We Interrupt This Column …

Today’s column was almost called on account of “Yeah!” 

The shouts of triumph – yes, plural – came from Missy. The source? A book full of Star Wars illustrations, every single one of which required her to wave me over so I could share the latest discovery. 

“Look!” 

A tough-looking Wookiee. Han Solo with a blaster. An alien with a baby face. (“Baby!”) Every few seconds brought a new image, a new cheer, a new requirement to get away from that keyboard and come SEE. 

“Yeah!!” 

If you know Missy, this won’t surprise you. Her physical and developmental disabilities can make many things challenging for her, but enthusiasm has never been one of them. When she’s in the mood, just about anything can get her supercharged: a classic car, a cool-looking pair of shoes, even an opportunity to wash the dishes.

“Yeah!!!” 

Now, this could be a column about how great that kind of joy over simple things is. It’s a good thing to remember and I’ve written that piece before. But this time, I want to flip the direction. 

You see, those moments don’t follow a schedule. Not one that fits neatly on a calendar alongside “take notes for half thought-out column” and other such things. It means interruptions. Backtracking. Maybe even frustration as you try to recover a lost bit of focus. 

But that doesn’t matter. 

When you’re a parent – or at least in the position of one – and you get summoned into the latest enthusiasm … you share it. Right then. Right there. Period.

To them, this is the most important thing in the world right now. And being invited to join that is a privilege.

OK, yes, obviously there are limits. Sometimes it’s good to learn to wait. Some dangerous enthusiasms need to be headed off. And yes, sometimes you legitimately can’t interrupt a task . (“I have to keep my eyes on the road right now, sweetie, but I’ll look when we get to this stop sign, ok?”) But by and large, the rule holds.

Don’t squash the joy. Don’t diminish the moment. Never teach the person you love that something else is more important than they are. 

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad rule of thumb in general. 

Missy’s in a quieter mode now, perusing a magazine as she watches the world through the bay window. But the next moment will come. And when it does, we’ll be there. 

After all, it’s a moment to share love. 

And that’s always something to shout about. 

“Yeah!!!!” 

Carry That Wait

In “The Princess Bride,” there’s a moment where the beyond-master fencer Inigo Montoya stands at the top of a cliff, watching his opponent-to-be slowly climb the rock toward him. The cliff is steep. The climb is slow. And Inigo just wants the fight to begin.

“I hate waiting,” he mutters.

Lately, Heather and I have felt a certain kinship with Señor Montoya. Because waiting, it seems, is the most difficult battle of all.

Sometimes it’s the Parent/Guardian Standby, waiting for a Missy tantrum to blow out so that we can get back to what we’re supposed to be doing.

Sometimes it’s the Chronic Illness Blitz, where Heather is trying to outlast the pain of a sudden surge in her chronic conditions (lately the MS) and both of us have nothing to do but wait in anguish.

And of course, sometimes it’s waiting on a larger reality. Like the pandemic. Or the wildfires. Or the other thousand unnatural shocks that 2020 is heir to.

Which means, right now, we’re all Inigo. We want something visible to fight, something to do. But any progress made is almost invisible. And waiting – whether in pain, in endurance, in impatience or desperation – is exhausting business.

Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes there’s literally nothing you can do but bide your time and wait for a better change of season. All of us hate acknowledging that – we want to be not just the protagonist of our story, but the author – but it is a lesson that needs to be learned, over and over.

Sometimes … well, sometimes there is something to do. It may not be much. It may be completely ineffective. But if it doesn’t hurt someone else – or better yet HELPS someone else – then it may also be worth trying.

The small bit of comfort offered in a time of pain.

The attempt to redirect a tantrum-generator onto something else.

The basic courtesies and protections that make it possible to live life at all when viruses fly and the skies turn orange.

Here, too, we’ve got a role model. Inigo hates waiting … so he offers to throw his opponent a rope and swears on the soul of his father he will reach the top alive. In the short term, that leads to his defeat. (To be fair, he was the only one not wearing a mask). But in the long run – and after a VERY long period of waiting – he finds a new partnership and a greater goal, one that allows him to rise above being a petty clock-punching henchman and become the hero he was meant to be.

Consideration for others. Keeping commitments. Becoming aware of the bigger picture. No, those aren’t bad lessons to learn at all.

I still hate waiting. I still want something to draw my sword on, even if I know I’ll lose. But with an eye for kindness and a drive for compassion, it doesn’t have to be empty waiting. `We can be there for each other. And in being there, we make ourselves better.

Maybe that’s enough. I suppose it has to be.

If nothing else, it makes the wait of the world a little lighter.

Staying Awake

The last song had been played. The last story had been read. The sheets were turned back, the favorite purse at hand. Bedtime, right?

“NO.”

“Missy, we talked about this. It’s getting late.”

“NO.”

“Look, it’s softball season. Athletes need their rest, right?”

“NO.”

“Sweetie, you at least need to stay in the bedroom, OK?”

I know some of you right now are nodding at this, like members of a club who have just heard the secret knock. Yes, that periodic ritual of parenthood and guardianship, the Bedtime Battle, was well under way. Like many wars, the tactics had become familiar and the ground well-studied, even if the motive for the conflict had been long forgotten.

“Look, we can leave part of the door open, all right? Is it ok if I close half of it tonight?”

Reluctant nod.

Since Missy’s disability makes it hard for her to communicate, it can take a while to pick through the possible causes when this happens. Sometimes it might be a nightmare. Sometimes it’s just a little soreness from the day’s activity, with some ibuprofen working wonders. Sometimes, all you can do is chalk it up to a disturbance in the Force and do the best you can.

This time, a late-night grocery trip might have been to blame – a time when Missy had woken up while I was still out. It would explain the worry when I started to get out of sight of her door, anyway.

Sigh.

You know, sleeping on a hallway floor can get kind of comfortable after a while?

***

There are a lot of “dad duties” that never make it on the official list.

We all know the stereotypes, right? Good at fixing things. Handy at yard work. Grill master. Voice of discipline when necessary. Ready and enable to initiate others into the mysteries of professional sports fandom.

It’s been shown in sitcoms, plastered on Father’s Day cards, wedged into the back of our minds. And, yeah, some folks do fit the classic resume. (As a kid, I believed – with some justice – that my Dad could fix anything.)

But many of us don’t. And the funny thing is, those aren’t even the core competencies.

It’s not about being manly. It’s about being there.

It’s the shared struggle over math homework at 10 p.m. (Thanks, Dad.)

It’s the off-key middle school choir concerts attended, or the grade-school baseball games where bat and ball have only a passing acquaintance with each other.

It’s the times when you sit on the phone for two minutes waiting for the other caller to say “Hello?”

It’s time together wherever it has to be found – a story, a movie, a puzzle, a game. It’s taking temperatures, and holding hands. And yeah, sometimes it’s outright arguments and struggles to understand.

But if you’re there, however you can be … if you care, and can share it … if you’re awake to the needs and responsibilities involved …  then you’re doing it right, even if you can’t tell a monkey wrench from Curious George.

Thing is, these aren’t just dad duties. They’re mom duties, or cousin duties, or guardian duties, or whoever has the ability to step into that space and be the person that’s needed. Whoever has found themselves in that wonderful and terrifying role of “parent,” even if they don’t share a single strand of DNA.

If you’re there – if you care – if you’re building and not breaking, helping and not harming – then you’re doing it right. And bless you for it.

Take a breath. Rest easy.

And if you’re resting on the hall carpet,  the right pillow makes a world of difference.

When Life Gives You …

The cardboard signs are out. The kids are waving eagerly. The shout goes up loud enough to carry half a block in any direction.

“LEMONADE!”

In some ways, Longmont has changed very little. I remember doing the same thing – very briefly – when I was in grade school. It’s not a business model that any investor would pitch to Wall Street. Foot traffic is less common than it used to be. Cars are insulated against your pitch unless you’ve got a really good sign. And lately, the weather has been closer to Seattle in springtime, further depressing your product’s demand – except of course, for Mom and Dad, who are usually also your major wholesalers. (Don’t tell the FTC).

All of which is to say that I’ve already purchased two cups in two days from two different sellers. And I’ll probably buy another tomorrow if I see the chance.

It’s what you do.

This isn’t just me being a nice guy. A while back, I read a book of little things that police officers typically picked up on the job – small details, habits, trivia that might make its way into a novel someday. One of the items on the long, long, list was simply this: if you are on patrol, and you see kids on the sidewalk selling lemonade, you WILL buy some. If you have no cash, you WILL get some from an ATM and come back.

In that case, it’s part of community policing. But many of the same reasons apply even for those of us who don’t wear the badge. It makes you a neighbor instead of a face. It establishes trust. It means that if they or their family see you again, they’ll have a smile and the knowledge that you’re one of the good guys.

And these days, children can use all the good guys they can get.

Sometimes it seems like we do a lot to push them the other way. Oh, I know, if you look at the long-term trends, this is a pretty good time and place in history to be a child. But we fill the world with so much stress, and with so much to stress about, that it can even overwhelm the adults among us, never mind the young.

I was almost 13 when the Challenger exploded. It seemed like every classroom that day had a television or a radio on with images and news of the disaster – almost none of it new news, just the same trauma recycled over and over again. Schools don’t generally do that anymore, and with good reason: it doesn’t help. It’s like asking a Volkswagen Beetle to tow an elephant; even if you succeed, the slug bug’s not going to be in the best of shape afterward.

You measure. You moderate. You don’t isolate a child from reality, but you help them handle it on their terms. And you always let them know that there are people to turn to with their worries and fears. Parents. Teachers. Helpers and friends.

You don’t have to helicopter or coddle or swathe them in cotton and plush. But never destroy a child’s hope. Be the face to trust, the ear to listen, the proof that there are still people in the world who want to make it better instead of worse. Even if it means carrying an extra 50 cents in your pocket in case of lemonade ambush.

Besides, most of the time, it’s not bad lemonade.

Fantastic Tales

Beware the dragons. Watch out for the trolls. And always remember that heroes may be hazardous to your health.

Not your usual prescription, I grant you. But it’s apparently second nature to Graeme Whiting, an English headmaster who made international headlines when he declared that fantasy fiction would rot your child’s mind.

No, I’m not overstating it. Kind of hard to, really.

“Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Terry Pratchett, to mention only a few of the modern world’s ‘must-haves’, contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children,” Whiting wrote as part of a lengthy blog post on his school’s website, “yet they can be bought without a special licence, and can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children, many of whom may be added to the current statistics of mentally ill young children.”

You might be surprised to learn that he and I agree on exactly one thing: Parents should pay attention to what their children read. Books do indeed open doors onto many places, and every parent should know where their child is spending their time, whether it’s in the park or in the Shire.

But fantasy can open some wonderful doors indeed.

I’m not writing to disparage the more classic works that Mr. Whiting himself loves and encourages for a growing mind, such as Shakespeare or Dickens, which were also part of my reading. Enough so that I’m a bit amused. After all, Dickens was long considered popular trash by lovers of “proper literature” and as for Master Shakespeare – well, whose life couldn’t use a dose of teen marriage and suicide (Romeo and Juliet), eye-gouging (King Lear), witchcraft (Macbeth), and rape and mutilation (Titus Andronicus), with just a sprinkling of cross-dressing and humiliation of authority (Twelfth Night)?

Sure, they’re wonderful – dare I say magical? – stories. But safe? C.S. Lewis once warned visitors to Narnia that the great Aslan was “not a tame lion” and if a story has any power to it at all, it can never be considered a “safe story.” When books meet brains, anything can happen. Anything at all.

Stories have a power that the great authors of fantasy knew quite well.

“Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures?” the hobbit Bilbo Baggins declares in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien has been my own Gandalf since about third grade, leading my imagination into places both terrifying and wonderful – as have many of the fantasy authors who followed in his wake. My family and I have cheered on Harry Potter, wandered with Taran and Eilonwy, leaped through wrinkles in time, and stumbled through wardrobes into unexpected worlds.

You acquire many things on a quest like that. Beautiful language. Heartbreak and hope. A decidedly quirky strain of humor. And most of all, the realization that evils can not only be survived, they can be overcome.

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey,” G.K. Chesterton famously wrote in 1909. “What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

No, stories aren’t safe. Few things worth having are. But they can be priceless.

So yes, have a hand in your child’s reading. Be careful. Be aware. But be open to wonder as well. And don’t fear the dragons.

After all, that is where the treasure is to be found.

Making Faces

At the risk of letting my inner geek out, I think I’ve figured out the real reason Spider-Man wears a mask.

Oh, don’t worry. This isn’t one of those oddball columns that discusses Superman’s immigration status or Batman’s patent protection. You don’t have to know the mighty Marvel footnotes in order to hang around here or care about how Hollywood treats caped crusaders. (Though if that sort of thing does light your fire, I’ll track you down for coffee later, OK?)

No, this has its roots in more familiar territory: in hospitals, in family, in simple conversation. And, as with so many things in this space, it starts with Heather and Missy.

My wife Heather got to spend the night at Good Samaritan hospital recently. Regular readers may remember that we’ve been chasing some medical mysteries worthy of Dr. Watson and not getting much in the way of answers. To move things along, Heather’s doctor suggested it was time for a sleepover, so that all the tests Heather needed could be run at once instead of strung out over weeks.

Logical. Helpful, even. Certainly appreciated.

But it did mean explaining a few things to Missy.

Despite her mental disability, Missy can be pretty sharp. Sharp enough to guess that when one of her guardians goes into the hospital and doesn’t come back right away, something may be wrong. Vanishing without explanation was never an option – not only do we respect her too much for that, but she’s stubborn enough to sit in the bay window for hours waiting for someone to come home if they’re not back on schedule.

So I took her up to the hospital in the afternoon and let her see that Heather was in good spirits. Missy lost her own mom to cancer, so we assured her that this wasn’t like that, that the doctor was just having a look around to see what was going on so Heather could feel better.

Even so, on the drive back, I could see Missy wasn’t entirely buying it. Not judging by the sniffs and red eyes and careful glances out the car window.

“It really is going to be OK, Miss,” I told her. And I believed it. But at the same time, as I tried to keep Missy’s worries at bay, I felt a sudden kinship with the ol’ webslinger.

Spider-Man, like I mentioned, wears a mask. The comics always have plenty of good reasons, starting with the need to protect his family from supervillain retribution. The fact that his real-world boss is a Spidey-hating jerk offers some extra incentive.

But masks hide more than just an identity. They hide feelings, too, especially fear and anxiety. Comic geeks know that one reason for the wallcrawler’s constant string of wisecracks in a fight is that he’s covering for nervousness, so that he can keep being a hero, to the world and himself. A mask makes that all the easier.

And it’s one that I think many of us have put on a time or too ourselves.

A good parent doesn’t lie to their child, or a guardian to their ward. I firmly believe that. But there are times when you stay brave to keep them from worrying, when your own fear and uncertainty have to stay out of sight so that you can help them through a tough situation. There are times when sharing everything you know and feel would just make the situation harder, especially when the real quest isn’t for information – it’s for reassurance.

I’ve been on the other side of this long ago, when Mom had to deal with breast cancer while my sisters and I were in grade school. We knew that Mom saw a lot of doctors and even went to the hospital sometimes. But Mom and Dad never weighed us down with stress we didn’t need. We knew we were loved, we knew we were safe, and we never knew about the anxiety they felt in the small hours of the night until much later.

There’s a funny thing about reassurance, though. If you provide it enough times, you can start to feel it yourself. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” Mom is fond of saying. I can’t argue: not only is Missy doing better, so am I. In talking to her, I was somehow talking to me, too, and making both of us stronger.

Sometimes, over time, the mask can create the hero.

And that’s a marvel more real than any radioactive spider.

Single Source

Thanks to Missy, I think I need to update my resume.

For those of you who joined us late (Hi there!), Missy the Great and Wonderful is my wife’s young, developmentally disabled aunt. We’ve been her guardians for almost a year and a half now, a time that’s been something of a learning experience for all three of us.

And one of the things I’ve learned is that I have many more job titles than I used to.

You see, against the advice of most Wall Street analysts, Missy tends to single-source her essential services. Which is how come my professional credentials now include:

  • Holder of the Pills. Applicant must possess hypnotic power in at least one hand, capable of making ibuprofen seem wonderful and compelling despite the strongest of wills (read:ornery stubbornness).
  • Monitor of the Teeth. Must provide sufficient energy and entertainment to induce the successful and even gleeful application of toothpaste, resorting if necessary to sound effects, foreign accents and play-by-play descriptions. (“And she’s opening with the double-handed technique, a strong start to the evening …”)
  • Opening and Closing Bell. Must be able to rally a determined (read: tired and ornery) young lady upstairs to bed, despite the seductive inducements of Legos, photographs, or a really hot guy on “Dancing With The Stars.” Duties will also include the occasional morning extraction from bed of said young lady, when the usual service provider (Hi, honey!) has submitted an unsuccessful bid.
  • Evening Narrator. Duties shall include the selection and presentation of reading materials prior to final “lights-out.” Wide range of volumes accepted, with prior successes including The Hobbit, The Great Brain, the complete Harry Potter series, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Please note that the job may include occasional overtime along with “on-call” weekend duties.

Now granted, some positions such as Shoe Assistant are still open to a competitive market. And there’s been the occasional outsourcing, as occurred with the job of Morning Chauffeur. But it still amuses me when something on the list arises and I hear Heather tell me “Honey, can you get her to …”

It’s a little like having a superpower, or being the Jedi Knight of bedtime. (“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope of getting her to sleep at a decent hour.”) But where does it come from?

I’m sure every parent’s seen the same thing. Heck, I can remember doing some of the same things with my own parents, with a child’s logic that would boggle the mind. Such as, say, the time I insisted that Grandma had to put on my Band-Aid because she worked at a hospital.

OK, it was changing sheets and cleaning up. But that’s almost a nurse, right?

The funny thing is, I don’t think we ever completely give it up when we get older. There’s some people who remain the go-to’s, some sources we trust beyond all reason, some things even now that we’d still come to Mom to before Dad.

I’m not even sure the reasons of childhood change. Perceived expertise? Familiarity? Lack of familiarity? Possession of a tall frame and a deep voice? (Heck, that last one explains several of our former presidents.)

Logical or not, it can create some powerful bonds. And when that trust is well-placed, some beautiful ones.

Ask Heather. Curator of the Missy Hargett Art Gallery. Brewer of Tea and Maker of Snacks. Igniter of Laughter Through Embarrassing Songs.

And also bearer of the shortest title of all, one granted by Missy herself.

“Mom.”

Now that’s one heck of a performance review.

A Face in the Window

As I pulled into the driveway and headed up the walk, I knew what I would see.

Sure enough. A cross-legged Missy sitting just inside the bay window, crayons and tea close to hand. Watching the world. Watching the street.

Watching for me.

I came inside, collected a smile and a hug. “Hey, Miss-a Melissa. Was it a good day today?”
“Uh-huh.”

And with that, I know I’m home.

It’s been interesting being on the other side of this. Growing up, I was always the one waiting – though never, perhaps, as intently as my little sisters. They were the ones who would stand in the garage and chant, with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader and the certainty of an invocation “Daddy come home! Daddy come home!”

He always did.

Now, for the past year, it’s been my turn. Granted, I’ve had my lovely wife Heather to return to for long before that, along with the mixed nervousness and excitement of Duchess the Wonder Dog. But Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, is in a class by herself. Sometimes, she may spend an hour or two just waiting in the window, ready for the family to be complete.

It’s a little humbling. Are hugs and stories and “I love you’s” really worth so much?

Of course.

“Parenting and guardianship is on-the-job training,” Mom reminded me over the Mother’s Day weekend. “The main part is consistently being on the job.”

The more I think on that, the more I like it.

In a world that often obsesses on quality time, we often forget the power of big fat chunks of quantity time. The importance of just being there, even if we’re not constantly engaged in enlightening activities that would win the Bill Cosby Seal of Approval.

Looking back on my own childhood, I can remember some great experiences with Mom and Dad: trips to the movies, travel to the Northwest, nights spent reading together. But most of all, I remember them. Knowing they were close, knowing they cared, something more important than any set-piece activity.

I know, it’s not always possible. There may be nights that require working late, blizzards that clog the road home, even military duties that call a piece of the family away for months at a time. The times when someone has to carry you in their heart for a little while.

But it’s a lot easier to carry someone in your heart if you’ve first carried them in your eyes.

The amazing thing – almost frightening, really – is how quickly and quietly it builds. Every morning spent fighting with shoelaces, every evening spent helping with the toothbrush, is another stroke on the canvas. Ordinary moments, even frustrating ones, sometimes.

But give it enough time, and without warning, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

“You go’n to work?” Missy asks, now from the couch.

“Not this time,”I tell her. “Tonight, you’ve got me.”

In the window seat, the crayons wait. Later, we may go there together, to read and smile and watch the world go by.

But for tonight, the vigil is done. Tonight, the watch can wait until the next return journey.

Tonight, I know I’m home.

Back on the Bus

Missy’s been giggling again. And smiling. She’s been doing that a lot since Monday.

Ever since she got her wheels back.

Mind you, Missy doesn’t drive (not that she wouldn’t gleefully try). But Monday is when her bus service got brought back – the large van that takes her to “work,” her program for developmentally disabled adults.

She’s thrilled and rightfully so. It’s a chance to travel with all her friends again, to have a little more independence, to be in a huge vehicle with lots of space. To have her routine back just the way she likes it.

We’re thrilled that she’s thrilled. It’s neat to see her excited, great to see her happy.

And yet …

Well, the morning drive seems just a little quieter than it used to.

Heather and I have been the Official Missy Chauffeurs for about two years now. It’s how we first eased into caring for her before moving in last year, and how she got used to us being around all the time. By now, the takeoff prep is second nature: making sure the shoes are on the right feet, that the coat for the day is heavy or light enough, that a spoon from the morning’s breakfast hasn’t mysteriously migrated into her lunch box, and so on.

But the flight time. That’s where the fun begins.

Most mornings and afternoons, it means Missy the DJ, grabbing a fistful of CDs or tape cassettes and swapping them out through the drive, sometimes at half-song intervals. Oldies rock, Christmas tunes and a cappella groups like the Face Vocal Band get the longest lingers and the loudest volumes. (Ever seen a car vibrate to the tune of “Safety Dance?”)

Some mornings, it’s Missy the Environmental Engineer, adjusting the window from the armrest. Usually this means watching her seal it tight even on a dog-melting summer’s day, but we’re no stranger to the occasional surprise draft from the passenger seat.

More than once, it’s been Missy the Tour Guide, pointing through the windshield at a house Heather used to live in, or the newspaper I work at now, or the next turn we need to take to get to her work. Heather spent a long time wondering why Missy pointed at one particular office building before finally discovering it was the chiropractor that she’d gone to as a girl.

And always, it’s been Missy the Love. Sometimes sassy, sometimes mellow, sometimes ready to “dance” in the car or pat your arm reassuringly.

And now, the dance partner has joined the rest of the party.

Is this what a parent feels when a child goes to school? Or learns to drive? Or takes just one more step out of the house? A little joy, a little regret, mixed with time and bound with memories?

Funny. I’d gotten so used to thinking about Missy’s routines that I hadn’t realized my own. And how they’d come to grow around hers.

But that’s what families do.

And if the last couple of days have shown me anything, it’s how much of a family we have become.

I was there to meet her when she returned the first day. She walked eagerly inside, balancing a bit on me, ready for her tea and her snack, for our hugs and questions, for our reading session later in the day.

It seems we’ve become her routine, too. As much as the bus ever was.

But seeing that smile, hearing that giggle, will never grow routine.

And that’s the best ride of all.