The Stage is his Playground

I was listening to a podcast and the host said that when he started speaking publicly, he was terrified of the size of the stage. There was too much room, too much space. So he started awkwardly, standing in his spot. He looked awkward, sounded awkward, moved awkwardly.
When he started to view the stage as his playground, all of the awkwardness disappeared.
Wil is not a good singer. But he sings loud anyway. When he hears a new song he likes, he will find it on his iPad. He will play it over and over, rewinding in certain parts as many times as he needs, until he knows every word. Or what he thinks is every word. He’ll play the song so many times, and sing the song so many times, that if he has a lyric wrong, when I hear the actual song in the car without Wil, I’m like, “Luke Bryan, you are singing it wrong!”
Almost every morning, Wil has his iPad on full blast, his voice on full blast and his dancing on full blast. Though none if it comes together in beautiful symmetry, I would never define it as awkward. He is free and full of the moment. The stage is his playround, and that makes you want to jump right on stage with him. And I do.
I am not a good singer, and my dancing could use some help. But when Wil is rocking out, I rock right out with him. When there is a guitar solo, we are head-banging with the best of them, even if it is country music.
If there was any sense of a bad mood, it falls right off the edge of the stage. It’s a beautifully freeing feeling, full of authenticity, even if we may sound and look ridiculous. But that is part of its charm.
On the drive to Wil’s swim lessons, he is DJ. He turns up his favorite tunes on Amazon Music, and with the windows down, we are jamming. When we pulled up to the stoplight, some utility men were working there. I turned down the music and Wil turned it right back up. One of the men looked over with a frown, then saw Wil singing and grooving in his seat. He smiled and waved at Wil.
When we entered the club entrance where Wil has his lessons, we drove by a golf course. I turned down the music again and told Wil we needed to be quieter here in respect for the golfers. He hit stop on my phone. “Mom, after swim lessons, let’s listen to “One Margarita.”
After swim lessons, and quietly driving past the golf course, Wil cranked up “One Margarita” at 9:30AM. We waved at the utility men as we drove by, windows down, belting out in our bad voices, “Don’t worry ’bout tomorrow
Leave all your sorrow out here on the floatin’ dock.”
Wil makes the stage everyone’s playground.
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Opening the View

I’m embarrassed of things I said before Wil was born. I was ignorant. I just didn’t know. Now, when I hear or read certain words, I cringe immediately. My kids cringe immediately. We know better, thank God.
When words hurt, our primitive drive is to react with a fight. Eliminate that word! It is evil. Words are easy targets. They are tangible. Something to go to war on. But is it the word? Or the feeling behind the word? The feeling is in the soul of the word. Once the word is killed, the soul will live on. Like a disease, if the spirit of the feeling goes untreated, it will come back in a different form.
So how do we fight a feeling? How do you fight the spirit of something? Or is even putting up a fight the right thing?
Nobody had to fight me to change my mind. I was instantaneously in a place where I needed to listen. I needed to learn. All that I thought I knew, or better yet, what I thought I didn’t want to know about, was staring me right in the face.
I may have opened my mind over the years with life experiences without having a child with special needs. I already was a fairly open-minded person, but I still closed my mind to things I didn’t want to know about. But now, oh how I want you to see this place. I want so badly for you to understand what I once didn’t. I want you to see how incredibly amazing this place is. How full, vibrant and enriching it is. How you would never, ever think think to throw stones in our direction if you only knew.
I don’t want to fight ignorant feelings. I don’t want to throw the stones thrown at us right back at the thrower. I want to open eyes. I want to open ears. I want to open all senses to the beauty that is right here in plain view.
You can’t eliminate a feeling with a fight. But you can transform a feeling by opening the view to meet all of the senses.
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Wil’s Growing Independence

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Wil as a young adult. Will he live with Matt and myself? Will he live independently with help? Will he have his own apartment with a friend? Wil is a very social person; he loves to swim, golf and hang out with friends. I know he’ll want to be involved in various activities as a young adult. Right now, with the pandemic, I’m always looking for ways to keep him active, healthy and interested in hobbies as there is less available. Recently, he had a virtual theater class with his Down syndrome support group. He greatly enjoyed singing and dancing with his friends he hasn’t seen for months.

Wil values his independence.  He takes walks by himself in our back field with our yellow lab, Woody. He calls these walks his “adventures.” While he handles most of his self-care on his own, he does not fully appreciate the dangers of traffic and strangers. He also doesn’t understand the value of money.  Over time, his understanding of finances and dangers may come. Or it may not. As I have not been gifted a crystal ball, what I can do is find ways to broaden his independence and foster his growth.

I thought Wil having time home alone with his good friend, Lila Harvey, would be a great independence booster for Wil. I asked Lila’s mom, Rebecca, if she would be comfortable with Lila staying with Wil for just over 2 hours without me home. Wil enjoys Lila’s company greatly, she is smart as a whip, and stands firm on her ground. She’s also very good at finding activities they both can enjoy; which is no small task especially for someone her age. I’m always impressed and thankful for their friendship. Rebecca and Lila were both on board.

When I told Wil he would be home alone with Lila, he looked up at me in shock, then said, “Yay!”

Wil and Lila both love music, so when Lila arrived, Wil got out his iPad and they started singing songs together. I left on that high note.

When I returned home, they were both racing their bikes in the driveway. Two pairs of mud-caked boots were on the porch and Woody was wet and muddy; his tail was a-wagging.

“Hi Mom!” Wil yelled out as he sped by on his bike. The scent of lemongrass bug spray hung in the air behind him.

“Hi Miss Christie,” Lila said, “we had a dance party then walked to the river. It was low and muddy, but we had a good time.”

I suppose in our own ways, we all tested the waters that day. Though our waters are not always crystal clear, they are good fun for jumping in and getting your boots muddy. I breathed in the refreshing scent of lemongrass hanging in the air as my son sped by at his own speed, his friend racing with him, and his dog’s tail a-wagging.

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In Sync

As Wil has gotten older, it’s clear he needs closer friends with Down syndrome. He has wonderful friends at school that love and support him fully. As the gap in abilities with his typical peers grows and social lives expand, Wil also needs to cultivate friendships with those whose abilities match his.

Manny’s family lives in the neighboring town, so his mother, Laura, reached out to get our boys together. Manny will be entering 9th grade, and Wil 8th.

When Manny arrived at our house, it was our second get-together. We had met at Portage Lake the previous week and a friendship was formed. Though both Manny and Wil had talked of this second get-together for days, when Manny entered our house he went to the couch and Wil retreated to his bedroom. They were overwhelmed.

I took a big sigh of relief. Why? Because this was normal behavior not for just one of them, but for both of them.

I coaxed Wil out of his room, and Laura coaxed Manny to show Wil the toys he brought. Manny won Wil’s heart by bringing him a can of Sprite to drink with lunch.

The two laughed and were silly with lunch, and that broke the ice. But after lunch, they separated again. Even this separation was refreshing to me as it’s usually Wil I’m coaxing while others wait. This day, we were all gloriously on the same page, even if Manny and Wil were apart. Manny’s older sister, Grace, was there, and she kept the conversation going engaging both Wil and Manny. Like Katherine and Elizabeth (who were at a birthday party), this is Grace’s normal, and she handles it, well, with grace.

Laura suggested a movie to start the ball rolling again. And roll the ball we did — Manny chose Hotel Transylvania 3 and we played a game where we sat on the floor and rolled the ball to each other. When the music in the movie played, that was the kryptonite to whatever was holding them back. Manny and Wil broke out their dance moves. Then Wil broke out his karaoke player and jammed to Luke Bryan while Manny jammed on his Bluetooth mic he brought from home.

After the jam session, we headed outside to the driveway to ride bikes. Manny tried Wil’s recumbent bike while Wil rode his bike with training wheels. The handles on the recumbent bike are what steer it. Manny is used to using an elliptical machine, so he was pumping the handles back and forth zig zagging around. I thought that was a smart technique. With a few more tries, he figured it out and was zooming around, even on the grass!

Then I took Manny on the 4-wheeler. He “woohoo’d” the entire time. The guy has a need for speed!

Soon it was time for them to go, and we said our goodbyes until next time. I talked to my sister that evening, and told her how great it is to have a get-together where the kids are on the same level. It’s something you just don’t take for granted.

A day full of stops, starts, zig-zags, and full speeds ahead — all the while, remaining gloriously in sync.

(Photo: Potato chip lips)

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Its Not Real…Until It Is

I would say this situation is hardest on Wil. He doesn’t understand as much as I’ve explained it. I’ve heard the response, “I don’t understand, either,” which I respect and appreciate. But Wil doesn’t understand what a virus is. We do know what a virus is, even not knowing all the details of this particular one.

In many ways, I’ve related this extended experience to living with Wil as an adult, should he decide to live at home. I’m the one he leans on, I’m the one he has to talk to, I’m the one to motivate his reading/speech/motor skills, and nearly 100% of his way to get to places. Many of his typical peers, in the coming years, won’t need this help and will be knee deep in their own lives. The importance of Wil making friends with those of his abilities is becoming more apparent and essential. I’ve had parents of adults with Down syndrome tell me of the limited opportunities and activities for their kids. They are their kids’ anchors and a great part of their entertainment and continuation of learning skills. I used to think, “Well, there has to be more out there for our kids.” I heard their words, but couldn’t grasp the full meaning of what they meant. While I can’t yet see through the same lens as they do, as Wil gets older I’m grasping more of what they were telling me. I’m feeling it more than just hearing the words. Please don’t misunderstand, none of us would trade this life. We love our chromosome-enhanced life. What I’m getting at is it’s a new reality for us that we have few examples of. Our kids mature and the divide grows between the typical world and our Down syndrome world.

I’ve heard the response, “No one knows what the future holds.” I appreciate respect that answer. But there are situations we grasp even if we don’t have all the details, and situations we don’t grasp simply for the reason we have nothing to relate it to.

Just because we think we understand, doesn’t mean we do…until we can feel it for ourselves. Then it becomes real.106199062_10223431683721660_3233359678270749978_n.jpg

 

Chicken Tender Caper

Last night I made “healthy” chicken tenders (soaked in almond milk, whole wheat bread crumbs, etc). I took the tenders out of the oven, hollered to Matt, Elizabeth and Wil, who were outside, dinner was ready then took Katherine to Crossfit. I returned to Elizabeth telling me Wil ate almost 2 pounds of the tenders, as when she and Matt came inside, only 2 tenders were left.

Late this afternoon, when I returned home from work training, Elizabeth told me she caught Wil in the basement eating chicken tenders! Apparently last night, after eating a few tenders, he put all but 2 tenders (kindly leaving one each for Matt and Elizabeth) in Tupperware. He hid the Tupperware full of tenders in the basement fridge so he could have them for lunch today.
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Navigating Methods of Plane Sailing

“The gate is closing in four minutes, ma’am.” An airline representative said to me as I sat on the floor with Wil.

“Yes, thank you. I just can’t get him up. I’m trying.”

Katherine was standing by our bags and Elizabeth and I tried to lift Wil up into a wheelchair to roll him onto the flight. When an 110 pound boy with low muscle tone doesn’t want to move, its like lifting an extremely heavy noodle. Once you do get him up, he seems to fold within your hands and slip out.

I saw him falling apart about thirty minutes ago. When it started in his mind I can’t tell you. I saw his shoulders start to slump, then he muttered to himself. That was not a good sign. When Wil gets like this he needs time to unwind. My guess was he was becoming overwhelmed by the prospect of going to Florida. It’s not that he didn’t want to go, it was the opposite. The anticipation of it all was overwhelming him. He’d see my parents, he’d swim in their pool, he’d go to the beach. He loves my parents dearly and the thought of swimming every day was a dream. Especially after being homebound for so long with the pandemic. But all of that anticipation was building to the perfect storm. Unfortunately I only had four minutes left to quell it.

When I saw the first signs of Wil starting to shut down I enlisted Elizabeth’s help, as she jokes around with him a lot and can typically turn his mood around. She already saw what I did. She knew something was happening with Wil and knew it wasn’t a good sign. Katherine was reading a book, and I explained what I saw happening. I asked if she wouldn’t mind standing by the bags if things didn’t go well. She agreed.

Elizabeth and I had tried to perk Wil up with jokes and talking about seeing Grandma Leigh and Grandpa. Through all this, the line of people getting on the plane shortened. I knew our time was running out. And with Wil, time is what we always need. He slumped down further. I knew if he sat on the ground we’d likely not get him up. I scanned the room and saw an empty wheelchair owned by the airline. Likely someone had used it to board first class and now no longer needed it. I quickly ran over to grab it and wheeled it next to Wil.

“Look Wil! Do you want to go for a ride?” He looked up then looked down again. Nothing I had in my arsenal was working. We’ve been down similar roads before. Again, time is what we needed and it was quickly running out. And then, he sat on the floor. I didn’t want to do this, but I could think of no other options.

“Elizabeth, we have to lift him up. Can you help me?” And so, the two of us lifted him and he adamantly refused. The passengers that were still in line began to stare. They knew nothing of the build up of this moment. All they saw was the force being used. I felt sad. I felt anger. Not at them, not at Wil, but at myself. How could I, the mother, be forcing my son against his will. What message am I sending to Wil? What message am I sending to his sisters? What message am I sending to the outside world? That force is the answer? But that was the problem, I didn’t know the answer. I simply didn’t know what to do at that point to get Wil on the plane. I knew he needed time to process. I knew he needed time to tell me what was upsetting him. I knew, with time, he would willingly stand up on his own and board the plane. The problem was that the plane would be long gone with the time he needed. And so, I resorted to lifting him into the wheelchair, which he would then slide out of back onto the ground.

At this point I was sweating. I was frustrated. I was on the verge of tears. I racked my brain for options. I thought of sending Elizabeth and Katherine on the flight without myself or Wil. They were almost 15 years old and they’d been on this flight many times. I’d find another flight for Wil and I to Florida. But when would that be? I also knew how incredibly upset Wil would be when the plane left without us. But I certainly was not going to penalize Katherine and Elizabeth by making them stay back, too.

As these thoughts swirled and Elizabeth and I continued our attempts to get Wil in the wheelchair, one of the women from the airlines walked over and bent down to Wil’s level on the floor. “Can you get in the chair –” she paused and looked at me.

“Wil,” I said, “his name is Wil.”

“Wil, can you get in the chair?” He looked up at her. She was a break in his pattern. He wasn’t fighting me and he wasn’t fighting his sister. This was a fresh, new face. I took a deep breath full of hope. Please, please, please I prayed.

“We are going to see his grandparents. He’s very excited for all the swimming he’ll be doing.” I said to the airline representative, so she’d have more personal information to persuade Wil.

“Wil, don’t you want to go swimming? And see your grandparents? Let’s get you in the chair so you can do that.”

When Wil stood, I felt as if 100 pounds was lifted off my shoulders. And in a way, it was. Wil sat in the chair and the airline representative wheeled him to the gate. I then took the handles, and as I did, I looked her in the eyes and said, “Thank you.” She looked back at me and nodded. I couldn’t tell if she understood what was happening or if she thought I was an awful person for forcing my child against his will. I have no control over her thoughts but I do have control over mine, and I was thankful beyond measure that Katherine, Elizabeth, Wil and myself were boarding that plane together.

That is one of the challenges of awareness. It’s rarely the act of what is seen that’s the full picture. When I saw what was happening with Wil it was thirty minutes prior, and likely whatever was happening in his mind started earlier than that. But what everyone saw was the five minute breakdown. What message was received in that time to contribute or take away from Down syndrome awareness? It’s rarely black and white. It’s this process that happens over time, and though I’ve been raising Wil for 13 years, every day I’m figuring out the grey areas.
Once on the plane, Wil was back to his silly, fun-loving self. We had crossed whatever barrier was in his mind. On that flight, I was already mentally preparing for the flight home. Going back over the signs of Wil breaking down. What I could do to prevent them. For the flight back home, my mom packed his favorite snacks. I downloaded favorite movies. And I didn’t need a single one, Wil breezed through security and onto the plane without a single halt. It was all gloriously uneventful.

But that flight on the way to Florida stays with me. It’s a puzzle to unfold. And I do know it needs to be unfolded with extra time. I’m better at reading Wil’s cues, but I need to find them earlier and earlier when I know time is not on our side. Even so, there will always be those times when he shuts down and I don’t have time. What to do then, I still need to figure out. Force is not the answer. Domineering someone is not the answer. Time is the answer. Anticipation is the answer. But what if you don’t have those things? What then? I don’t know yet, but after that flight, when I do have time, that experience reinforced that I need to take it.

The day after we arrived back home, I needed to make a Costco trip as our cupboards were bare. Katherine and Elizabeth love going to Costco. We had not been there since the pandemic, so the girls were extra excited with the prospect. Wil, not so much. Earlier that morning, Wil had gone with me to the school to return his sister’s Chromebooks and textbooks as school just ended for the summer. We saw his speech therapist and he enjoyed a conversation with her. Wil missed seeing all of his teachers in person with the pandemic, so this was a real treat. He was in great spirits so I was surprised that he immediately turned down the prospect of going to Costco.

“Wil, you love their pizza. Remember those huge slices of pizza?” His answer was still no.

When we returned home from the school, he went directly to his room. As both Katherine and Elizabeth were looking forward to the Costco trip, I wasn’t about to ask one of them to stay back with Wil. So, how to convince Wil to go? I knew, in time, I could figure out what the roadblock was. And unlike the plane incident, time was on my side.

“So, Wil, why don’t you want to go to Costco?”

“Humpf.” (His favorite answer when he doesn’t want to explain.)

“Wil, aren’t you hungry? It’s been awhile since you had breakfast.”

“Yeeeeeeees,” he said and looked at me. His sense of humor was there. A great sign!

“Sooooo,” I said mimicking his drawn out “yes.” “Let’s go to Costco.” And I did a little dance.

“Mom, you are silly.” He said, laughing.

“I know, so are you. Let’s go silly.” I tickled him.
Elizabeth heard the exchange and came into Wil’s room. “Suddenly I feel very tired. I’m going to take a nap.” She sprawled out on Wil’s bed. This is a regular joke between them.

“No,” Wil said and jumped on Elizabeth. “This is not Lizbeth’s bed!” Elizabeth fake snored. “Lizbeth get up.” Elizabeth continued to fake snore and Wil bounced on her. “I’ll go on Lizbeth’s bed.” Wil got up and ran to her bed.

“Hey, not my bed,” Elizabeth jumped up and chased him.

“Yes, your bed,” Wil said laughing and running to Elizabeth’s room. Elizabeth bear hugged him before he reached her room and turned him around. They both fell down laughing on the ground.

“Ok Wil, let’s go to Costco.” Elizabeth said.

“No!” Wil ran back to his room. I thanked Elizabeth for trying, then went back to Wil’s room. I sat down next to him. He picked up his Ipad and started playing a game. I sat with him awhile. After some time and discussion over his game, I tried again.

“Wil, what’s the problem? You love Costco pizza. And it will be a fun trip.”

He was quiet so I waited him out. Then I asked him again.

“Too long of a trip, Mom.” He replied.

I remained calm and nodded my head, but inside I was doing cartwheels. He didn’t simply respond yes or no. He told me why! He told me what he was thinking and why he didn’t want to go! And all it took was giving him the time he needed. Time is both a challenging and simple answer to unravel all that holds Wil back.

Simple: give Wil time and the answers come. Challenge: I don’t always have the time he needs. And, it takes a lot of patience. Time and time again. But when the answers come, they are always worth the time. The milestone of Wil telling me why filled my heart to overflowing. I would wait to the ends of the earth to hear words like that. Every parent out there who waits for milestones to happen, never knowing when or how, and then when the milestone emerges, unplanned, unscheduled, of our child’s own will, knows this feeling of joy I speak of.

“So that’s why you don’t want to go? It will take too long?”

“Yes,” he said. And just like on the plane, where many see the one snapshot in time, and not the build-up, so was this conversation. So simple on the surface, and yet, for me to have this conversation over his “why” was a build-up in time. It was a beautiful moment. A breakthrough. An answer I had coveted and now could enjoy sharing with my son.

“Ok, how about this?” I asked. “How about we make it a short trip? Then a big slice of pizza at the end of the short trip.”

“Ok,” he said and stood up and slipped his Crocs on. No fight, no domineering. His feelings were expressed, heard and validated. Oh, sweet time how I could hug you!

I was thankful, too, that Katherine and Elizabeth were witness to the process of the Costco trip. That the message being sent was the gift of time. I told them I wasn’t proud of the incident on the plane. That I still don’t know what the right answer was. But I do know, when we have time, Wil needs that time extended to him. To unwind, to unfold, to process. How would we feel if people were always running over us with their agenda? That’s likely how he feels all the time. It not about giving him what he wants all the time. It’s about giving him the time to tell us what we wants and how he feels so we can work with that.

When we arrived at Costco, Wil wouldn’t get out of the car. I reminded him that he agreed to a short trip. Katherine and Elizabeth joked with him. Katherine and Elizabeth tickled him. Katherine and Elizabeth eventually got him out of the car. The patience these girls have with most things we do is their norm. We rarely just get in the car and go somewhere. There is always the element of time required. I expressed to the girls that I know it can be tiring to always be extending extra time to Wil, and that they are wonderful at making that extra time fun. But when we make the challenges fun, the joy on the other end is bigger. Just like the big, ol’ slice of pizza at the end of the Costco trip. Wil held his up like a king.

Elizabeth has said, “There are good days, bad days, and Wil days.” Her sentiment sums this up beautifully. Acceptance of the WHOLE. Every day is new, and I learn from each one of them. When I know better, I do better. And as Wil proved, uncovering the “why” behind it all is the joy of a lifetime, no matter how much time it takes.

I’m thankful to know ALL of the days, and my deep breath of hope is, you are too.

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Play, Pray and Don’t Say Beer at School

I ran into Wil’s room and started cheering, “It’s Friday, it’s Friday, it’s Friday!”

He rolled over, giggled, and pulled the covers over his head. I put my hands on his back, and pushed down, then released, pushed down, released, over and again, bouncing him on his bed, singing, “It’s Friday, it’s Friday, it’s Friday!”

He laughed, craned his head up to look at me and said, “Ok, ok, ok, Mom, just calm down.”

“I will if you get out of bed.”

Still laying on his stomach, he scrunched his body up, his tushy sticking up in the air. I gave it a swat and said, “Get your little booty out of bed.”

“Look Mom, I’m an inch worm” and he wiggled on the bed.

“You are a very cute inch worm. And you are going to be a late inch worm if you don’t get dressed soon.”

“Ok, Mom, hugs.” He sat up and reached out for a hug. As I leaned in to give him a hug, he bear hugged me. I lifted him up and out of bed. He curled up his legs, so his feet wouldn’t touch the floor. I felt my neck and back sinch up, and leaned him back over the bed.

“Dude, you are not little anymore. You can hurt Mommy doing that. Ok, up and at ’em!”

“Huuuuugs.” I hugged him again, then he laid back down in bed.

“Wil, up, up, up!”

“Oh, Mom, too much energy. Hugs.” I hugged him again, and pulled him up.

“Ok, Mom, go.”

“You promise to get dressed if I go?”

“Ugh, yes, mooooom.” From a playful inchworm into an irritated teenager in seconds.

We decided what he wanted for breakfast– “Mac n cheese?” “No.” “Sandwich?” “No.” “Eggs?” “No.” “Oatmeal?” “Yuck, Moooom.” “Ok, hot sandwich?” <pause> “Yes, and tomato soup.”

As I left his room to make his breakfast, I pulled the door almost shut, so I could peek through the crack to make sure he was getting dressed. After putting the sandwiches on the stove, I quietly walked up to his room and peeked in the crack of his door. He was talking to himself about his outfit. He always puts his pants on first, then his shirt. If I’m ever helping him get dressed after his swim lesson, and I forget this rule, he looks at me like I’m a crazy person, then says in a very matter of fact way, “Pants first, mom, then shirt.”

Wil always has a theme in mind when he gets dressed. On Monday, he emerged from his room, threw his hands up in the air and proclaimed, “Grey Power!” He, of course, had on a grey hooded sweatshirt with grey pants. He also happened to match the winter sky that day. I thought, that’s one way to make the most out of a grey day. Especially on a Monday. Unfortunately, even though that day started on a high, it ended on a low. His team and I weren’t sure of the triggers, but he refused to work in his afternoon classes and I picked him up after school rather then him taking the bus.

Today he walked out of his room with a Luke Bryan concert t-shirt his Aunt Carrie bought him. “Look at me, Mom!” (Last night watching Jeopardy, I said to Wil, “if they had Luke Bryan as a category, you would win.”

“Really, what?” He ran up to the television, mistaking my
comment for Jeopardy having a real time Luke Bryan category.

He yelled out, “Kill the Lights!” “Here’s to the Farmer!” “Strip it Down!” “M-O-V-E!” “Drink a Beer” then, under his breath, “No, don’t say that at school. Don’t say beer at school.”)

Wil sat down to eat the breakfast I made him–two warm ham, cheese and spinach sandwiches on whole wheat buns and bowl of tomato soup heated to a lukewarm temperature–he doesn’t like anything hot.

“Which shoes do you want today, black or brown?” This is always a consideration each morning and he enjoys making this choice. The black shoes are his tennis shoes, the brown are a little dressier. Today he chose brown, even though he wore sweatpants. His Luke Bryan shirt must have had him feeling fancy.

When it was time to go, he still had half of one of the sandwiches left and some soup. Occasionally this happens, I believe on purpose, because he wants to bring some of his breakfast to school. I put his sandwich in a baggie with a plastic spoon, and poured the remainder of the soup into a thermos.

He pulled on his backpack, grabbed his baggie and thermos and we were off. He sang Luke Bryan songs the entire way to school. (When I’m driving by myself, I can’t listen to a Luke Bryan song. It’s lackluster without Wil’s backup.)

When I brought the car to a stop in front of the school, Wil bolted out with a quick, “Bye, Mom” and in his low muscle tone way, he ran without much bend in his knees, moving slightly side to side, his backpack bouncing on his back, baggie and thermos in hand. I sent up a prayer for his good spirits to continue.

Every day is a process, with or without a playful start. It’s fun when kids are younger, but now Wil is 13 years old. In many ways I’m thankful for his continued youthful spirit, and in other ways the process gets tiring after so many years. His independence is growing in leaps and bounds, yet still, he requires lots of encouragement to get on with his day and with extracurricular activities. I’ve tried to rush him, and it backfires each time. In fact, a little reverse psychology can go a long way. I used to say, “Quick like a bunny!” but now I say, “Slow as a tortoise.” He’ll start slow, find it to be funny, then get on to the activity.

While a playful start doesn’t guarantee a good day, my own personal calculations show a sharp rise in success with a playful start. So I play the numbers, inch by inch, each and every day. Once he bolts out the car door, in the mix with many other kids and experiences, it’s anyone’s guess as to what may trigger him to turn the day upside down or flip it back around and land right side up. That’s when a good team at school and prayers come in handy.

Give us this day our daily hot sandwich and tomato soup, as we start our day in play, may we keep our day right side up, and remember not to say “beer” at school. Amen.

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Slippery Rocks Ahead!

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“Slippery rocks ahead!” It was a dark, pre-dawn August morning in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Headlamp lights bounced off the rocky trail. It had rained the night before, so the trail was slick. The jutting rocks and roots mixed with the elevation proved challenging without throwing in the darkness and slickness. Even though I had read about this trail and watched a video of the race, I was only partially prepared. Traversing the trail with my own feet was the only way to truly be in the know.

I have made no hidden remarks about puberty with Wil mixed with Down syndrome. I could have guessed what was ahead, I had read enough and prepared myself enough, but there are certain things you simply need to experience to fully be in the know. I talked to Wil’s teacher consultant for ideas in working with his new behaviors associated with puberty–she has worked with multiple children with multiple diagnoses. I noticed the first thing she did was ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. I respected that greatly. She wanted to know all about Wil and his behaviors. She didn’t make assumptions based on him having Down syndrome. Though she is someone “in the know”, it was important for her to know and understand Wil.

The other morning, Wil was being extremely willful. It took him a full 30 minutes to get out of bed and ready for school. The pattern continued through the day into the evening. He didn’t want to go to Katherine’s CrossFit class that night, but Elizabeth was at basketball, and Matt was out of town, so going to CrossFit was his only choice as he is not able to stay home alone at this point. Katherine and I finally convinced him to get in the car, with the promise of a stop at Bigby Coffee for a cup of hot chocolate with sprinkles. I took a deep breath when we got in the car, played some music, and all seemed to be going well. After dropping Katherine off at Crossfit, Wil and I headed to Bigby Coffee. I ordered his hot chocolate and he drank most of it. We shared a conversation, with a few pauses and prompting. When it was time to pick Katherine back up from CrossFit, he refused to leave. Again, with lots of prompting, I finally got him up and into the car. When we arrived home, he had some time to watch tv and then go to bed. Again, he refused. Thankfully, we didn’t have anywhere to go so I walked him to his bedroom and told him he could stay in there until he was ready to put on his pajamas. This is usually a successful tactic as it gives him time to unwind and feel back in control of his situation. It can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. Well, it took an hour. By the time I got Wil into bed, I wanted to go to bed too I was so exhausted from the constant negotiations and patience required the entire day. Though I knew I would have fallen asleep the moment my head hit the pillow, I felt the need to unwind and feel back in control of my situation, too. So I sat down and read a book, as exhausted as I was, until I felt calmed down, then I went to bed. And indeed, I fell asleep the second my head hit the pillow.

When Matt returned to town, I told him about this experience. How the entire day, Wil had been willful. How I had tried to get him to communicate, but he was being obstinate with anything I did.

“Hmm, sounds like a teenager to me,” Matt said.

That next week, the kids had Friday and Monday off for President’s Day weekend. On Thursday morning, Wil popped out of bed singing, “Friday, Friday, Friday!”

“Actually Wil, it’s Thursday.” I replied.

“No, it’s Friday, Friday, Friday!” He continued singing.

“Huh, you know, you are right. In school days, this is your Friday. Hooray Friday, Friday, Friday!”

On the flip side, Tuesday was not so celebratory. After having Friday and Monday off, Wil was well out of his routine. He refused to get on the bus after school on Tuesday and even took off outside for a brief period. His teacher was on it, rallied him back in, and when I entered the school office to pick him up he was fairly cheerful, no doubt for his bout with fresh air and freedom.

“Wil, you were all excited to ride the bus home when I dropped you off for school this morning. What happened?”

“Mondays are hard, Mom,” he said. I almost said it was Tuesday, then caught myself. In school days, it was his Monday. And yes, I agree, Mondays can be hard.

Refusing the bus ride home on Mondays is more the rule than the exception. If I were to graph his week, it would be an upward slope. As the week goes on, he gets back into the groove of his routine, and though no day is smooth sailing, his days grow progressively smoother and more productive. Wil earns stars for doing work in each of his classes. Wil earned a mere 4 stars that Tuesday, but doubled that count by Thursday. On Friday he promised to uphold that double count of stars. And that he did. Friday, Friday, Friday!

When Wil was a baby, I read multiple books about Down syndrome. First books about babies with Down syndrome (which is an actual title of one of the books) up to books about teenagers and young adults with Down syndrome. I wanted to put myself in the know. I needed to put myself in the know. There were much too many unknowns in the distant future when I learned of Wil’s diagnosis. Reading books helped put me in the know–or so I thought. I really was only partially in the know. Because you don’t know what you don’t know until you do know. Now that I know, I know there is much more knowing to come.

When I trained for the 50-mile trail race in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I approached it quite similarly. I read as much as I could about ultramarathons. The terrain I was used to in the lower Peninsula was much different from what I would experience in the race. Where the race’s trail was rocky with steep elevation, the roads I was used to were sandy with rolling hills. I would also start the race in the dark. I wouldn’t be able to see what was ahead of me except for what was illuminated in the small, thin beam of my headlamp. I wanted to be in the know. But until I hit that trail with my own two feet, I was only partially in the know.

At the beginning of the race, we runners were all backed up along the single track trail in the dark pre-dawn with the calls of “Watch out, slippery rock ahead!” We made our way gingery, step-by-step-by-step, careful not to twist an ankle this early in the race. As the dawn spread, and the view of the trail opened up in front of us, we proceeded more confidently, and found the paces we had trained for. Even so, there were many surprises along the way. Along the shore of Lake Superior, I made good time. The ground was a soft bed of pine needles. I enjoyed the view, the soft footing and the flatter terrain under my feet. When I hit Hogback Mountain, I stopped and looked up at the tall climb. I had read about this part of the race, but now I was about to experience it. I was on hands and knees, climbing, crawling, scaling looking for the little orange flags stuck in a crevice, that led the way, so I wouldn’t make a wrong turn. I climbed next to others, and when we’d spy a flag we’d call out, “There’s the flag, this way!” And we’d creep and crawl until we found flatter footing and took off again.

As much as I value preparation, no one could have told me how it felt to know the soft bed of pine needles under my feet. Then, to come to an abrupt halt of a hard rock hands and knees climb, progressing at a snail’s pace, eyes peeled for a sign I was heading in the right direction–all the while knowing, if I made a wrong turn, I wouldn’t make the time cut-off, and will get pulled from the race I trained so hard for. As such, you can’t read about a child with Down syndrome’s behaviors and expect to know what exactly they are communicating without being able to ask questions specific to that child. You can’t know the free flow of milestones being hit, closely to on time, and then bam, a mountain to scale–seeking out any flash of orange to guide you on your way. You can’t know the patience it can take, and also to fully understand when that very patience breaks, until you’ve been through it yourself—all the while savoring your journey, no matter how confusing, exhausting, or exhilarating it may be. As prepared as we may believe we are, we don’t really know until we’ve traversed the path with our own two feet.

I have learned a lot from Wil, but Wil is not a lesson to be learned. Wil is not an object of advocacy. Wil is a 13-year-old boy. Wil has 47 chromosomes and Wil is also a teenager. Wil has tough Mondays and cheers on his Fridays, Fridays, Fridays! Wil has 4 star days and 8 star days. Wil’s week goes in an upward curve quite predictably, but what happens along that curve is anyone’s guess. Sometimes it’s a protest on the basement stairs and sometimes its as close to smooth sailing as he gets. Sometimes I can navigate the journey on my own, and sometimes it takes a team. What I know about Wil is what I know now. Preparation is key, and so is the reality that tomorrow is anyone’s guess.

The only advice I can offer up to this point is there are Slippery Rocks Ahead! I can’t tell you where until I cross them myself. But when you get there, who knows, the climate may have changed and you may sail right through. Keep your head up, always work toward an upward curve, and ask lots of questions. The little flash of orange is always there to lead the way, though you may need an entire team crawling, scaling and putting one hand and foot in front of the other to find it. Mondays are hard, even if is a Tuesday, and celebrate every Friday, Friday, Friday! even if it is a Thursday. Be weary of those who claim to know the answers–only those who ask questions truly seek the answer. Labels define us, and preparation prepares us, so we feel that we may know. And yet, each day is it’s own, and each of us is our own–so we only partially know. You don’t know what you don’t know until you do know. Once you do know, you can betcha it will change.

Exhale

I emerged from the ladies’ locker room into the pool area, and as always, held my breath. I made a quick scan of the pool. I exhaled in relief to see an open lane. I wouldn’t have to share. Over 2 yards of width and 25 yards of length lined off to my very own self. A swimmer’s heaven. I claimed my lane by setting down my gear, took a seat on the edge of the pool, and dangled my legs in the water. As I pulled on my cap and goggles, I saw a man walk in–I may have to share now.

He walked by me, smiled and said, “I like your suit.” That gave me a twinge of guilt over my selfishness.

“Thank you,” I said. He moved on and walked up to the lifeguard in his tall chair. He struck up a conversation with the lifeguard, who seemed to already know him. Clearly, this man was a regular here.

My times at the pool, while consistent in the number of days, are erratic in the time of day. Sometimes it’s the early afternoon, sometimes the late afternoon or even evening. My days fluctuate with my work and kids’ schedules. It was about 9AM and I had not yet been to the pool at this time on this day of the week.

The man was still chatting it up with the lifeguard when I hopped in. I didn’t know if he was just talking until a lane opened up, or this was the natural length of their conversation each time he visited the pool. Either way, it didn’t seem he’d approach me soon to share. I hopped in, planted both feet on the wall and pushed off. The conversation above me instantly muted and my view became clear water edged by rounded white concrete walls. A dark blue tiled line imbedded in the bottom of the pool guided my way. The familiar tingle of chlorinated water hit the bridge of my nose and I stretched into the rhythm of the swim.

About 5 minutes into my swim, I saw the talkative man’s legs enter the water. Someone must have gotten out and he took over their lane at the furthest edge of the pool. I could see him start to swim 3 lanes over from mine. Now all the lanes were full. We swimmers were lined up, one by one, with our own thoughts on our own course. Some side stroking, some easily back stroking, and some knocking out intervals.

It wasn’t much later while taking a breath I saw multiple feet making their way across the pool deck. When I stopped at the end of my interval, the pool area echoed with noise. Men and women, it appeared mainly in their twenties, were ready to enter the pool. Some jumped into the open area, about 3 lanes wide, while others walked tentatively with floatation devices down the ramp. I heard a woman, who must have been the teacher in the group say, “Ok <she rattled off a few names>, it looks like you will have to share a lane.”

One woman, who had Down syndrome, appeared to be upset by the thought of sharing a lane. She seemed very serious about her swimming time. The 3 men she was with that the teacher also addressed about sharing didn’t seem to mind. When a lane opened up, the 3 men bounded in and started either swimming, or bouncing off the bottom of the pool. The woman waited, scanning the pool, for a lane to open up to herself.

The talkative man who had taken the end lane, also saw what was happening. He said to the woman, “You can swim with me if you want. I’ll take one side, and you take the other. Which side do you want?” She seemed happy enough with this situation, but I could tell, like I did when I entered that pool area, she wanted her own 2 yards by 25 yards to herself.

The woman in the lane directly next to mine came to a stop. We both looked at each other and knew the situation.

“I think we need to share,” she said. Her lane was in the open area where the rest of the group was entering. The big group needed that space.

“Yep,” I said, “Come on over.”

She ducked under the lane line and popped up in my lane and said, “Do you want to rotate, or stay on one side?”

“How about I take this side, you take that side?” I proposed.

“Sounds good to me. Thanks.” She replied. And we went off on our way.

As we made our way up and down the pool, my quiet view had changed. As I made my way up and down the pool, I now watched out to make sure I didn’t’ get kicked in the gut when my lane partner and the 3 young men in the lane next to me had their frog kicks going on. I breathed a sigh of relief each time I passed and they were doing a flutter kick. The rounded white concrete walls now were fanned with legs treading water or jumping up and down in the shallower end. I saw, from under water, a trepid fellow with a floatation device around his waist inching his way up and down the length of the pool hugging the edge.

Ten minutes hadn’t gone by when I saw the talkative man exit the pool. He said to the young woman, “It’s all yours now. Have a great swim!” He walked up to the lifeguard and had another conversation, then left.

I don’t know if he surrendered his lane out of kindness, or if he was tired of looking out for an errant frog kick, or because he had plenty of time on his hands and a shorter swim today didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things–that giving the woman the lane to herself was more important. Whatever his reasons, he left a feeling of goodwill in his wake.

After about another 20 minutes, the group exited the pool. I was swimming so I didn’t immediately see where they dispersed to. I just noticed that the rounded white concrete walls were back to their quiet state.

When I finished my current interval I took a look around. I saw two lanes were now open. I ducked under the lane line then slid my gear over. Then got right back to swimming. I saw the woman I shared the lane with, now in the lane next to me, come to a stop. So I stopped. I felt rude just switching without saying anything.

“I wondered where you disappeared to,” she said.

“Haha, yes, I saw a lane open up so I took it. I wanted to let you know.”

“Ok, well thank you for sharing with me.” She said.

“Of course. Have a great rest of your swim.” I replied.

I then saw about 10 young men from the group of swimmers exit the hot tub and walk together to the men’s locker room. I felt a pang of sadness.

I pushed off the wall, got back to swimming, and wondered at my sadness. They were all conversational, having a good time, and clearly knew one another very well. And that was just it. That was the reason for my sadness. They were together, but would they be, if they did not have the differing needs they did?

If this group of men was more accepted and integrated into our current society, would they be friends? My guess is some would, but some would not. They were brought together as they all fall under the category of young adults with special needs, even though they are completely their own individuals.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely thankful this program for young adults with varying needs exists. This program exists to integrate these young adults into society. It’s the “typical” society that struggles to integrate these young adults. That is the source of my sadness. They are not looked upon as the individuals they are. In our current society, It takes too much patience on our part to understand their needs and we miss out on their great value and contribution to society. So these individuals are brought together through no true choice of their own. They are brought together under a category.

The current society does not want to understand someone categorized as different than us. We don’t want to work side by side unless we find ourselves face to face in this position.

What happens when we are face to face? Patience we never thought we had happens. Compassion deeper than we thought possible happens. Understanding beyond what we even understand ourselves happens.

Raising a child with special needs is no walk in the park. On any given morning, it can take 10 minutes on a good day, to over 30 minutes on a more challenging day, to wake Wil and get him up and and out of bed. You learn to anticipate moments. What happens when. What happened the night before that may have made him upset. What was happening that day that he may be anticipating. Or was it just a plain hard day we all have sometimes.

I can’t force Wil. I can’t control Wil. But I can redirect and direct Wil to new behaviors. His behavior is his communication, as he is not yet able to communicate to me fully his emotions and the details of his day. He was having a particularly hard time last week. His teachers and I were trying our best to understand the triggers. On one day, his teacher texted me that Wil getting on the bus that day did not look good. He was refusing to work all afternoon. A buildup of this behavior had me upset. I was ready to lay down some strict rules. But again, you can’t force Wil. You can’t control Wil. Whatever you enforce will show up in a different behavior. You need to work to solve the puzzle of what he’s trying to communicate.

When I arrived at school to pick him up, his resource room teacher had good news. Together, they made a break through. She asked Wil what was he going to do? And he yelled out, “Talk!” and started to smile. She repeated her question and he again yelled out, “Talk!”

I let out a deep breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding in. My eyes welled with tears. We have not cracked the proverbial code. But she found a way to get through that day. And that will lead to a better tomorrow. We will build on that momentum. Wil made another advancement in his communication. Last week he may have not been ready for that chant, but his resource room met him where he was at the right time. She did that with patience, with understanding and with compassion. She did that because they come together every day face to face.

With Wil I need to slow down no matter what. I need to go at his pace. I need to work at understanding what his behaviors are telling me. I give him his hugs, as many as he needs, and we go on from there. I never quite now where there is, but we figure it out as we go. We are comrades. We have been brought together and we are going to stick together and integrate our ways to make this work. Ways that work for Wil and the individual that he is.

This life raising a child with special needs is both complicated and also the simplest thing in the world. Our kids, though they are lumped together in a category, are very much their own individuals. The talkative man at the pool understood that. Whatever his motives, he wasn’t giving charity, he was giving a lane to another woman who was intent and serious about her swimming. We all want to cherish the rounded white walls of the pool whether we scale the edges or knock out intervals—and every one of us is trying to avoid kicks in the gut. We just express it in different ways. There is no true code to crack. It’s simply a matter of time and patience and trying over and again—and that’s also exactly what’s complicated. But once you dive in face to face, you will always be thankful you did. Exhale.

Crystal Mountain pool