Solitary Confinement

My middle-aged body is slowly wearing out from wear and tear. I had a triple arthrodoisis (major foot surgery that fuses three joints in the foot) three months ago to fix arthritis and pain which was limiting my ability to walk. I was not allowed to bear weight for 10 weeks so I got around on a knee scooter. It was my right foot, so driving was out. While a nifty invention, my hands hurt from leaning on the scooter, my knee was chafed and my back hurt. To use my teenage daughter’s favorite phrase, I was a hot mess.

Not being a kvetch by nature, I was sick of myself and pretty sure my housemates were sick of me too. Being a stay-at-home mother, I run the household and keep the trains running on time. Since it wasn’t emergency surgery, I was able to plan ahead for rides, meals and help around the house. To my surprise, the household ran relatively smoothly as I directed family life from the couch.

I would be remiss if I didn’t appreciate that my confinement wasn’t life threatening or permanent, for which I was grateful. So while I had anxiety about the surgery and recovery I was mindful that I wasn’t “sick” which helped keep it all in perspective. I had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer in 2010 so I was well aware what an existential crisis feels like. This was merely a big, fat nuisance.

My dignity definitely took a hit. Dependent on my husband to get in and out of the shower, I developed a new appreciation for my privacy and independence.  Our morning ablution schedule became intertwined. It became a joking power move where I would meekly ask, “Could I take a shower now?” and he would bark like a drill sargent, “You will shower when I tell you you can shower.”

Obviously, a sense of humor was key. Otherwise how could I tolerate hoisting myself up and down the stairs on my rear end or on my knees? My sister came from out of town to help nurse me and found my scooter riding so hilarious that she made a video. Our friends found it amusing and I wondered aloud if it could go viral. My kids assured me that it wasn’t that funny. Now, if I had fallen over, that would have been a different story.

I felt a little disconnected from my kids and my husband. Without the parallel talk time while driving and my going to bed early, they were left to deal with the logistics of their lives. On the one hand, it was a welcome break from all of the mental and physical juggling. On the other hand, I felt a little left out. As I recovered and could be more engaged, the kids resumed being normal teenagers and taking me for granted. I took comfort in remembering something Lisa Damour wrote in a 2016 article in the New York Times:  “Happily, the quality parenting of a teenager may sometimes take the form of blending into the background like a potted plant.” On a knee scooter or on the couch, I could excel at being a potted plant.

I developed a whole new appreciation for physical therapists. I saw the surgeon only sporadically so the physical therapist really was my cheerleader and expert regarding my progress. Mine was a guy named Ken, a few years older than me. I looked forward to my twice weekly sessions. During the time when I couldn’t bear weight, I would lie on the table while he massaged my foot, iced it and used electrical stimulation – all without asking anything in return (other than payment.) I could dump all of my frustrations about my recovery on him and joked that he became my best friend.

I tried not to be a kvetch but I know I wasn’t always successful.  I actually developed callouses on my hands from gripping and pushing down on the scooter and they would fall asleep at night so that I began to worry that I was developing carpal tunnel syndrome. I felt like I was playing a bodily game of “Whack-A-Mole,” fixing one problem as another one popped up.  I confess to having a pity party or two. I am human, after all. My girlfriends were great shleppers and listeners, helping me keep my sanity. I was grateful that my confinement was in the age of Netflix. Don Draper and his crew of “Mad Men” kept me company as did the wacky antics of the gang at Dunder Mifflin in Scranton.

The day came when I was given the green light to drive. I hopped in the car and headed to the bank with the windows down and the radio blasting. I felt like a 16 year old with a new license. The freedom was invigorating. My fantasy was shattered when I hobbled through the parking lot, like the middle age, debilitated woman I was. But in the car, and sometimes in my mind, I’m 16!

Recovery is complete and now the serious rehabilitation begins. Ken, once my masseuse and psychotherapist, is now my slave driver. “You mean I have to get off the table and actually do stuff now?” I asked him. I long for the days of passive physical therapy. Was the surgery worth it? Time will tell. Determined to shed my crutches and resume my active middle age, I will push forward and back out into the world. One step at a time.

Good From Far

I find it amusing when parents preface a complaint about their child with, “I mean, I love my kid but…” I find this disclaimer unnecessary because I believe it is implied by virtue of birth (or adoption) that a parent loves their child. Let’s be real though – sometimes it’s hard to love them to the moon and back.

There are so many articles or “list-acles” about how to raise perfect children and be perfect parents and perfect families. I confess that my eyes glaze over when I see an article that tells me the ten things I need to do to raise respectful, moral, interesting, hardworking, non-entitled, you name it kids. While I value expertise and seek it out when needed, I wonder what happened to good old common sense and listening to your gut? Sure, my gut may not have a huge social media presence but it’s gotten me pretty far.

The oldest of my four children is almost 21 and a junior in college. We happily made the transition from being his supervisor to his consultant. However, I find it a bit stressful when he comes home for breaks. Suddenly I have to see his comings and goings, notice his grooming habits, worry when he is out at night. I appreciate that he tries to spend time with our family but I know that he prefers to be with his friends. I understand too that he doesn’t appreciate me asking too many questions or giving unsolicited advice. I try to keep my thoughts to myself but am not always successful.

He recently went abroad for the semester. We are thrilled he has this opportunity and he is excited about being in a foreign country and meeting new people. Truth be told, I am happy he is away. I have noticed that the distance between us allows me to see the best in him. He calls when he wants to talk so we have interesting conversations, as opposed to me trying to drag information out of him. I admire and appreciate his independence and adventurous spirit. I am reminded that he is a kind, sweet, curious and outgoing person. I hope the distance allows him to see more of my virtues instead of a nagging, intrusive mother.

I realize I will not want my children to be far away forever. When they get married and have children I can only imagine it would be nice to have them nearby so we can be a part of each other’s lives. But I am learning to appreciate each stage of parenting, from both sides. My widowed 81 year old father, who lived nearby for most of my adult life, moved to Israel three years ago to begin a new life for himself. He remarried and has an active, rich life. I am delighted that he has interests and a life separate from mine. We can enjoy each other during visits and in phone calls and not be irritated as frequently by our quirks.

I don’t mean to say that I prefer to avoid the underbelly of life. It is part of what makes life real and interesting. Instead, I appreciate the breaks and find sometimes that distance truly makes the heart grow fonder.

Well Nourished

My late mother, in spite of living a healthy lifestyle, suffered from many maladies as she got older. As I drift through middle age, I feel like I am following in her footsteps as I slowly fall apart.

My recent physical failing is not life-threatening, thank God, but skeletal. A lifetime of flat feet has apparently led to arthritis in my right foot and ankle which translates into chronic pain. While the problem has been simmering, it declared its permanency in my life last summer. After living a few months in denial and avoidance, I began the task of figuring it out.

I tried physical therapy, orthotics and bracing, which didn’t help. An MRI report revealed ominous-sounding language, although it was hard for me to decipher. After the first doctor recommended surgery, I began my unofficial residency in the sub-specialty of foot and ankle problems. I learned that having flat feet can cause a deformity that ruins the “tripod” position of your foot- which refers to three points of contact that the bottom of the foot makes with the ground. So my tendon has slowly torn, my arch has collapsed and I have developed arthritis from my foot becoming so poorly aligned. Some doctors think I should do a tendon transfer to realign my foot and fuse the painful joint on the outside of my foot. One doctor suggests a “triple fusion.” There are other little things that would be part of some surgeries, such as taking bone marrow from my hip to help the bones fuse, a tibial bone graft, as well as releasing the Achilles tendon. All of the surgeries are a big deal in that it takes about 3 months to recover, with no weight-bearing for 8-10 weeks. Clearly it is not for the faint of heart. It is my right foot so I will not be able to drive for a while.

I have wrapped my mind around needing surgery and the long recovery. I just want to make sure that I have the best possible outcome. I had never given much thought to the amazing, intricate foot and ankle before. Just like when you are focused on anything in your life, you begin to notice it all around you. In fact, you can’t not see it – like noticing other bald people during chemotherapy or noticing front doors when you are in the market for a new one. Now I am totally focused on people who seem to be limping although I have to restrain myself from speaking to strangers. I wonder if they are before surgery, after surgery, or taking a pass on surgery.

After seeing a few specialists, my head was spinning as each doctor recommended surgery, although with no clear consensus. Remembering my late mother’s medical decision-making strategies, I asked for the office notes after each doctor’s visit so I could compare their recommendations. My goal was to figure out which procedure/doctor combo could  achieve the best outcome, which for me is no pain and the maximum normal use of my foot and ankle.

Never having really collected or read my own medical records, it is a bit jarring to see yourself described in medical-speak. One doctor’s general impression of me was as a “well nourished” woman. Oof, thanks doc. I mean, I really do try to eat healthy – thank you so much for noticing. I took my dog to the vet soon after seeing that note. She said my dog is a little overweight but nothing to worry about for now. I said, “Pardon me, Doctor – my dog is well nourished, not chubby.”

During this time, I decided to have what I believed was a benign cyst removed from underneath my chin. I had shown it to my oncologist and internist over the years so I wasn’t really worried about it but it bugged me so I finally went to the plastic surgeon. She thought it looked a little unusual for a cyst and recommended it be taken out. The results came back as a benign “fatty growth.” Or as I told my husband, in my case, it was a “well nourished growth.”

After consulting with a dozen doctors and discussing my foot ailments with anyone who will listen to me, I plan to have surgery at the end of January. My hope is to return to my active lifestyle and get back outside on long walks with my dog. We both could become a bit more active and a bit less well nourished.

 

 

The Free Ranger

My 19-year-old son did not graduate from high school last year with his peers. Instead we made the decision to keep him in the public school system until he is 21. Ben has a genetic disease called Familial Dysautonomia which affects his cognitive and physical abilities. College is not in his future and we thought it would be best to utilize the public school/county services as he begins the next phase of his life.

Contemplating this next chapter is so much harder than with my typical children. While they may have an inkling of what they want to do when they grow up, Ben truly has no idea. I don’t think he can visualize his future beyond the present and would probably be happy living at home for the rest of his life. So besides taking care of his physical health, which is no walk in the park, I now am responsible for imagining his future. Sometimes this feels like a crushing responsibility.

We were elated to arrange an “internship” at our local Jewish Community Center’s preschool where Ben will help in a classroom of 4-year-olds from 8am – 10:30am. The high school Transition Counselor travel-trained him to ride a public bus from the JCC to his high school for some afternoon classes. Ben has gone to camp at the JCC since he was 3-years-old so it is a safe, comfortable place for him.

It’s still a little terrifying. There is no nurse at work, like there is at school. We put together a plan so Ben can take care of his daily medicine and g-tube feeding before he leaves the JCC. If one of his health episodes arises while at work, we taught him how to handle the situation. This is a huge step in his self-care, heightening his body awareness and giving him the ability to take care of himself.

I have zero concern about Ben liking the work or his behavior in the preschool classroom. He is sweet and thinks the little kids are “adorable.” Ben gives me daily reports about what they did and what they had for snack. He said he helps the little kids with activities and clean up.

The bus ride definitely gave me pause but I was excited and fairly confident that Ben could do it. The travel trainer was a careful professional who thought of things that I had never really contemplated for Ben, much less my typical children.

She said, “Ben said that he has never discussed safety in the community with you.  Not sure if this was an accurate statement, but he seemed surprised that someone on the bus might want to take his cellphone, ask for money, appear to be drunk or on drugs, looks a bit sketchy, etc.  He was unsure how to respond when discussing ways to stay safe. Have you talked in detail with him about this?  What about if there is an emergency (such as weather related or a terrorist attack)?  Have you discussed a family emergency plan?”

Clearly I have failed as a mother. I have inadvertently sheltered Ben as I have been so focused on keeping him healthy and happy. I haven’t been completely negligent but my “safety” focus was on his personal space, i.e. “no one should touch your private parts, etc.” We have always handed Ben off to another responsible person or institution who was looking out for his well-being. This is a new level of “free-ranging” that we have not experienced with our most vulnerable child. I taught my other children many of these things but they also use their intuitive senses to pick up danger in the world around them. Rather than beat myself up, the teaching for Ben begins now – it’s not too late. He has learned to always sit near the bus driver who he can ask for help if needed. With his phone in his pocket, Ben has become aware of the people and places around him. Yes, he has a little fear but no more than a typical person. New things are exciting and a little scary.

But a family emergency plan? Does everyone have these? I don’t recall one from when I was growing up. I hadn’t really thought about how to instruct my kids in the event of a disaster or say, a nuclear attack. The only thing that comes to mind is something my smart aleck uncle told me when I was a teenager. We were sitting on my grandmother’s apartment balcony and I wondered aloud what would happen if the balcony snapped off the building and sent us plunging down.

“You know what you would do?” he asked me.

“Yes?” I asked, eager to hear his sage advice.

“You put your head between your knees and kiss your rear end goodbye,” he slyly said.

And that is all I could think of. I know, I know – I will tell my kids to find the nearest adult if their cell phones don’t work. Do we have to come up with a meeting place? Maybe I’m just too much of a fatalist to think these plans make much of a difference. Hopefully I have given my children the tools they need to be resourceful and strong.

Ben has successfully learned to take the 13 minute bus ride from work to school. He has an ID card, a bus pass and his backpack and is very proud of his achievement. It’s thrilling for me to watch him achieve this independence since he is unable to drive. His 16 year old brother is about to get his driver’s license but the bus riding brother makes me just as proud.

It’s scary sending children out into the world after keeping them safe when they are young. But there are many wonderful experiences to be had out there. Here’s to keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best. Oh, the places you’ll go Ben!

Parenting 201

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It’s official, I now have four teenaged children. I have completed Parenting 101 in the unofficial course book, where I was the director of my children (unfortunately my grade won’t be in for a couple of decades, but I think I passed.) I am now enrolled in the more advanced Parenting 201. I have become more of a supervisor than a director, allowing my children to become more independent as they learn to navigate the world from the safety of home base. Instead of identifying the goal and telling them the steps to get there, now they know the goal but they have more freedom to determine the path to achieve it. Just as they are learning new skills and flexing their decision making muscles, I have learned a few things too as I move through the ranks of my children.

My eldest will turn twenty in April. He is away at college where he is “undecided” in his major while being very “decided” about his fraternity participation. While this imbalance causes me slight agitation, I take comfort that we share the same goal of graduation and employment so I am confident in his ability to get there. I keep myself in check and don’t nag him even if he doesn’t do things exactly how I might. He is well aware of his many friends who came to college with specific majors; he has his own stress about deciding what his focus will be. I don’t need to pile on to his stress so I choose instead to be supportive and helpful when asked. A consultant, if you will.

Number Two son is a whole other ball of wax. He has a genetic disease which affects his health and intellectual/emotional rigor. He recently became 18 so we obtained guardianship in order to help him make decisions that are in his best interest. I try hard to encourage him to think for himself and be as independent as possible. We recently made the decision to keep him in our county school system until he is 21 so he can continue to gain skills that will help him become employed. Fortunately he is extremely pleasant and sweet; he trusts my husband and I completely to help him plan his future. If I think about it too much I am overwhelmed with this responsibility but my husband and I plug along, including him in our thinking and planning as appropriate. It is hard for many kids to visualize their futures, whether they have typical needs or special needs. As parents we just have to use the right approach to help them as they ease across the threshold to adulthood.

My third teenager will be 16 next month. He is learning how to drive and settling into his high school studying habits. One thing that I’ve learned is that occasionally a supervisor has to step in and take a more hands on role. He has some acne like one of his older brothers; I was a compliant mother of the dermatology patient with my older son, trying less invasive treatments which where only marginally successful. With this son I knew to be an aggressive advocate and start the big guns early – a 6 month oral medication, with monthly lab draws. When I told big brother what we were doing, he gave me a little gift of validation by telling me, “I regret not doing that.” My 15 year old was unaware of this option and would have lived with bad acne had I not acted. I didn’t want him to regret not having done something about it. Let him get on the therapist’s couch for something else I will screw up.  Whether it has to do with my parenting or not, he is confident and resilient, demonstrated by running for a youth group board position recently after losing two times previously. My protective mother instinct thought, “Why risk losing again?” Good thing I didn’t interject my concerns, as he won. I do not micromanage my kids’ lives. It’s their life, not mine.

The final teen is my baby girl who is 13. She has not turned into a surly adolescent yet. She is a solid student and a dancer. She has her own fashion sense, which I respect, and only weigh in on things like age-appropriateness and modesty. She pushes back a little but is mostly respectful of my input. She is fearful of things she finds “creepy,” like some odd neighbors who recently moved away and our new President. She recently asked to be excused from the dinner table when we were discussing the upcoming Inauguration as it causes her to feel anxious. While I can shield her from too much information, I want her to be informed enough, feel empowered to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and be her own advocate for things she feels strongly about.

I may not like every decision my kids make but I tell them I am always their number one fan. I find myself missing my mother, who died three years ago. I wonder how she managed our teen years. Thankfully I have my husband, sister and girlfriends to discuss the trials and tribulations of raising teenagers. They provide a non-judgmental sounding board off of which I can bounce my stories and concerns.

After the teenage years I have the dating and marriage fun to look forward to – Parenting 301 – clearly a graduate level course.

 

 

Our Two Dads

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Smack in the middle of the sandwich generation, I find myself motherless and with not one but two fathers. No, nobody’s come out recently. I am talking about two widowed men who found themselves rudder-less after the loss of their wives. My mother died three years ago and my mother-in-law died last June so my husband and I now each have a father as our primary parent.

Neither father lives near us but fortunately they are both independent and of sound mind for now, at 80 and 83 years old. Their bodies are slowing down but after 40, whose isn’t? My father has a little asthma and peripheral neuropathy so he is occasionally short of breath and his feet feel sluggish, making walking more difficult. My father-in-law has arthritis and very poor hearing.

We are grateful for the people who live near our dads. For my father, it is his new wife of six months. They live in Israel, half a world away from me. Besides him being happy, the added benefit is having a keen observer of my father’s level of wellness who will notice if he wakes up each morning.

My father-in-law being more newly widowed is still somewhat adrift and finding his way after 62 years of marriage. My husband’s siblings live near their dad in Chicago and are very devoted to his well-being.

We admire both of our dads for their ability to engage in life after the loss of their wives. Many people cannot find the energy to navigate life, do the tasks their spouses did for so many years, and even learn new things at a somewhat advanced age. Both of our fathers are affable people. My father is interested in politics and the stock market while my father-in-law is an artist, history buff and sports fan. They both still want to travel and see new places. They each do their best to remember family birthdays and anniversaries, like their wives did.

Our guest room feels like a designated “Dad’s Room” lately as they are our most frequent visitors. My father recently came home by himself to take care of some business and visit with his family. Flying from Israel is a tough flight if you are at the top of your physical game. When you’re 80 with physical maladies, it can be even tougher. My father seems to feel betrayed by his body as his mind still feels young and engaged. He talks about his ailments a lot, trying to figure out the cause of things and what he can do to make them better. He is diligent about going to doctors in search of an answer.

I loved spending time with my dad, even when he ruminated about his health. Since I am sliding into middle age at 53, I have some aches and pains of my own. When I mentioned the tendonitis in my foot that was giving me trouble the conversation shifted right back to my dad’s ailments.

“You think you have foot problems? Let me tell you about my foot problems….” he joked, as if it were a competition.

Obviously it’s not and I am sorry that he “wins,” as he is older and his issues are more debilitating than mine. I have come to accept that the period of my life where I get active attention and parenting from my surviving parent is over. It only seems fair that the tables have turned, as my dad (and my late mother) spent much of their life doting on me and my siblings. Every bit of minutiae felt important to me and therefore they listened and offered help. I remember during the years when I was having babies thinking that nobody but my mother cared about how the nights were with my crying infants. Who else would listen to my minute-to-minute reports? Now my husband, sister and friends are the lucky recipients of my kvetching.

It seems unrealistic to expect a surviving parent to carry the load of two full-time parents who had a division of duties carefully honed over a lifetime. Relationships that were so clearly defined while raising children and young adults become fluid, changing with time, age, and necessity. The one constant is love and affection, if you’re lucky. My father can hear, but active listening is not his greatest strength. His love, humor, wisdom and generosity more than make up for what he lacks in listening ability. My father-in-law, on the other hand, can’t hear well but listens as best he can. His kindness, good nature, and love of his family compensate for what he lacks in hearing.

It is illuminating to see our dads cast in a new light. Never strangers to our fathers while our mothers were alive, the loss of our mothers brought with it the opportunity to know our fathers in a different way. They can no longer just chat with us briefly before handing the phone to our mothers when we call. The buffer is gone so we delve into new conversations and become acquainted in a different way.

After the death of our mothers, life felt off-kilter, but eventually we have found a new equilibrium as our relationships with our fathers re-calibrate. While we miss our mothers we our thankful to still have our two dads.

 

 

 

A Minority at the Age of Majority

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As the school year begins, there is excitement in the air with many “firsts” and “lasts.” The first day of a new school, the last first day of school, and everything in between. For me, there is a tinge of sadness. My second child is a high school senior, with a twist – it is his first senior year, as the plan is for him to complete high school in five years instead of four. How exactly would one word that on a Facebook post?

I look around and see my son’s peers who I have known since he was little, finishing up their college tours, getting ready to start the college application process, like my oldest son did two years ago. I feel profound sadness that my second son is not sharing this experience. He has a genetic disorder called Familial Dysautonomia, which has many health and cognitive ramifications. He was diagnosed when he was one, so I have had his lifetime to adjust to his “normal,” and accept his non-traditional lot in life. Fortunately my glass is usually half full, so I can enjoy what I do have without focusing on what I don’t. I always think of that saying about “if we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back,” which I generally feel to be true.

My son recently turned 18 and I am proud of all that he has accomplished in his difficult life. The fact that he is a senior on the diploma track, even if it takes two years, is a huge accomplishment. He learned how to tie his shoes last year, a difficult task when you have poor fine motor skills. While he eats by mouth, which is something else he has learned to do as he’s gotten older, he has a feeding tube and has learned to feed himself independently. He plays piano. He learned to kayak recently on a family trip. He has an excellent memory, is very sweet and friendly, and loves his screens – be it a computer, Iphone, television, movie screen, or any hand-held device/game – often all at the same time!

When most people turn eighteen, the world opens up for them. They can vote, join the military, serve on a jury, get married, get a credit card and apply for loans. When my son turned eighteen, I had to apply for guardianship for him. What exactly does this mean? Basically, a court will determine that our son “is incapable of making decisions because of severe disabilities,” and that he is in need of protection. The court will then appoint someone to act on his behalf, namely us.

While I am well aware that my son is “disabled,” these are painful words to see in black and white. It feels like a punch in the gut to read the forms completed by two physicians which state that his disease is permanent, progressive and fatal. I know these things to be true but they do not rise to my consciousness on a daily basis.

Not one to fret too much, I generally let life unfold organically, guided by my inner voice and values. I know my son is fragile but I do not focus on his life expectancy, instead cherishing each day and year. I have come to learn that none of us know what the future holds, so other than living a reasonably healthy life, why worry about it? As someone wisely suggested to me years ago, I try not to borrow worry from the future.

It is at these milestones when my grief for the loss of a typical child rises to the surface, gently rolling over me in waves. Intellectually, I know that guardianship is in the best interest of my son and that it does not really change the day to day care and future planning that we already do for him. Being his guardians allows my husband and I to continue keeping him safe while encouraging his growth and independence. It just does so in such an official manner, unlike our other children who will hopefully all go off to college and make their own decisions about their lives with only occasional consultation from their parents.

The adult future that always seemed so far away during his difficult youth has arrived for my son. I am grateful that he is relatively healthy, happy and has reached the age of majority. He is a delightful young man who enjoys the simple things in life, being content and happy spending time with his family. We will deal with this legal task, mindful of the huge responsibility of being someone’s guardian and then go back to just being his parents, leaving the sadness behind for now and seeing what each new day brings.