When we were younger

15 years ago this month Kevin and I went on our first date at Living History Farms.

14 years ago tomorrow we were married there.

We were so young but felt a little old at the time to just be getting married…sigh.

I see our wedding picture every day and I almost don’t recognize us.

I don’t feel like we’ve looked like that since Grace was diagnosed. What I see now in our pictures are two people who look a little bit tired. Two people working so hard to keep everything afloat and smiling (but not as big) while doing it.

Never in our dating did I consider if Kevin would be a good medical supply orderer. If he’d be able to princess carry our daughter long after I couldn’t. If he’d be ok cleaning up poop.   How he’d respond when a doctor said: “Frankly, I’m at a loss…”.   If he’d have a hidden knack for adjusting a wheelchair or whipping up a changing table using IKEA bookshelves.

We had no way of knowing all of that and more was in our future.

We joke with people sometimes that we have five or six “date afternoons” a year. We’ve been getting season tickets to the Civic Center for the last several years. Somehow we’ve managed to never miss a show. We’ve been able to do that through a combination of help from family and respite providers who we are very grateful for.   When we were first married I admit I imagined there would be more date nights. But the reality of finding someone to care for Grace is that it’s hard. I sometimes get jealous of date nights and parent trips that others seem to take with such ease. I know social media is all perception but it just seems so far from our reality.

I struggle sometimes to understand the effect of Grace’s needs on our marriage. She arrived a year and a half into it and by our second year of marriage, we were playing by completely different rules. Graham changed the rules again when he arrived. I don’t mean to oversimplify but one of the big differences I see in parenting the two are the logistics Grace brings with her that Graham doesn’t.  There are so many people to schedule appointments with, people to communicate with, meetings to go to, labs to get, paperwork to fill out, things to have in a bag before we leave the house. If we forget anything for Graham we can pick it up at any Target or gas station. If we forget certain things for Grace she doesn’t eat and has to wait until we get home. Grace has forced Kevin and I to combine our brainpower and up our organization. Sometimes we have it all. Sometimes we forget things.

The other thing she’s forced is conversations I’m hoping most married couples don’t have. Brain surgery?…Yes or no? Try the experimental drug? Get the medicine from Amsterdam? Are our expectations for inclusion fair? Can we afford the wheelchair van? What will happen to her when she’s done with high school, how will she spend her day? How will she not get isolated?

I’ve been thinking about all this because we had a nurse today in our home who wasn’t with us all summer. She asked if we took any vacation this summer. I told her we did. We did Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, Devil’s Tower. I went on to explain that the wheelchair van had made it possible. That Graham being older helps a ton. That Kevin’s research on van toppers and ability to pack in tight spaces was key. That it went well enough we are planning another summer vacation.

“Good for you,” she said.   “It was good” I replied.

This thing that the younger Kevin and I started is going ok. We are doing good things. Maybe not the things we imagined but things that are important.

I’m glad they didn’t know… the younger Kevin and I. We’ve probably done best learning together as we go.

Joy

 

 

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IMG-0121Grace and Kevin entered the empty waiting bus for the State Fair first.  Graham and I followed.  The bus driver had everyone else wait while he and Kevin made sure Grace was all fastened down for the ride. Graham chose seats for he and I.  He chose the bench right by the accordion on the double bus.  We were all settled when the rest of the people filed in and eventually the bus took off.  There were three people across the aisle from Graham and I.  I can only guess a mom, dad, and college-aged daughter. Two of three wore Iowa State shirts, the other a shirt with the American flag.  They all wore Nike shoes that had seen better days.  I noticed the man’s gaze settle on Grace.  “I’m surprised someone would go to all the work to bring her out here,” the man said.  He was looking right at Grace as he said it.  I leaned forward but looked down.  His wife didn’t say anything immediately but then she said “Maybe they just take her to a few things”.  After a pause he spoke again saying “Maybe they get more out of things then I know.”

If the two of them said any more I missed it.  I missed it because Graham was psyched to see the accordion of the bus expand and there were trains – so many trains below.

The conversation has haunted me in a way.  I wonder if I should have inserted myself? But what would I have said?

First, I’d like to think I’d say thank you for noticing the work we do.  It is work to do things with Grace.  There’s a level of planning for her that we don’t worry about with Graham.  There are things she has to have, and not just things we can pick up somewhere on the fairgrounds if we forget.  There are the hills we get to push her up. There’s the trying to find a space in a crowd of people for a girl in a wheelchair to be up front and see what you want her to see.  The crowd just doesn’t split when a wheelchair draws near.

Then I’d have confirmed we do take her to a few things we know she loves.  The DNR building has the fish.  We saw dancing at the Bill Riley talent show.  We hung out with Abby Brown at the PBS booth for just a few minutes.  There was music everywhere.  We ran into one of our favorite people, Hannah.  Plus she was just outside.  It’s summer.  Kids should be outside.  She also endures the things the rest of like!

As for his last comment, I don’t know what I would have said.  He’d touched on one of the great mysteries of Grace.  The amount she takes in and what she does with that input is hard to discern.  But here’s the thing, she didn’t complain.  She looked at the doll houses.  She watched the bands.  She slept a few minutes when Graham couldn’t decide what his one thing to do on the midway would be.  She watched the dancing.  She watched the people.

But there’s also this…we were there as a family.  We attended the state fair together.  Sure we split up at times because Grace can’t do the same things that Graham does.  For example, he likes to ride the skyglider.  Even if we did get Grace on there someone would still have to run her wheelchair up to the other end of the lift.  But we came together, left together, and hung out quite a bit together that day.  Family time is important.  Tradition is important.

I’m sure it would have been too much to tell him that there are also bits of grief mixed in for something seemingly just normal.  There were girls who look her age walking around the fair in groups together, no parents in sight.  There were girls her age in the talent show who I watched wondering about what could have been.  I looked at what girls Grace’s age were wearing and wondered if they would think it was strange if I asked them where they got their clothes.  I feel like Grace is in a bit of a fashion rut…out of kid sizes and the places I’ve relied on to clothe her!  (I find myself unsure where to shop for her now.  I want more than anything to keep her relevant.  She’s already got plenty, not in her favor I don’t need to set her up for anything based on how I dress her.)  Middle school looms and has me anxious for her, that’s a different blog I’m sure.  There are the looks.  The people who feel sorry for her.  The people who feel sorry for us.  The people who look away when you make eye contact.  There are the little kids who crane their necks backward to keep their eyes on her even as their parents holding their hands pull them forward.  There are families getting on the skyglider, families walking together hands linked, families who appear more nimble than ours.  The grief just lies on the edges, I’m aware of it, but on this day I could process it and keep going.

Finally, I’d say I’m grateful the man could acknowledge that he didn’t know what he didn’t know.  Some people count her out automatically with just one quick look.  I sometimes have said that it takes a special person to really see Grace.  I’m not so sure special is the right word-it’s not enough.  What I’ve learned is that it takes someone with an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to take the time to see that matters.

It’s a bit strange to consider how many of the conversations like the one I heard that day about Grace I’ve missed as random people have encountered us.  As I finish writing I’d just encourage you to keep an open mind, and open heart, and be willing to see what you may not have experienced.

Joy

 

 

IMG-3938We were in my hometown over the weekend for Farmer’s Day.  We arrived Friday afternoon and made our way downtown to find my Dad.  I knew just where he would be he’s there every Farmer’s Day weekend.  My godparents were there and I loved seeing both of them.  We got supper at a local booth, watched some singing, Graham wrangled two carnival games out of us and won a small stuffed shark.  Then it was time to go back to my parent’s house.  One of the carnival workers stopped us as we were walking back and said he wanted to give something to Grace.  He proceeded to pull down from the booth a large pink unicorn with lots of sparkles.  It was perfect for Grace, I wondered how he could just look at her and know!  I asked if he was sure, not quite believing he would just give away such a large stuffed animal.  We held it in front of Grace, she totally checked it out, and we thanked him.  Graham volunteered to carry it back to my mom and dad’s house.  This from a boy who 30 seconds earlier was complaining he was too tired to make the walk.

As we walked Kevin and Grace got further and further ahead of us.  I considered asking a question all while knowing I would be wandering into potentially dangerous territory but Graham had been oohing and ahhing over the unicorn.  He had made no comparison to the much smaller and very plain in comparison shark he’d had to work to win.  I wondered why.

“Why do you think that man gave the unicorn to Grace?” I asked.

“Because she’s in a wheelchair.” He said simply.

“Is that the only reason? I asked prodding further.

“She can’t play the games Mom.” End of conversation.

He started talking about other things. But then a few minutes later said, “That was really nice of that man to give this unicorn to Grace.” He carried the unicorn happily all the way. He’d just taken it all in stride.

The next day he was not near as generous with his sister. I was doing something with her and he wanted me to be with him. Now that he’s learned to write he began to write me notes and pass them to me as I fed Grace. One read “Stop Now.” The other just read “No”. Not being able to leave her – because sometimes I just can’t leave her – and him needing or wanting attention from me that I can’t give makes me feel the heavy weight of mom guilt like few other things.

Later that day there was a point when I had to bow out of the fun because Grace needed some time out of her chair, air conditioning, and rest. Graham had a choice at this point. He could either come with me and Grace or he could stay downtown riding rides with his aunt, uncle, and cousins.  I was not surprised in the least when he chose them.  Although I knew he’d be fine part of me hated to leave him, hated to miss him experiencing Farmer’s Day and his cousins, and part of me felt guilty because he’s my responsibility. Watching Graham with his cousins, the banter, the love, even the arguing is sad in a way and fills me with a regret that he doesn’t have typical siblings but I also love to see him join in the fray and I’m so grateful for how my brother’s family embraces him.

There’s a part of me that hates that this is his reality.  It’s not always people giving us pink unicorns.  There aren’t always cousins to ease that we are choosing her over him.  But it is our reality.  We all make sacrifices.  I can only hope that he knows how much he is loved and continue to embrace the pink unicorn moments.  And for those times when he feels he’s being overlooked, I have to hope he can see that in a family you can’t always be first but by no means does that mean you are unloved.

Joy

 

2B692091-A0AD-4844-AFD3-6755D0873689Summer has officially begun. Grace and Graham were done with school last Wednesday. I’ve unpacked a lot of the school stuff. Communication book, drumsticks, catheters, formula, diapers and unused pencils for Grace. For Graham a video showing kindergarten highlights, and so much of evidence of all he learned over the last year. We puzzled through some of the spellings in his work and marveled at his drawings, letters, and numbers. He learned so much in kindergarten!

I’d say their only year together in the same school turned out to be a success. Both of Grace’s teachers mentioned that Graham frequently sought them out to say hello. On the day he used his dragon tracks to be principal for a half a day he came home and reported to us that he’d been able to choose some classrooms to go to with the principal. He went to his own kindergarten room, but he also asked to go to Grace’s general ed room. When Grace wasn’t in that room the principal took him to the special ed room. And when she wasn’t there they went to the band room where Grace’s class was hanging out because the air conditioning in the special ed room was broken. I thought it was very cool that Graham used the opportunity to look for Grace.

For her part as a 5th grader, Grace got the chance to make afternoon deliveries to all classrooms. Evidently, they frequently peeked in on Graham.

There was one day this year when I dropped Grace off at school after therapy and was stopped by the school nurse asking for me to come to her office as soon as I had Grace settled. And then she winked at me. After another trip to the van to get the rest of Grace’s stuff and a kiss on her cheek goodbye, I reported to the nurse’s office to find Graham there. His stomach was hurting. But after a few hugs and a snuggle, he skipped off to kindergarten. I waited for the nurse to call me that day but she never did. He was fine. I was so grateful to have had the chance to be there for both of them that morning.

On Wednesday I attended the end of the year assembly. After songs to make me cry the siblings of 5th graders were offered a chance to line up in the middle of the gym. I saw Graham’s kindergarten teacher help him get into place. Once everyone was lined up the fifth graders “left the building” through a tunnel of high fives. This is what I’ve come to understand is the 5th grade clap out. Grace went second. It all happened so fast I got zero pictures. Graham told me later he got tons of high fives but none from Grace or her nurse Garrett. He was a little sad about it –but glad he got to be right up front.

As I left the gym after her in a hurry I walked by and made eye contact with Grace’s third-grade teacher and then her kindergarten teacher. Obviously tearful I only managed quick greetings–torn between getting to my girl and telling them one last time how much I was thankful for them I ended up following my girl.

And when I got to Grace her nurse and her aide were in hurry to get her water and get her cathed and get her to the park.   This huge moment was done. Life was going on. I walked out of the building crying and cried most of the way home. I swear a few trees cried with me as the wind blew and small leaves blew down around me.

Grace was done with the school she’d been at six years. “We have them the longest” her special ed teacher had said when we had Grace’s transition meeting to middle school. “It makes it harder to let them go” the speech therapist continued.

I’d been up to 11 the night before her last day trying to find words to thank so many people on Grace’s team the past six years. People who have loved her, cared for her, spoken for her, assured she wasn’t passed over. They’ve been with her literally half of her life. How do you thank people for that? And the thing is…the thing that makes me feel so helpless is that I imagine I only have an inkling of what she experienced there. That longing for communication, for knowing what it meant for Grace to be loved by them in what I’m sure were a million small and big ways escape me.   I’m sure that I’m not yet done processing what it means for Grace to be moving on from them. I’m sure there is more crying in my future on the topic.

But to bring this to an end I’d just say that on their last day of school in the same building I missed the opportunity to get a picture of them together. It didn’t work in the morning because they don’t get ready at the same time. After school Grace had a wheelchair appointment, Graham had taekwondo and that was that.

I’m so grateful they had their year- that they experienced sharing in this way this one time. I’m grateful for all the people who were in each of their stories their kindergarten and fifth-grade years.

And now we begin summer stories…

Joy

IMG_2292National Sibling day was actually April 10th. I’m a little behind. I realized that day I didn’t have any fun old pictures of me with my siblings – I need to fix that next time I’m in Jesup. But I did have some pictures of Grace and Graham and so I put one out on Instagram. Believe it or not, sometimes it’s hard to get them both in the same frame. It also made me realize that I haven’t written about Grace and Graham lately.

They continue to evolve as brother and sister. Grace is a faithful taekwondo watcher, stealthy stealer of toys, and continues to drool at times on Graham’s belongings. For his part, Graham has developed a greater understanding of what it means to be Grace’s brother. The Friday before Easter when it was so cold Grace’s nurse left her hat and mittens at school. Her teacher went to find Graham in the after-school program and asked him to put the hat and mittens in his bag so that he could bring them home for her. It was the first thing he told me about when I came to pick him up. He was proud that Grace’s teacher had come looking for him.

There was a time when we left him for three days this winter to take Grace to Minnesota for doctor appointments. I wrote his kindergarten teacher the night before we were leaving to let her know he’d expressed some frustration at being left behind. She responded that he’d already told her and I was moved that he’d already enacted his own support team.

We have started attending a new church and as part of that, we’ve been taking a special needs parenting class. Grace and Graham are in the room down the hall from us those nights. The first night we took them Graham insisted that he have a magnet for Grace’s VNS in his pocket and that he had one of her chewy’s in his pocket. I was astounded.

My heart broke a little the day he told me that he missed our old church and wanted to go back there. I explained to him that maybe someday we could visit but right now we need a church that can better support Grace and that there’d be an opportunity to make new traditions this way. He simply said sadly. “OK, I get it”. But how could he?

And then I picture the two of them on our very cold spring break trip to St. Louis. We were at the zoo and had been checking out the penguins. I wanted to get Grace a stuffed penguin – she’s totally a fan.   We, of course, walked out of the penguin house into the penguin gift shop. Graham knew we were buying a penguin for Grace and immediately went to work collecting penguins to show her so that she could pick. In the end, Grace got a penguin way bigger than what I imagined we’d come home with. But he showed us that she liked it best. He named the penguin Waddles.

He’s growing up so fast and sometimes Grace seems stuck.   They sometimes are fine sitting side by side and they sometimes are not. Sometimes I can get them both in a picture and sometimes they want nothing to do with each other.   We are getting a wheelchair van for Grace and although Graham wanted to help us pick it out he was ultimately ok with whatever was best for Grace as long it had a DVD player for him.

I love the two of them beyond what I can say. We’re working it out day by day. I’m determined that Graham will know we had some limits because of Grace but he will also know that Kevin and I pushed those limits as far as we could and that he was factored into every decision – because he is.

Joy