Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

“You need to come to the school and pick him up,” said the voice of my son’s special education teacher on the phone.

We’d been riding a positive wave of good news as far as Michael had been concerned.  His last conference had brought me to tears; he was working on grade level, in the mainstream classroom.  He was doing well socially, making friends.  There were days when life wasn’t defined by his autism; we’d traveled to Florida by air last month without asking for the special treatment we used to to avoid lines and waits and things that my son didn’t used to be able to handle.  But now, now Michael gave us hope that someday, things would be just like everyone else for him.

But all the good didn’t come without a price.  Michael was doing well in school because he had a team of teachers pushing him this year; he didn’t like to be pushed.  I’d been asked just now to come and pick him up from school because he was too agitated to get on the bus, having spent most of the day in the school office after a tantrum in his classroom.

I walked into the school office five minutes later to find Michael underneath the principal’s desk.  I wanted to cry.

“It’s OK, he’s fine under there,” she reassured.  “Let’s talk about what happened today.  Michael was upset about the difficulty of his reading lesson, and so during class, he decided it was time for him to go home.”

I clasped my hands together, pressing them firmly in order to avoid the screaming I really wanted to do.

“He gathered up all of his things, and put on his backpack and coat, and tried to climb out the window.”

Oh, God.

“But he couldn’t get past the screen, so then he bolted down the hallway and out the front door.  Don’t worry, we were able to get one of the male teachers to stop him just five steps outside the door, but he’s getting too heavy now for most of the women teachers to handle that.”

Sweet Jesus.

“So he told us when we finally got to the office that there would be no consequences today, that he was just done with school and not coming back here ever again.  He kicked his aide and tripped her on the way down to the office,” the principal added.

Red.  I was seeing red and black spots in front of my eyes.

“He finally calmed down about an hour later, and we have been able to get him to do some work down here.  I’ve told him that he needs to come straight to the office tomorrow, and when he’s calm enough, he can go to the regular classroom.  It’s a shame; the kids really feel badly for him, know he’s having a hard time, and miss him when he’s not in class, so hopefully tomorrow he can pull it together and have a better day.”

I looked at my son, who had come out from under the table upon seeing me and hearing that his day was being described in detail.  He looked sad, and embarrassed, but also a bit angry too still.  “Sorry,” he said in a melancholy voice with downcast eyes.

I’d forgotten that mixture of fear, helplessness, anger, sorrow all stirred with a hint of shame and insecurity that came with my son’s disorder.  We’d gotten to the place where we did the therapies without even thinking about them, put the proper program in place at school, and thought we were reaping the benefits.  I felt it all crumbling and crashing down around me as I stood there, surrounded by Michael’s team, all of them apologetic and optimistic for him.  I needed to be his mother in that moment, one of the perfect ones you see on TV who knew just how to handle this type of thing.  But instead I felt like a child myself, wanting to yell and scream and have a different life, a normal life where you didn’t have to get called into school because your child couldn’t handle getting on the bus.

“Thank you all,” I said to the group assembled, trying to put on the mask, all the while with tears pricking the corners of my eyes.  “We’ll have a long talk about this tonight and come up with a plan going forward.  Now let’s get our things, Michael, and get home.”

Two steps forward, three steps back.


After the Hurricane

We made it through the hurricane, though it was an interesting time for us.  The winds started around midnight and by three in the morning, they were howling and rain was falling in sheets and sideways from the sky.  I finally got out of the bed at five thirty, tired of listening to it and marveling that we still had power.  I took the dog out and watched the wind and the rain for a second before I realized how dangerous my situation was; I was in a yard full of tall, leafy trees blowing in all directions.  One major gust and the dog and I both got the message:  get the hell back inside.

I no sooner made my coffee and posted an alert to friends and family that our power was still miraculously on that it cut out, taking my internet access with it.  The morning slowly unfolded just like I’d imagined it; me trying in vain to find information on our battery powered radio, us hurriedly removing the most perishable items from the dark refrigerator and putting them on ice in a cooler.  We cooked off the eggs and bacon and had breakfast in the only room with real natural light on the first floor; our kids’ playroom.  In its former life it doubled as a sunroom, and while we looked out of the many windows lining the walls, we realized it might not be the safest place in the house.

The day proceeded on in quiet gloom while we all read books, played games on handheld devices, and I sent texts out to family members that looked like this:  “Power out.  All still fine.  Wind howling.  Keep you posted.”  But with the power out and our basement sump not doing its job, we kept traversing the stairs in worry.  Finally, at 11 or so, we saw the water rising in the hole for the sump.  There was only one thing to do:  haul it out by hand.  And so my 21 year old son and I (my husband having weak knees and little physical stamina for heavy labor) started pulling the murky water out of the sump pump, one bucket at a time.  For forty five minutes or so until we saw the water line stabilize, we pulled out water, hauled it up the six cement steps of our basement bilco doorway, and out into the windy, light rain that was still coming down outside.

It was exhausting work that needed to be attended to every twenty minutes or so for those first few hours.  We made a lunch of peanut butter and hardboiled egg sandwiches and hauled buckets.  I read a few pages from my book and hauled buckets.  I slipped on the wet, leafy, concrete stairs, but still hauled more buckets.  I yelled at my husband, who furiously tried to get storm updates via spotty service on his iPad, and hauled buckets.  We had a dark meal of pasta and salad cooked on our gas stove, punctuated by washing the dishes by hand in the sink and hauling out more buckets.  I fell into bed at 8 Sunday evening, exhausted and feeling a knot in my tailbone from the fall.

My husband nudged me at 1:30 am; time to haul out more water.  I groggily got out of bed and took the two flights down in my still sopping sneakers to discover that the water level had finally stayed static for a few hours.  The bucket brigade was a success; no water on the basement floor other than what we’d sloshed out of our buckets.  I took a few out for good measure, and looked up at the cool, crisp night.  Without light pollution, the stars were bright and plentiful in the sky; I breathed in and out and tried to tell myself that we were lucky; no real damage; the storm by then was over; we would survive.

We woke Monday morning to another day without lights, television or internet.  I’d charged my phone in the car so that I could still send updates like this:  “Still no power.  Sump stable for now after roughly 200 buckets of water.  Kids fine, us fine.  Going to find ice today, wish me luck.”  By now our stockpile of ice was in puddles at the bottom of the cooler and we’d cooked or eaten much of the most perishable food.  R went to work (where they had power) and I set about cleaning up the branches and yelling at the kids who seemed to think the worst thing about all of this was missing a few episodes of “Totally Spies”.  A friend gifted me ice and another coffee from the shop that made it with generator power.   Our landline phone died and to my dismay, my precious cell phone stopped making calls as well.  The emails and Facebook I’d relied on the previous day stopped pulling data.  Even my update texts were no longer going through:  “Cell service spotty; landline dead; pls text back if you get this,” with no responses.  I began to feel like we were on a raft drifting further and further away from what normal life used to be.

Finally, around 6pm our power returned last night.  I was at a friend’s house who did have power letting my kids overdose on screens while I did the same with what I’d missed the most:  vodka with ice in it.   My cell phone dinged with three words from a friend who lived nearby:  Power. Is. On.  I raced home (it was only ONE vodka, btw, and we’d been eating) without telling the kids, nearly driving off the road towards the intoxicating porch lights dotting the landscape.  And sure enough, when I got home, I was greeted with the reassuring “Set…Time…Please” scrolling in fluorescent green across my microwave.  Hallelujah.  Power is restored.

So all in all, we made it through with no real damage, thousands of twigs/leaves/branches to clean up and a 36 hour crash course on How to Live Without Power (Disaster Preparedness 101).  Which isn’t all that bad, really, with so many in this area in much, much worse shape (from what I hear anyway….the only information I was able to access yesterday came in newspaper form).  We are lucky, we are blessed and now, thank goodness, can finally watch Totally Spies again. 🙂


So, it’s hurricane time where I live.

My daughter asked if I had ever been through a hurricane before, and the answer is a solid “no”.  I grew up in Michigan, the land of snow and construction.  It gets cold there, but you don’t get hurricanes.  I’ve always been fascinated by them, riveted by weather reports about them, and somehow Z and Melinda both picked up that high alert to weather systems that I have.  I watched the forecasts for Katrina for days out, thinking about how I would prepare if I had somehow been in that path.

I am now.

We were on vacation last week, unbelieveably on a cruise ship in the Atlantic, being chased by Hurricane Irene.  The ship diverted from some ports and steamed up North more quickly than expected, giving us long, lovely days at sea that seemed blissful and calm.  All the while we watched the news feed from New York and realized that when we arrived home to Connecticut, we would be sitting squarely in the bullseye of a forecast hurricane.

Now you Gulf Coasters are probably chuckling at the hysteria being created by us East Coasters by Irene, but to be fair, we don’t do this that often here.  I certainly haven’t ever seen anything come on this course in the nearly 7 years I’ve lived here.  We’ve seen some tropical storm force type storms, but a real hurricane, with sustained winds over 12 hours or more?

Yeah, we’re not used to that type of thing.  Nor’easter, no problem.  But this?  We’re all kind of freaking.

So I went to the grocery store as soon as we arrived home from our lovely trip.  Just like you see on TV:  shelves emptied of bread and bottled water, long lines at the check out.  Batteries were the stuff of dreams, emptied from their end caps in every area of the store.  Mostly, people being nice and generous with each other. But a frantic look in everyone’s eyes as they grabbed peanut butter and granola bars off the shelves and into their carts.

R went to the hardware store in search of a generator.  Four stops later, he gave up, and reported the batteries were a pipe dream where he’d been as well.  A girlfriend posted on Facebook that batteries were still available at the adult toys store half an hour away, but no where else.  We chuckled, but it’s a little creepy.  Newscasters are smartly asking people to prepare for days to a week without power, which is daunting but honestly the right move.  We’ll be filling up our water pitchers and containers later today (many people around here have well water, which means they lose water with power….we don’t have a well, but we’re still going to make sure we have water available just in case).  We’re pulling in everything from outside.  I’ve done the groceries.  The biggest job is the basement; if the power goes out we’ll lose our sump pump, and likely get water in there.  With eight to twelve inches of rain predicted for our bullseye location, we have to get everything up off the ground or in plastic just to be safe.  We have gas in our cars and cash in our wallets, and we’re ready.  Last night, we made Hurricane drinks from Emeril Lagasse’s recipe and cooked food from the freezer in our attempt at a good old fashioned Hurricane Party.

Otherwise, we’ll be hunkering down, charging our batteries and hoping for a miss.  As the sun comes up Monday morning, we’ll know if we made it through unscathed or not.

Beach Musings

I was sitting on our patio at our beach condo, the day after Christmas, huddling against the chilly breeze.  I loved our Florida Christmases, with R’s parents and my father all together; it was our new family tradition.  Most people went to the beach in the summer, but we went for our Christmas holiday, and I looked forward to it every year.  Up in CT they were expecting a Nor’easter today with at least a foot of snow; while it was cold here for Florida, the breeze was still warm enough to be relaxing, not biting, on my face.

I loved these quiet moments watching the sunrise while my family still slept in their vacation beds.  Sometimes my dad would stay over a few nights and he’d sit here with me on our patio, the world not awake yet, and watch the sun coming up.  I remember my mother used to do the same at her friend’s beach house, and it always reminded me of her, being at the beach.  I breathed in and out and let my mind wander.

I thought of Joe, still.  Over the weeks my anger had continued, but as life had continued in its usual routine, I found myself not obsessing on my new found knowledge every minute of the day.  But as my thoughts passed over Joe and what he was doing this Christmas, they landed on someone else whom I’d known during that time in my life.  I wondered where Ray was, right now.

Ray, my first boyfriend, the first person I’d ever agreed to marry, the man who brought to me my first real love and my first hearbreak.  We’d kept in loose touch over the years; I’d last seen him in the 90s.   We’d met for lunch one warm summer day right after R and I got married.  It turned out that Ray had gotten married after the demise of our engagement, but divorced a few years later.  He’d left the army and lived with his parents for a while; this was when I’d last seen him.  I didn’t hear from him for a few years after that, but sometime when I lived in Ohio I’d received an email telling me that he now lived out west and had a daughter with a woman in Utah.   I didn’t hear from him again until I lived in CT, when I received another email.  By now he’d lived in Key West sailing boats, traveled to Russia and France and Canada and all over the Carribbean and lived a full but crazy life.  He had just settled down with another woman, who’d borne him a second child, and now lived with her in Germany.

I’d reread that email dozens of times, feeling that tinge of regret and questioning of life.  I’d long ago stopped being angry or resentful of his treatment of me during our dating years; I’d accepted my own responsibility as well.  But there had always been something about Ray; his gruff, masculine exterior masking a warm, caring person underneath.  I was grateful to hear he was happy with his life now, though I had to admit, quite jealous of it.  He’d traveled the world; I’d hardly been anywhere.  My life had seemed full and pretty fortunate until I looked at it through the lenses of my old friend, who’d done so much more since we’d last seen each other.  Hearing from Ray brought into focus all of the ways that my current life wasn’t the life that I might have had if one choice either of us had made had gone differently.

He was actually here, right now, in Florida.  I knew he wasn’t far away, just down the road really in Clearwater.  Every person who walked by on the beach, I wondered if it was him.   Unbelieveably, his parents were “snow birds” (those who spent summers up north and winters in Florida) and had a place about twenty minutes away in Clearwater.  The thought of Ray and his wife and daughter away in Germany made communication safe and satisfying; the ability to have questions answered from this person who’d known me for so long was a gift.  But the idea of running into him at the Publix where we bought our groceries for the week made my skin prickly warm.  What would I say if I saw him?  What would he say?  I looked out at the beach in front of me and imagined him walking towards me during one of my morning walks.  Like a scene from a movie, me walking north and him walking south, each of us out of focus until the other knew exactly who was in front of them.  What would happen then?

The picture stayed fuzzy in my head; it was probably better that way.

Dear Pat

Dear Pat,

I was very sorry to hear of your mother’s passing.  It is such a profound thing, to lose your mother.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re twenty or sixty; it is always hard, always difficult and especially so when you share your home and your lives with each other.  I hope that you are able to move forward through the holidays without too much sadness.

I wanted to reach out to you to also let you know that my son was very saddened by your mother’s passing.  He called to tell me about it after receiving your emails.   It is not often that my son cries, but your mother’s death brought him to tears.  He told me that he was so sad that he didn’t get to know her better and that he wished that there had been more of a relationship between the two of them.  He thought she was very kind and was grateful for the opportunity to have met her several years ago.

We had several very honest (more frank than he has ever been with me) conversations about your family in the days after her passing.  I think that your mother’s passing brought into very sharp focus for him that he does want to know more of your family.  Despite how full his life is and despite the many people who love him, he feels that your family is part of who he is.  And as is I suppose very natural for a young man of his age, he wants to explore all of the facets of who he is.  But I believe he is afraid to ask for any more communication than what he currently has, for fear of losing what he has now, which he values very much.  He does not know I am sending this note and didn’t ask me to do it. I hope you can understand and are not upset; I certainly do not mean to add to your stress right now in any way.

He told me very plainly that he worries that the chances to know your family are slipping away each day.  That the someday he always thought he had to slowly build relationships might be taken away suddenly, without warning.  His sadness was still evident when we travelled to Pittsburgh to share Thanksgiving with him a week ago; even my father and husband noticed that Zachary did not seem himself.  It is heartbreaking to watch, and I just wish things were different for him.

I was truly sorry to hear about your mother, and sorry that you are having to go through the loss of a second parent, especially at this time of year.  I wish you much peace and will keep you and yours in my prayers.

Take care.


*I sent this email in early December, 2010, after finding Z terribly distracted and quiet during our Thanksgiving visit to him at school.  She never responded to me.  I do know she still keeps in touch with my son, but he has not mentioned the possibility of getting to know anyone else in the family.


I couldn’t stop.

It didn’t matter that my son had called me last night and told me that he’d finally heard from his biological aunt about the funeral.  She had thanked him for his concern, told him of the nice service in the only town his great grandmother had ever known.  She had told him that family and friends had gathered, including my son’s biological father and “his family” at her home for the wake afterwards and “stayed for a few days”.  She didn’t mention ever thinking about inviting him or any conversations that may have taken place since her initial communication of this, her mother’s death.  She did tell him that his biological grandmother’s health was too compromised to travel all the way from Seattle for the service, but all in all, it was a nice family gathering, all things considered.

Z had likely buttoned up his bitterness about the whole thing, seemingly grateful and satisfied with the communication about the whole event.  There were no more tears, no more wishes for things to be different.  “It was nice of her to finally let me know how it all went,” was as close as anything to regret I heard.  I supposed this was how he handled the whole thing on a daily basis; it was how I did, too.  You take all of those feelings, all of those open, raw emotions, and you put them in a box.  Since the person and the situation isn’t in your face every day, most of the time, it’s easy to to close the box.  Hard to shut, perhaps, once it has been opened by something like this, but then once you are able to ease the lid down, the weight of your need to keep it closed helps.

But for me, the box was not only wide open, it was gaping like a black hole that kept sucking me further and further in, every day.  I couldn’t stand hearing about how Joe’s family came out to the funeral.  I imagined them all in their minivan, driving the many hours from where I now knew they lived, to the house I remembered Joe’s grandmother living in.  Singing songs as a family, him asking her directions, being equal partners, choosing their lives together….everything that I saw lacking in my own life and family, I saw in the picture in my head of Joe and his new life.

It was my gut choking bitterness that kept me sitting at the computer, looking for clues for who they were.  Joe, whose wife (I wanted to say “new wife” for how many times I’d covered my single parent objectionable past by saying that Z was a product of a “previous relationship”, as if I’d been respectably married and divorced rather than just plain old knocked up after my freshman year of college) had a less common name with an even more uncommon spelling, was easier to track down on the internet.  I found an article about her in the Des Moines Register; she was a therapist for children who had been sexually abused.  Great, I thought, he married a nice person.  A mean person doesn’t exactly go into that difficult line of work.  The article detailed her former life; she’d worked for international adoption agencies in Washington State.  The article mentioned their two children and their names, and featured a photo of the woman who was married to my son’s father.

I cried when I saw it.  She looked like me.

I had to get past it.  How was I not past it after all of this time?  I’d lived months at a time not thinking of him, of who he was now or where he might be.  Sure, it came back all of the time; when a friend asked how old I was when Z was born and the eyes around the table went wide; watching the movie Elf with the family and unexpectedly seeing a son trying to meet a father he’d never met; watching “Friday Night Lights” and the maturity the young man caught in a mostly similar situation.  These little jogs, all of the time, that gave me a wistful glance back and a moment to ponder the life choices that were never part of my experience.  But this KNOWING, this being aware of where Joe was, that he had a middle class life with family and children.  Even though I’d gone on to have all of the same things, somehow, it just didn’t seem fair.  My bitterness was irrational and angry and all consuming.

I had to find a way to move on.

The Question and the Answer

It was a cool and rainy November morning in Connecticut.  I’d sent the kids off to school and should be walking on the treadmill to start getting serious about dropping the extra weight I’d been slowly gaining over the last few years.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about what was going on in Michigan today.  It was Lorraine Jones’s funeral, Zach’s biological great grandmother.   I wished, somehow, that I could be that bystander in the corner, like you saw in TV shows, watching from the shadows.  If I lived in Michigan now, I probably would have done it.  I had actually considered hopping in my car to do it and driving the twelve hours after my awful IM conversation with Zach.

But it wasn’t appropriate.  Even if Joe’s mother were there, or Joe himself and his gaggle of adopted children and wife, it wouldn’t be appropriate.  To take my own personal grudge out on their family grief.  I’d been to a few funerals in my day and they were awful, difficult affairs without complicated family matters taking away from the task at hand of honoring the dead.  Joe’s grandmother, apart from not kicking his ass into being a father when she should have, didn’t do anything to me, and didn’t deserve anything but my quiet prayers and respect for their pain.

Still, I was going crazy in my helplessness.  I fired up my computer and opened up a Google window, pulling up the obit one more time, reading every word about the family.  I chuckled to see that they didn’t name Joe as her grandson; most obits listed the grandchildren by name.  But true to form, even in death, the family had kept Joe’s information a secret, listing him as one of four grandchildren, all unnamed in the obit.  “A daughter, Susan Jones from Seattle, WA” I read again for the fiftieth time.  She had gone to Seattle.  Where had Joe gone?

“I know he doesn’t live in Michigan,” Z had told me in the last few days.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because Pat told me that her sister lives in Michigan, that my grandmother lives in Seattle and that Joe lived ‘out of state’.”

Out of state where?  The Google window in my toolbar mocked me to type in “Joe Jones”.  It would have so many hits that it would be impossible to know which one was right.  “Joe Jones, Seattle, WA.”  Still too many to count.  I clicked a few of them.  Nothing.  This was pointless.  I should get up and shower or walk on the treadmill to bad 80s music.  But I couldn’t stop myself.

And then I remembered.  My high school reunion book had a listing for Joe.  I’d dismissed it at the time, because I thought it had to be wrong; the one for my friend Dawn had also been wrong.  But I pulled it out again and typed it in:  “Joe Jones, Des Moines, IA.”  Again, a plethora of hits.  And then I remembered that with an address, you could access the county tax records.  I found the site, and typed in the address listed.


Joe had recently sold the home listed in our high school yearbook, apparently.  It was him; it had to be.  The middle initial was correct, the birth month and year were correct.  He’d recently bought a different home, not far away from the first.  I clicked on that listing and up popped a picture of a quaint brick home on a tree lined street.  I scrolled down and there the names were: Joe and his wife, owners of this lovely place in Des Moines, IA.  Living the middle class life there, with their two kids.  I stared and stared.  What was life like in that house?  What did they do for a living?  Were they happy?  Did he ever think of Z, or me?

I was on a tear.  My heart was racing, and I couldn’t stop myself.  To not know where he’d ended up all of this time, and to finally know.  To have this question answered after all of this time….now what?  Joe was married, lived in Des Moines.  I had the address.  I could show up on his doorstep if I wanted.  I typed both Joe and his wife’s name into the window:  boom.  Phone number.  I could call them if wanted.  I could.

But what would I say?  Joe could have done this same thing with me, a million times.  Except that my name was much more unusual.  I’d had friends from high school find me from simple Google searches before.  It took about four clicks to go from a question to sitting there with my email address and facebook profile page in front of you.  Joe could have found me ages ago.  And the more I sat there staring at the picture of his house and his phone number, I realized that he probably did.  If Ed from my fifth grade class had found me, Ed, who hadn’t seen me since I was ten and still wondered where I’d ended up, Joe surely had as well.  He had a conscience, I knew he did.  He’d been a  good person back then.  Life and circumstance had surely helped his young brain rationalize a great many things, but there was no doubt in my mind that Joe knew where I was.  Knew where Zach was.  Knew that his aunt had been talking to Z for years and that Z would be open to communicating with him.

And still, nothing.

I went to click the big red X in the corner, mousing over it, and hesitating.  I couldn’t make this decision today.  I couldn’t close the door now that I’d looked through the window.  I couldn’t unknow the fact that I knew now where Joe Jones was.

I bookmarked the page and shut down the machine.



%d bloggers like this: