So now that I have bitched and moaned my way out of the angst and fears I had for my twin sons not being included in high school graduation as well as their plans for afterward, I have switched gears to heart jumping out of chest emotions. And by the way, I received so many reassuring posts of “me too” or “hang in there till fontal cortex develops” or “you’ve done a good job” or “these are fine young men finding their way” or “I wish my daughter could do what she really wants to do instead of what she is expected to do,” that it was like balm on my bleeding gut. I am deeply grateful for each comment I received.
You know the trite saying—“The days go so slowly, the years so quickly,” and here I am thinking just that. My beloved twin sons will walk to Pomp and Circumstance in a few days as they graduate from Broughton High School in Raleigh, North Carolina. These 18 years have been no walk in the park, and yet it is hard to believe that things are about to change drastically and how much I will miss these last of six sons I have walked along side of through some 14 years of school.
I have always felt that once your kid gets his or her driver’s license a great communication rift occurs. The things they share with you when neither of you is making eye contact are often intimate and honest. Your eyes are on the road and prior to cell phone obsession; their eyes were looking ahead. They tell you stuff, important stuff. Driving is however, only one of the rites of passage that occur along the way and once they drive, you lose some of those talks.
My twin sons came into our lives like a blinding light of redemption amidst the darkest, lifeless abyss. Our fourth son had died three years prior and five of us had grieved non-stop for those three years. The birth of Sam and Will was a thunderbolt for each of us and gave us back the gift of faith and hope. One baby is a blessing; two is indeed a drastic, attention-demanding measure! We needed an event of just that level of intensity.
In my first and only hospital birth and my first and only C-section, I felt completely overwhelmed. When both babies started crying, Shep looked at me and said, “Oh boy, we’ve really done it this time!” And indeed we had. as the ride of our lives began. We were so much older this go round and so much rougher around the edges. Walking forward on tiptoes was the only option.
Knowledgeable friends often said, “the first year with twins is a blur,” and that’s pretty accurate. Despite being an experienced mom, it was often really scary figuring out how to hold, feed, and care for two babies at once. Friends from La Leche League and church were God sends. Meals were brought, diapers changed, bathrooms cleaned, and babies were taken out for walks while I showered or rested. Sarah made me banana nut muffins for middle of the night hunger pangs. Dear friend, Lisa drove my 10 year old to school and back. Many times, she would see me holding the babies in my front window when she drove up and often, I was crying along with them. She would come in and offer comfort to all three of us. I’ll never forget that. It really was a whirlwind and most of it is hard to recall in much detail.
I got this notion that if I could just keep the kitchen island clear and organized, I would survive. It was the strangest, most random idea, but I really believed that if I lost control of that, we would all just never climb out of mayhem and chaos. The house would fall down and we would be buried under the rubble. Many women, most moms I know, are control freaks to one degree or another. With twins, it is a complete loss of control with a necessary white flag of surrender, so the kitchen island became my focus and I was maniacal about cleaning it up.
On braver days, I would load the babies up in their car seats and head to Fresh Market. It was a small enough store, where I could manage to throw a few groceries into the bottom of their stroller and revel in the attention sales clerks paid to my adorable babies. On a particularly gutsy day I might also venture into TJ Maxx next door just to wander (if they’d both fallen asleep.) Mostly, I would end up rushing home at their first hint of hunger. Although I was a most experienced breastfeeding mama and in fact, a lactation consultant, there is NOTHING discreet about nursing twins! Besides, when they are little, they are completely unwieldy without the monster twin-nursing pillow! I mostly lived inside that pillow.
The babies and their daddy and I all shared a bed at night so that we could get as much sleep as possible. One night when I saw my husband literally hanging onto the edge of his bed I asked, “What are you doing?” “Oh,” he said, I’m preparing for my time in my casket, when I can finally stretch out.” My husband’s sense of humor has always been one of my most sacred blessings! I think that I night weaned the twins by the end of their first year or so, because I could no longer survive the constant sleep disruptions of TWO babies. It was hard. There was lots of crying, cuddling, rocking, and offering of cups of water to convince them to wait to nurse until daylight. Eventually, I won that one battle and we went on to nurse only during daylight and evening hours for a long time to come. And, the kitchen counter was still fairly clear.
I think that Lesley may have saved my life. She was a friend from church with this lovely English accent. She adored Sam and Will and they her. She came about once a week to help me. I really think I might have died without Lesley! Once they were eating solid foods, she would feed them their banana or sweet potato while I got to do something else. She put them in the jogging stroller and walked them for hours. It was heaven for me and totally saved my sanity. At night, I would lay in bed and nurse them to sleep and then run downstairs for a short spin on the computer, only to have them wake and I’d run back up, nurse and then back down over and over. To me, the sounds of silence and the tapping of the computer keys were worth the loss of sleep.
When the twins were around two, a new construction began on a new interstate that was literally, through our backyard. For twin two year old boys this was a match made in heaven. I do believe that they were entirely convinced that they were part of the crew. And every single night, my sweet husband would walk down in the dirt, lift them up into the construction tractors and supervise their ritual of sweeping with brooms and dustpans. It was a focus of theirs for at least a year. It morphed into complete infatuation with construction. I made them yellow felt work vests and got them hard hats. They would pack a lunch, get their shovels, don boots and go to the back door with Sam saying, “Bye wife. We are going to work now. Take care of the kids and I’ll see you tonight.” I could hardly control my hysteria but they would indeed toddle off into the backyard. It was the most darling thing.
What wasn’t so darling was the expanding trench under our house. They sort of lived under the house during the day, setting up shop there, digging until there was a vast hole with their gear and little folding chairs situated around it. In addition to that hole, one was also growing in the woods that lay between our house and our neighbor, Nancy’s. That hole was getting bigger and bigger and one day Nancy asked them, “What are you digging here?” “A swimming pool” they answered. “We’ll fill it with water when it is ready for swimming.” As well, they’d gotten a hold of Nancy’s headshot as deacon of our church and copied it onto posters. They hung these around our street posts and each one said, “Wanted.” When Nancy saw these she was pretty shocked and so they came to her house and held a trial with Nancy’s Desmond Tutu doll as judge. She was found innocent and released from “Wanted” signs.
Along with the digging phase came an ambulance phase. They rigged up a sled on top of a Radio Flyer red wagon and bungeed it tight. Then, Will would lay down on top of the sled and Sam would wrap him up and pull him along “into an ambulance” for treatment. It was hilarious to me but they took this very seriously.
Early on I knew danger lurked around every corner when I was desperate for a shower one day and sat the twins in their little chairs with lots of good snacks and a video. I ran upstairs to take one speedy shower and yelled down to them, “What are you doing? You’re so quiet.”
“Playing knives” they responded. Yes, all my kitchen knives were in fact, out and in their little hands! Social Services 101.
What one boy might or might not do, twin boys will definitely do. The conversation goes something like this, “Nah, I don’t think I can pull that down/climb that high/destroy this or that.” “Yes, we can, if we do it together. Here, I’ll boost you up and you can reach it.” So, there is little or nothing that they cannot pull off. Over the years this included some of the following: The time that Shep looked out the window and saw Sam rappelling down the side of the house with his belt strapped around a makeshift “pulley.” The time that we saw Will flying along a rope tied from the bonus room window on an S-hook attached to his jeans belt loop to the window of the back garage! Sam was holding one end of the rope that wasn’t tied to anything! One day when I went to the mailbox and noticed someone looking up questioning what they saw. I looked up too and there some 50 or so feet up in the air, tied to a tree, was my Guatemalan hammock that Sam climbed up to regularly for R&R! There was the neat little square cube cut out of my nice sofa arm. I still can see the writing on the antique dresser top that caused me to scream at Will. Older brother Oliver in his lifelong quest to keep anyone from being hurt, defended Will saying, “Don’t yell at him. He has writing sickness.”
At the same time I was hanging onto my “natural mama” qualifications and dying silks, making wooden huts, decorating wooden blocks, and reading books about fairies, convinced that I could make these boys earthy tree huggers. Not happening.
It went on. The repairman came one day to check some wiring under the house. “Ma’am there’s a huge trench under your back deck. It’s about 6 feet wide and quite deep.” Or, the time I went up to the upper floor of the garage only to find an entire Rubbermaid bin filled with sand, water, and tadpoles. I wondered HOW, this would ever get out and HOW the smell would ever go away. When we locked the bonus room door because Sam and Will continued to destroy things in that room but the destruction went on. We couldn’t figure out how this was happening but when I was hanging clothes up in Sam’s closet I saw sheetrock dust on the floor. It was a result of the small square, big enough to slither through, that Sam had carved in the likes of the “Underground Railroad” which gained him access to the locked bonus room!
They went to the Montessori School of Raleigh when they were four years old, which was about two years later than the school preferred as a starting point. So, they spent an extra year in Children’s House, which was fine really, as long as we were getting financial aid! I balked at the thought of separating them into two classes, but gave in and surprisingly, Will was the one who struggled. Sam came into his class daily to comfort him and they got through. Will’s favorite daily activity was in the “life skills” major, and was “baby washing.” Sam on the other hand, liked to sit and chat with his teacher, Michael. At the age of four, he would relate to Michael all the goings on in the world as per NPR and Michael would tell us in conferences, that “Sam is the kind of guy you’d enjoy having a cup of coffee with in the morning while catching up on the news.” His friend, Austin taught him to read (so typically Montessori!) and he was off and running with reading him keeping him grounded for the next many years. My most hated moment was the day that I came to pick them up and a mom said, “Oh is today Grandparent’s Day?” Grrrrrrrr.
In Lower Elementary, Sam was already struggling and rebelling against math and moreover, only wanting to do what he wanted to do. This is mostly acceptable in Montessori education, but there are limits and he broke them all. When teachers would insist he stay in through lunch and miss outdoor time, he was fine with that because he enjoyed adult conversation far more than kid-talk! By the time he was in Upper Elementary, things were getting more difficult and Sam was becoming adept at lying and covering up his deficits and preferences. Tutoring proved futile as it would for all the years to come.
In the meantime, Will was the rule follower, doing as he should through each grade, learning to sew on a machine, completing his work, getting along and having a flourishing social network. His teachers and friends enjoyed him and he was obsessed with Hardy Boys which Shep read to the twins for years and which he could now read himself.
By the end of fourth grade, financial aid came to an end and we had to leave Montessori. One year of public school in a diverse magnet school with Will being the lone Caucasian in his class was an experience that both boys needed. They even took a school bus each day. Sam was reading entire books, often on war or history in one sitting and this seemed to be his best coping skill. However, though I paid in advance for occasional school lunches (which was typically unfit for human consumption) they always seemed to be out of lunch money on their accounts. I am a stickler for healthy eating and although all my sons have hated me for that at one time or another, I have not waivered. We always start the day with a good, healthy breakfast. So, when I called the “cafeteria lady” to ask why their lunch account was always empty she replied, “Oh those boys really enjoy school breakfast every day. They love the Fruit Loops, the sausage biscuits, the pancakes with syrup and all that. “ I nearly died right there and then. Sneaky junk food eaters, those two! Backlash had begun in earnest.
We were so thrilled when Sam and Will won the lottery to attend Exploris Middle School. It was a great, urban, alternative school and everyone loved it. In retrospect, it along with Montessori was probably another terrible fit for Sam. Why couldn’t I see that a structural environment perhaps even a military school, might well have served him better. But, we trudged along middle school years with smelly armpits and feet, sudden interest in girls and the silliness that goes with it. I drove 2 hours a day round trip to and from downtown for three years. On most days I felt like the most uncool mom in the world, but I expect that every other mom in her minivan was feeling the same way. My boys were pulling away from me and when they fell apart, it seemed I could no longer comfort them by rocking them in the green leather chair.
At the end of each Exploris year, they were required to present a portfolio of their work for that school year. It was a one on one presentation with discussion offered to parent and teacher. I won’t even begin to try to describe the challenge involved in getting these two to complete this project yearly. For Sam especially, every trick, every lie, every attempt, was employed to avoid finishing. Torrents of emails and threats from teachers caused me to march up to school one day like a raving mad woman, grab my son who was now way taller than me and pin him up against the wall saying, “Finish the God damned portfolio or I might have to kill you.” I was dripping in sweat and embarrassment by the time I got back into my car, but I imagined that he was too, since all his classmates had witnessed this threat to his life by his own deranged, lunatic mother. When the day finally dawned and I was called to school for presentation of portfolio (the very last kid to do so) it was the day before graduation. This was required for graduation. I sat there, impressed by Sam’s presentation and said proudly to his teacher, Frank, “Great job after all, don’t you think?” Frank asked Sam to step out of the room for a moment. “Mrs Smith,” he said, “it appears that Sam has simply taken the pages out of his sixth grade portfolio and presented them as his eighth grade work. I sat there completely stunned. I mean stunned beyond knowing what to think, say, or do. He did graduate the next day but I think it was that they just could no longer try to outsmart this kid and I think they were afraid his apoplectic mother might die before he got his middle school diploma. The parting words of Will’s teacher to him as he left Exploris was, “Your procrastination will kill you.” Prophetic.
Sam’s self esteem was lower and lower and this was a scary time. His sixth grade teacher, Helene kept encouraging me to bring him and Will as well to Civil Air Patrol meetings. The idea of a military group was off putting to me, but when I actually took them to a meeting and saw the military uniforms, I was more than concerned, I was horrified! But, like so many things on the path of parenting, I went along in the hopes of more good than bad. I would say that overall, it turned out that way, but the resulting love of firearms and harshest of all, the fact that one of my sons is joining the Army has me beating myself up forever for this introduction.
The resulting years of Airsoft play was also a part of this phase. They would suit up in just about everything they owned layer on top of layer, no matter that it was 95 degrees outside. Then came helmets, protective eye gear and combat boots. There would be a neighborhood battalion and the pelting would begin, leaving dents in the rain gutters, the trash bins, garage doors, and parts of the house exterior. It was pretty terrifying and though I thought it might never end, eventually it did, to my great relief. But, not before they had spray-painted a closet in the garage with big letters of “Guns and Ammo.” Needless to say, I no longer left the garage door opened for fear of who might see this.
Trips to Outward Bound, Wintergreen Ski Lodge, Appalachian trails, Migrant Farm Workers, Disneyworld, LEAF festival, Beach houses, New York City, and more kept us together while we grew further apart. For the first time in our family, we rarely ate dinner together. Sam and Will were out evenings more often than not. I was adamant about family meals with my older kids, but this time, I acquiesced. I just didn’t have that much fight left in me.
High school’s been hard. It’s been very, very, very hard. By the time Sam landed in his freshman year he was very clear about one thing. He hated school. He hated every single thing about it and he was committed to avoiding it in every way possible. Will was not so crazy about it either but he was a fast runner on track team in freshman and sophomore years and had lots of friends. As his middle school teacher had so accurately predicted, his procrastination was his undoing. He avoided work and did it minimally when necessary. Meanwhile Sam cut classes, rarely handed in work, slept through many classes, and was completely involved in other things. He earned certifications in admirable and difficult things like Search and Rescue missions, learning to fly a plane, rose in rank quickly in all things military and more. During snow and ice storms both Sam and Will were out on the roads helping bail stuck cars and people out. Hurricanes and weather disasters had them first up at Emergency Rescue Centers. Sam committed to attending an EMT class every single day after school for his entire senior year and he made it to the end and certification. No matter that at times his backpack was jam full of moldy, rotted lunches from months prior. What DID he eat? I probably never want to know.
Power schools was the bain of my existence. It is a constant email delivery to your inbox that advises you of your kids’ missing assignments, failing grades, absences and tardies. It is a guaranteed way to ruin your day and yet one cannot resist opening the darned email. Often It would cause me to type out another begging for help email to this teacher or that. I sent emails to Civil Air Patrol encouraging them to bid Sam and Wil farewell if they didn’t start doing their homework. I’m sure I was the world’s most annoying mom. My favorite response was a recent one from Sam’s Curriculum Assistance teacher that simply said, “We may die trying.”
These two boys were so amazing and yet so different from what I was used to that I fought and balked every step of the way. I wanted them to do school, to get good grades, to want to learn, to respect teachers enough to stay awake, to hand in assignments, to tour and apply to colleges. For Sam this was NOT happening and I would say that unfortunately, he and I fought through most of high school. I would often cry at night at how damaging this was to our sacred mother/son relationship. I dreaded the school emails that egged me on. And yet, I knew somehow, deep in my gut that he would make it all come out right, yet on his own terms. Despite having 18 absences in one class and finally admitting that he’d “gone fishing” instead (?) he’d get through. He rarely showed up for paid work as opposed to Will who worked hard and steadily at lifeguarding day in and day out. And yet, Sam has already actually saved a few lives. It’s all so confusing.
Unfortunately, I must say that I feel that military recruiters have no business on high school campuses, any more than religious zealots do or Jehovah Witness mission reps. I was shocked and angry that these professional recruiters came onto campus repeatedly and got my boy all right. Again and again, they flashed money and excitement in Will’s path and despite getting into a decent NC college, he is headed to Basic Training in a couple of months. I cannot tell you the terror and panic this stirs in my heart, so don’t even try to calm me. I have gotten on my knees and prayed for a different outcome but so far, no dice.
And so, here we are. This is the end for Shep and for me of 33 years of non-stop school years shared between five sons. Thousands and thousands of unanswered wake up calls, nourishing breakfasts, packed lunches, backpacks and snacks later, here we are. I am not who I was 33 years ago by any stretch as these years have been the core of my life and in every way, it has been my honor. I will watch these two beloved sons of mine in their purple caps and gowns march up to get their diplomas after all the ups and downs that lead to that day. I will burst with pride despite all the mistakes I’ve made and doubts I should never have let bloom. I did my best and I know in their own way, they did too. In the end, they are smart, they are kind, they are strong, they are caring and they are the most beautiful souls that reside in my heart forever.