Losing Dori

Dori family10685323_10152372337490418_5506836535180330776_nDori

I stood in her office right next to her kitchen and tried to take it all in. She’d been dead just about three days. Her synagogue funeral was held just this morning and now we’d been invited to her home for Shiva, to pray and to offer comfort to her husband, and her three children. The rabbi recited beautiful prayers to which we were encouraged to respond. I had to keep reminding myself to turn the pages from right to left and I remained silent when they responded in Hebrew.


But all during the prayers and the offering of stories of Dori, I fought the urge to get into that office. When I did, I was so grateful that no one followed me and I was alone for a few moments though there was no door to close. I did a 360 trying to take it all in. There were hundreds of psychology related books on the shelves. The desk was big, the view to the outside verdant and comforting. There were colored sticky notes everywhere with reminders to do this and that Several canvas shopping bags hung on doorknobs here and there. A comfortable but petite leather chair sat empty, waiting for a client perhaps or anyone who needed to pour their desperately wrecked heart out to the clinician, the mother, the compassionate educated woman who worked so hard to become a master in her field. No one was in the speaker’s chair and no one would ever again be in the listener’s chair. The children’s paintings and drawings were on the wall.


It would have taken me hours to fully observe and absorb what was in that office and I wished for that time to be given to me. But I felt like a spectacle or even a ghoul as I stood in silent stillness trying to take in as much as possible, while the mourners began eating cookies and drinking iced tea. My husband or others might notice my absence so I made my way back into the kitchen.


Her death has shaken me more deeply than I would have imagined. We did not have a close relationship, but I knew her and had shared clients and friends with her. I was always in awe of her hair for which she was quite famous. She had a strawberry blond braid that touched the floor, which must have taken most of her life to grow. When I would see her or spend short amounts of time with her I would wonder how she washes it, how she dries it, what her clients think about it, how she sleeps with this braid and if it got unbraided how she would trail it along! Silly I know, but curious nonetheless. And it was stunning to me when I saw her in Whole Foods shortly after her cancer diagnosis with only a short, strawberry blond wig. Just like that, a lifetime of hair growing and a trademark—gone! Yet, she seemed fine with that. When suddenly your only focus becomes living, most else diminishes in value and importance, I imagined. This woman suffered terribly for the next 15 long/short months. I have become terrified and obsessed with the possibility of going down that same road myself.


So, I ached deeply at the funeral for her loving husband and her kids with special needs. When one twin son stood up and said, “she spent her whole life trying to normalize us” that caught my throat and spilled my tears. She did everything and more that included puppet shows, learning techniques and relentless creative patience for her children’s development. She breastfed each child for as long as they needed and became a La Leche League leader to help more moms do the same. She even helped me nurse my newborn twins after hers were a bit older by bringing me her twin nursing pillow. It helped and she helped immensely. It was a hard, hard funeral and yet all are, really.

But here’s the thing for me. Those sticky notes. They were reminders of vital things that needed to get done. They are SO important to us and we give them honor by actually writing them on these blue, yellow, and neon pink notes so as not to forget to do them. And yet now, they will not ever get done. Never, ever. Or at least never done by the woman who needed to do them. And the canvas shopping bags. Maybe she made the effort to carry them to the store for groceries. Perhaps she was the type who remembered to bring them with her without excuses at the checkout of “Oh sorry, I left my bags in the car. I’ll bring them next time.” Or maybe she never remembered them yet scolded herself to remember the next time. And now, who cares? Did it matter if she declined paper or plastic? Did it really damned matter?   A few hundred “bad bags” over her years would never have made an impact. She’s dead now and her canvas bags remain hanging on the doorknobs. And I’m thinking maybe they carried items more important than groceries. She was one of the masters of “sand play therapy” which she used with her patients young and older. Using sand, water, and small figures the premise is that the psyche possesses a natural tendency to heal itself, given the proper conditions. Were some of those precisely detailed small figures carried to and from her office in those bags. The powerful quote on sand play for which Dori was a revered expert is “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.”   C. G. Jung

And my canvas bags are in the car and no, I hardly ever forget them. And my sticky notes are on my desk with stuff that needs to get done. My to-do list gets written regularly. I want the best for my kids but they don’t see it that way at all. They don’t really enjoy speaking with me or sharing ideas for the most part. And none of it really makes one goddamned difference when the curtain closes. It just really doesn’t. They say love is the only thing that matters in the end, but frankly I am not even sure if that is a truth or if it is just a nice thing to say to make us all cling onto hope. It might just be a marketing slogan. Nevertheless, this death of this healer and this loving mom and partner has been a tragedy.


Just Look up at the Leaves!



I sat outside on the bench in front of the condo and tried really hard to focus on the light breeze (it is finally NOT 100 degrees in Raleigh today, or at least not yet) and the birds chirping. I reached far into my heart and soul trying to quell my tears and comfort my heart. I am sad about so much today but more than sad, is my raging fear of the next scariest thing. There’s a lot to be afraid of at the moment


I looked up at the tree above me and I had this green, leafy sense of calm but it also tinged of longing. And there I was, seven year old me lying on that hot, itchy, green Army blanket. My mother, my father, my sister and me on the grass, under the tree in Highland Park in Brooklyn. It was warm and the blanket made it feel even hotter. We were expected to just lie there and look up at the waving leaves. For my mother this was heaven. She’d grown up in an apartment building on Ocean Parkway as the only child of Hungarian immigrants. The tales she regaled of her mother sounded pretty neurotic, though that same woman was the renowned loving grandmother who saved my life with her unrelenting love, so who knows. But, at any rate, my mother had lived a mostly “indoors” life and so laying here under the tree was indeed a total “breath of fresh air.” She just loved it.


My father on the other hand, grew up in a brownstone in Bushwick in a large Irish family filled with dysfunction and addiction. His home had a yard and a stoop. He broke free and saw the world whether riding on the roofs of freight trains or in Guam and Saipan in the US Army. But working three jobs to support us and being the enabler for a mentally ill wife with Borderline Personality was no easy feat and so his fatigue made him also find solace and rest on this blanket under the tree


My mother and I never worked well which is an extreme understatement. But at seven I was less of a threat to her than once I got older, so things were probably still fairly okay despite her raging depression. We lived in “the projects” aka public housing in Brooklyn and though we played outside a lot, this laying in the grass time was different and not being concrete, it was softer and kinder. My mother would insist that I look up and watch the leaves, that I smell the grass and that I watch the clouds in the sky move around and along. A large part of me hated this. I wanted to DO something and move around or at the very least, go to the stand nearby and get orangeade and Campfire marshmallows. But no, we were just to lie there on the hot, itchy blanket and stare upwards to the heavens.


I am so glad she made me do that. It was probably very therapeutic to our disorganized, unpredictable lives and I believe there were times when I too dozed off on that blanket with eyes fluttering watching the leaves and the branches.


I tried really hard to go back there this morning. I could hear it and I could see it, but I couldn’t feel it. My eyes were still full of tears and fear. But, for a single moment in the midst of searching for God which I often do, I did find my mother and for a single split second of that moment, I missed her and thanked her.

Pink and Blue


For many years I have participated (both as a buyer and seller) in the Kids Exchange Sale. This is currently the largest event of this type in the U.S. with two huge buildings at the State Fairgrounds packed to the walls. I mean, you did NOT ever realize that there were this many clothes, strollers, toys, and more in the universe, let alone in this county.


It is not an event that you look forward to, but it is one you know you will benefit from. The pros are that you get to sell your kid’s outgrown or non-favorite clothing, shoes, toys, and equipment for which you earn 2/3 of your selling price. It is nice to get a check in the mail a few weeks later AND be rid of stuff no longer needed. As well, you get to purchase really nice, kids clothing or the “top of the line” carseat or pair of running shoes that you would normally not be able to afford. And on the last day when most items are ½ off you can really clean up even more. The cons are the work involved in sorting, hanging, tagging, and dropping off said items you are planning to sell. By being a “seller” you also get to come to the sale the day before the public, earning the privilege to now stand in line waiting to enter while feeling a lot like Black Friday in protecting yourself from the mayhem. Then too, there is the horribly long checkout line, which can sometimes be a good hour long with each buyer shuffling their pile along through the maze. Clearly, it still seems worth it to hundreds of us.


I remember the first year that woman named Doris started this sale.  She had a couple of racks of clothing and two or three cribs and high chairs in front of a church on Millbrook Rd. I went with my baby in stroller and purchased a nice looking changing table there. The rest as they say, is history with this enourmous sale spanning at least four cities!


So this year the sale was a bit different for me. I went with a certain couple I hold dear to my heart as they are expecting their first baby early next year. We were on a mission for the “big stuff” first and then after that – the fun stuff—newborn, gender-neutral clothes. They do not know whether they are having a boy or a girl, nor do they care much at this point and though they may decide to “find out,” for now it remains a mystery. The first few little yellow sleepers we chose (out of the thousands hanging on racks that run the length of the building,) were dear and cunning. We were in the newborn boys aisle and as we flipped through we started to notice a pattern. Why were boys clothes emblazoned with, “Single and Available” or “Little Slugger” or “I’m a Looker Like my Dad” or “Frat Boy” or “Home Run?” Will it be “off to the first possible sporting event” with “the guys” even though all this baby wants is to eat and sleep. Sighted were “Daddy and I are Boss,” “Stud,” “Lock up your Daughters,” and totally toe curling, “My Daddy is Jealous Cuz I Had Boobs for Breakfast.” I mean how have we come to these stereotypes and why are we sexualizing a one week old?


After we’d seen enough slogans that suggested at what we connect with “male-ness” we decided on a policy – NO WORDS on baby clothes, period! That simplified it but we still were horrified at some of the slogans. We stuck with the basics that included monkeys and lambs and got through the racks with armfuls of cute baby clothes. Some might even have been taken as slightly male, but we really did not care at all.  Does every expectant couple really need to “KNOW” so that the walls could be painted the “right” color and the clothes could all be pink or blue?


And then, I went back on the last day to glean what I could at half price. This time I perused the newborn girl racks.  And now, I was walloped with stereotypes and gender framing. Ugh, ugh, ugh, I thought as I waded through the racks of pink and lavender.  “Why?” I wondered, “did there need to be ruffles on the butt of the little stretch pants?  Why did glitter appear on newborn clothes? Why were there bows attached to clothes that would never fare well in the wash?  And why in the name of God did every other item say, “Princess” or “Daddy’s Little Girl” on them?  What a setup! At birth the female child is crowned “princess” and dressed in the requisite pink or sometimes lavender. Next, despite that she is fresh out of the womb, often an elastic band is placed around her head with a bow on it. This is to be sure that everyone knows that she is a “she” and God forbid, not a “he.”  Not many months down the road, the bow gets bigger and is made by professional “bow makers” with every shade and style to match this girl’s outfit, of which she has a closet full. Comfort is not a factor—cuteness and looking “girly” is!  In short time, Disney arrives as well. The princess costumes, the visits to Cinderella’s castle so that she too can set her sights on not only the perfect glass slipper but the rescuing prince, because thus far, no one might have mentioned to her that she is amazing because she is bright and strong and capable all on her own. Besides she may need to think of growing her hair like Rapunzel’s so that she too, can be rescued.


And let me just make mention of the current trend that has evoked entire bakery businesses, party planners and more. I refer to “Gender Reveal Parties” Oh good grief! WHAT are we doing here?  I for one still believe that there is much value in keeping baby in utero as just that – “baby”.  There is much satisfaction when pregnant woman is asked, “What are you having?” to answer with, “A baby.” And an amazing moment upon birth of a child with parents in such awe and amazement.  That in fact, it is often NOT the first thing they even think of or look at, because at that moment it is simply, “THE BABY” and “THE MIRACLE” and it is often a moment or so before parents say, “Oh is it a girl or a boy?” And even then, why does it matter? Even if the couple insists on learning baby’s gender pre-birth, why do we have these silly parties with pink confetti falling out of balloons or cakes that emerge with blue insides? Really?  And what are we saying about one gender or another that is to be so celebrated anyway? Aren’t we just as happy if it is either a girl or a boy or does “Daddy needs his baby girl?” or Mom need a “Mama’s boy,” for real? There I was pregnant with twins after having four sons and I still did NOT want to know what I was having and yes, you guessed it, I was blessed with two more boys! I am not using myself as a model by any means, but just saying, every newborn is a celebration, no matter what is between his or her legs.






Yesterday was a normal day filled with consultations for new moms, dads, and babies. I am a lactation consultant in private practice, near Research Triangle Park which attracts the “Techies” of the world. Many come from India and surrounding countries. Families relocate, babies are born, and then end up in my office seeking resolution to their breastfeeding challenges.


I have noticed some behaviors that seem typical for most of the Indian families I see and one of the most lovely things is that usually one or more grandmothers has come to stay with the family for extended periods of time. Grandmother is here for six months or a year, doing all the cooking, cleaning, and caretaking of this new and vulnerable family. Often there is no English spoken by grandmother but she and I manage to communicate quite well through smiles, gestures, and hugs.


One of the questions I often ask new parents is “Were you breastfed?” The answer in this population is always, “Yes!” So, I have come to wonder day in and day out, then how in the world have we come to this place where you are feeding your baby formula by bottle and completely unsure and untrusting of breastfeeding. Oftentimes, baby has not been to breast in some time, milk supply is poor, and things have become very complicated.


The couple I worked with yesterday had a story that went something like this. Pregnancy was completely normal. Delivery went fairly well considering the usual interventions offered to women in hospitals in this area, but that is a whole other conversation. Baby girl was born and shortly after birth parents are told “blood sugar is low so we need to supplement.” WHAT? This is a normal, typical response to birth which when newborn is placed skin to skin, allowed free access to breast and given some time is typically self-limiting and resolves. And so it begins.


For the next 24-48 hours or so (assuming this was a vaginal birth –again – a whole other story), one “expert” or another comes to see this baby and family and the undermining of generations of innate knowledge, tradition and confidence dissolves. By the time I meet these new parents they are deeply entrenched in bad advice, poor habits, multiple interventions in what was meant to be a normal process, and suffering from stress and insecurity. They come wanting numbers, statistics, and precise direction as to what to do next. This is “breastfeeding” not brain surgery and it is thus, mostly an art, not a science.


So, this well educated couple being wooed by both the US and India for their highly skilled computer programing expertise, arrived in a sea of anxiety and insecurity. Their baby had not been to breast in her five weeks of life since the first day in hospital when parents were told, “she’s not eating and needs formula from a bottle.” This mom explained to me that her mother said she had never heard of a lactation consultant in India and wondered what there would be to do in such a job. She also questioned the fact that she and all of her friends and family had ALWAYS breastfed and didn’t understand why there were issues with this in America. And so, I asked this mom these questions. “Tell me how you ended up following all the conflicting advice you have been given over these last five weeks as opposed to following your mother’s collective wisdom that she has learned from generations of mothers before you.” The response knocked my socks off! “Well” she said, “If we are having our baby in the U.S. and in a hospital, then there must be ‘experts’ there who will tell us exactly what to do and they probably know better than all of our ancestors. So, even when what we are told is directly opposite from what we have done for generations, we figure we should follow the directions we are given. And, we also feel a bit afraid, not to, because we are made to feel that then our baby may not thrive.”


As I sat opposite this mom with tears in my eyes, I realized this was a pivotal moment in my understanding how things run amuck in newborn journeys and why I meet these families in lactation crisis time and time again where mom is pumping and buying one bottle type after another and trying to find the one formula that will stop making baby vomit, etc. There is a very frantic nature to these meetings with baby screaming, parents chanting loudly some phrase that they assume will magically quiet baby, but it never does and the crescendo escalates. There is holding and rocking, and passing baby around and it becomes overwhelming in my tiny office.


My job becomes one of convincing baby that the breast can actually be a good place and imagine – one where feeding can occur! Most babies who have spent little or no time at breast are not buying it. Nope – I’m hungry, ready to eat, and not fooling around with this other system. It is most challenging and frustrating for all and though it can take a long time of rebuilding a milk supply, correcting any suck or latch issues at hand, peppered with a great deal of patience, we can get back on track, but not always. The undoing of the dismantled parental self-confidence is often the greatest challenge.


And so yesterday, I encouraged this couple to look back to their roots, to speak with grandma some more and employ her collective wisdom. I stepped back, trying to relinquish my role as “expert” realizing the last thing they needed was more details or facts but rather a restoration of their now lost confidence and wisdom.

Indian grandma12 X 10

18 Summer Vacations, 18 Birthdays, 18 Christmases, 4 Graduations

Sam and Will kid firefighters

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.







Church Graduation. Easing into the Big One

Church graduationMG_4455


It was a moment, (or maybe a few moments) for me where I felt completely connected to God and to the reasons I am here in this time, in this place. We went to church for the graduation celebration. There was an awful lot going on at one time. It was Pentacost and I forgot to wear red. Well, I didn’t really “forget” but rather couldn’t find anything I felt like wearing. There were four christenings. It was the parish weekend in the mountains, AND it was a time for honoring graduates. This had been our home church for the last six years or so, but we hadn’t been here in over six months so I was a bit nervous and self-conscious coming back for this service. There are reasons why this church no longer feels like the best fit, but that is another conversation.


Suffice to say, my youngest sons are graduating and they attended Christ Church through all of middle and high school in the Episcopal Youth Community. They may not have loved it and they likely did not buy into any spiritual practices, but they did some good work while members including building and repairing residences for the poorest of the poor, being helper campers to special needs kids, gleaning sweet potatoes on farms and working with migrant farm workers. They also went on ski trips and overnights that they enjoyed. So, it was an overall beneficial thing to do and maybe they absorbed some nuggets of faith to hold onto.


There they were yesterday, donning their purple graduation gowns for the first time (though without their caps.) They wore nice shirts (borrowed from their dad) with bow ties that I tied for them. As I tied these I thought to myself, “I wonder how many more times I will get to do this?” Sometimes, unbeknownst to them (because they would be horrified) I actually inhale their scent trying to memorize it for the future.


From the cramped pew we were in, I was able to see them walk down the side aisle and file into a pew while the organ filled the church with joy. I lost it at that moment. I mean shoulders shaking, fat tears rolling down cheeks etc. I was so obviously emotional that the priest (who is also my friend) gave my hand a squeeze as she came down the aisle towards the altar. I couldn’t get my boys to make eye contact with me, but it mattered not, for I was deep in the moment on my own.


And throughout the somewhat chaotic service, I remained in that velvet place. I went through some odd thoughts of reminiscence all the way back to the painful progesterone shots I took daily in order to keep my tenuous twin pregnancy intact. I flashed through the delivery room following my first and only cesarean birth and could hear them again when they both started crying as Shep and I looked at each other in complete panic! I remembered nursing them to sleep for naps and drifting off to sleep myself while snuggled between them. I saw my adorable twins pulling their red wagon playing ambulance. It was all racing through my mind quickly.


I was flashing through my own life as well—the best and the worst of times. And suddenly, when I closed my eyes I could see God holding me in his arms and I had this momentary awareness of His ongoing presence and love. I knew that He’d been with me all along and would continue to be and that He was there when my baby sister was taken away to safety, when my mother screamed daily for help that no one could ever provide, when my father left us repeatedly to save his own sanity. And still there, when I ran away many times and spent that long night in a NYC subway car trying to figure out where to sleep at the age of 16. I knew He’d been there when I found my way to an apartment of my own where I could live in peace and then again through all the bad boyfriends to the man of my dreams with whom I remain honored to share my life. He held me so tight when I brought forth my first son in that birthing room in Texas and held my newborn’s hand for the first time and was sure it was the hand of God. (It was.) He was there when I birthed my second son in my Hampton Bays bedroom and cried with joy smelling his freshly born head still wet with dew. He’d held me tight when I struggled to birth my third son whose arm wrapped around his head made it nearly impossible to get all 10 pounds of him born and yet, there he was – perfection again! And for sure God was with me struggling all night birthing son number four who was bigger still, and whom I fell madly in love with in my Southampton bedroom as his three brothers watched in awe. And then, He held and rocked me weeping for the years after that child died and left me completely bereft. This was God’s biggest challenge with me, but He loved me through it. And though I lost my way to Him at the time, He never left my side. He’s been with me and with my sister during her frightening and life threatening disease these last few years for sure.


So, there I stood in church glowing with pride that my sons number five and six were about to end a chapter in their lives and in mine. They have been my greatest blessing of light and as well, my biggest challenge to usher through these 14 years of school. It was never easy and yet, all the difficulties can melt away in these moments of love and bursting pride. They are both simply beautiful and magnificent human beings. They are perfect, strong, smart, loving men. It has been my greatest honor to raise them while being held in God’s tender love, without whom I could never have made it this far. In that one moment in church, I was reminded of this and it all seemed real and tangible and as sweet, kind, and merciful as could be.


One need not always “believe” in God because God never stops believing in you. A dear friend told me that once I will hold it in my heart forever.


I ought to be one big puddle this Friday when my twins actually graduate as all my sons and their loving father bear witness, with me wide but teary eyed and in awe of it all. Stay tuned

Another Path

Can I ask you to refrain from THE question when you see me? I know it is standard and I know it is exciting and victorious for most of you, but for me it is a different scene altogether and though I suspect I am not alone, in the circles in which I travel, it is unheard of.

I am going to ask you to please stop asking me what college my twin seniors are planning to attend. They are not. Yes, I know this is the norm. I lived it through my first three older sons. We made the trips and tours, agonized over choices, applied for scholarships, critiqued the dining halls, and struggled through the SAT’s. It was all one rite of passage after another and this was all I knew so it felt normal and in sequence. But, that is not how it is going this time.

Well, one of my twins, DID submit applications, grueling as that was. And he was actually accepted by a pretty solid state school in North Carolina. He got the team cap and the shirt to go with it in fact and we did tour there twice. All seemed good except for his frustrating disinterest in majors and such. He was taken with their ROTC program, but in the end, that was just not enough. So, the final school acceptance day of May 1, 2017 has come and gone with no response from him. Instead, he has been wooed and cajoled by the slickest of Army recruiters over and over here, there and everywhere. He ate it up and of course, there must have been something inside of him that these soldiers spoke to because their enticements, waving of money, glory, and fame met with a hook already looking for that big fish. They found a match made in heaven in a smart, smiling, responsible kid who had already been enamored with Civil Air Patrol and its uniforms, flight schools, and MRE meals since sixth grade. Click! He was in and he leaves for basic training in less than three months determined to be an MP!

Make no mistake. I have tried everything humanly possible to turn that train around. I have begged, pleaded, written, shared, enticed, and never have I made one single chink in this armor, nor have his brothers or father. The irony of my son answering to THIS current Commander in Chief of the United States is absolutely more than I can fathom. As I write about this, my stomach still turns, the dread looms and my heart races. I am not quite sure how I will survive the day he leaves for an army that I disdain. If he does decide to go to the NC college after all, someday following the military, he will in fact, have to reapply. It doesn’t seem like a likely thread to me.

And then, there is his twin, also enamored with anything military for a long time. He too began donning cammo garb in sixth grade and was the head honcho of all neighborhood Airsoft wars with our trash cans, gutters, cars, etc, having dings to prove the warfare. To his credit he also became extremely successful in all related things including Search and Rescue, Emergency Medical Tech, severe weather rescues, CPR in several cases recently where he saved lives, and more. Of his own volition, he has attended EMT classes every day after school for this entire year. We have seen little of this son over this last year, because he found his passion in firefighting. He practically lives at the firehouse every chance he gets (or at least that is where he has us believing he is).

There have been real communication gaps with this son of ours and it has more often than not, left me in tears. He has never preferred to spend time with us, and much to our chagrin he rarely shows up for paid work and thus, never has any money. To my complete Yankee horror, he took up “dipping” apparently “years ago” and has a wad inside his lip often! I find this completely repulsive and of course a hideous health threat and yet, there are those dozens of empty tins in his room. How does he purchase these without money?

Suffice to say, this son of ours has literally hated every single moment of every single day in school for 14 years. Well, okay perhaps not in those early years at Montessori when he “chose his work” and climbed structures and zip lines. No telling him how smart he was, helping him, tutoring him, medicating him, changing schools/teachers/routines – NONE of it made one bit of difference. So the fact that in 16 days it will be over seems to mean nothing more to him than it being OVER. He has not been issued a cap and gown because he owes the school money and he does not care. “Walking” at graduation means nothing and he says he just wants the piece of paper that says “it’s over.”

As parents we often say we learn from our children and this could not be truer for me than during this last go round of raising sons. I will not delude you or myself by saying I am better for it or I have learned some good stuff, because most of my heart has broken so many times in the thousands of emails back and forth to teachers, that I don’t think it is repairable. And I often told myself that this was not MY journey to take, but theirs.

In the end, I happen to know that these two fine young men will rise above and make a difference in whatever they do. They have the skills and the wisdom to save lives and to rescue when rescue is needed without the emotion and passion that I lean on and would be an obstacle, if you were to depend on me to save your life. They have chosen a very different path than most and I am still struggling with it to be honest. I can’t stop comparing and your Facebook announcements of the acceptances to fine colleges sting deeply. I do not blame you or want you to stop or even edit your successes, it’s just a new world for me to see those who started preschool with my sons go in the traditional and likely successful paths I’d hoped for too.

Who’s to say what is good, better, or best? I hope that I have raised kind hearts and that they will stay connected to their family, but I cannot even predict that. I have done my best under less than optimal circumstances. And at that candlelight pre-graduations service the other night, I shed tears throughout as I was so deeply moved. My sons scoffed some and slept some, which dug deep into my core. I have loved them both with all my heart and soul and always will and in the end, maybe I really did need to learn that not all paths use the same GPS. Some drivers prefer to use no map at all and to find their own way.

So thank you for not asking what college my kids will be attending. Instead perhaps, ask them, “what comes next for you? Where are you headed next? What is your hope or your dream?” Thank you.