Saturday, August 31, 2013

Counting Down to Day One (A mom's perspective on the first day of school)

First day of school.  New backpacks, fresh haircuts and high expectations. Jangled nerves, empty houses, lunch boxes and pointy new crayons. New teachers, new kids, new rules, new routines.

The first day of school is in 61 hours.

I've been counting down to September 3rd since late spring, and I. Can't. Wait.  My kids need to be in school.  They crave the routine, the structure, the socializing and the stimulation. Our family harmony thrives on the controlled chaos of soccer practice, speech therapy, dinner time, and homework. The 9 months of the school year are comforting in their repetitiveness and predictability.

Perhaps even more than my kids, I need them to be in school. I crave a cleaner house, running errands alone, and an occasional solitary walk with my dog and my headphones. I yearn for the moment when the bus pulls away from the curb and I'm left to walk, alone, into a silent and empty house. I want it so much I can almost taste it.

But with a new school year comes new reminders.  Nate is nowhere near the maturity and skill level of his typically-developing fellow third graders. Nate has not spent the summer going to birthday parties and play dates with his peers. Nate won't quickly adapt to new classroom routines and expectations, he still can't read and his math skills are at a preschool level.

The first day of school brings new teachers, students and parents who have never met Nate before. Cue the sideways glances, quizzical looks and confused stares. A new group of families trying to understand who Nate is and why he's acting so....different. A new batch of paranoid thoughts flying through my head, wondering whether the teacher, the other kids, and their parents are wishing Nate wasn't there.

The new year brings what feels like a million new logistics and details to iron out.  Who will take Nate to the bathroom? Will they know to take him even when he says he doesn't need to go? Will they make sure he gets his pants pulled down in time?  And what about lunch?  Does his aid know he has a peanut allergy? Will they know he needs to be reminded repeatedly to focus on his eating? What time will he get his afternoon dose of medication, and will it be at a convenient time that doesn't interfere with his class time?  Who do I talk to about making sure Nate gets to attend Art class this year, instead of missing it for Speech therapy?

And then there's the guilt.  I should make him write his name 10 times a day to improve his handwriting. I'm not consistently reinforcing school skills and expectations at home.  I'm not spending time each day working on his reading.  I should be posting daily schedules around the house, encouraging his use of the iPad at home to communicate, and making play dates with a classmate every few weeks. September through June is a annual, prolonged period of knowing I should do more but not having the time, energy or organizational system to make it happen.

Something else happens when school starts every year.  I'm reminded how many people work hard to ensure Nate's well being, safety, security and happiness. I'm reminded of all the people in our community who love him and want him to succeed.  Like the weight of a thousand hugs, I feel the support of teachers, therapists, counselors, administrators, parents and kids who care about Nate and our family.  When school is in session I get the chance to see the kindness of a classmate holding Nate's hand and walking with him to recess. To see a teacher take extra time to include Nate in a lesson.  To see an aid offering him a hug when he's sad.

And so we begin another school year of joyful highs and heartbreaking lows, early morning wake-ups and late night homework battles. New shoes, a shiny lunch box, many successes and some failures. Being Nate's mom means more questions, more worry and more time spent making sure it all works. Only 60.5 hours left.  Bring it on 3rd Grade!  Nate and his mom are coming for you!

Some Days are Diamonds by Linda J. Porter

Thanks for asking about my dog.  She perked up over the past couple of days but this morning she could not get up without assistance.  I thought maybe she had just been ill rather than dying, but now I’m not sure.  I just try to make her more comfortable, do some contingency planning around her potential demise, and focus on enjoying every moment that I can share with her.  I secretly hope that if she were to die, let it be after ShayLynn, 16, returns from camp on Saturday so she can gain some closure. 

ShayLynn was three years old, about six months after her adoption, when a litter of puppies was featured on the local morning news one rainy day in December.  The puppies had been left in a bag in a rural area in King County called Black Diamond.  Remarkably, a group of teen boys came by, rescued them, and brought them to the local animal shelter.  I felt compelled to drive to the shelter that morning, not really believing we would get one of those puppies but since I had been planning to adopt a dog, I hoped it would be one of these. 

You see, ShayLynn had been asking in previous months about her biological parents; e.g., why they were not there for her and why they left her.  In preparation for her July adoption, I had been explaining that “adoption” means having a “forever family”.  She knew she had lived with me since she was two months old, and now adoption would mean she could forever remain legally a part of my world.  This comforted her but she was also a bit confused.

When the boys found the puppy littler, I thought it would be a great parallel for ShayLynn to reach out and adopt a puppy within a few months of me adopting her, and that she might then better understand on some core level that she had an opportunity to ease another creature’s life.  Even though Diamond’s mommy was not there, because of the kindness of young men—who could have made other decisions about their fate—these puppies had a solid chance.  And so it came to be that one little black Labrador/border collie mix who had a large white diamond on her chest, who was found in Black Diamond, and now named Diamond—had that chance of being loved by a little girl who now somehow understood.

But the story does not stop there.  When I brought ShayLynn’s little brother into our home six years later after his mommy could no longer take care of him, he required an extraordinary amount of supervision—more than even most waddlers and toddlers—as he continues to need to this day at the age of 11 years.  Besides suffering from PTSD due to his traumatic early childhood history, Nathan has a sensory processing disorder where he is highly sensitive to sensations, but he also seeks it out to distraction.  He has this incredible “bionic” ability to hear, see, and feel sensations more than most people can.  (Case in point, he spoke just last week about how amazing it was to actually hear the sound of little birds flapping their wings some distance away.  I am highly attuned to sensations as well, but I could not hear it.) 

There are many times when Nathan becomes so overwhelmed by all of these sensory intrusions in his life, that it can lead to behavior problems.  Not to be crass, but it was sometimes hard to even get into the bathroom because he had to be right near me at all times.  Sometimes I felt I could hardly breathe.  I also had to be highly aware of whether or not he would somehow harm the dog, as is so typical of little tykes whose greatest delight is in toys that make noises at the push of a button.  Pulling a dog’s ears can result in a squeal or even worse, a snap of the jaw.  This would be exciting for Nathan with his sensory-seeking needs.

So, I knew if I went into the bathroom, I would have to keep the door at least partly open, then use my “mother’s other eyes” (my ears) especially since the dog bed was located in my oversized hallway outside of the bathroom door.  One day, the door ajar and separating us—it got eerily quiet.  I spoke to Nathan (who was about two), asking him what he was doing.  No answer.  I spoke more and no answer.  This could not possibly be good.  I had kiddie gates on the doors leading from the hallway, but had not heard any open.  What was going on? 

I rushed to open the door and there I saw what has become one of my greatest memories:  My little boy, the epitome of relaxation, was lying in a fetal position in the dog’s bed next to the dog.  Every inch of his hair was saturated and swept into all sorts of comical swirls and curls.  And there was our family dog, licking my normally busy boy with a most loving expression on her face.  It was impossible to be disturbed by what would typically be a rather disgusting scene.  A bath could come later.  Right now, Nathan enjoyed it so much that this was the one thing that he remained still for.  Why impede that?!

And thus began the bond that he and his “mother dog” share to this day.  In a special way, Diamond transcended what I had been trying to accomplish in the months since Nathan had arrived in my home—helping him learn how trust enough to be nurtured and to accept love.  Nathan is sad about the prospect of losing his beloved Diamond.  When he thinks about it, huge tears form in his eyes and the occasional tear trickles down his face.  He said he misses her already.  For now, he leans into me for comfort and empathy, a huge step for him.  Someday, though, he will understand even more, the importance of her journey in his healing.”

Afterthought, 8/28/13:  I continued to observe Diamond until Saturday, 8.24.13, the date my daughter would return after two weeks of overnight camp.  Since Saturday, it is as though our beloved dog is different!  She is up and around, moving easily, doing her “sassy bark” when she is not in the same room with us at night (her long-term, unpredictable incontinence means she must be on a washable floor), and is eating and drinking more.  She wags her tail and initiates play.  Could it be she was grieving the loss of her “sister”, my daughter?  Hmmm….  We are guardedly joyous that this means she will remain with us for longer still.