As a parent of ten children, the teen years have gone on in our home for a few decades now. There are wonderful things about these years, but there are challenges, as well. We’ve had some self-motivated, straight-A children, some who fall terribly behind and then a few in between. When the oldest are the high achievers, it is hard not to expect that the younger children will follow suit.
But they are each unique. And each deserves to be their own individual person, including what kind of student they are. They all need one-on-one time with their parents. This is more challenging in big families, but it must happen, even if it must be planned ahead. In a former blog I told stories of the many adventures on and off our Abbey Farm. Now we live on an Army Post and up until a couple months ago, had 6 (!) teens under one roof. The oldest recently turned twenty and is in the Army Reserves deciding on what college degree to pursue.
The fourteen-year-old has been making up school-work and was just in my room complaining about monotony. Oh, the many things I could have depressed him about in terms of monotony ahead in his future. I told him that he really was developing character, and that little jobs went a long way. Tidying up an area, taking a walk or bike ride. The twenty-year-old was home and I asked him to take his brother out for a drive, maybe get a milkshake. A change of scenery is always a good idea when we are in rumination mode.
For myself, I am in a bit of self-isolation, undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. It’s all been a shock of a summer, totally unexpected and I will neither elaborate, nor make light of it. A new normal begins once again. Much patience is required. I realize the importance of each of my children, and how I still want to be present in their lives while fighting a disease. They have all been supportive and reacted with such love and care and help. My husband has been my lifeline.
Friends have been so helpful, and some from long past have reconnected; it has been truly a gift. None of us looks forward to adversity, but in truth, it often sheds light on the very best things in life. It requires resilience through faith, a strong network of family and friends, and a lot of patience.
Children learn early, if they are blessed with a loving upbringing, that life holds rules and structure. We all remember chafing at not being able to do as we would have liked when we liked, but there were bedtimes, chores, responsibilities and expectations for behavior that were more important than we ever could have imagined.
Some say that the younger generations are softer now; some say that the generation of their parents are to blame. But the world changes so quickly, and so seriously, that I disagree with the finger-pointers. There are too many factors which have resulted in the shape of humanity today. None of my contemporaries, some who were on the cutting edge of computer technology in the 80s admit to having been able to see the dangers ahead. Many wish we could have seen better the potential downsides and dangers of what is essentially instantaneous news and knowledge in the hands of those too young to comprehend and deal with it. In reality, even grown adults have great difficulty with this.
Life is continuous change. Structure lends sanity, if not a method for dealing with the changes. Lack of structure, lack of duty, leads more swiftly to a chaotic result. In the scientific method, there is a procedure to theorize, test, analyze, and to make conclusions. Within philosophies there are methods to discern and weigh decisions, choices and actions.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, with the many tributes and documentaries of her life, one sees clearly a life of structure and duty. These do not have to preclude a sense of self and a life of joy. She beamed happily in so many photographs. At times, though, it is inevitable to feel very alone. Images of the Queen dressed in mourning, seated alone during the funeral of Prince Phillip, her husband of 70 years, drive home the reality that even though surrounded by literally hundreds of thousands of caring people around the world, she was indeed alone.
There are times when we will be forced to navigate unknown territories of life alone. What will keep us going? Support of loved ones, deeply held philosophies, religious beliefs, duty to carry on for our children or those we are physically caring for are some that I can think of, but there are more. Some individuals have the ability to reach deeply into a well of sheer will. I have witnessed many examples of each of these in my life.
I do believe in the power of the human body to heal, and of the spirit to soar, but there is sometimes a time lag, or a bumpy, touch-and-go takeoff before we feel any lift under our wings. Grief needs to run its individual course. My thoughts and prayers go out not only to the family and friends of Queen Elizabeth, but to everyone who is suffering a life-challenge, illness, or loss. The example of her life has fueled my own determination to find what is true and sure and honorable. She was not infallible; none of us are. Intent and faithfulness are arguably more important than what could be deemed “success.” Perhaps true courage is in reaffirming our own life structures and duties, taking the next breath, the next step, the next moment, and believing that wisdom and strength will come, even when we cannot see what is ahead.
While I do live in a household full of Dad-jokes and corny jokes (thanks to my witty hubby and sons), the reference is actually to a cereal box from the early 1970s. I’ve searched online to find images of it, but with no luck.
Before even that box, in the 1960s the cereal called “Wheaties” became very popular. Full of whole wheat goodness, it was dubbed “The Breakfast of Champions.” Many may still remember the great sports heroes featured on the front of the boxes over the years. Prior to the famous folk, the boxes held images of cute little children because the cereal was marketed to parents who wanted a healthy breakfast for their kids. One of the children pictured was a cute little strawberry blond girl with freckles. The resemblance to me was not missed by my brothers, and one of my very first nicknames in life was: Wheatie.
A few years later we moved to Northern Baltimore County in Maryland, a very rural area with thousands of acres of farmland. One of our neighbors (I have mentioned him before) was Mr. Ballard. We went to the same church as his family, and worked together on the local, church-organized horseshows. His children were excellent riders and older than me. When I was a teen, and they were grown or in college, I helped clean Mr. and Mrs. Ballard’s house each week. At 16 I had sold my own pony, and by 18 I began to exercise his hunters. That subject is book-worthy, for I will never, ever forget the many experiences riding horses for and with “Mr. B.” He was more than an icon; in many ways he was my hero.
Back to cornflakes. Generic products became prolific with inflation of the 1970s, and big-name brands became too expensive for many household budgets. The market flourished with identical products, but in plainer packaging and cheaper pricing. Sometimes the manufacturer was one-in-the-same with the name brand, as is common today with store-brands. Popular “Kellogg’s Cornflakes” was rivaled by a generic box that I only remember as light-blue on the front, with the face of yet another adorable, strawberry-blonde, freckled little girl. Mr. B immediately nicknamed me: “Suzy Cornflakes.”
My brothers still call me Wheatie from time to time, but no one calls me Suzy Cornflakes anymore, since Mr. Ballard passed away several years ago. He was close to the age of 90 and I smile to think that he was probably on horseback not long before his passing. I will always remember him, grateful for the rides and the advice and support that only a very special and sage human being can gift to another…to a talkative, freckle-faced, strawberry-blonde adolescent.
When Mary Pat was born with Pierre Robin Sequence we didn’t know if her physical deformities were the extent of her problems, or if she had other potentially associated disabilities as well.
In truth, we didn’t know if she would ever walk, or talk, or eat on her own, or even survive. It was harrowing for a few weeks, scary for a few months, and then for years we fell into a routine of care that was full of unknowns. She had multiple appointments each month, and therapists who came to the house two to three times per week.
A good friend of mine has six wonderful children. Her youngest was born with Down Syndrome about a year before Mary Pat. Quite a few times at a moment’s notice, she drove half an hour to help me replace Mary Pat’s tiny nasogastric tube. In tears, I felt as though I’d entered a new world — a new “club” — of parents with special needs children. Early on, though, my friend pointed out that the way she saw it, each one of her children had “special” needs. Each had needs quite unique to them. I was blessed by her wisdom.
I have referred to Mary Pat as our “special needs child” but perhaps I should rephrase this to “our child with special needs.” Why is it that I need to distinguish her at all from the others? Sometimes it is to emphasize her extra-ordinary needs, but I suppose it is often for ease of description. We have six daughters and four sons. The oldest four girls are sometimes referred to as our “oldest, second-oldest, third-oldest and fourth-oldest.”
Our sons are described similarly, and then Mary Pat as our daughter with “special needs” and Margaret as our “youngest.” Again, they each have their special, unique needs, and we love them dearly. Energy and time can be spread thin in large families, but the love multiplies exponentially.
If it is true that every child has their unique and special needs, then that oft-heard sentiment that only “certain types of parents” do well with such children is unfounded. We grow into what we are given or challenged with. I understand fear and even panic when learning that a child in the womb has a certain diagnosis which will significantly impact the course or length of their life, and which will significantly impact the family. But the truth remains that every single person I have known who raised such children, even those who lost them early, professes immense blessings, and gratitude for the effects of their children on their lives.
Just as profound are the effects of these children on others. Mary Pat wheeled herself around her elementary school when she became ambulatory with a walking device. She would visit the other classrooms and became known to all the other children. They learned about her, and her differences were demystified. She was welcomed and loved.
Mary Pat received handwritten cards from schoolmates throughout the years. One third grader told her that she wanted to be like her–happy all the time. Another said over the loudspeaker during morning announcements, that he was inspired by Mary Pat to go to college so that one day he could work with children like her.
Each of her caretakers have been touched by her life, and love her dearly.
Yes, it is true that more time, energy and resources are often needed for children like Mary Pat. But the world is a better place because of her, and those like her. They are endowed with grace that holds the potential to bring out the very best in us. They teach us about what is important in life. They evoke compassion, and spark an unstoppable chain reaction of love.
Some people have an innate gift with children. My friend Tracy and I were having coffee at a local restaurant and at the table next to us there was an adorable yet rascally little girl seated with her mother. The angelic strawberry blonde curls failed to mask the mischief in her eyes as she repeatedly pushed her drink off the table’s edge. The young Mom was as patient as a saint, repeatedly picking up and replacing the drink, only for the act to be repeated again with more gusto.
I have raised ten children, eight of them through this stage. I was tolerant and hid a smile but was willing to ignore it. The Mom was dealing with it better than I would have. But Tracy, an experienced elementary school educator made eye contact, then spoke animatedly with the little girl and her Mom. After a few minutes’ interruption of our coffee-time, the angel was restored to good behavior and the Mom was visibly thankful. Whether skill or experience, compassion or caring, Tracy was a gift to them.
How many of us go that extra mile? Some of us may not have the calling or skill in a particular instance, but we can watch for those who do, and we can wish for the good of others. I know that when we are in church and a child is raising a tantrum, the parent desperate, I pray so very hard for them. I have been there many times, sometimes vowing that I wouldn’t return to church until they were years-older. But there we were the next day, or the next Sunday. I know that hundreds of sermons drifted around and over my stressed-out head.
Least helpful were snorts of disapproval or bland stares. One elderly woman tried to make a case at church that there should always be a cry-room and that church was not the place for children. Thankfully, there was a cry-room to take inconsolable children, but the pastor disagreed and said that he wanted families together in church. Years later at a church we visited, the pastor stopped the service momentarily to address the parents of crying babies. He said not to feel flustered as this is what babies did. “Tend to their needs, and let’s all rejoice in the sound of life and of family and of Christians attending church despite difficulties.” Wow. Clearly, I’ve always remembered that.
Our own new priest has made a point to say that our being in church to worship is all about Jesus and Jesus welcomed children. He has incorporated baptisms and other sacramental events into the Sunday Masses. A few weeks ago our special needs daughter had her first communion and it was beautiful. Everyone gathered afterward to celebrate with us. I made a cake.
Some might say that she didn’t understand what was going on, but we believe she did.
I do have an Instagram account. It started off because I wanted to see photos posted by my friends and family. I was very happy that there was not the political unrest and mudslinging as on Facebook, which I started long ago for the same reason. Facebook has its pitfalls, but I must admire that it helps people to connect with others and even to find support systems previously unattainable.
I began to look at posts by interior designers, architects, a man who loves cold water swimming in Scotland, as well as some absolutely adorable little Dachshunds! Have you seen the little Scottish one dressed in a kilt in front of castles? Oh, my.
If you have read my blog, you could surmise that I love all-things-Loki. I chanced upon the Instagram of the actor who played “old” or “classic” Loki in the Disney-produced series. I recognized him as the actor who played the character in Downton Abbey, Simon Bricker, who was punched by Lord Grantham when found in Lady Grantham’s bedroom. Prior to seeing him in Downton Abbey, my American eyes don’t remember any works by him, but I learned that he was very well-known and loved in the UK and elsewhere. Richard E. Grant played Bricker extremely well, but I was blown away by his performance in the Loki series. He was witty, vulnerable, commanding, and heroic to perfection. The intensity of his finale stays with me.
Since then, I learned that his loving wife of 40 years passed away in 2021. There is a raw intimacy in his Instagram posts, close-up videos of his face, allowing us to see into his grief journey, and it is gripping. His smile lights up your heart, if not the room, and is guaranteed to lift my spirits (and obviously those of his many followers) when it flashes brightly. His authenticity is genuine and truly a gift.
I mean to read his latest memoir when released, A Pocketful of Happiness. His wife Joan knew that he would suffer after she passed away, and commissioned him to try to find a “pocketful of happiness” in each and every day of his life. He has remained faithful to the quest. Perhaps knowing that he journals every day and is an author, intrigues me more than his even his acting. See what you think of his Instagram.
Life is a journey. Recently I’ve written contemplatively about when it just does not go the way we have planned. And more surprises have visited upon my family. We will react, each in our own ways, and we will stay strong when push comes to shove. We will lament and cry, rage and sulk, but we will love each other as best as we can. We will accept the kindness offered, the prayers and support of friends and family. Granted, we will find those pockets full of happiness, which when looked for, abound.
I have mentioned before the Army saying that “The plan is everything; the plan is nothing.” I’m not sure why it is phrased like that, but the meaning is that the plan is essential, and yet it must have flexibility built into it.
Such is life!
A loved one may suddenly experience a crisis and we shift our attentions and time to them, perhaps becoming a caregiver. More and more attention and resources have been given to caregivers recently, and none too soon. Caregiving is associated with great stress, and I have written about this before.
How many times have you had a plan laid out for your life, and suddenly there is a change–in marital status, or health, in family size, or work? Oh, so many for me! Hardest, are those sudden changes which affect our individual identity. The earth shakes. There is shock, grief, anger, fear, panic. These are all normal and perhaps necessary in order for us to come to terms with the event.
Our available support system is important to identify and to lean on. We may need additional support groups. But these take time to develop because at first we are stunned and feeling intense grief. Who could possibly understand? And even if they do, if many have gone through this, it is still happening to “me.”
When my late husband passed away in 2000 it was as though the entire floor dropped out of my life. My family was incredible, and integral to my healing; they lovingly said I was not alone, but of course, I was in a profound way. Only I knew how I intensely hurt. I refer back to that experience with an allegorical image of having to walk through a tar pit of pain and grief. One cannot go over it or under it or around it. Step by burning step we wade through. Prayers strengthen us, perhaps numb the intensity of the pain so that we can take another step. Support from loved ones on the perimeter encourage us, but there is no escaping the fact that we feel this pain, experiencing this very personal journey. We eventually emerge on the other side, scarred but alive and ready to move on.
At some point, others with similar journeys can give us hope, strength, encouragement and inspiration.
One question I learned as a nursing student, and which I later taught as a preceptor, and then as an instructor, was to ask patients who are experiencing a health crisis if they have a faith life or spiritual support system. It is meant to assess and help them to plan their support system, not to insinuate or evangelize. Spiritual support and faith life increase positive patient outcomes, but if the patient indicates none, we focus on friends and family support.
At the original shock of the crisis, tragedy or event, we may ask, “Why? Why did this happen to me?” It is important not to feel guilty for this because it is human to wonder, to reason. Sometimes the reasoning has no answer: another person went through the stop sign, an environmental event occurred that was beyond our control. An existential “why” may still persist. That is okay.
Step by step we wade the tar pit, at times able to jump a little further and at others, stumbling. Life goes on, sometimes incredulously. Tasks that need to be performed can and sometimes must be delegated. It is important to eat healthy foods when able, and to stay hydrated. We must conserve and build strength.
It is important to keep the immune system strong, to decrease stress hormones. It is important to try to smile, to laugh. Hopefully a loved one will help us to do just that. “Laughter heals the bones,” so a Proverb in the Bible says. Recent studies have proven this to be true. I would say that it also heals the heart and the rest of the body.
It is normal to wonder what is to come. Sometimes it is difficult to avoid catastrophic thinking. This is where it is so important to have a loved one or trusted friend or therapist to whom you can express your worst fears. Crying, railing, ranting, are all okay early on. The time will come to make decisions without quite so much emotion, with more information learned, and with loving support.
Life plans may need to be re-evaluated or altered. There is a grief in each of these that must be dealt with. This is such a journey, this one toward healing. Sometimes the healing is in the body and sometimes not. Often the greatest healing is in our soul, our character. When in the early stages of grief the last thing I wanted to hear was that I would be able to help others some day. Right then I needed to be able to rant and feel miserable for myself for a bit. After dealing with that I could get stronger, little by little. One day in the future I would find that I was on the perimeter of someone else’s individual “tarpit.” And I understood. I was there for them, quietly or constructively helping, offering support, respecting their journey.
If you are going through something tragic or unexpected, my prayers are with you in the journey ahead. Life is truly a gift. None of us knows which day is our last. It is important after the dark, initial shock, to eventually see the good and the beauty around you. It is still there and you are still inextricably a part of it. May God bless you!
Tradition. It is the title of a famous song from the movie, “Fiddler on the Roof.” In the movie, tradition forms the framework of society and culture. There seems to be a negative side to almost everything that is considered good. Ice cream is delicious, and yet if we over-indulge it causes negative effects on our health. In the movie, the father’s love is tested when one of his daughters marries out of the traditional path, and another of his daughters wants to marry a man from a different religion. Faith and religion are arguably very good, but can go wrong if fueled with selfish or errant intentions.
Some traditions are inherently errant. Most would agree that stoning, maiming of women, or slavery are inacceptable, inhumane practices; these are traditions gone way wrong. But most traditions are positive for society, and perhaps essential. Some people may link tradition negatively to verses in the Bible when Jesus spoke about the Pharisees, but he was commenting on their hearts and intentions. In reality, Jesus followed the traditions of his Jewish people in an exemplary way.
Traditions serve to form the framework of society. I grew up in the Episcopalian Church, and it was traditional to be baptized young, and confirmed when a teenager. It was wonderful and very meaningful for me, forming a healthy world-view of humanity. A daily tradition in our family was to eat dinner together when my father returned home from work each day. A yearly tradition was to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, which was from my mother’s Austro-Hungarian heritage. Life had structure every day, every season, and we grew up feeling a sense of security, our lives responding in very healthy ways. We learned to value others and respect them.
In regard to Baptism, some churches perform these early in life, some perform them later, and some call them Christenings. There are people who argue strongly for one or the other. Some churches feel that others lean too heavily on tradition, and they quote certain verses from the Bible. In an effort to improve, change or reform a tradition, it is sometimes thrown out completely, in effect “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” as the American phrase describes. There is no real work to reform and it is just eliminated, often with violence or great unrest. When this happens, we can lose the most important aspects of the tradition.
Our grandson was recently baptized. It could not have been more beautiful, save for more family being able to attend. Our son-in-law’s parents and one of two brothers flew in. The other brother, the baby’s Godfather, was out at sea with the Navy, but he was able to watch in real-time by smartphone. Our oldest daughter flew in to attend as the baby’s Godmother. Our grandson was peaceful the entire time. He is now almost six-months-old and smiled throughout. He fell asleep as the water was poured over his head in the name of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. Just beautiful.
Afterward, my daughter and son-in-law had us all over to their home for a cookout. Gifts were presented, and elements from the baby’s great-grandparents were used, like the silver tray passed down from his great-great-grandmother, which held a cake. Over a dozen of us feasted and laughed and celebrated. Two families blended as one.
Tradition has the purpose and potential to form the framework of society, of culture, of family, of life. Good routines and practices are edifying, strengthening and restorative. I pray that you find yours, and that they bring you peace and joy.
Changes in the last few decades in the United States in regard to marriage, the dignity of life, self-empowerment, feminism, abortion, and racial issues have been significant. They have caused many to become angry, worried or even depressed–whether they feel that there have been too many changes, or not enough fast enough.
World-view and personal philosophy fuels how we see things and react. I try to resist black-and-white, linear or negative philosophies. I have read and re-read the Bible. I pray and I trust God with any matter in which I am confused or even disappointed. I do not wish for “X” country to be “nuked,” or for those “Y” people to go to hell. I do not believe that violent acts are the answer. In the big picture I believe that God’s got this. He is Love and therefore He is just and merciful. I still see much good in this world.
It is not relativistic to acknowledge that we are living in time. If there are alternate realities or eternity, well, we are still here and we cannot avoid the passage of time, aging and death. Our cultural climate will shift with time. My mind often analyzes concepts in images. The image of a pendulum helps grapple with the world and its polarized right/left, political and philosophical extremes. I think of the constantly moving, never static Focault Pendulum we visited as schoolchildren at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.
Standing on a high floor, looking over the railing we all stared, mesmerized, as the 50-foot-long pendulum swung slowly through the center of a large circle on the floor below below, reaching out to a point on the perimeter to knock over a pin at its furthest reach. It seemed still for a moment, but then reversed, and headed in the opposite direction to repeat the process, back and forth, slowly rotating round and round, eventually knocking over every pin on the circumference of the circle. The point of the exhibit was to prove that the earth rotated, but I believe that it can serve as a metaphor to grapple with the times, and to argue for love.
Throughout tragic events in history (slavery, concentration camps, genocides) there arose incredible individuals who led others, who helped and inspired despite their horrid circumstances. Fred Rogers famously quoted his mother’s advice, that in troubled times he should “look for the helpers.” Look for the heroes who inspire.
The pendulum reminds me that times will indeed change. It passes through the middle all too swiftly, where there could be more understanding and compromise. Times may shift as significantly as we’ve seen politically in the United States from one extremely different President to another. At one far reach of the pendulum of time something is outlawed, but at the opposite it becomes legal.
Be patient. There is a way through whatever mess you see. Heroes will indeed emerge. Maybe you are one of them. Keep focused on the good that still exists, and strive for love and understanding. The ability to have compassion and to stand in another person’s shoes makes life much more meaningful and full of hope. Love not only endures throughout the languorous swing of the pendulum through time, but it heals, and it brings us all closer to God.