact?  A friend noted that I could have used the episode as teaching moment, sharing insight into autism and disabilities in general.  Our outing could have ended on an positive note.

Honestly, though?  I wasn’t inclined to teach that insolent girl a damn thing.  My son’s dignity trumped sensitivity training by a mile.  Whether or not Daniel was aware of the scrutiny didn’t matter a bit; I knew.  My role in his life has diminished, but my instinct to protect him was what mattered in that moment.  I’m surprised I didn’t go further, and scream at her out loud:  Stop looking at him, you horrid little brat!  He can’t help it, he can’t help it and neither can I!  This disorder has consumed us both.

Yet I’ve plucked at the layers of this drama a dozen times this week, revealing more questions than answers.  Did I lash out merely to assert authority over a ill-behaving child because I’ve lost control of my own?  Had I simply unleashed my impotent sorrow, recognizing that transitory moments are all I have left with my son, and one more of these had been stolen by the disorder that rules our lives?

Will my rebuke help that girl in the long run, kindle a new awareness or compassion?  Or had I simply punished her for bearing witness to our pain?

Was this, in truth, less about my son than it was about me?  Can I possibly separate the two?

Daniel’s care team is playing a long game now; I just want to be his mother for a few precious hours, untethered by rules or consequences or procedures, to engage him on my own terms.  Yet I don’t know if my terms are sustainable.  I fear alienating the people we are dependent on, who care well for my son, who we are indeed luckier than many to have found.  Who am I to question their approach when they’ve shown Daniel a fuller life in the last 12 months than he has experienced in years?

There are no easy answers here.  Yet I feel compelled to reclaim my place, my own authority, to form a new set of rules for the two of us, supporting our relationship as mother and son.

I have only my heart to guide me.  But that will have to be enough.

 

Who’ll Stop the Rain

Rain

In my experience, few endeavors have less effect than telling a worrier not to worry, as the years I’ve lost to fruitless anxiety demonstrate.  Apparently, I needn’t worry that I’m alone, however, as Googling the word produces 391,000,000 hits.  We are a world of worriers.

Yet as my friend, the writer Robert Hughes, points out, “I think everybody can say with Montaigne, ‘My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.’”

Concurring with this assessment, though, seldom prevents me from clouding days with one worry or another, my list of what ifs and potential calamities far-reaching and often irrational.  It’s become such a part of me I hardly consider trying to change.

A recent bout with my most familiar nemesis led me to consider, though: could I at least try to embrace a less fatalistic approach, to consider the wisdom of annoying but accurate platitudes like, “Worry is like walking around with an umbrella waiting for it to rain”?

Such an apt simile, after all.  Rain, and the damage it may cause, is one of my most visceral fears.  It’s unstoppable, beyond human control, potentially ruinous.  The menacing possibilities my imagination can conjure are boundless where rain is concerned.  As a co-worker unwittingly reinforced, “Water always finds a way in!”

My phobia reached its peak in the spring of 2014, following a grueling winter of near-record cold and snowfall, the back of which every Chicagoan longed to see.  Everyone except me, that is.  The promise of spring promised me only the melting of the massive snowbanks directly into the basement of my charming but porous 90-year-old home.  I worried about the watery consequences incessantly, for weeks on end.

Given how infrequently we’ve had more than a few trickles in the 14 years we’ve lived here, even I recognized this obsession as absurd.  I couldn’t stop myself, though.  The leaky episodes we had experienced kept me watchful, wary, filled with dread whenever rain was foretold.

That spring was lost to me, my anxiety gathering like the whopping, snow-melting storm forecasters gleefully predicted for a Thursday in early April.  I’d prepared as best I could: old towels lined trouble spots, rags and buckets were near to hand.  Home from work after the day-long deluge, I braced myself at the top of the basement stairs, Odysseus facing a hostile, enemy-strewn shore.

“Be strong, saith my heart;” I recited bravely, “I am a soldier; I have seen worse sights than this.”

*****

We all have fears, real and imagined, some of which we allow to cripple us. My friend Marla Davishoff, a talented therapist, assures me I’m not alone in this particular fear; many people, women especially, feel anxiety around water and their homes. Perhaps it involves the instinct to protect our nests, our flocks.  I can scarcely recall my temperament before adulthood brought responsibility beyond my own narrow concerns, beyond caring for myself alone.  Have I really been this nervous my whole life, this irrational about problems that, while tiresome, are most certainly not the end of the world?  Whatever damage our house may sustain, we have the resources to fix it, however inconvenient that may be.  Yet when the familiar panic creeps in, I chide myself in vain: “What’s the worst that can happen?”  Plenty, my anxious mind replies.

Such frivolous worry, of course, is also just a tad self-centric, cowardly, even.  How selfish to waste so much energy on foolish fears as society reels with more sobering concerns, while I, in fact, have more serious concerns myself.  Real, life-altering concerns.

For years I thought controlling at least my physical environment would help quell the chaos of autism, the daily upset and fear, the desperate need to help my son without knowing how.  I’ve justified, too, my phobias as necessary stand-ins for the vast intangibles that have shrouded our lives since Daniel’s diagnosis, staving off a flood of legitimate, long-term worry too serious and heartbreaking to absorb.  Worry needs an outlet somewhere; how much easier to shoot rabidly at identifiable targets than the elusive, mercurial enemy that has shaped my son’s life, and my own?

For me, and many parents like me, diagnosis of profound disability in our children skews our image of a rational, predictable world.  Life “working out for the best” becomes a naive, unjustified banality, rhetoric like “What’s the worst that can happen?” scant reassurance when your child’s future, his whole existence, is at stake.

I know powerlessness now, that circumstances exist beyond my control despite pleas and prayers and promises; that love alone is not healer enough; that some losses will never be redeemed.  Autism stole Daniel’s life the day he was born, the fullness of normal experience he should have had lost to fate, or chance, or an arbitrary bestowing I’ll never comprehend.

He appears content these days.  In many ways he is thriving.  But I know all that he is missing.  I can’t abandon the worry over what his heart holds, the unexpressed dreams he may harbor that will never be fulfilled.  He is blessed with health and energy and curiosity, a family that loves him, yet he faces a lifetime of inequitable challenges through no fault of his own.  This truth is as sure as rain.  It will always find a way in.  Yet I keep trying to stem the tide.

I wonder if I’m on the right track about any of this, if these insights are really just a convoluted excuse for behavior that’s merely habitual, perversely comforting even as it cripples me.  Have the years of doubt and concern, of questions and faltering, imperfect solutions, warped me so indelibly that I no longer know how to live without worry?

I guess I needn’t worry over the why.  The possibility of change, my fledgling yearning for it and the hard work it involves, is concern enough for now.

******

As you may have guessed, our basement didn’t flood two years ago.  A few rogue rivulets escaped my towel barriers, easily wiped away.  I wasted that whole spring for nothing, fretting away moment after moment, hour after hour, until a whole season had passed, over an event that never occurred.

A few months ago we had the drain tiles in our basement replaced.  It was an expensive undertaking, postponed for years until my daughter was through graduate school and Daniel’s residential placement was, at least for now, secure.  Just after Christmas we added a backup sump pump system, to protect us even during power failures.  Marla optimistically predicts that these improvements will lay my water worries to rest, once and for all.

I was huddled on our screened porch a few weeks ago while the four cats we care for ate the breakfast I provide them each morning.  Andy’s allergies prevent us from bringing them inside, but our porch has been their home base for six years, and we’ve made it their sanctuary.

Sipping my coffee, I reflected that it will be months, perhaps years, before I descend the basement stairs without trepidation at what might be seeping across the floor, but I’ll be working on it, one step at a time.

This hopeful moment was punctuated by a piece of ceiling plaster falling on my head.

The porch roof seems to have developed a weak spot.

My time in the deep end over this new threat passed more quickly than you might imagine, more in proportion to the relative gravity of the problem.  A roofer was called.  A temporary fix was installed, protecting our porch and our cats, until we can address the issue come spring.

I’ve got this.

Not yet a soldier, but standing fast.

This time, at least.

Bon Appetit and Goodbye

Pancakes

I wrote this essay seven and a half years ago, several months after moving my son to a residential school an hour and a half from home.  Reading it today, I’m surprised at its lighthearted tone, when my heart had so recently broken.  I understand now my need to fend off a loss so deep I couldn’t fully acknowledge it all at once.  Nevertheless, I like this piece, which reflects my feelings around the changes in our family at that time.  I hope you’ll enjoy it, too.  —Kristen 

 

By the time I learned to cook it was too late.  And by learning to cook I mean finding the right cookbook, brimming with simple but enticing recipes for the culinarily unimaginative, no trip to Foodstuffs required.  After years recycling the same six or seven meals week after ho-hum week, “Weeknight Meals for Busy Moms” seemed like a godsend.

Except I’m not really a mom anymore, not in the sense that has defined me for so long.  My son no longer lives with me, and my daughter has one foot out the door, leaving for college in less than six months.  My husband’s schedule is erratic, bringing him home some evenings as late at 9 p.m.

Which leaves me alone in the kitchen, a slate of brand new family recipes on tap, my family no longer at the table.

“Wait!  Wait!” I want to cry.  “I’ve got it together now!  June Cleaver is in the house!”

But time waits for no mom.  I recognize the irony of finally mastering the art of the family meal just as my family scatters to the winds, symbolic of the loss I feel around the changes of the last three months, and those that are yet to come.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t try.  But the vaguely held images of well-balanced meals prepared with unhurried competence, then shared at a cozy table by my serene and typical family, never fully (or even partially, actually) materialized in real life.  More often I recall slapping together meals of rotini with a side of orange slices, or scrambled eggs and toast, if I hadn’t forgotten to buy bread.

And my family isn’t all that easy to please, either.  As a boy, my son displayed disdain for most every food offering (even those in my famous Top Five) only satisfying my frenetic attempts to nourish him with an occasional cup of lo-cal lemon yogurt.  During adolescence, when his growing appetite placed him in the “clean your plate and then some” club, my daughter’s willingness to eat virtually anything with calories diminished to the alarming but typical proportions of a teenage girl.

My husband, meanwhile, eats nothing containing butter, sour cream, cream cheese, cheese sauce, mayonnaise, hollandaise, béarnaise or any other coating, while alternately clamoring for more steamed vegetables and asking why I didn’t buy cookies at Costco.

So many of my half-formed ideas of what “family” means have reluctantly shifted since I had a family of my own.  The demands of parenting a truly atypical child were greater than I could have dreamed possible, and what I’d considered “normal” and “healthy” and “secure” flew out the window in the face of my son’s disability.

Mealtimes were just one of a slew of ordinary experiences impeded by his unique needs.  Eating in restaurants, family vacations, doctor visits, attending a movie or strolling the zoo; Sunday school, music recitals, a walk in the neighborhood, buying an ice cream cone – each formative and familial experience I had envisioned for my children took on new and often forbidding overtones in the world of autism.

My son’s move almost three months ago to a residential school for developmentally disabled children should have brought a welcome normalcy to our home, an easing of the uncertainly his volatility lent our lives.  And perhaps this will come.  For now, though, his absence is a loss impossible to imagine healing with time.

I still reach for his evening medications when I glance at the clock at 7:45, and feel the stab of emptiness as I pass his room on my way to bed.  The constant struggle of those last grueling months isn’t so vivid right now; instead, I recall the tenderness of his hand against my face as we read the same books, night after night, as the day wound down.

I long now to recapture something as it slips away and changes shape again.  That normal family around the dinner table could be mine, I tell myself, if I just had another chance.  I’d do it right this time.  Yet I recognize that I’m holding onto to an ideal that is merely that, a fantasy painfully relinquished as I did what was necessary to keep my family whole, however unconventionally that evolved.  The home front I forged as mother is not the one I intended, but it is ours and ours alone.

Today I remember the conversations my daughter and I shared over another round of “Chicken with Bread Crumbs” or “Pasta Salad with Italian Dressing,” watching her grow from hesitant girl to confident young woman in the process.

Or my joy at the sound of my son’s voice last fall, clear and decisive, asking for a second helping of one of my dinnertime masterpieces.

“Pancake!” he cried cheerfully.  “Pancake!”

Pancakes it is.