Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Vast Learning Seas

I had a work study job in college.  A number of them, but one of them was at the Lifelong Learning office.  Sometimes work study gigs were:  you're poor and the college needs to give you money so go to this office once a week and they'll give you some shredding to do and don't talk to anybody.  But this gig was a good one; they trusted me and gave me a desk and eventually let me answer phones and take credit cards and help make their course books, etc.  It was pretty cool to see people want to better themselves by taking courses at their (the age I am now!) ages...some of them were just fun courses to get their feet wet, but some of them were actually going back to school to earn a degree or to finish one, and I always thought that was pretty neat.

I've always believed we are all lifelong learners, and the classroom is truly wherever we are...whether I'm sitting in my hammock or casting on my boat or waiting in a doctor's office, I'm taking it all in and I'm trying to better myself; to learn something.  For one thing, it's a way to stave off imminent boredom.  For another, it's a way to honor our brains.  I think we're all the same way, whether you've thought about it or not.  We're all sponges.  Some of us are spongier than others...!!...but, we are all soaking in the world around us in some manner.

Howard and I have always felt the same way about Mason.  We've always read to him the same way we did to Riley, we talk to him the way we do to Riley, we've shown him things the way we did to Riley.  A psychologist told us once that things that take a neurotypical person 3-4 times to learn will take Mason 2,000 times to learn, but that he will eventually learn them.  I used to take comfort in that.  But now I realize he was wrong.  Living with two scientists makes you embrace science on the well as being a visual learner.  I'm not a neurologist, but even a stay at home mom can tell by looking that things aren't right here...Mas is not going to learn everything we are.  Mason's pictures are on the left and mine are on the right.  (All I have for a control comparison...and they weren't looking for brain malformations when they scanned me; so who knows-maybe I have the same malformation?!  But it works for this demonstration, so indulge me...)  First of all, brain mass alone, Mas has far less tissue to work with.  (Not that that is always an indicator, but often times it is.)  Also everywhere that you see black?  That's a spot where good, healthy brain tissue should be...not spinal fluid.  That big ol' ventricle in the center there should be nice and small, as well.  There are a lot more technical, neuro-type, big-dollar college words to identify all the problems shown here; but my point is, anyone can see by looking that:  this ain't right.

So, it's probably safe to say he is never going to learn what a neurotypical person does, scientifically speaking.  And I'm not all hearts and flowers enough of a person to say "he will speak someday and regain all neurological function and get married and have kids and ride off into the sunset!"  Too much Getskow in me for that.  But, all of that taken into consideration; he still learns.  He progresses.  He absorbs.  Albeit slowly and sometimes painfully.  He still learns.

I really can't even tell you how many times people have said:  You should write a book.  And I'm fairly certain it's not because of my life in and of itself.  It's due to Mason.  He came into this world like a tornado, and has been blazing his own swath ever since.  The first five years of his life were really dedicated to keeping him alive and trying to diagnose him.  That's not an overstatement; that's just a fact.  Many a night we put him to bed and thought, no way is he gonna wake up tomorrow.  But he always did.  And we basically held our breath for the first 5 years.  Always wondering.  Never thinking too far beyond today, each day, because that was enough, thank you very much.

So when he started 'kindergarten,' it was really kind of a shock and awe situation.  He was in a self-contained room, (read: zero mainstreaming) and he was in with 5 other special needs students.  I would drop him off and go home and experience having a life for the first time in five years.  I took care of my yard.  Cleaned my house.  Took care of my pets.  Quilted.  You get the picture.  I didn't pay of lot of attention when he started crying when I went to drop him off at school.  He was non-verbal; who knew what was up.  I assumed all was well.  Once, he fell on the swing at school and fractured the lower ridge of teeth on the mat below him.  A well-meaning aide told me later that a 5th grade student was watching him at the time.  !!  The clincher, though, was one day when I picked him up to find his arms wrapped with Ace bandages, and the bandages were tied above the elbows behind his back...basically rendering any protective reflex if he fell totally useless.  Add that to the fact he had an already previously fractured jaw and Bugs Bunny front teeth, and it was terrifying to consider him falling and landing hard on his face.  He was an incredibly clumsy walker then; had PT at the time to help with that, so this was very troubling.  When I asked the teacher what she was doing, she told me this was therapy specifically prescribed for him by a private school in Sioux Falls.  ??  What?  A school we'd never heard of?  So, I called that school.  They had never heard of Mason and had never seen him before.  To make a long story short, the aides there let the dams burst and started telling me all kinds of tales about their days there; things the teacher did and the way they spent their days...and we ended up moving.  That was his first 2 years of education in a public school.

We next moved to a small town in SW Minnesota.  When they read about Mason's history, they wanted nothing to do with educating him, so they suggested sending him to that same private school in Sioux Falls.  Well, they made it sound so great, and after our poor experience with public school, we thought why not?  So, we sent him on the bus that first day, an hour away, to private school.  He came home with a perfect set of teeth marks on his cheek.  I called the school, horrified, to find out what happened.  Oh, he was bit by another student, they said.  I said, is there a plan to keep that from happening again?  No, that's just something that happens here.  So, Howard came home, and by this time, his cheek was swollen and purple, and the bite marks were even more worrisome-looking, so Howard called the woman that ran the school, Betty.  She said, "You need to teach him how to fight back."  Howard said, "If you teach a child with an IQ at that level to fight back, you're just teaching him how to fight."  Her reply, "If you want him to keep attending school here, that's what you're going to need to do."  !!

A few years later, she resigned.  Good, we thought, that evil was gone.  Little did we know she was the lesser of two evils.  She was replaced by an even worse female administrator.  This woman ran the place by surrounding herself with a gaggle of women who thrived on nepotism and cliques.  I called them the "Women In Heels."  The reason for this moniker was, they came to work every day in heels, flashy jewelry, and business suits...and yet, these were the women making decisions on Mason's education.  Women who CLEARLY never spent five minutes with him.  How did I know this?  Because if they had, Mason would have made shreds of their earlobes from that jewelry.

His time at this school can best be described as a nightmare.  He was in a classroom with a varying number of students and staff.  He had 7 teachers in 9 years.  At one time they had 18 people in a room so small and echo-y, that I had to go to the Women In Heels and demand they change it, because even I couldn't have stood a day in that room.  They claimed they had no other rooms.  They said they handled it by having the students out of the room as much as possible.  Which of course we found out later was a lie.  (Lies were the standard operating procedure at this school, sadly.)  His therapists changed so often that we stopped keeping track and stopped getting to know them, for awhile.  Every time he got a new teacher or therapist?  No one would tell us or send a note or letter or email or anything.  Mas would just come home furious with behaviors for about a week and then we would find out from another parent that there was a new teacher.  In this school, you were always welcome to come for a long as you called and let them know first.

When Mas first got his speech device, he did amazing things with it.  He would tell us the back seat of our car was 'too hot' or 'too cold'.  One day in music class the teacher sang something and he pushed, 'change the channel.'  !  He used to use the device often and well.  His usage dropped off considerably and we never could figure out why.  Then we found out from one staff that no one was replying to him in the room when he used his device.  Of course, the students couldn't reply, because he was in a room where he was the highest-functioning student, and although we fought for years to get him in the next room over, where he would've been the lowest-functioning student in a room full of kids with speech devices, they denied us every time because the teacher didn't want a student with an IQ that low.  But it was far more troubling that the staff wouldn't reply.  So, he stopped using his device.  Much like a person left in an institution who is talking but no one answers...eventually they resort to talking to themselves and in the end they go silent.

The stories at this school would fill another blog post and a book, (and someday they will) but suffice it to say the lies and coverups and bullshit that happened there would make your skin curl and your blood boil.  In the end, Mason lost every member of his team except for two people, so we demanded to know why everyone left.  Their answer was to kick Mason out of school.  Via letter.  On a Friday.  Because that's how this place rolled.  If you think about it...that's what they did to MASON.  They pulled his rug out from under him...forced everyone he knew to leave year after year...and in the end, dropped him off at home after school on a Friday and he couldn't go back.  To call this place a nightmare is to give it the benefit of the doubt of happening under a shroud of darkness.  Which it didn't.  It operated under the cover of daytime.  So 'nightmare' is not an accurate descriptor.

To be fair, we did have a very small handful of fantastic therapists at this school, though...the only saving grace of the entire we tried hard to count those as blessings as we moved him to the public school in the small town we were living in.  (To try to avoid another physical move for our family.)

The public school wasn't thrilled about having to educate him, but they knew that we knew the law and they 'had' to provide him an education, so there we were.  Now, he was in a classroom with about 4 kids, off and on during the day, and he had access, for the first time in 8 years, (actually 10 years) to neurotypical students.  But, they refused to mainstream him.  Even after I told them we didn't want to mainstream him because we thought he was going to make great art or write a great history paper...but because we wanted him to see that students could SIT in desks and be QUIET.  For 8 years he had been learning to model down...learning to 'fight back' under Betty's tutelage...and finally we wanted him to observe some normalcy and see if he could model UP.  But, this teacher assured me she had been trained in transition work and she could help him with that.  So we crossed our fingers.

Which brought us forward to being called at least 4 days a week by the teacher, asking me to come pick him up from school...for reasons ranging from: he's acting weird, he's going to the bathroom a lot, he seems unhappy, I don't know what to do with him, how do I keep him occupied, what do you do to keep him busy at home, kids walked by in the hallway and he covered his ears...this list is so long I can't even tell you.  This was almost daily.  In the end, she said she thought he should only attend half days.  HALF DAYS.  Unfortunately for her, we knew the law and I called our PACER rep and she had a great hearty laugh on the phone and we exchanged many lengthy emails and finally came to meet us for lunch and we 'forced' the teacher to keep him in the room all day every day...although nothing much was accomplished.  Interestingly enough, one of the great therapists we met at the previous school worked as a behavior therapist for this public school...but the teacher felt terribly threatened by her input so wouldn't have her in for any assistance hardly at all.  Because it was easier to call me and complain about him covering his ears than it was to ask a behavior therapist how to stop that behavior!  OY.

Eventually, after two years of not being able to drive an hour to get groceries, (because our town didn't carry the pull-ups he used or some of the food he ate) mow my yard, go take pictures, or even take a shower without fear of my phone ringing and having to go pick up Mason for a new, as of yet unheard reason; and after my husband's job turned into a joke, fair winds blew us over to Wisconsin.

Which brings me to Mason's current educational situation.  One I don't like to talk about very often, because: 1) I hate to jinx it, and 2) every time I think about it I start to cry.

Well, here Mas has been, in a public school setting again.  Which made us very nervous.  I steeled myself for constant calls to pick him up and them having no idea about behaviors.  Well, we've never been called about a behavior.  EVER.  And in two+ years, I think they've called me to pick him up twice, because he was legitimately sick.  They not only know about behaviors, they try to AVOID them from happening in the first place!  Imagine!

But the best part, by far, is the people.  His teacher, which can only be described as awesome.  Because appropriate words escape me right now.  Calm, laid back, organized, totally has Mason's number.  Everything Mason needs.  A quiet port in the middle of a storm.  Always thinking of ways to make Mason's days better.  Always trying to work with his speech device (they don't us his particular program here hardly ever so it's all new.)  Always positive.  (SUCH a nice change--I can't even begin to explain how amazing that feels!)  When you sit down to talk to your kids teacher and they tell you things about your kid and you have that feeling where you KNOW they KNOW your kid and you feel tears welling up inside and you hope the subject changes soon so you don't look like a blubbering fool?  That's what we have here.  I can't really find the words that express it.  But that's as close as I can come after two years.  Maybe I'll get better at finding words as time passes.

His aides?  Incredible.  Send notes home every day about what he ate, what he drank, what he did, what his mood was like, etc.  Every.  Day.  Know why that's so great?  Because our 19 year old kid doesn't talk.  At all.  So allllll of that is really important to us.  And I read it.  Every.  Day.  They are energetic, happy, positive, beautiful, sweet-souled people who somehow find it in their hearts to spend their days working with kids like Mas.  Not an easy job.  Doesn't pay enough either.  But they still do it.  So cool.

His bus driver?  Rules.  She is loud and happy and funny and punctual and energetic and Mas adores her.  And the list goes on.  Everyone we meet who knows Mas (but we don't know) comes up to him and says hi.  And every time I get a little knot in my throat and want to cry.  Even as I type this.  We live in a big city now!  This shouldn't happen here.  But it does.  We drove through Culver's a few weeks back and the girl in the window shouted out, "Mason!  How are you?"  And Mas rubbed his hands between his knees and smiled.

But the best part of all, which is almost too much to talk about, is the peer mentors and also just the teen traffic in general that passes by the room.  We had an IEP a few months ago and Mas was standing at the door giving high-fives to students (and staff!) as they walked by the door...and as far as we could see, EVERYBODY raised their hand for a five or said a few words to him as they passed him.  You can't even begin to know what that is like.  After all those years of him in a room with kids in bean bag chairs drooling as he used his speech device and no one this?  How does a person even begin to describe this?  And his peer mentors?  High school kids who volunteer to come into his classroom and hang out with these kids...maybe they play Wii bowling, maybe they go outside for a walk, maybe they go along as chaperones for field trips, maybe they just hang out, but how immensely cool and awe-inspiring is that?  To open Mason's iPad every day and see his selfies on there with neurotypical (read: normal) teenagers?  I cry every time.  And laugh.  And then cry again.  That is education that can't be planned or bought or written in an IEP.  That's just beyond.

So, I used to believe that everything happened for a reason.  Which, for awhile, kind of went out of fashion for me.  But now, I tend to want to believe that's the case again for us.  Because we for sure have met the people we're supposed to meet over the years.  And we certainly have Mas exactly where he's supposed to be right now.  Without a doubt.  To think about how far he could be right now if he had had this exposure all along is heartbreaking, but we can't live like that, can we?  We can only move forward.  So, for those of you who follow along with Mason's life and adventures, please know that right now, Mas is having the time of his life with his education.  If you've prayed, crossed your fingers, sent positive energy, given him a hug, or sent good thoughts to him, thank you.  It worked.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What Autism Isn't

In this time of acknowledging and celebrating those with autism, it strikes me lately that there are a lot of people, specifically parents, who don't know what autism really is...or isn't.  I've met quite a few people in a rush to self-diagnose their children with autism.  My child doesn't like the feel of their shirt!  They have autism!  My child won't clean their room!  They're on the spectrum!  My child won't eat peas!  They're autistic!  It's sad, really, because in a lot of cases there are parents who are really searching for legitimate answers to the strange behavior of their children, and on the other end are parents with psychiatric disorders all their own, looking to slap a label on their child so they can get a "get-out-of-parenting-free-card."  (I speak from personal experience; I know someone who is a narcissist with histrionic disorder who has been jonesing to emboss a baseball cap with this disorder so that she can level down from bad parenting to no parenting...)

(And WHY would you add to the disability of a child by not doing EVERYTHING in your power to make their day as good as it could possibility be?  Why wouldn't you give them a bath every day?  Dress them in clean clothes?  Make sure their house is clean?  Make sure their household pets are clean and cleaned up after?  Why make their disability worse by making their environment less than great?  Now I'm the first to tell you we aren't perfect.  There are Saturdays when Mas is in his pajamas until noon and he has straight-up bed hair until noon, as well.  My house is not always spotless.  (Can I blame that on being creative?  Hmmmm?  Can I?!)  But he gets a bath EVERY night, regardless of where we've been or what's been going on.  He gets meals at the same time every day, no matter what.  He gets his meds on time.  His outfits are organized by color and set out on his counter.  His room is clean.  His clothes are clean.  His pets are clean.   Because that's his right.  And that's my job.  And while no one is giving me reports on my progress as a parent, I feel like someone is watching me.  He's 19 and non-verbal but very demanding.  He goes by the name of Mason.)

Sorry for the tangent.  And the venting.  I digress.  Back to topic.

A lot of people don't realize, for example, that sensory problems, such as sound or touch sensitives, are just one criteria for an autism diagnosis.  Many people have sensory issues but are not autistic.  I, myself, have both sound and touch sensory issues.  While I was a music major in college, I only flushed the toilet in the music building once the entire time I was there; it was so loud and so echo-y that it felt like someone had placed my brain in a blender and turned it on high.  It literally took a few minutes to get grounded again after flushing.  I hated that feeling.  From then on, I just avoided using that bathroom at all costs, or if I did, I never flushed.  Also, when I was a band director, I trained my lower bands (they were fantastic students) to stop their warming up once I stepped on the podium.  When my feet hit the podium, you could hear a pin drop.  Why?  Because when my band was warming up, I heard all of it.  I couldn't tune out any of it.  I wasn't hearing mumbo-jumbo.  I was hearing my second chair sax player play an F natural instead of an F sharp and I was telling myself to remember to tell her to use her middle finger right hand instead of her index finger right hand in that part of the song.  I was hearing my third chair trumpet player play a low D and noticing he was not using his third valve slide and it was wayyy sharp and I needed to teach him again about kicking that halfway out for low D.  It was brutal to hear everything.  It was great for rehearsals, don't get me wrong.  But tortuous for warm-ups.  I have the same problem at home now; if the tv is a certain (medium-high) volume and Mas is having a screaming fit and the dogs are whining it is all I can do to hold it together...but, crank the music in my car, and I'm fine.  I seem to have a threshold of medium-high volume where things aren't good, but get above that and all is well.  (Also, the goal whistle for the MN Wild is a Perfect Fourth...yet the goal whistle for a game we watched the next night was a Perfect Fifth.  Why?  And are all train whistles the same pitch?)  I have a serious sound sensory issue.    Sound issues in general.  My ears are weird.  But I'm not autistic.

Same thing with me and touch.  Take a tour of my closet and you won't find a tag.  First thing I do when I get a new shirt?  Cut out the tags.  And I'm not talking a cursory, rough cut.  I'm talking a smooth, no-sharp-corners-left cut.  (Those companies that came out with no-tag shirts?  Heaven!)  If I do have a tag in, I just sit and concentrate on the way it hits my skin, all day long.  If you're talking to me, or I'm doing something else, all I'm really thinking about is that tag.  It's like my ears have cotton in them and all I'm thinking is:  "tag, tag, tag."  If I have a hangnail?  Forget it.  I will fixate on said hangnail until it is cut off.  This is why I have fingernail clippers all over my life.  So, I also have a sensory issue with touch.  But I'm not autistic.  I'm not on the spectrum.

Also, did you know the diagnosis of autism cannot be made by parental assumption?  Nor by the assumption of a teacher or a therapist?  While the school can suspect autism, the official diagnosis needs to be made by a clinician.  And it's not as cut and dried as you may have been lead to believe.  While a lot of parental input is required, especially when the child is young, there is also a lot of science applied to the equation, especially now in 2017.  Things have progressed.  Specialists who may be qualified to make the official diagnosis include:  developmental pediatricians and pediatric neurologists.  Qualified and well trained therapists can also aide in the diagnosis.  Most experts now agree that if your diagnosis comes from a school psychologist, you should also get that diagnosis confirmed by an MD.

When Mason was about 5 years old we were seeing a genius in the area of Genetics, Dr. Bradley Schaefer.  He had been attempting to diagnosis Mas for a few years at that point.  We were getting ready to move away and were at one of our last appointments with him.  I asked him, "If I were your sister and this were your nephew, what would you tell me?"  (He said this was the best question he had ever been asked.)  He said:

           "Many people in the future, particularly school workers, are going to try to label him as autistic.  Don't let them.  He has an underlying medical disorder.  We haven't found it yet, and it may take awhile to do so, but we will.  He has, and always will have, autistic behaviors and tendencies.  That is due to his area of brain damage.  The reason autism is over-diagnosed is due to kids like Mason.  They have similar areas of brain damage and doctors like to slap a label on them and call them diagnosed, to get the parents off their backs and make them happy.  Make sure you are patient and wait for the medical diagnosis for him."

And, he was right.  Wayyyy back 14 years ago now, Dr. Schaefer knew what was up.  The last test Mason had was completed last week, and two of the traits of the disorder they were testing for, were hand flapping and chewing on your fingers.  What's that sound like?  Autism.  That's where we've had to be careful.  He also didn't track toys when he was a baby.  Result?  They though he might be blind, and had a high-arched palate, hypospadias, and microcephaly and tested him for Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome.  Then, he wouldn't eat for years until he was about seven and then his appetite skyrocketed.  Result?  They thought he had Prader-Willi Syndrome.  Next up was four-hour bouts of playing in the middle of the night, happy demeanor, hand flapping....sounded like Angelman's Syndrome.  ALL negative.  The list goes on and on and on....What we've learned...just because it whinnies and gallops and leaves hoof prints...does not mean it's a horse.  (And, apparently, there are many types of zebras!)  If diagnosis by assumption worked, Mas would've been diagnosed YEARS ago.

Many people over the years have whispered around us, "they just don't want him to be diagnosed as autistic."  HaHa!  If ONLY you knew!  I like their puzzle motif, I like their Facebook groups, I want the t-shirt, I like all the built-in excuses...just think....the next time we're in Target and a baby cries and he pulls his pants down in the middle of the cereal aisle?  To the shock and horror of the people standing there, mouths agape?  I can just shrug my shoulders, and say, "he's autistic."  And continue shopping.  (Not saying all autistic parents do this...just saying, that I, personally, would LOVE an excuse sometimes!)

Which brings me to my next uncomfortable topic.  Using disability as an excuse.

I had an aide the other day compliment me on Mas always coming to school clean and in nice matching clothes.  It made me sad at first.  Then I got mad.  Think about it for a minute.  If you're Mas, and you can't button buttons or zip zippers or pick out your clothes or put on your shoes or run a bath or clean yourself or comb your hair or brush your teeth...there had damn well better be someone in the wings making sure you look presentable when you go out.  And our theory is, we have always felt Mas should be one level up from level cleaner, and dressed one level better.  Why?  Because inherently, just by being him, and living a day in his life, he is going to end up walking around dirty.  He lives in diapers.  He drools a bit yet.  He touches every surface and still chews on his index finger.  And, people judge him.  He can't run to Target in pajamas.  He has to be dressed, hair combed, clothes on.  Otherwise people really run that judgment train.

Then there's the part of it just being my job.  I remember when my dad, who lived 35 miles away from his job as a plumber at a meat packing plant, would go to work, tirelessly, every single day.  The wind would be howling all night long during a blizzard; we lived in a small town where the only person to clear the roads was one guy in town with a tractor-or else dad had to fire up our tractor and clear the driveway so he could leave at 4:30 am.  It didn't matter how bad the weather was, dad would go to work.  Because he was needed and it was his job.  I can remember looking out the window, watching his tailights fade in the swirling snow,  thinking, "why doesn't he just skip today?  Why does he have to go in every day?  Even in blizzards?" Then, my mom, who worked at a cafe in the middle of town...she would walk through thigh-high snowdrifts to get to work.  Literally thigh-high.  No exaggeration.  Why?  Because a lot of the time we had one car, or, the roads weren't cleared yet for her to drive there.  I can remember seeing her suit up in dad's snowsuit and heavy boots and think, "why doesn't she just stay home today?  It's horrible out."  But she went.  Because she made the caramel and cinnamon rolls, and the buns.  And the other ladies from the other end of town walked through the same snow to get there, too...because they were the waitresses and they needed to be there.  It was a really simple concept, really.  They had jobs to do.  They did them.  Was there an alternative?  They never saw it.  We never talked about alternatives in our house.  They went to work.  That's what they did.

Which is probably why, growing up watching them, I now look at this job of parenting the way I do.  Not only is it Mason's right to be clean and in matching clothes with a clean butt and brushed teeth and hair, but it's also my job.  (And I don't get days off or vacations.  I remember a few years back a friend called and said what are you doing?  And I said I'm vomiting in the sink and having diarrhea in between feeding Mas bites of supper.  Because that's the gig, folks.  They call it parenting.)  And while I've had lots of people give me sideways glances and get downright nasty with me because they think it's crazy that I 'don't work,' I have yet to meet anyone I wouldn't change jobs with in a heartbeat.  In a heartbeat.  Whenever I get the judgmental women who say, "You stay home all day?"  I always have my speech ready:  "Yes.  And I have a degree in Music Education and Art Education that I'll never get to use again.  And I haven't slept in in 19 years.  I am woken up multiple times per night.  I sleep super lightly out of necessity unless medicated.  I do 1-2 loads of laundry in the middle of the night.  I have to trim my son's pubic hair so there's not so much shit stuck in it in his diaper.  I have to remove his diaper in the morning with his wet dreams in it-from his penis we had reconstructed when he was a baby which he will never be able to use with his girlfriend or wife...but which ironically works anyway!!  (ba-doom-chink!)  I have a 95 lb gorilla strapped to my back figuratively at all times, and cannot make plans with people unless I have a gorilla watcher first.    His life has been a myriad of doctor's appointments and weird symptoms and every time he gets a new one I have to look at it and decide if this is a life-threatening one or just a new weird one and do I call the doc or just chart it or Dr. Google it and worry myself into more teeth-grinding.  I have a daughter who I can only spend time with while my son is otherwise being watched so that time is minimal and she has always known her brother has to come first because he can't watch himself now can he and what kind of psychological damage does that do to your neurotypical kid and guess what if you decide to have your own kids you might get the gift of giving birth to a train wreck just like this!  If he gets mad he scratches us and spits and head butts us and my furniture is covered in damage from him and my car is too and it always smells a little bit like a nursing home inside of my house.  I do his laundry and give him baths and make his food and whenever he's home I have to be home too and if we take him out we have to avoid babies and applause or we will be scratched or he will throw a screaming tantrum and all of this is for a son who is now an adult but will always mentally be a child and will never speak and will never say I love you or I hate you or I hate pudding or I want pizza or my shoes are too tight or I hate the color blue or Leave me the Hell alone dammit and my only out is gonna be when he or I die."       ...and meanwhile you get to go to work at your 8-5 job where you get to wear nice clothes and high heels and celebrate birthdays in the break room where there's cake with white icing and red punch and people laugh and tell jokes and talk about You Tube and what was on TV lastnight and then you get to go home and see your significant other and watch tv at whatever volume you choose and go out wherever you'd like for supper and stay up as late as you'd like and laugh out loud at tv if you wish and have loud sex and sleep in on Saturdays and Sundays and you will get in-laws and grandchildren and holidays and company.  So let's talk about a trade shall we."  Of course, that speech always goes unspoken.  Because I was raised right.  But someday the wrong woman will raise her eyebrow the wrong way and that speech will be made.  With all the flourish of a Clark Griswold Christmas speech.

Tangents.  Tangents GALORE today.  Apologies.

Which brings me back 'round to what got me to this tirade....autism.  If you have an autistic child, and I know a LOT of people who legitimately do, let me just say, kudos.  Hats off.  I feel your pain, because we live some little parts of that life.  If you are a school worker or therapist or teacher and you see a parent who is self-labeling their child as autistic, or, if you are sitting together in the break room discussing why you all think this child must have autism, try to remind yourself that the diagnosis of autism is a process.  Sensory issues and/or sensory integration disorder do not a diagnosis of autism make.  They are not one in the same.  I think it's important not to add to the heap of over and wrongly-diagnosed kiddos out there; autistic and ADD/ADHD included.

Also, remember that sometimes what a child needs, is discipline.  A schedule.  A good meal.  Parental supervision and attention.  A good role model.  And, because a lot of how I view Mason's life relates to how Caesar Milan views animal behavior, (judge away) kids also need:  rules, boundaries, and limitations.  They just do.  They need to have set bedtimes.  They need to pick up their toys.  They need to do their homework.  They need to clear the table.  (The table you've set and sat with them at while you ate that good meal.)  Don't give them a label and then just call off all parenting and expectations under the umbrella of:  "but they have autism."   Sometimes what kids really need, is someone to just (gasp!) expect something of them.

Temple Grandin is awesome.  Don't get me wrong.  And having a diagnosis for your child?  Must be heady stuff.  I would love to proclaim that title.  But we should be careful drawing a line between sensory sensitivity, sensory integration disorders, and autism.  As parents, as teachers, as therapists.  Kids have enough on their plates.  Let's not add to it by giving them a label they don't need.

Friday, March 3, 2017

3/4 Doctors and Three Things...

If you're married to someone in medicine, you're never sick.  Nothing is ever wrong.  Me:  "Man my throat hurts."  My husband:  "Well, the clinic will just do a quick strep and they're usually negative.  So unless you have it for a really long time or have a screaming high fever, they can't do anything for it, anyway."  Me:  "My side hurts so bad."  Husband:  "Your appendix is gone and so are your reproductive parts.  Stomach pains are common and hard to diagnose.  They won't do anything for it."  Me:  "Man I've been coughing for weeks."  Husband:  "It's bronchitis.  It's viral.  They won't give you anything.  No reason to go in."

You get the picture.

On the rare occasion something more serious pops up, protocol in our house is as follows:  Level One:  Ignore health problems until they're really bothersome.  1)  I have a special needs kid, 2)  I'm a caregiver, 3) If I was up washing urine-soaked sheets three times during the night and scrubbing stool off the wall and floor, I tend to ignore my personal health issues.    Level Two:  Ask Husband what he thinks diagnosis is.  (It pains me to admit, on the occasions I want to prove him wrong and I go to the doctor anyway, he's 99% correct.  He should've been a diagnostician of some sort.)  Level Three: Husband asks someone at work what their opinion is of said situation.

So, if you're married to someone in medicine, frivolous doctoring just doesn't happen.  Secondly, if you have a special needs kid, frivolous doctoring doesn't happen.  We all know that going to the clinic is just an invitation to a swimming pool of germs.  As much as possible, we avoid exposing Mas to any extra germs.  (I still open doors with my sleeve over my hand or with my elbows.)  Thirdly, the more you find out about about illnesses and treatments the less you go in.

So, it was after a lot of ignoring and googling and questioning that I found myself lying on a table a few months back, waiting for a radiologist to enter the room and perform a biopsy.  The ultrasound tech had already done her part, and I was prepped and ready.  When the radiologist breezed in, I immediately had good thoughts.  He looked like Joel Fleischmann from Northern Exposure.  Good sign.  And, he was a 1/4 doc.  Had to be good.

I categorize docs by where they are in their career.

A 1/4 doc is through school and just stepping out into their career.  They're hungry.  They won't get every diagnostic dart on the board but they'll throw more darts.  They're broke and most of them are paying off mountains of debt so they try harder.  They're closer to new breakthroughs and still remember their lectures/classes; they paid attention because they were tested on those things.  They haven't seen a good sampling of all the diseases and disorders yet, so they're always looking and listening closely, hoping to find them to check them off their life list.  When they make their diagnostic guesses, we question them because they deliver their guesses tenatively.  That is a drawback.

A 3/4 doc is past the exciting part of their career and not ready for retirement.  They no longer have a desire or interest in learning; they know it all.  They don't go to conferences to learn; they go to golf and cheat on their wives.  They are no longer interested in patients-they only see dollar signs.  At this point in their careers, they are either contributing heavily to a mutual fund or paying for a lake home or two.  They have taken their Dale Carnegie courses and are good at schmoozing.  (How do you think they learned how to bang their nurses and techs?)  When they make their diagnostic guesses, we don't question them because they deliver their guesses in an envelope of arrogance.  That is to our detriment.

A 2/4 doc can go either way.  I've seen good and bad examples.  They're in the middle of their career.  They're either somewhere they like and they're dabbling in learning a bit more all the time or they're feeling stuck somewhere and therefore feeling resentful and not learning anymore.  They diagnose the easy stuff and push off the difficult cases to the 1/4 docs; quick to insult when the 1/4 docs miss the dartboard.  Or, they occasionally find the nut and diagnose the weird case and pat themselves on the back for it.  The good 2/4 docs are hardest to find.

Now, over the years, we've seen more than our fair share of doctors.  Mas remains undiagnosed, 19 years on, so we've seen quite an array of specialists.  We've seen primary care docs, PA's, NP's, Developmental Pediatricians, Pediatric Endocrinologists, Neurologists, Pediatric Neurologists, Opthamalogists, Pediatric Opthamalogists, Orthopedic Surgeons, General Surgeons, Geneticists, Physical Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Cardiologists, Pediatric Cardiologists, ENT's, Pediatric ENT's, Neurogenetic Teams, Craniofacial Teams, Dentists, Pediatric Dentists, Orthodontists, Gastroenterologists, Pediatric Gastroenterologists, etc.  The list is long.  And we've seen it all.  We've been to appointments where we've entered the room and the doctor did not even greet us; sat in silence for 45 minutes...complete silence...and just watched Mason.  We've sat through hour long appointments where the specialist spoke to us the entire time and stared at the wall.  We've been to appointments where they've called him by the wrong name, talked about diagnoses he didn't have, wanted to test for things that have already been ruled out.  We've been to team appointments that have lasted an entire day.  More than once.  We've seen some shit.

But a pretty common thread amongst all these docs?  Is where they are in their career.

I tend to like the 1/4 docs and the 4/4 docs.  You can have the 2/4 and 3/4 docs.  The 1/4 docs are hungry, anxious, earnest, eager to please.  They're not always right, but they're always trying.  They don't have all the answers, but they'll keep looking.  The 4/4 docs are hard to find.  But they have been through battlefields.  They listen, they're intelligent, they're wise.  They can level a nurse with one stern look over their glasses.  They can cut through red tape like a warm knife through butter.  Love me a 4/4 doc.  But good luck finding one.

So imagine my surprise when my Joel Fleishmann breezed into the room...a 1/4 doc...but with the demeanor of a 3/4 doc.  He introduced himself and started giving me a primer on the lymph system...arrogance dripping from every word.  He wasn't just speaking down to me, he was literally speaking down to me.  Then started telling me I shouldn't be there.  Then told me there was no reason for me to be there.  Told me he didn't consider my lymph nodes to even be enlarged, by his standards.  Then he told me the test would be too close to my jugular vein and he didn't know why I would want a test done so close to my jugular vein.  Then said after all the things he taught me about the lymph system, and knowing all the things he's told me about his beliefs, what would I choose to do?  Would I still choose to do the test?

As I sat there, lying on the table, prepped and ready for the test, words were gone.  I started to speak, but nothing came out.  I ran my tongue over my teeth, feeling my crown where the spiky tooth indent was, and wondered how to proceed.  Various thoughts ran rampant.  He is no Joel Fleischmann.  He is no 1/4 doc!  What the hell?!  Wonder what the ultrasound tech is thinking right now.  Will insurance still charge for this?  My doctor ordered this test; I didn't ask for it!  

In the end, I decided anyone with that much ego did not need to be inserting a needle that close to my jugular.

But, I realized to to your doctor, you will always be three things:
1) Age
2) Weight
3) Profession

He read my chart far enough that morning to see my:  age, weight, and profession.  47, overweight, (I've lost a lot of weight, but still overweight by his standards, I'm sure...) and a stay-at-home mom.  That's all he saw.  All he read.  (By the way, "Joel" didn't read any of my medical history...which was discovered during my cross examination later!!  He made a decision on whether or not to carry out this test based on nothing other than a cursory ultrasound; no reading of my chart and no reading of my history whatsoever.  But I digress....)

I should insert here how little I care about ego when it comes to doctors...if they're good.  If a doc deserves to be an egotist, be one.  But earn it.  I have no problem with ego.  If it's deserved.  Arrogance is another matter.

Doctors don't care a stitch about your IQ, your life experiences, your real world situation, whether you're a really nice person, whether you're caring for your dad who is in end-stage Alzheimer's or your aunt with Stage IV cancer or whether you've rescued 39 will always be 3 things:  age.  weight.  profession.

He had no idea that I knew about the lymph system.  Or that I had a special needs son at home, and had for 19 years.  Or that I had a CRNA for a husband.  Or that I had a daughter in pharmD school.  Or that I've been reading medical journals for 19 years.  Or that I used to have to look up words like "hyper" and "hypo" and now I've moved up to looking up words like "stellidate irises" and "repeat expansion disorders."  Or that I know about polymicrogyria, and enlarged ventricles, and micrognathia, and retrognathia, and sub-ependymal cysts....Or that I'm not an idiot.  Or that I've been a patient and parent advocate for my son for the past 19 years.  Because he only saw those three things.

We are all reduced to those three things.  And while it's a sweeping generalization to reduce all doctors to a fraction, it's likewise unfair to reduce all patients to three criteria.  But it happens all the time.  It's our job to be vocal and let them know about things #4-39....even when the doc has no interest in hearing it.

I'm usually quite good at doing that.  I've been doing it for years with Mas.  We had a 'surgeon' who wanted to yank his first tube out of his stomach in the office, and then replace it with his Mic-Key button.  (G-tube)  Well, I knew how big the apparatus was under the skin and I said, no way, that's going to hurt him.  The 'surgeon' said, "He isn't aware enough to feel pain; he won't have any idea what I'm doing."  That was my first foray into advocacy.  That day.  I demanded they do it under anesthesia and then demanded this jackhole not be involved in any way.  (Of course, Howard told me he was probably not only involved, but probably the one that did it...better not to know people involved in medicine sometimes...)  But, I still had my "I am advocate; hear me roar!" moment that day.

For some reason though, it's far easier to advocate for someone else than it is for yourself.  And as I look back on this interaction with this doc, I'm wondering why it was so hard to find the words to let him know I wasn't an idiot.  To let him know I know about the lymph system...I know about let him know I was on to his particular brand of arrogance.  But, I didn't.  I sat there quietly and drove home quietly.  I let him think he knew me based on #1, 2, and 3.

Don't let people base their judgement of you on 1, 2, and 3.  Even busy docs.  Maybe especially busy docs.  We are more than the sum of the three top things about us.  The three most mundane facts about us.  I learned a lot that day, about self-advocacy and being able to spot 3/4 docs, but I also learned that we are all worth advocating for-all of us.  Mas deserved to have a humane removal of that tube back in 1999; just as much as I deserved to be treated with respect a few months ago.  Medicine and respect don't always walk together hand-in-hand, but they should.  Don't be afraid to remind your medical professional of this the next time you are seen.  I let him get away with being a jerk...but more importantly I let myself get away with not standing up for myself.  That was harder to get over.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Meet Me Halfway

As I would stare at the goldenrod clunky old phone, dominating the sunflower wallboard in the kitchen, willing it to ring, my impatience rising, my senses would sharpen right before the actual ring.  The 'hello' was perfuctory, as I knew who was on the other end.  Kelly.  "Meet me halfway?" She would ask.  "Yep," I would reply, then ask quickly-"leaving now?"  "Five minutes."  "K."  I would hang up the phone.  I never waited five minutes.  Not once.  I sometimes made it to three.  Impatience was ever-present in my young mind.  I would jump on my well-weathered Huffy bike; my used-to-be-red tape now a barely-there-pink on my handlebars not even getting touched most of the way across town, since Kelly had taught me to ride "no-hands."  I would make it to the tracks before her, then I would double back to the school, then back to the tracks, then back to the school...until I saw her.  Then I would meet her and we would ride.  No greeting.  Just start riding.  Sometimes we just rode around town over and over again.  Sometimes out of town-to Marion corner, to the creek, to the Maze, around the section; it didn't really matter.  What mattered was the ride, not the destination.  Don't remember ever getting tired, or ever having bike problems.  We just rode.

On the days we didn't ride, we walked.  Same protocol generally; we would meet halfway.  Sometimes, I would walk all the way to her house, which was really my second home.  We would take off for walks that would last an indeterminate amount of time...talking about Important Things...marching band, boys, school, the bus ride, teachers, what the inside of that house must be like as we walked by it, the mean dogs in town, what we were doing tomorrow.

In a town of 80 people, memorization of the houses, (and the yards, the trees, the bushes, the flowers, the dogs, etc.) was not difficult...and it was a great way to combat boredom.  Especially before we were able to drive.  There were many houses we never saw the inside of...and we would still like to explore.  We also talked a lot about what the town must have been like in the past.  The town had been much larger years and years before, but had been ravaged by fire, and had never recovered.  It was always interesting to consider what things were like before.

We also used to walk the railroad tracks.  They were active tracks, and sometimes while you were walking, you'd feel the rumble beneath your feet and you'd know the train was coming.  We'd wait until we could see it, and then we'd jump down into the ditch and watch it speed by.  Always a rush.  Oftentimes a group of us would gather up by the tracks where they crossed by the ball diamond and put pennies on the tracks, waiting for them to be flattened.  Sometimes we'd see people sitting in the empty cargo cars; they would look at us as they went by-probably wondering about our lives, while we sat and wondered about theirs.

The train track was right next to the ball diamond, which was a hub of activity in the summer.  Many softball teams were organized by all kinds of organizations and clubs-large and small-and they would meet at fields all around the little towns to play in the evenings.  I loved it, because the ball diamond was right by our house, and those big ol' lights would turn on, and the cars would come into town and there would be something to do, and people to watch and noise and activity and also there would be people from other towns flooding into our town...which didn't happen very often.

Right next to the ball diamond, was 'the trees.'  There was a big stand of trees where the Monroe kids would build forts.  More often than not, Kelly and I would build a fort, and end up trekking back in there a week later, to find the guys had taken it over or build over it...or, gasp....knocked it down.  Which usually meant hunting for one of their forts, in order to knock that down.  Those woods were our playground.  They were right next to a gravel road, but once you got into the first part of them, it was dense, and quiet.  There were quite a few deer in there, and also a lot of owls.  It could be a creepy place.  Once the sun started to set in there, you would want to start finishing up and head out of there.

On the opposite end of town was the creek.  That creek saw a lot of activity from a lot of us Monroe kids.  Kelly and I used to go hang out under the bridge there when the water was low, listening to cars drive over our heads.  When we were younger, we would go catch creek chubs and crawdads there.  Sometimes, it would be down to just a trickle....truly a creek.  Other times, it could be a rushing torrent of water, and we would do downright dangerous things while we were there.

More often than not, at the end of the day, one of us would end up spending the night.  My house was a bit smaller and my room didn't have a door, so we usually stayed at her house.  I always considered her house an adventure.  Often, her brother Bryan and Kelly and I would make Totino's party pizzas and kool aid and eat together in the kitchen, listening to records play on the hi-fi.  We would sit out on her back steps in the evening and watch the sun go down; discussing Life while I gleaned as much information as I could from her three-years-older, Very Experienced mind.  Those steps heard many a conversation.  Once, during a total downpour, the streets were literally covered in nightcrawlers.  Bryan and Kelly and I went on a massive nightcrawler hunt...followed by nightcrawler races!  Which were a first for me.  (Never to be repeated, I don't think!)  She also had a back porch right off those steps, which saw many card games, visits, and probably unwisely, a lot of Ouija board experimentation with her older brother Brad and some other neighborhood kids.  We dabbled in all kinds of things we were interested in...trying to feel/taste/touch the world all around us that we felt we weren't able to experience while living in such an isolated existence.

Right off the kitchen was their bathroom, where Kelly taught me how to apply makeup-and I watched in awe as she applied her mascara with her mouth open and her eyes wide-asking her a million questions along the way.  I used to love to watch her do her hair-because she would always get angry at it and things would get thrown-and I would laugh and laugh!  I always thought she was very sophisticated and classy-three years was a huge difference in age, after all-so anything she said, I listened to.

We didn't reserve our fun for her first floor.  Her second floor had three bedrooms, and her brother Bryan's room opened onto a very nice, fairly flat rooftop...a convenient place to layout in the summer, sit and visit, and also to have bottle rocket fights with the neighborhood boys.  Her mom hated it when we were up there-rightfully so!-but we loved it.  It felt very dangerous and exotic and we always felt a little reckless up there.  For two 'good girls,' it was nice to have a place to feel a little bit bad.

Speaking of neighborhood boys...there was a crew of them.  Affectionately known as "The Monroe Boys."  My brother, Kelly's brother, Tim, Chuck, the list is long...these boys rode bike around town, later drove cars, motorcycles; went hunting, went swimming out at Lake Vermillion, went out carousing on Friday nights...the list is long!  Most importantly, though, is that they had each other's backs.  And all of the Monroe girls' backs.  We really were family.  And although we were close, you didn't date.  That would be like dating a sibling.  It didn't happen.  We were like one big gang.

Monroe was its' own entity.  Our town was too small for their own school, although for years we had Kindergarten and then the middle school in Monroe.  And then they decided that was crazy and moved it all to Marion, six miles away.  (Enter years later, when middle schools became 'hip' again...guess who was wishing they had left their setup alone??)  So, we all had to ride the bus to school, until we were old enough to drive.  Kelly and I waited years until we were able to score the coveted back seats.  That was an achievement like no other.  Riding the bus was an experience.  We had some fantastic drivers, and some not-so-fantastic drivers.  I remember when we all went home and told our parents about one driver, who went down the 'big hill' on the gravel road a little sideways once.  No one believed us.  Found out later he was a big drunk, and was fired.  The parents believed our reports after that.  When the roads were bad, we were late to school more than once.  "The Monroe Bus" kids would walk into band late fairly often in the winter, usually freezing cold and with wet feet, from standing out in the ditches in ankle-deep snow, waiting for our bus to get there.  You didn't dare miss the bus, because our moms did not want to drive us in.  So you went outside on time, even on the bad days, knowing you'd be waiting.  So, in the end, the Marion kids were the 'city kids'-even though their city was only a population of 600-and we were the 'Monroe kids.'  Always.  To this day, really.  The distance may have only been six miles, but in reality, it could have been six hundred miles, as far as the disparity between us.

Once the Monroe school was empty, it sat empty for years.  That never stopped Kelly and I.  We would regularly become Urban Explorers and set about to find a way into the school and spend hours investigating every nook and cranny.  We would go up on the stage, digging through old costumes and pulling open the huge, dusty curtains and pretending to put on shows.  We would go into the classrooms and dig through the old teacher's desks, looking for treasures.  We would wander the halls, freaking each other out over the echoes and shadows and the long, reaching, warm afternoon light that would find its' way in through the grown over vines covering the dirty windows.  It was really a dream for two girls that loved scary movies and creepy stories.  The interesting days were when Bryan and Tim would sneak in ahead of us and hide somewhere and jump out and shorten our lives by a few years....those were the times we wondered why we did this.

Sometimes, the whole gang of us Monroe kids would do things as a group.  Not really ever an organized thing, but we would go for walks on the gravel road south of town, or we would all go explore the dump and look for cool things to recover.  Sometimes we would set up things for the guys to shoot.  Almost all of the guys from Monroe carried guns in their trucks.  Around town, and also to school.  And it never seemed at all out of the ordinary.  Still doesn't.  When the old gas station and the old store were still in town, we could stop in for snacks or bottles of pop before our walks.

Being a resourceful town, though, the school didn't sit abandoned all year long.  Once a year, the town held a carnival at the school, and they would do it up right.  Each classroom would have a different activity, like a cakewalk, games, bake sale, etc.  They would hold a play in the gymnasium, (with a real wood floor, might I add...) with games for everyone.  We used to love that night.  Everyone would come out and have so much fun.  I should mention that baked goods in those parts weren't just baked goods.  They were Baked Goods.  The women around this area knew how to bake.  Our church cookbook was something of a coveted item.  People still try to hunt it down to this day.  So, winning at the cakewalk back then was truly a delicious feat!

Speaking of church, there were 2 churches in Monroe-a German Reformed and a Dutch Reformed.  So, we grew up Reformed.  Mom always took us kids to church.  I can't say that I enjoyed it; that would be a lie.  Kelly didn't go to our church, which made it extra excruciating.  I spent many sermons studying the Last Supper painting and the Christ at Heart's Door painting...and also coloring in bulletins.  Church is where I crafted my doodling; learned how much I hated dress clothes; how noisy candy wrappers are; and all about class warfare.  Even though our church was quite small, there was a definite hierarchy between The Best Christians and The Not So Best.  I was always in the not so best category...and my Sunday School teacher made sure I felt like it.  She was an evil woman.  Looking back, I think she disliked my free spirit.  But, she did a great job turning me away from organized religion.  What really stirred a fire in my belly at church, was when the organ would fire up.  THAT was why I was there.  Open up that hymnbook and let's go!  Four part singing was what our congregation DID.  They were masterful at it.  We had singers that would make you rise up and say, "Hallelujah!"  I still remember joining choir and learning to harmonize.  The hymn was, "Something Good Is Going To Happen To You."  I learned the alto part.  Singing harmony that first time was like taking heroin.  I suddenly felt like I had a purpose on this great earth.  After that I became even more interested in our hymn books.  Suddenly, I could sing the baritone parts...the bass parts an octave higher...the soprano parts an octave lower...and then I would start to make up second alto parts.  Music became the Thing that got me through church.  I felt like I was really worshipping when I was singing, or later, playing trumpet or piano.

Summers were the hardest season to sit through church.  Because I knew everyone would be headed out to the lake.  The minute church was over, we would head home, change clothes, gather up our things, and head out to Lake Vermillion.  That scene was happening back in the day.  My aunt would bring her tractor tire innertube, and us kids would ride in the back of the pickup.  Kelly and I owned that lake.  We would spend the day swimming.  All afternoon.  The water was mossy and nasty, but that never stopped us.  When we got home, there would be a moss outline of where your swimming suit had been.  But it didn't matter.  It was the lake!  Marion had a pool, but the Monroe kids always wanted to hit the lake.  That was our place.

Kelly taught me to waitress at the cafe in town.  Being such a small town, you wouldn't think we'd have much of a cafe.  You'd be wrong.  Our cafe rocked.  The women, (the same church women who knew how to bake/cook) knew how to make amazing home-cooked meals.  And caramel and cinnamon rolls the size of your face.  And portion sizes that would make your head spin.  Leland would make thick malts that you had to use a spoon to eat.  People would come in from towns all around to eat at the Monroe Cafe.  We would regularly run out of rolls in the morning.  People would ask, how do we make sure we get rolls here?  We would say, get up earlier!  We would serve 120 people at noon-sometimes with only two waitresses.  I learned how to be organized and how to memorize at that job.  My mom cooked there, my aunt Sue also waitressed there and showed me the ropes, and every woman in town who I looked up to worked there at some point or another.  Tammy and I cooked there at night and she showed me how to short order cook.  I learned a lot about people during my cafe years.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  Kelly and I would work together on occasion and it was always fun to finish a shift, get home, and pull the tips out of your pockets...stacking up the quarters and excitedly adding up your all reeking of deep fryer-especially if you were lucky enough to get some dollar bills.

In marching band, Kelly played percussion.  She was just a tiny thing; barely five feet tall and very svelte.  But give her a pair of sticks...and stand back.  She would play like the wind.  Ten feet tall and bulletproof with sticks in her hand.  She taught me how to march and how to not apologize for being a girl in band.  I learned a lot just by watching her in marching band.  She was section leader and I'll never forget watching all the guys listening to her intently, doing what she said...this diminutive little person...whom they all respected immensely...who could play circles around most of them.  She was a powerhouse, but was able to lead without shouting.  A trait I've always admired.

As we got older, Kelly graduated three years before I did, which left me alone without my anchor for the last three years of high school.  It was weird.  The person I usually called and met and walked with and rode with, was gone.  But then, I grew up too, as we do, and moved on from Monroe, as well.  Now, when we talk, it's just as people speak of-we truly can pick up from where we left off the last time we spoke.

When you spend so much time with another person growing up, that person really becomes a part of the fabric of your whole life.  It's not so much that she is a part of my life, but more that she was woven into my life.  Much as Monroe itself was woven into all of our lives as we all grew up there.  I'm sure all of us who grew up there have different and interesting stories of our time in that town.  Mine are just a small sliver of stories.  I'm sure it's very individualized for all of us; what we each took from our time in this small village, if you will, that we were brought up in.

I used to lament the fact that we 'had' to live in such a small town; that we had to grow up in such a desolate area with so few opportunities.  I wanted to do Big Things and I felt like I was stifled by growing up in such a small place.  I think we all go through some form of that in our rebellious teenage years.  But, with age, comes some form of wisdom...hopefully...and now I see things differently.  Now, I am so thankful that I was able to grow up with one very close friend, and also a gang of so many really good friends, all the while in the warm embrace of our beautiful little town.  I think we all took it for granted, really; the ability to ride bike by moonlight, trick-or-treat by ourselves with no fear, hear a dog bark and know instantly whose dog it was and what time it was, hear the town whistle and know we should go home for supper, see a car go by and know who was in it and where they were going...all of it was really magical and unusual.

We aren't particularly similar.  Where she's quiet, I'm loud.  Where she's calm, I'm freaking out.  Where she's strong, I'm weak.  Where I'm tall, she's short.  Where she's refined, I'm...well, not.  And yet...when we speak, there's no 'laying the groundwork' conversation first, no background stories...we just dive in.  It's just understood.  It's a judgement-free zone.  I don't feel like I know her--I know her.  And she knows me.  Is it just shared experiences?  Maybe.  Or maybe we were placed together for a reason?  It's a wonderful gift to realize that we have that-all these years later-and that we will always have it.  I wonder if everyone has that someone in their life?  I don't know the answer to that.  But I'm glad that I have her in mine.  I will always be thankful for you meeting me halfway, and for all of the life lessons you gave to me.  And for Monroe having our backs all those years.  It's a rarity in this day and age to be able to say you have someone who knows you completely, and who loves you anyway.  Thank you for being that person.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

'Romance Isn't Dead...It Just Smells Fishy...'

Preparation usually started in the fall, with a trip to Herters.  Pre-cursor to Cabelas, Herters was a store full of fishing and hunting equipment that dad could spend hours in.  I can remember the smell of the place exactly...but I can't tell you what the smell was, exactly....a smell of rubber baits and lead weights and musty old clothes and dust?  But after a big haul from Herters, dad would hunker down in the basement and start making spinners.  And lead weights.  And leaders.  And setlines.  And anything else he could make himself, as opposed to buying.

Dad's workspace was tucked away in the basement, with an open wooden stairway right next to it.  The steps were old and worn with grooves in them.  You'd have to watch your step going down.  You also needed to duck your head as you went down the stairs to avoid slamming your head into the top of the floor above you.  I used to climb down those stairs after my bath; my long hair wet down my back, usually in flannel pajamas, (sewn by mom), carefully maneuvering my way down the steps until I could sit down on a step and watch him work.  He always had a crackly AM radio on; listening to the Twins game if it was in season; otherwise, whatever he could tune in.  He had a tall metal stool he sat on while he worked; a countertop in front of him for a workspace, and a long countertop to the left of him covered with reloading presses and reloading supplies.  Behind him was an old, curved-top, one-handle refrigerator...that was a bugger to open...but I'll get to that in a bit.  The furnace was down there, too, as well as shelves with mom's canning supplies, a couple little windows, and all kinds of jokes dad had cut out of magazines and stapled up on the posts and shelves.  It always smelled faintly of gunpowder and sawdust, or lead weights when he was smelting.

Dad was always up for visiting when he was working.  It wasn't until I was in high school that he had a phone installed down in the basement, and even then it was rare that he was ever on it.  I loved to watch him load shells, talking about the amounts of gunpowder and whether he was making a 'hot' batch or not, and who they were for and what they wanted.  I loved watching him load the powder on the scales until he leveled it out, and then carefully packing up the boxes.  Sometimes he would let me load the boxes, which really felt like a big job.  But making spinners was a different kind of job.  Still precision work, yes, but not quite as measured and as careful as reloading.  He was more laid back and relaxed during the spinner-making process.  That's when he would let me help him pick out the colors of the beads, the blades, talk about how to place the clevises, talk about the length of line to use, and what type of hook to put on it.  And he would teach me about knots.  (Information I should've paid closer attention to.). After making his spinners, he would take each one and carefully curl it up into a nice circle, wrap it in upon itself, and place it into a little bag and zip it shut.  Each of these bags was organized by color in his boxes from...where?  Yep.  Herters.  Making lures was a labor of love for him.  And pride.  He loved it when people asked what he caught a fish on, and he could say, a spinner that he made.

That kept him busy through the winter.  When spring came, and the ground thawed, it was time for the nightcrawler hunt.  I can remember nightcrawler hunting from a very early age.  There were Rules.  And Guidelines.  And you'd better not screw it up.  Because this was our bait-our only bait-for the entire summer.  First off, wait until dark.  After a rain.  Even better, during a rain.  Bring a flashlight.  You want to shine your light to find the crawlers, then immediately move the light away.  After you move the light away, grab them, and hold on to them, gently!, and keep holding on until they give up and release their hold on the earth.  Then, you put them in your bucket.  And you each kept your own bucket.  Because dad wanted to see who found what.  And if I had friends over, that wanted to go nightcrawler hunting?  That was fine, but...we had better not mess up a good night of crawler hunting by messing around out there.  This was Serious Business.  When we had coaxed all the crawlers out of the yard that we could, it was down to the dad's fridge.  Where the nightcrawlers lived.  In what could only be described as a Condominium for Crawlers.  Bedding changed every few weeks, regular waterings, you name it.  And when it was time to go fishing, we would go down to the fridge, argue with the fridge handle, and grab a whole mess of our carefully caught nightcrawlers.

Our boat was an 18 foot, aluminum Crestliner.  The floor was pointed so you always had to think before you stepped.  We had dad's area where he sat by the boat motor; a C-shaped area.  He would sit on one bench, set his tackle boxes on the bench opposite him, and the other bench was used to deal with the Family's Issues....snags, lost lures, etc.  The bench next to him was for mom and one of us kids, the bench further up was for another one of us kids, and then the little seat way up at the front of the boat was for the last kid.

We fished the Missouri River.  At least 90% of the time we did, anyway.  A day of fishing meant loading up all of our gear, lunch, rods, lures, sunscreen, etc., and dropping the boat in at the boat launch, (and then hoping the old Elgin motor would turn over)....and hitting the water.  We would either troll or jig.  Trolling was a stressful experience.  I can only imagine how it felt for my mom and dad.  Five lines out; three of them kids....I'm sure we reeled in every time we felt any bump.  And getting the weights and trolling speed right must've been a trick with all of the differing angles of our rods.  There was a reason dad always said we looked like a 'Russian fishing trawler' when we were trolling!  When we weren't trolling, we were jigging....dropping down to the bottom, reeling up a little bit, and waiting....and when we weren't jigging, we were checking our setlines.  Our setlines were always set in the coolest places...eerie little areas with treetops sticking out of the water and other people's setlines and markers and it was always a game getting in and out of the area to set.  Checking setlines was one of the most exciting things we got to do.  Dad and Jon would pull up on the lines and I would look over the side of the boat, waiting to see what would appear from the water below.

Lunch meant lunch on the boat....but a lot of the time, it meant shore lunch.  Dad would pull the boat up onto a shore somewhere and we would get to explore while dad built a fire.  We would roast hotdogs and eat whatever great food mom brought along that day, and then we would go rock hunting....mica, 'chocolate chip rocks,' quartz, agates, petrified wood, fossils galore, cool pieces of driftwood formed by the waves would be washed up all along the shore.  Mom would walk with us and be just as excited as we were about each rock.  She would carefully pick out pieces of driftwood to take home for her gardens.  We would gather as many rocks as we could and take them home to put them in shoeboxes under our beds.  Dad would be pretend to be irritated by the rocks and driftwood, but then he would be interested in looking it all over, too.

There were no phones; no iPads.  No TVs.  I played with my brother and sister because there was no one else to play with.  We sat around our table in the camper and talked and played cards when it rained.  Our table had a map of the United States on it.  I used to look at that and marvel at how huge the country was.  We had a small oven, but it was rarely ever used.  Breakfast was bacon in a cast iron pan and eggs fried in bacon grease.  And a few days a week, a treat...we would get the 'little' boxes of cereal.  You know the ones.  The little boxes that came in a multipack.  We only got those for camping, and not every time.  It was a huge deal.  Dinner was always on the boat or on shore somewhere.  Supper was always in the camper.  A lot of times, fish-coated in flour and fried in butter...I can smell it as I type this-and fried potatoes.

A day in our boat could asking one of us to take the front seat and point out debris in the water (a coveted position) making sweet comments about mom's telling us to rub the nightcrawler bedding on our hands before we baited our hooks (so the fish wouldn't smell our sunscreen...)...the various smells of: coconut sunscreen, noxzema, nightcrawler bedding, the gas stove in the camper, campfires on the beach, the smell of fish under your fingernails from cleaning fish....the different tastes of: bologna sandwiches, hotdogs, Rice Krispie bars, macaroni salad...pulling in gars and sturgeons and wondering what other odd-looking fish were swimming below our boat...wicked storms that would send us to the floor of the boat while dad took us into shore...feelings from euphoria to terror and anything in between.

Now, as an adult, I still fish.  Not as often as I'd like, but I still get out there.  Our boat now has a flat bottom.  With carpet.  And a big motor.  And we cast now, for muskies.  So a lot of the time, we don't boat much of anything.  We don't go up to shore; I don't get to pick up rocks or driftwood.  I don't get to rub my hands in nightcrawler bedding and I usually don't get to filet fish.  I hardly ever get to bait a hook, as we throw artificial lures.  But.  I still peer over the side of the boat.  And wonder....what's below us?  I still look up to shore and wonder about the people that live up there.  We listen to music.  We tell jokes and laugh.  I still look ahead of us and look out for hazards...a job I take seriously.  I still appreciate all the wonders that being on the water has to offer.

People often ask me, how can you stand to go to Canada and fish from dusk to dawn like that?  For a week?  And I say, how can you even ask that?  I can't think of a single better way to spend time than on the water.  Water Is Romance....even more so than a dozen roses and violins.  You're outside.  Surrounded by nature.  Loons, bald eagles, deer, pine trees, cool rock formations, the sound of gentle waves lapping the shore...(OR, the sound of huge waves crashing on shore!). Sweet little cabins tucked away on lone islands in the middle of nowhere, an elderly couple cruising by in a wooden boat (very On Golden Pond), strangers waving as they go by, fellow fishermen giving you the knowing 'yeah we ain't seen squat either today' nod as they cruise past, enormous inukshuks looming way up high on the bluffs and little ones sitting right in front of you at the end of your cast, the echo on the rock wall as your lure hits the water, the place your mind goes when you settle into your casting rhythm and everything is flowing smoothly...the plaintive wail of the loons as thunder rumbles in the distance...the yip yip of a pair of bald eagles working on opposite sides of the narrows as they try to find a supper of ciscoes on the surface...the way you feel your breath go away when you see the fish finder stacked four feet thick with fish in the narrows in the evening...or when you see trout 70 feet down on the finder...that sensation when you notice a glow of pink on the trees and you turn around to a sunset that will drop you to your knees....the rush like no other when a huge head appears out of nowhere a few inches behind your lure...and the even greater rush when you manage to do everything right and sink hooks into one of those leviathans of the deep and pull them out of the water, glistening and mysterious, smooth and quiet, beautifully marked in a way which you swear you'll commit to memory forever-but you start to forget shortly after you feel it forcefully tug it's way out of your grip and thrust it's way back into the dark, cool, Canadian water.

You get home.  You look at your pictures.  You try to remember those sounds; those smells; those feelings.  But you won't.  Because some things can't be captured.  The smell of coconut sunscreen, nightcrawler bedding, the yips of a pair of working Eagles, huge heads following your lure...the words of your dad as he worked in the basement.  Even if you could take a snapshot of all of those events, it wouldn't capture the essence of that moment in its entirety.  Some things need to be experienced completely and wholly to be experienced.  Being Present is truly a Present, indeed.

So we will go fishing.  And we may not 'catch anything.'  But I won't care.  It's not always what you have to physically show for something that counts.  Because my mind will be filling up with mind snapshots of memories and experiences galore.  The lake and I have this thing.  It's understood.  And it's more than a big fish or huge eagle or a fantastic sunset.  This lake is where I live.  Even when I'm not there.  I run her twists and turns and rock walls and islands through my mind all the time.  And it's where I will rest, when I'm no longer in my body.  My ashes and my soul.  I'm in love with this lake.  She's my home.  And I can't wait to go visit her again for a few days...say upon her waters...gaze upon her shores...and fill up my mind until the next time.

So keep your roses.  Indulge in your jewelry.  Take your violins and stuff it.  Romance is where it finds you.  Where it rips into your soul and digs itself a den.  It chooses you.

Friday, April 29, 2016

In search of a square hole...

When you spend a lifetime hearing how your son isn't smart enough, healthy enough, tall enough, heavy enough, good enough; for basically any program or class or environment you come into contact with; you really do just become numb to the entire process.  It's not something you allow yourself to be hurt by anymore.  Because the situation is basically static.  Even though young brains are 'plastic', they like to say, there are some things that are just not going to be fixed.  Enlarged ventricles, for example.  Microcephaly.  Polymicrogyria.  Thinning of the corpus callosum.  Those things are fantastic malformations.  Permanent.  There to stay.  Lots has to go wrong for those things to occur.  Generally speaking, even a hard core alcoholic or drug addict can avoid having a kid whose brain contorts like that.  But somehow, we managed.  Due to him not being diagnosed yet, we don't know why.  But someday, we will.  Most of his docs still feel it's genetic.  So they feel answers will be forthcoming as science catches up.  (Oh, to not be a trailblazer.). I've spent hours staring at images of his brain.  Marveling at the multitude of mistakes that were made during development.  Wondering how I could not have known all that was going wrong inside of me at that moment.  I've read tons of journal articles about each specific problem...(while stopping every fourth word to look up the words I don't know the meaning of) and have read enough to know that there's not going to be a major scientific breakthrough that's going to 'fix' our son.  This, right now, is how he's going to be.  Of course, I'll always believe we are all able to learn.  Every single one of us.  And I will never give up on him.  As long as I am breathing.  So I will try to teach him and help him and further his abilities until I am boxed.  But all the while with the knowledge of those scans and those particular items of brain damage dancing in my own head.

But when you hear he's not enough for a program specializing in people with disabilities, that is a tough one to chew on.  I've felt like our family has been bouncing around like a ball in a pinball
machine for years, trying to find a place to rest.  And I thought we had found it.  All we've heard about since we've moved here is This One Place.  This One Place where he can go for a summer program.  Where he can go once he ages out of school for a day activity program.  So it's been The Place in our minds this whole time.  Which is our fault.  We knew better than to rely on anything where he is concerned.  We put all of our eggs in one basket.  An epic error.

We went for a tour.  Nothing extraordinary.  They went to observe him at his school.  Then, the call.  'We have some concerns.'  'He does some spitting-I know he doesn't spit at people, but still, he spits a little.'  'We could try him in the summer program but we aren't sure it would work.'  'We aren't like the school-we don't have to take everyone.'  'We would have to split the program in two now because the place we were going to hold the summer program has carpet.  And we can't have him on carpet.'  'We would have to have him in the other building where there's no carpet.'  Each comment was like taking a bullet.

"But you're our place!"  I wanted to scream...."You're our bedrock for his future!"  "You don't understand!"  "You have shiny brochures!"  "You specialize in people with disabilities!"  "He has those!"  "He should qualify for this!"

But, I didn't say much of anything.  Because, when you're dying inside, the words don't flow much.  So now, he doesn't even fit in WITH HIS OWN KIND.  Which puts us into yet another category.  Which is ???  I don't even know?

So, a flurry of emails and phone calls later....a couple of hours of sobbing....a couple more hours of wondering whether a move to Canada was in order....ended in a night spent feeling numb.  Where do you go, when the place you're supposed to fit in; the place that's supposed to accept you, says you're not going to fit?  Where....where do you go?

Do you know why you read about parents of disabled kids doing horrible things to themselves and their children?  Because of things like this.  The government doesn't care about them.  Society shuns
them.  Friends are lost very early in the game.  Families rarely help, if at all.  (Except in our case-his grandma is his Godsend.). Programs that are supposed to help end up discriminating against them.  People end up feeling very, incredibly, terribly, alone.  Alone, with a child who is now going to be living at home forever.  Or, for your and their forever.  However long that is going to be.  Dreams died a long time ago.  Hopes were squashed in the first few visits to the geneticist or developmental pediatrician.  Your sense of humor develops into a very bizarre and twisted form of entertainment.  (Because, you laugh or you perish.  Simple as that.). The next time you read one of those stories, before you judge, stop and think a moment...what did this family have to go through, that led up to this horrendous decision?

A night of fitful sleep rose to a morning of sun-filled clarity.  Mason deserves to feel welcomed.  He is more than his behaviors.  He is a person.  We will not send him somewhere where they are waiting for him to fail...where everyday might be the day that we get the call that tomorrow is the day he can't come anymore.  We've worked too damn hard to get him to this point.  Given up too much.  Likewise, we cannot be held responsible for his behaviors.  I cannot be called daily and told how he misbehaved that day.  Because I'M AWARE.  I LIVE IT.  If I could fix him, I would.  (By the way, interesting side note....those parents that say, "I would never change my disabled child; I love them exactly the way they are...."  Those people?  Liars.  They are lying.  Because....if they could make it so their child wouldn't suffer anymore, they damn well better change it. When you hear people saying that, they're speaking on behalf of themselves, not their children.  If I could make Mas able to speak so he could tell us when he has a raging double ear infection, I would.  I could make his bowels work so he wouldn't have painful constipation, I would.  Just FYI.).

As it turns out, That Place doesn't deserve to have him.  We should be choosing or not choosing places....not the other way around.  And the cost to go there?  For what they're charging, the decision should be ours, not theirs.
As I put his coat and backpack on this morning, I told him, he was too good for 'that place,' and we would find him something better.  Then I kissed him on the cheek.  He ignored that and started to stim with his backpack strap.  That's the gig.  But I know.  I know that I will get him where he belongs, even if that place is just our house.  Because I have a square hole drill bit, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I found a quote this morning that fits the situation perfectly:  "Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out?"-Ian Wallace