Timberlake vs. Timbuktu

Wil had a quiz to study for last night. We decided together that he would study while Katherine was at CrossFit. If Wil comes along to CrossFit for a task such as studying, we typically go to Bigby Coffee and he gets a hot chocolate with sprinkles. After a few sips, some silliness and conversation, we get down to the business at hand. Last night he said no to Bigby.

“Where do you want to go?”

“Hmmm, don’t know.”

“How about McDonalds. You can get a chocolate shake, then we’ll study for your quiz.”

“Ok.”

When we arrived at McDonalds, we had an hour until we needed to be back to pick up Katherine. Wil made a quick scan of the play area. It was empty.

He tugged on my arm. “Mom, in there.”

“Ok, let’s order your shake first.” We walked up to the kiosk. He squinted.

“Put on your glasses, Wil.”

“No.”

“Here, just try.” I handed his glasses to him.

“Hey, I can see it.”

“Um, yeah silly. That’s why we like you to wear your glasses. You can see so much better.” He wears glasses for reading and occupational therapy, other than that he has no interest in them.

Wil made his chocolate shake order through the kiosk, reading every word on the kiosk proudly out loud.

“Great job, Bud.”

After the order was complete, he pulled off his glasses, and headed toward the play structure, his arm extended back to me with the glasses.

After playing in the play structure with lots of “look at me’s!” two other young boys entered. The increased noise level was enough for Wil. He made a quick exit. I followed him with his shake. He picked a table in the main area and we took a seat.

“Here are your glassesWil. Let’s do a little studying now.”

The subject of the quiz was the Empire of Ghana. His teacher condensed the lesson for him. After we got through the definition of Mali, the Niger River and Mansa Musa, I asked him, “What was the major trading city when Mali was at the height of it’s power?”

“Timberlake!”

“Wil, Justin Timberlake is a singer. He’s the voice of Branch in Trolls.”

“I see your true colors shining through, I see your true colors and that’s why I love you…”

“You love Trolls.”

“You?”

“Yes, I love Trolls too, Wil. And Justin Timberlake is a really good singer, and dancer. But the answer isn’t Timberlake. Let’s try again. What’s the major trading city?”

“Timberlake!”

“Wil.”

“Timberlake!”

“Dude, come on.”

“Timberlake!”

“Ok, it’s Timbuktu. Can you at least say Timbuktu for me?”

“Timberlake!”

“You are so silly. Do you want to watch a Timberlake video?”

“Yes, Can’t Stop the Feeling.”

We watched Can’t Stop the Feeling and True Colors. Then we got back to the quiz. I jumped ahead to the next definitions, we got through those fairly smoothly with the exception of mosque. He looked hard at the word and came out with “message.”

“Wil, good try, it’s mosque.”

“MosKE.”

“That’s right, say it again.”

“Message.”

“Honey, you just had it right. Mosque. Say it again. Mosque.”

“MosKE.”

“Good, again.”

“MosKE.”

“Good, ten times fast.”

“MosKE, MosKE, MosKE, MosKE, Ugh, ok Mom.”

“You got it.”

Then circled back to Timbuktu.

“Ok, Wil, what was the major trading city?”

“Timberlake!”

“Can you at least tell me you will answer Timbuktu on the quiz?”

“Timberlake!”

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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Twist, turn, kick. Sputter. Smile.

His swim instructor was showing him how to roll over from his stomach to his back in the water. He’d start, face down, floating, then twist himself around. As he made the twist, he’d flail slightly, body twisting hard, with a little kicking to get himself all the way around.

He’d pop his head to the surface, his clear-lensed wide-eyed goggles—he affectionately calls “Frog power” when he puts them on—showing wide eyes underneath. His breath sputtering, spitting out water. Then catching his breath, laying on his back, realizing he succeeded, a huge smile spread across his face.

Again, he’d twist, kick, turn his body around. Low muscle tone making the task challenging, his observing mom thankful for the important core strengthening that was happening. Again he surfaced, sputtering, eyes wide, spitting out water, catching his breath. Then the smile. Big. Proud.

Again, he’d twist, turn, kick. Sputter. Smile.

Again, again, again.

Each time, the twist would come a little quicker. The sputtering less. Soon, the smile was already there, shining underwater, revealed as he completed the turn and lay on his back. Floating.

And his observing mom found herself smiling too, thinking isn’t life just like that?

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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.

The Morning Wash

This morning was a full-on 30 minute morning to get Wil out of bed and into the kitchen for breakfast. This is how it went:

“Wil, time to get up.”

“Hi Mom.”

“Good morning, Wil.”

“Good night, Mom.” He giggled and pulled the covers over his head.

“No, it’s good morning Wil.” I said as I pulled the covers back down.

“Good night, Mom.” He giggled and pulled the covers back over his head.

“Good morning, Wil.” I pulled the covers down. I gave him a hug while I lifted him up. “Do you want me to help you get dressed?”

“No, I do it.”

“Ok, it’s time to get dressed then. I’ll go make you breakfast.”

“Ok, Mom.” Then he plopped back down and pulled the covers over his head.

“Dude, you have to get up now. Chop chop!” I clapped my hands and he laughed.

“Oh, Mom. You are silly.” I did fast little claps near his face. He grabbed my hands, pulled me down and gave me a hug.

“You are sillier,” I said, hugging him back. I lifted him up to a seated position. “Ok, let’s go. So you don’t have a rushed breakfast.”

“Ok, Mom.”

“Here, I’ll get your underwear out for you, then you pick out your pants and shirt.” I set his underwear down on the bed next to him then headed to the doorway. I turned around and he was sitting there watching me. I knew he would lay right back down when I left.

“Dude, please, let’s go. You won’t have time for breakfast if you keep up this pace.”

“Ok, ok, ok.” He said. Convinced he would truly get up this time, I left the room and came back a few minutes later to check on him.

“Look, mom, I put my underwear on.” Wil was standing in the middle of his room, his pajama bottoms and top still on, but he had his fresh pair of underwear pulled up over his pajama bottoms. I knew laughing would slow things down even more but I couldn’t help it. I started cracking up then he started cracking up. Wil then danced around the room in his over-underwear.

“Wil, you are just too cute. That is funny. Ok, I’m sorry to end the party, but we are down to the wire here. Pretty please, let’s get dressed. With your underwear under your clothes.”

He danced around some more, then said, “Ok, Mom, go.” That meant he wanted privacy to get dressed. Progress.

Soon after, he walked into the kitchen. He had on pants and hoodie, with his underwear under. He sat down, and got right to business eating his breakfast. No need for convincing or coaxing there.

Some minutes are under, some are over, but it all evens out in the wash.

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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

Step One is One Step

After coaching an early morning class, I was talking to one of the members and asked her what her occupation was. She told me she was a social worker. I never knew much about social workers until Wil was born.

“You do good work,” I said, “but my guess is a lot of people don’t see it that way. They probably don’t want to see you at all.” A social worker came into my hospital room the afternoon after Wil was born and she was the last person I wanted to see.

“Yes, I can walk into some very challenging situations.” She told me a little about her work, of course keeping confidentiality.

When people are struggling, they typically don’t appreciate someone who has only learned of their situation via a file, to walk in uninvited and try to fix them or their situation. “Don’t walk in and say every little thing is going to be ok.” “Don’t try to fix me.” “I can hardly see past the next minute let alone think about how to overturn this entire situation for the better.” These were at least my thoughts when I first met the social worker that walked into my room. It’s not that I didn’t believe things would get better or that I didn’t want help. Its more that I couldn’t think that big at the time. I couldn’t think out that far in the future. When you are struggling, it’s hard to see past the fog you are in in that particular moment. For someone to walk into your story at that point and say, “You got this!” “You are awesome!” “I believe in you!” while kind, is hollow. It’s much too vague and has no real meaning attached to it. It doesn’t connect specifically with your situation.

That’s why I’m not particularly fond of the posts on social media proclaiming, “You are awesome!” “I believe in you!” “You can do it!” While there is nothing wrong with a positive message, and it’s certainly worlds above low-dwelling negativity, the words, while positive, are empty. They are much too broad to connect with any substantial meaning. If the social worker walked into my hospital room and said, “You are awesome! I believe in you! You can do it!” I would have looked at her with wide eyes, like who do you think you are? Will you get out now please? Don’t puff me up with your empty positivity. It gives me indigestion. I couldn’t see past the next minute, let alone see how awesome my future was and that I could do it! Do what exactly? What does that mean? How about you tell me how I can get through the next minute because I can’t see beyond this fog. If she said, today you will shower and that’s all you have to think about, I would have jumped out of bed and given her the biggest hug ever. I was too overwhelmed to be awesome. I was too overwhelmed to be believed in. I was too overwhelmed to do it! whatever that was. But to be given one specific action to take just one step forward would validate where I was. It would make a connection with me—we could meet at a place of understanding. Eventually I could find my way to awesome. Eventually I could do it! (whatever that is). But right now, that was much, much too vague. Much too broad. Much too rah rah rah. When you are living in a fog of overwhelm, you need one specific direction to be pointed in. And just one. That is enough.

The social worker that walked into my hospital room, though, broke my preconceived notions. She did not tell me I was awesome. She did not tell me I could do it! She didn’t try to fix me or tell me about some future I was incapable of seeing at the moment. She was much smarter than that. She didn’t say anything. Instead, she held up a folder. A royal blue folder. You could only see the royal blue on the periphery of the folder, because the majority of its surface was overcome by a very close-up picture of a blond girl with Down syndrome.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” The social worker asked me.

I have written in detail about this moment on a number of occasions because it was so impactful to me. This occurred over 12 years ago, and when I recounted this story to the member at the gym that morning, I was surprised by the tears that welled in my eyes so many years later. Impactful moments do not lose their emotion easily.

No one told me my baby was beautiful the morning when he was born. Rather, it was a flurry of activity. He was born “floppy.” Those were the first words after, “It’s a boy!” Elation to confusion in a matter of seconds. What does floppy mean, I asked. I was told it means low muscle tone. And low muscle tone usually means Down syndrome. And yes, look at his short stubby fingers, and the separation in his toes, and the small nasal passages. And these are the words and the conversations that happened seconds after Wil was born.

Tears appeared in visitor’s eyes. Consoling words said. But by afternoon, when I lay alone in the hospital bed while Wil was being examined, the words I most needed to hear came from the person I least wanted to see. The social worker who walked, uninvited by me, into my room. My preconceived notions of her purpose there were shattered. Thank goodness. She was the first person who helped me see past the moment I was in. The fog that surrounded me lit around the periphery. She gifted me one forward step.

After I brought Wil home and we got settled into our first months, I began to seek out support groups. I went to a number of meetings with various different groups. All of the support groups did validate the pain of the initial shock. They all knew the fog I was walking in. However, some stayed there. They told their sad stories, and everyone listened. But what was missing was how to get out of that story. I didn’t want empty promises of positivity. But I also didn’t want to stay where I was. I walked out the door of those groups, thanked them for their time, and never went back.

A few years ago, Matt and I went to marriage counseling. On our first visit, when the counselor was navigating our situation, she asked me if I felt to blame for birthing a child with Down syndrome. I was flabbergasted. That never once crossed my mind. Down syndrome is random, and in any case, what good is blame to do? I had learned over the years, that I was the center of my story. That no matter what anyone did to me, I was still the center. That I had the choice to make a decision to make my life better or wallow in pain. She ended up being a very helpful counselor, but her question always stuck with me. It was a reminder to never get stuck in useless blame. She gifted me one forward step.

The reason Matt and I went to marriage counseling is because we came to acceptance of Wil’s Down syndrome at a different rate. No one person comes to acceptance in the same way at the same time. Acceptance is a journey of experiences. A journey that is helpful to walk along with others, but you also must do your own work. Matt and I had our own separate work to do so that we could come together in acceptance. We are each different people with different backstories. We work well together, but we often see and approach things in different ways. We needed help in bringing our acceptance together for the sake of our marriage, for the sake of Wil, and for the sake of Katherine and Elizabeth. We are their role models in how to value acceptance in differences. It’s not something that can be answered with empty positive promises. It’s not a big, blanket you can do it! type of thing. It’s validating each other’s concerns. Some days it’s a high-five and other days it’s a kick in the pants. It’s a one step at a time kind of process.

In the early days after Wil’s birth, many helpful family members and friends gave me phone numbers of acquaintences who had a child with Down syndrome. “Here, call them!” they said. The thought behind these passed on phone numbers was out of kindness. And the meaning behind these passed on phone numbers was out of wanting to help. And yet, here you are feeling overly emotional, and there is so much information being thrown at you at once you don’t even know where to start. Calling a complete stranger can feel absolutely monumental at the moment. Today, I now get asked if I can talk to a mother who just birthed a child with Down syndrome. I love nothing more than to be approached to talk to their friend or family member. I too want to help and be of support. But I remember those early days well. I always accept that my contact information be passed on. But I also add,” let them know they can email me or text if that’s easier. It’s never too early or too late to reach out to me. Sometimes one phone call can feel absolutely overwhelming. I’m here when they are ready.” One step at a time.

Sometimes making one single phone call to a stranger is all you have in you. One step. Sometimes taking a shower that day is downright heroic. One step. Sometimes working up the courage to approach your spouse about the accruing months of difference in acceptance is the most monumental thing you can do. One step.

You are awesome! You can do it! is too big, broad, and vague when life already feels that way. When you can’t see further than today, committing to one, specific step is the bravest thing you can do. One step. One step. One step. Is that royal blue on the periphery of the fog? One step. One step. One step. More colors are coming into view. One step. One step. One step. I can see the larger picture now. It is a different one than I expected. One step. One step. One step. Would you look at that! Now that I’ve stepped up, so I may now see clearly in close-up view, I must say, the beauty is spectacular.

Wil Calendar 2008 003