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Growing Up

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Delusion, Denial and Luck

It's my last week to drive William around, as he gets his license on Thursday at the DMV. He already took and passed his on-road test at MasterDrive, so I know this is a done deal. I'm happy for William but nostalgic already for the conversations we've had over the past year as he drove home from practice with my heroically resisting the impulse to slam my foot on imaginary brakes. It's a double whammy; as William becomes more independent and most likely spends less time at home, his older sister prepares to move up to Boulder in August.  And like water swirling faster and faster down into a toilet bowl, my time with them slips away.

Yesterday I drove the driver-to-be to a friend's house out by Cherry Creek Reservoir and we saw a magnificent double rainbow herald the end of yet another afternoon thunderstorm. Even as we skirted the suddenly deep puddles at the side of the lane and hit dismiss on the flash flood warning on our cell phones (the non-driver did that) this rainbow was extending across the water, shining so brightly that it created its own echo.  A sign of luck and good fortune, I thought.

Which reminded me of a lovely early morning walk I had shared that day with good friends who also have teenagers and parents struggling with illness.  Our shared stories took on the theme of parenting in our late forties and early fifties: delusion, denial and luck.  We delude ourselves that we're as strong, flexible, and fit as we were in our thirties, that our children will be home for a good while yet, that our parents will live forever. When truth seeps in via injury, obstacle or news delivered via difficult phone call, we push it aside and deny factoids that threaten our equilibrium and ability to manage our families through another week of summer.  I'm in this phase of denial with Aden's imminent departure to college. I pushed her box of of new, coordinated bedding and towels behind a large chair in the living room, not to be washed or even looked at until reality must be confronted.

When delusion and denial finally flee or are moved aside in moments of brave clarity, we pray for desired outcomes and hope that we get lucky. I hope that William drives safely and intelligently - and that he gets lucky, that Aden uses common sense in  making good friends and choosing her classes - and that she gets lucky It helps to recognize that luck, or God, or some universal force, provides us with moments of grace and opportunity and joy. When I appreciate even small moments of luck (William passing his driver's test, rainstorms canceling out conflicting events last night), I am filled with a sense of gratitude that sustains and comforts me, even when denial and delusion eventually fail.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Please Mind the Gap

Several people asked me why we pulled up stakes immediately after graduation and flew 4,000 miles to visit England and Scotland.  I had many reasons.  First, after such a difficult semester (see previous blogs regarding terrorist threats and suicides), I desperately wanted to gather my family around me and take them far away.  Second, the trip was a joint celebration of graduation and our twentieth wedding anniversary, and I have long hoped to take the children to Europe. I wanted the kids to see that they could manage international travel, that the world is so grand - amazing and full of adventure - that they should prioritize study and work abroad programs.  As to the choice of countries, the family all voted on London and then split on Spain, France and Scotland for our second choice, and I went with Scotland because I'm 42% Scots-Irish and, well, Outlander.

One of the stories I heard overseas was that a certain percent of Americans voted for a mock petition to abolish Arabic numerals. I assume the respondents were alarmed at the thought of immigrating digits, and failed to recognize that the 1,2,3,4, etc that we all learned in pre-K are, in fact, Arabic. A cringe-worthy narrative, but I couldn't help but chuckle. Here's our trip by the Arabic numbers:

22,489 - Number of steps we walked on our busiest day in Edinburgh (over ten miles)
1,900 - Age (in years) of the Roman column we saw in York which was part of the original city
257 - Stairs to the top of St. Paul Cathedral in London, also very similar to the number of narrow, winding stairs required to get to the roof of York Minster Cathedral
24 - Hours of travel to get home from London
10 - Hours spent on trains between London, Edinburgh and York (delightful!)
8 - Times we spent crossing Abbey Road trying unsuccessfully to mimic the Beatles' famous album cover
6 - Hours of sunshine we had in Edinburgh out of the three-day visit
5 - Number of roller bags wheeled through countless city streets from tube or train station to hotel/air b'n'b, usually in a single-file line led by a clueless parent
4 - Number of times we almost got hit by a car after looking the wrong direction for traffic
3 - Number of nights to (mostly) recover from jet lag
2 - Happily married parents, even after 9 days of travel
1 - Picnic in Kensington Gardens with dinner from Whole Foods

The numbers can't adequately express either the shocked joy I experienced when William and Daniel bonded unexpectedly under their umbrella in Edinburgh, or the horrific smell of feet in our small hotel room after five days of walking.  Nor does it evoke the delight on Aden's face as we bought groceries in the M & S near our London B'n'B, or the children's awe at seeing the historical graves in Westminster Abbey.

Though we were surprised and pleased to survive a trip in such close proximity, we all longed for home at the end of the trip and have spent the last four days recovering and rejoicing in Colorado and our friends and routines here.  It was hard for Aden to leave her coaching job, for William to leave his swimming schedule and friends, and for Daniel to be separated from his baseball team, and I know that the difficultly will only increase in the future as summer jobs evolve into internships and the bonds of friends / significant others requires us either to travel without a family member or bring an additional one along.

As the London Metro announcers said without ceasing during our countless rides, "Please mind the gap between the train and the platform," and we thank jobs and teammates for minding the gap between our successful graduation in wintry weather and the start of a pleasant summer in a suddenly green Colorado. I'm so grateful that we went, and that we came back.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

A Fractals-filled May

Fractal - a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales. (Google definition).

Start a challenging task, struggle, complete, celebrate, start anew. Our family life contains this pattern, repeated at both the macro- and micro- levels in a kaleidoscope pattern run amok.  In May, specifically, we danced through a confetti pattern of completed major efforts on both grand and smaller scales. For instance, we celebrated high school graduation for Aden, sharing in our joy with Bill and Connie, Sean and Carol, who all came to visit from the Midwest. A snowfall the day before graduation combined with plummeting temperatures threatened to blow us off course, but with much shoveling on the part of the district, and many warm clothes on the part of graduate guests, we triumphed. The colors that day were high school royal blue and red, mottled with the grey of the sky and the white drifts of snow on the football field.

We celebrated further with a joint graduation party due largely to the generosity and planning of Aden's friend Hannah and her family. It was rewarding and emotional to see so many neighborhood friends that day. Many of their sons or daughters graduated with Aden, and since we have had the luxury and privilege of living in the same house for almost fifteen years, our bonds with friends here means that each Willow Creek name called out at graduation resonated and sparked both joy and sorrow for time's rapid passage. Colors there were black and red for Hannah's college of Northeastern and black with gold for Aden's new journey at CU.

On a slightly smaller scale we rejoiced with William and his high school swim team as they marked a win at the boys' state championships (the first such win in twenty-five years).  After months of two-a-days and exhaustion, fluctuating times and minor health crises, it was awe-inspiring to see the team pull out amazing performances and win all of the relays as well as place many individuals in finals. William didn't have his best meet but delighted in cheering for teammates and sharing in the celebration. His goal is to produce points next year as they pursue a repeat. The boys were resplendent in their bleached blonde hair and royal blue and white jerseys, happy faces and fist thrusts of muscled and shaved arms.

We then embarked on an eight-day tour of the United Kingdom which contained extended stays in London and Edinburgh and a brief stop in York. On vacation, each day contained the smaller fractal of effort, completion, reward and celebration, as we struggled to revise and follow an itinerary, find our way via underground or walking the city streets, eat food both affordable and allergen-free, and then stagger back to our room (s) at night, exhausted but still too jet-lagged to sleep through the night. Many smaller patterns with a mix of many different greys (rain, streets, rivers, old buildings) blue for the sky in London, green for the countryside as seen by the train, black for umbrellas and a rainbow of flowers in the late-May gardens. More on the trip in the next post.

For now we rest. Our photo galleries of the last few weeks startle me as I flash review all of the events that occurred, the people we saw and shared good times with, and the amount of effort that went into the triumphs. The rest will be brief, for new journeys start soon, but we will sweep up the confetti, take down the signs and mail the thank you notes, tying up the last loose ends of our magnificent May.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Turbo Mermaids

Despite deep reservations over my body's capabilities and a busy family schedule I flew to Phoenix last weekend to compete in the US Master's Swimming Nationals. Over 2,000 swimmers from age 18 to 97 gathered from across the country to brave the 100 degree heat, dubious air quality and perilously high starting blocks.  Fellowship and inspiration made the trip worthwhile even before I swam my best times in 13 years. An international meet at Stanford in 2006 was the last time I competed seriously, and since then my autoimmune illness laid me low.

In 2012 a dear friend came over to help me cook dinner and reassured me, as I slumped on the kitchen counter in despair, having lost fifteen pounds and all my strength, that one day we would be able to walk around the neighborhood again.  Her words stuck in my head, even as I began to walk (lifting my water bottle for a weight), swim, and cautiously re-embark on a weight training regimen. I swore off competition at the height of my illness, since my addiction to exercise, fueled by competition, had nearly killed me. But engaging with my Masters teammates, finding my comfort zone in shorter workouts, more rest days, and a new attitude, brought me back to competition seven years later.

It's hard to say who was more inspiring, Olympian Matt Grevers sprinting a 21 (seconds) in the 50 -yard backstroke, the 97-year - old woman wearing a fast compression suit and swimming the 200 freestyle, or my teammates - fellow "turbo mermaids" in the words of my friend, Suzy - winning their races and dropping more time than any other team.  The starting blocks were so high that they required two steps to climb up, and a permanent "fin" was anchored to the back to provide a track start.  The fin worked well when you finally stepped over it and onto the precariously slanted surface.  I admit that my heart raced crazily when I got up there the first time, but a 79-year-old man next to me flew off in a practice start and motivated me to take the (very high) plunge.  All over the deck volunteers were letting us use their shoulders, hands or heads to climb up and stay balanced, and the shade tent poles were also handy and much coveted for their assistance.

I placed third in the 100 free and fifth (by .04!) in the 50 free with times that were not so far off what I did at Stanford oh those many years ago.  To be clear, I didn't think I could even finish a fast 100 free, since here (at altitude) my lungs give way to seeing black and wanting to pee my pants after I turn at the 75.  Maybe going down to sea level was the trick, maybe just being brave enough to try was most important. I always tell the kids, "Your passion must be stronger than your fear," and I had not followed the mantra myself until this past weekend.  The residual grip of the illness and my doubts about fitness had lingered beyond their past-due date, and I was relieved and full of gratitude that I could finally drown them in the pool.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Made Like Him, Like Him We Rise

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia! 
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia! 
Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia! 
Where's thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia! 
Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia! 
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia! 
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia! 
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia! 
- "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," verses 3 and 4, Charles Wesley (1739)
The soaring soprano notes and trumpet blasts of this traditional Easter hymn lifted us up on Easter Sunday even as tears started and I had to mouth the words around my constricted throat. One of my favorite pieces of music reminded me that we are called to hope, to envision a better future, to have faith that good will triumph in the end. It could not have come at a better time.
Perhaps you have stumbled through my latest entries (stumbles due to the faulty writing and not to your reading ability) and realized that our spring has been full of tragedy.  In addition to the loss of life, we had to sit through a day of school closure due to a "valid threat" to schools across the Denver metro area. Over 434,000 students and their teachers sat at home on a Wednesday because a young woman, obsessed with Columbine, had flown to Denver from her Florida home, purchased a gun and ammunition, and threatened to take young lives.
The situation was not a reality I ever want to adopt - feeling held hostage by an individual with mental health problems who was somehow allowed to by weapons with an out-of-state license, no waiting period, and no regard for the fact that she cannot even buy a beer at age 19, but could somehow buy a gun.  One neighbor reflected, "We close the schools so that the gun stores stay open."  Another noted that we had a spring snow day one week, and a spring terrorist day the next.
I can't make the situation feel normal, can't normalize it for my children. Their resilience in the face of danger reassures me in small ways and horrifies me in others. How can they be expected to operate in school with much larger pressures weighing on their young shoulders?
My mood was a bit low going into Easter, but this pivotal spring holy day reminded me of my duty as a Christian and as a parent, to hold on to hope, to have faith in a better day, and to work hard not only to envision this better world but to make it possible.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Bad Writing about Hard Things

After a week of time putting some distance between us and the tragic death of a young woman we knew, I re-read my last post and now must apologize for bad writing, for my inadequacies.  To write well an author needs to plumb the depths of their own emotion in order to "show and not tell" the story to the reader.  I struggled last week to deal with my emotions: shock, fear, sorrow, anger, worry. There was little desire to dredge them all up as I spent most of my time squashing them down in order to function.

We went to a candlelight vigil in the neighborhood park last Thursday night which saw hundreds of people gather to pay homage to the young girl.  Aden and her friends disappeared into the throng near the photo wall, while the other moms and I stopped a long way out, stricken with grief and unable to move closer.  The overwhelming sense of tragic wrongness sat heavy on all the parents assembled. Children in the first blush of their young lives should never go first.

Several parents shared their own stories of sons and daughters who struggled with mental health. One father told me that he was wrestling with "survivor's guilt."  Their daughter had attempted suicide twice and by some miracle had recovered and was now thrilled with life at college. He said, "there but for the grace of God go I," and it's a sentiment that most of us shared.  The multitude of candles glowed beautifully on the dear faces of loved ones in our community as we gathered in small groups. Their hugs provided some comfort but couldn't alleviate the emptiness, the reason for our gathering.

At youth group on Sunday, the young people were still reeling from their losses, including the death of a sophomore boy from a private school near our church.  The school had kept the incident fairly quiet, partly because it occurred over spring break, and the students in my group wondered if the young boy's lack of popularity, his quiet demeanor, had contributed to the lack of conversation around his death.  They are all wondering about their worth, the impact that they have on the lives of others. In social media land they calculate their value by instagram followers and snapchat streaks and wonder if obtaining the magic number of "likes" or "views" would somehow protect them from feelings of inadequacy.

How do we help them realize that their value is intrinsic, and the likes and views are as fake as Monopoly money?  Real connections matter, a small number of close friends and family matters, future hopes and dreams matter. In the midst of our struggle to affirm the teenagers in our lives came another bombshell; last night we heard the news of a death by suicide at a different high school in the district.

The loss of life must stop. I don't know how to prevent it, which adds to the general unease and worry gathering mass in my stomach. All I can do is tell my children how special they are, how much they mean to our family and friends, and pray that this wave has finally crashed and withdraws back into the sea.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Death by Suicide

The correct term for a young person's death at their own hands is death by suicide. Not "committed," no judgment attached, just a straightforward statement regarding an event that is anything but straightforward. Such a death tips the world on its axis.  Our neighborhood and school communities are now reeling because of such a loss.  A young lady who grew up with Aden, who swam on the summer team with her, joined her for Brownies and Girl Scouts and youth group, has died by suicide.

Aden and her friends are devastated. Though the seniors have taken different paths at the large high school, their elementary school classmates are like family.. They gathered in small groups at each other's homes over the weekend, crying over shared memories and tentatively (guiltily) sharing their plans for the future: college, majors, jobs.  They have also shared their own mental health struggles, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.  I am heartened by the outreach and support but terrified by the depth of the troubles they face. I want to get counselors for each one, remove the burden of homework and exams and social media, but I feel powerless in the face of their culture.

The weight of grief will not entirely lift this school year and their friend's absence will mar prom and graduation and high school memories.  This recent loss was the third death by suicide that our school community has suffered in 2019.  Apparently this is considered a side effect, that 'contagion' is a medically observed risk of youth suicide. Add that word to the list of the most odious terms ever conceived.

Anger is a part of the grieving process, and no one knows where to direct their anger in such difficult times. Some people direct it at the school, as if they could prevent this when families, faith communities and medical professionals have not. Some people ask why the school held a day of mourning on Friday when they did not have it in February for the first student who died by suicide, ignorant of the fact that the families had different wishes. The school has done everything possible to respect the families and help the students.

I am also angry and have no target for my anger, which of course is closely accompanied by fear.  It's taken me four days to write this post, struggling to corral the various thoughts that swoop through my mind like Dementors. My greatest desire is to shield my children, tell them how much I love them, but they can't understand the depth of this emotion, not until they have children of their own. I never did. The greatest force in the world - a parent's love for their child - cannot always save them.