Like a Foreign Country

I could see the voicemail icon blinking on my cell phone, but it was going to have to wait.

“Look over here, Michael, look at the balls, which one is this, let’s see it go down the tunnel, can you try, can you try?”

I looked at the speech therapist working with Michael.  She was young, and enthusiastic.  I wryly thought that I had gone into the wrong side of the teaching profession; this woman got to work one on one with kids and the office was charging us $125 for an hour long session.

But she was clearly having trouble with Michael.  I hadn’t quite known what to expect with speech therapy for a child so young, but I quickly learned that it involved playing with and talking to a child, repetitively and engagingly, over toys that the child truly loved to play with.

So far, she was having trouble finding toys that my son liked enough to want to bother with.  During the first visit, I’d had to get down on the floor with him and she conducted the whole session with him in my lap while she begged him to take the blue ball from his hand or tickled his face with the “koosh” ball.  But mostly he wanted the Cheerios in my bag and kept trying to turn away from the singsong voice.

Finally, after a few visits she found that Michael liked the puzzles (but was only interested in pulling out the pieces; she tried modeling the putting the pieces back with little success), the tugboat (but only because he could line the multi colored balls up on the top of the tunnels) and the colorful stackable pegs.  While she never showed her frustration, mine certainly built as I wondered why my son was not engaging with her.  My daughter would have loved to be back here playing and talking for an hour; why wasn’t Michael interested?

“I think your son has a little more going on than a simple speech delay,” the therapist told me at the end of the fourth visit to her.  “By now he should be picking up words and introducing them outside of the therapy room, but all he seems to be doing is repeating after us, without getting the context of what the words are used for.”

I listened carefully, my heart picking up a few beats.  I knew R was outside, minding Melinda, watching this all on the closed circuit TV.  “What do you think is going on then?” I asked slowly.

“I think Michael has something called apraxia.  It is a neurological condition where the neurons in the brain have trouble communicating with the muscles to tell them what to do; in this case, Michael’s facial muscles.  It makes it much, much more difficult for him to form words.  He also seems to have low muscle tone in his face, which makes it doubly harder for those muscles to do their job.”

Apraxia?  I had never heard of such a thing.  “What can be done for it?” I asked.

“Exactly what we are doing:  speech therapy.  In Michael’s case, though, I am concerned it is not enough.”

Not enough?  We were already paying $120 a month in copays for these therapy visits.  We couldn’t swing two per week.  “What do you suggest?” I asked.

“I would call Help Me Grow.  Do you know what that is?”

I did not.  “No, I don’t.”

“Help Me Grow is Ohio’s Birth to Three program.  Each state has one.  The federal government has a law which states that if a child is delayed in any way, either physically, mentally or emotionally, the child can be evaluated free of charge by Help Me Grow.  If they determine your child requires services, they will provide them at no cost until the third birthday.”

I was stunned.  I’d never heard of this program.  How could something required by every state for children age three and under go under my radar?  But I knew the answer; I’d never had a child who’d needed any special services before.  “That sounds great.  How do I get in touch with them?”

“Each county has an office; I’ll get you the information before you leave today.  Michael will definitely qualify for more speech, and possibly some occupational therapy because of his low muscle tone.”

I had no idea what occupational therapy was.  My two year old didn’t have any occupation to train for yet.  “Thank you,” I responded, knowing my voice sounded bewildered and far away, like I’d just entered a foreign country where there was much to learn and everything was different.

Which of course, I had.  That voicemail would have to wait even longer today.

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Crazytown

I had been up since five this morning trying to get my email box under 100 messages.  Every time I answered one, three more seemed to pop in.  As I typed in answers to the myriad of questions from fans all over the world about Rick’s newest release, I could hardly believe some of the things I was telling them.  I gave them the address and phone number of Rick’s record distributor if they asked about stores that hadn’t planned on carrying the disc who they had cajoled into doing so.  I gave them the email of the press manager if they had managed to get their local paper to cover the release or an upcoming show, or both.  I researched local radio stations from the online database and gave them the call letters of the one most likely to play the first single if they asked what radio station to contact about getting the music on the air.

I had no experience in the music industry other than growing up calling radio stations to request music, but I was a fast learner and I listened carefully when the record company reps or Rick’s managers would call me with information, or suggestions, or answers to the questions I just couldn’t figure out.

The fans surprised me.  I came up with a contest where for each fan who went to a store and asked them to stock the CD, they would have a chance to win a phone call from Rick.  They fanned out all over the country and succeeded in many cases in getting orders that would have never have happened for the disc.  One fan worked at Target headquarters in Minnesota and actually had meetings about getting the chain to carry the disc.  I couldn’t believe the range of our reach.

The record company had told me that it was nearly impossible to get in store displays without spending money on them; I created another contest where fans would win tickets and backstage passes if they could get a store to allow them to create an in store display.  When the record company balked on sending us the promotional posters to send fans who were successful in their negotiations, Rick himself sent me a package of posters to send to the fans.  Soon, photos of the fan created displays started pouring in.

“Can I speak with you regarding Rick Springfield’s street team?” came the voice on the other end of the phone.  I glanced around my kitchen and family room quickly.  This morning’s breakfast dishes were still in the sink, the laundry was still sitting in the laundry basket from when I’d brought it down this morning, untouched.  The family room floor was covered with the kids’ toys, but they were both generally quiet; Noggin was broadcasting Max and Ruby right now, and they were both transfixed.

“Sure,” I responded, modulating my voice to sound like a respected leader and member of Rick Springfield’s promotional team and not a mother with yesterday’s dinner stuck to the edge of my shirt.   I stepped out of the kitchen and into the dining room, which had turned into my command central for the team, and opened up the laptop in case I needed to reference anything there.

“Rick Springfield’s new CD is generating a lot of buzz to be sure, but so is your group of Street Teamers.   Everyone seems to be talking about how genius it is that Rick doesn’t have just one or two promotion people, he’s got hundreds.  Rick can’t say enough about the team and how much of a difference it is making with this new record.  Can you speak to me a little about that?”

I glowed with pride.  Late nights, crazy emails, too much frozen food, many cups of coffee.  In that moment, it was all totally worth it.

“I’d love to,” I replied.  “The Shock Street Team is composed off…” and off I went.

 

To read a copy of the San Francisco Gate story about the Shock Street Team in 2004, please click here:

Rick’s album gets jolt from fans 

Speech Therapy

“No language at all?  Not even sounds that don’t really sound like words but he uses the same one for the same situations?”

I racked my brain trying to think of something, anything, my son could do that would qualify as him trying to communicate with me.  He would cry, he would make noises but nothing that was consistent.

I hadn’t really thought that it was all that out of the ordinary.  Everyone said boys talk later, and that second and third children talked even later than that.  One of the classic stories of my own childhood was how my worried mother stood in a similar office with myself at age two and change, worried that I hadn’t yet started to talk.  “When you finally did start, at nearly three, you didn’t just say a word.  You said a whole sentence,” my mother had told me many times of my own childhood.  So I had been rationalizing Michael’s lack of speech away over the months, worrying for a moment, then talking myself out of it, then getting busy with something else and not remembering it again for a day, or a week, as he happily played on with his favorite few toys.

“No, nothing,” I said quietly.  “What could that mean?”  I asked worriedly.

“It’s probably nothing,” the doctor said in a singsong voice, allowing Michael to find the toy bear in her white coat pocket.  “But it is a real concern now that he’s two; most children do find their words between eighteen months and two years.  This will definitely put you at the top of the waiting list for speech therapy.”

Speech therapy.  As a teacher, I remembered that kids would sometimes get pulled out of class for speech help, but I’d never sat in on a session.  I had no idea what kinds of things would be done in such a setting.  And for a child with no words at all?  I couldn’t imagine what that would be like.

“If there is a problem, what could it be?” I asked, knowing this would be the question that R would ask me later when I recounted the visit, as would my father and both of his parents.

“Like I said, it’s probably nothing, especially since he is the third child.  Kids with older siblings tend to let the others do the talking for them.  Lots and lots of kids have speech delays, and they nearly always work themselves out with some therapy and sometimes other interventions.”

This sounded to me like the reassuring doctor talk they always give to nervous parents because they can’t handle something possibly being wrong with their son. “Right, but what could it be if it isn’t just a simple speech delay?  What else could cause a kid not to talk this late?”  I thought back to every cup of coffee I’d drunk during my pregnancy, the few sips of wine I’d had, the lackadaisical attitude I’d had with my third child, thinking that no matter what, I was good at birthing healthy babies.

“Let’s not worry until we have something to worry about.  Your son’s development physically is fine, which is great news.  Let’s get him into therapy and get him talking, ok?”

I wanted to believe her, that nothing really terrible could be going on with my son.  I wanted that hope, and not the guilt that was washing over me in waves.  So I nodded and smiled.

Michael Turns 2

After Christmas, I spent all of my available time on my computer getting the Shock Street Team up and running in advance for Rick’s new CD release in late February.  I decided to divide up the duties geographically, since most of the tasks I’d delineated required local people on the ground to visit stores, call radio stations, show up at promotional events.  I’d reached out to fans all over the country to ask them to be managers of their regions; I now had twelve people in charge of their local areas, all of whom would work directly with the fans.  My job then became more to get the information from the higher ups at the record company, decide how to proceed with it, and let those underneath me do the heavy lifting.  Meanwhile, I designed a whole new website for the new record, complete with the all access reward area for our teamers. It was a ton of work,  but R wasn’t around to complain about it because he was doing his year end close. That also meant he wasn’t around to pitch in and help, either.

Which is how I came to be alone one morning at the pediatrician’s office for Michael’s 2 year well child check up.  I’d dropped off my daughter at preschool, this time enjoying the luxury of having only one child in tow as I sat down in the waiting room.  I put down the diaper bag and set Michael in the toy area by the trains and busy beads and puzzles.

A few slow minutes ticked by as I watched my little boy there, looking silently at the toys in front of him and not interacting with them at all.   I hadn’t had time to slow down and watch him much lately;  as the minutes ticked by, I tried to imagine him as the doctor might.   I showed him how to move the beads up and down and all around the colored wires, but he wasn’t interested at all.  I showed him the puzzle and started fitting the pieces together one by one.  I felt a sense of relief wash over me as he finally reached out for one of the pieces.  There wasn’t anything wrong with my sweet, smiling little boy, I admonished myself.  He was just fine.

I looked away and let my mind wander until our last name was called by the nurse.  As I bent down to pick up Michael and the diaper bag, I realized what had kept him so occupied for the last five minutes.  He hadn’t been putting the puzzle together at all.  He’d taken every single puzzle shaped car and lined it up with the next one, so each end was touching, in a perfectly straight line across the floor.  “Let’s get this cleaned up before we go back there,” I told him sweetly, but he was not amused.  The fussy noises escalated to full blown meltdown screams, and the rest of the waiting room started to stare.

“Just bring him back and don’t worry about it,” the nurse said kindly as my face grew redder and redder.

I struggled to contain the wriggly mess of my son as we rushed into the labyrinth of examination rooms. He was fighting against me, not understanding at all the sudden stoppage of his play, but I was finally able to sooth him and calm him down through a combination of juice and cheerios.

“Any special concerns today?” the nurse asked brightly as my head swirled around in a mass of thoughts.  Why did my little boy freak out so much?  His tantrums were loud and embarassing to the point that we had stopped going out to eat to avoid them in public.  But then he could play literally for hours with just a few favorite toys, repeating the same actions over and over and over.  He didn’t talk yet, he didn’t point, he didn’t wave hello or goodbye.  I hadn’t realized any of this as I quickly went through all of the questions I knew the doctor had asked at our eighteen month appointment.  In fact, if I had to say so, I would say that my son probably hadn’t progressed at all intellectually in the last six months.  Melinda, at this age, was learning so fast that we thought it was like magic.

I could feel a turn in the pit of my stomach.  Something was definitely wrong here.  “Yes,” I answered the nurse.  “I don’t know how to explain it, but it feels like Michael isn’t learning as fast as my other two children did.  He still doesn’t talk, at all, not a single word.  He gets really upset sometimes, he’s super picky about food, and he does the same thing over and over and over all day long.”

“Alright then, I’ll make a note in the file so the doctor can talk to you more specifically about your concerns,” she answered, as if I’d said that I was worried that my son’s hair was too curly or that his cheeks were too pudgy.  I’d just put words to the nagging feelings I’d been pushing down for the last nine months or so, and it was a note in our file?

“She’ll be with you in a few minutes,” the nurse said as she closed the door behind her.

I looked at my sweet blond boy, who sat on my lap chugging apple juice.  “Well, we’ll see,” I said in a consoling voice, knowing exactly who I was really talking to.

Street Team

“It’s all on you, baby.  The web is the way.  I’m very OK with your idea for a Street Team.  I’ll get you whatever it is you need,” I read on the computer screen in late December, 2003.

I never would have thought about taking on such a monumental task in the past.  Certainly not alone and without the comfort of having my close circle of Vivian and the few people she designated to help.  But all of a sudden in the last few months, the landscape had changed in Rick World.

One of the things that had always bothered me was how many people seemed to dislike me in the fan base.  With Elizabeth no longer part of our team, I had no choice but to look at my own behavior and see why that was.  At the end of the day, I’d given people no reason to think anything but negatively about me.  What did these fans know about the girl who sat at her computer for too many hours a day?   Nothing that was endearing.  So I decided it was time to use my influence and skills for good.

In the late summer, I’d been asked by some fans to help them raise money for a friend’s child they knew that had been recently diagnosed with brain cancer. Vivian was none too happy when I’d agreed, because some of the people involved had been very critical of her and the fan club when Elizabeth was ranting and raving.  Where she saw people who disliked us, I saw an opportunity to change some minds.  She didn’t want to become involved, but I said that I would.  For the first time, I approached Rick directly and on my own with the idea of auctioning off some items to help raise money for little Robby’s treatments.  Before long some fans came through with items as well, and I’d taught myself how to code a mini eBay for our online auction on our website.  We raised thousands of dollars for the little boy.  I was glad to help, and it felt good.  And suddenly, a few people thought that perhaps maybe I was more reasonable than they had previously thought.

A few months later a few fans jokingly posed an idea on our internet mailing list for a Fan Club cookbook.  PTOs did them all the time, so did the Junior League.  Why couldn’t we?  I thought the idea was kitschy and fun, and again, it involved some people who hadn’t exactly loved me during my tenure working for Rick.  I offered to manage the process, and Vivian agreed to let us use the fan club name in the title of the book.  I asked Rick and his bandmates if they would submit recipes for the book as well.  By the time the smoke cleared away I had over 100 recipes sent in from fans all over the world, and a group of 30 or so took on the task of pulling all of the wayward emails together in the form of a book.  I set up a timeline, I delegated the tasks of editing, proofing and formatting, and cover design.  We raised thousands of dollars for our favorite charity.  I realized that I had been able to take a sizable group of people and a monumental task, and break it all down and delegate the pieces.  A newfound confidence started sprouting up in my chest.

And then it happened.  Rick told us that he was definitely releasing his first new CD of original music in five years.  He had found a record company interested in releasing the collection of raw, edgy tunes that he’d written during his tenure in Las Vegas.  Fans started buzzing about what they could do to help.  I had remembered reading about something called a Street Team, a group of fans that worked in an organized, dedicated fashion to help promote a musician and their records.

Late one night, I sat at my computer and researched the tasks and goals of other successful teams.  I wrote up a business plan and created jobs and tasks, rewards and even a logo.  I named it after the title of the new record, the “Shock Street Team”.   I sent it all to Rick, and like Jerry Maguire, waited by my inbox with the fear that somehow I had just made a colossal misjudgment of my influence and skillset.

But I hadn’t.  Rick loved the idea, and gave me the green light.

Now I wasn’t just the webmaster of two websites and not getting paid for it.  Now I was managing the grass roots arm of Rick’s promotional team.  What had I gotten myself into?

Family Thanksgiving

“I’m trying to remember the last time we would have done this,” I said, standing at my kitchen counter, my sister at my side.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 2003.  I had invited my side of the family to all convene on our place in Ohio for the weekend.  It was a risky proposition:  my sister and my brother didn’t always get along, and of course there was always the constant oneupsmanship we all engaged in to some extent whenever my father was present.

Since I’d moved away from Michigan, my father’s visits had become a strange thing.  It was almost as if my siblings kept score on how many times he came to my place versus their own.  When my daughter was born, up flew my father to Oklahoma.  When my brother’s baby boy was born nine months afterwards, there he went to Michigan.  When I moved to Ohio it became even worse, because to visit one sibling or another, the other was only a four hour drive away.   He visited me when I first moved there, then my brother when he bought a condo.  It started to get dicey when my older son flew down to Florida last summer to see my father; no such reciprocal visit was offered to my sister’s kids.  I decided to cut all of the competition off at the pass by offering a visit to everyone; all they had to do was show up.  I’d clean the house, cook the meal.

“Well, we all had Thanksgiving at my house once after Mom died,” my sister offered as I chopped the celery that was going into the stuffing our mother had taught us both to make.  We paused there, looked at each other sympathetically before she continued.  “But Dad wasn’t there.”

“We had Thanksgiving out East after he moved away once,” I offered.  “But was our brother there?”

“I honestly can’t remember,” my sister answered, opening up the bag of bread crumbs.  “Wait, no, he couldn’t have been.  We all stayed with Dad in Baltimore and there wouldn’t have been any room for him in that tiny townhouse.”

“Right.”  I answered, racking my brain as I added the chopped celery to the pan of onions on the stove.  I looked at them and dropped another square of butter on top; it sizzled as it met the metal of the pan.  “Certainly we haven’t had a big holiday together since I moved from Michigan, not with Dad anyway.  So that means…wow…no clue the last time all three of us would have shared Thanksgiving with Dad. It might have honestly been 1976.”

1976 was the year before my parents’ separation and subsequent divorce.  A small silence ensued as my sister and I both mulled over the past twenty plus years in our collective heads; I knew we were both thinking that we’d never spent Thanksgiving with my father.  He would share Christmas with us, but Mom always had us for Thanksgiving.  There was one awful Thanksgiving in my memory banks when my mother had called my father, begging for him to take my brother off of her hands; but he’d been sick with pneumonia and bed ridden.  I could see the same look on my sister’s face as I knew what must be on mine:  awful, terrible memories coming unbidden, one after the other, of horrible holidays and harsh words.

“What’s going on in here?” my father asked, coming into the kitchen to offer help, as he’d done every few hours since he’d made us a big, family breakfast.  I could see his studying our faces for clues as to what was so serious.

“Just getting the stuffing together,” I said lightly, giving my sister the cue that we didn’t need to be mucking up the sweet family scene with sour thoughts from the past.  I saw my father peer into the pan and nod approval.  It wasn’t lost on me that the last time we likely had all been together to eat stuffing on Thanksgiving would have been at a table where my mother sat as well, a table where she would have made this exact same stuffing.   I couldn’t tell if he was comparing my efforts to my mother’s or not; I certainly was.    I breathed deeply in and out a few times, trying not to think of my sadness when suddenly, my brother appeared in the kitchen, looking panicked.

“What’s wrong?” my father said, a deadpan statement he’d probably said to my brother at least a thousand times before.

“Do you have any towels?  We have um…a little situation in the upstairs bathroom.”

My sister and I looked at each other and groaned.  My dad started swearing under his breath.  I called for R and a plunger before my groan turned to laughter.  “I wonder if that happened the last time we were all together for Thanksgiving?”

The mood lightened and my shoulders relaxed.  Crazy though we may be, it was kind of amazing that we were all here, together, considering everything that had gone on in our collective pasts.  I vowed to enjoy my family holiday and not stress.  We were all here, together; it was all that mattered.

High School Musings

It was early in the morning, barely even light outside yet, but I could hear my son’s alarm go off down the hall.  I popped out of bed in time to see him sleepily stumble to his bathroom while the rest of the house slumbered.

It was Zach’s first day of high school today.

I walked downstairs while I heard the water turn off and on above me.  I set up my coffeemaker to brew and looked out my kitchen window at the lightening outside.  It was hard to believe that Zach was old enough to start high school.  He was growing taller, all of the time, easily inches above my own head these days, growing taller and more manlike every second.

I allowed myself, just for this quiet moment, to think back for a moment.  I hardly ever thought of his biological father these days; we were a cohesive family unit now, and for all intents and purposes R was Zach’s father.  It was honestly hard to remember a time when he wasn’t there in our lives.  Z called him Dad, never once mentioning his “stepfather”, just his father.  He also never, ever brought up his biological father;  I knew it must be on his mind in some capacity as he grew older.  He looked nothing like me; he had to know the face that stared back at himself in the mirror belonged to the mystery man that he’d heard just a few things about and had never met.

I wondered, in the dimly lit kitchen, about Joe.  Where was he now?  It had been now 14 years now since I’d seen him last.  Was he married? He seemed like the marrying kind, I thought.  Did he have more children, I wondered?  Did they look like my son, with the strong chin and the dark hair and eyes?  Did he ever think of us, wonder where we were and how we were doing?  I blinked, thinking again how amazing it was that this kind soul whom I had loved so dearly could have never once tried to find us, reach us, help us.  What kind of person did he grow into?  What capabilities lurked deep within my kind, gentle son that I couldn’t yet see?

I’d met Joe in high school.  It hardly seemed possible that it was fourteen years ago; it felt like yesterday.  I could close my eyes and still see him, feel him, feel that headiness that was the overwhelming emotion that came with high school.  Everything is important, everything is life and death, everything is all or nothing.  And now here I was, watching my son embark on the craziness that came with that territory.  I felt a momentary sense of panic as I thought about him dating girls and making decisions that could affect the rest of his so far very promising life. He couldn’t make the same mistakes I’d made, we’d made.  He just couldn’t.

“Hey Mom,” Zach greeted me as he walked slowly into the kitchen.  “You didn’t have to get up.”

I sighed, forcibly pulling myself out of my reverie.  “Yes I did.  It’s called parenting.  First day of high school is a requirement; right there in the rulebook.”

He laughed and gathered a bowl and a box of cereal together.  My son was quiet when he was thinking.

“You nervous at all?” I asked, trying to engage some sort of conversation.

“No,” he answered solidly.  “Should I be?”

I paused before answering, “No.  You’re smart, you’re talented, you’ll enjoy high school more than you can ever imagine.”

He smiled at me, blushing a bit in the dim light.  “We’ll see, I guess.”

Indeed.

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