Midway Through Middle School

The kids have just finished a five-day weekend, or five and a quarter if you count the delayed opening today. They had Monday off for MLK Day and Tuesday was the teacher grading and planning day they have at the end of every quarter and Wednesday was a snow day. Third quarter (finally!) starts today and this means Noah is midway through middle school. Last week was exam week. I actually like midterms because the teachers assign a lot less homework, so even though he has to study, his load is lighter than usual. Nonetheless, he’s had a lot going on. There was a band concert last Thursday, he’s been swamped with homework ever since exams ended, and he got braces Tuesday.

Before the Long Weekend: Wednesday and Thursday

Thursday was a really nice day for me, if busy, which I appreciated because Wednesday was not.  It was the fourth anniversary of my father’s death, so I was little down all day, and I had a computer problem that stopped me from working on a day when I was already behind, and the fire alarm kept beeping because it needed new batteries and I couldn’t figure out how to get the old ones out of the darn thing, and then I got a mild scare when Noah was a half hour late because he missed the Metro bus after band practice and he didn’t call to tell me or answer my call because his phone was dead.  It was that kind of day.

Thursday on the other hand was reasonably productive on the work front, and once the kids got home they were full of appealing requests.  June wanted to go down the block and play Horse at our neighbor’s basketball hoop and then she actually asked to hear a chapter of The Secret Garden.  We have been limping our way through this book, which I loved a child but she’s lukewarm about at best, for over a year. It was the second day in a row we’d read from it, but we haven’t since then.

Because of his band concert that evening, Noah didn’t have much time for homework, so he asked me if I could read Things Fall Apart to him because it’s generally faster for me to read to him than for him to read to himself.  I am never one to turn down a request to read a classic, so we read chapters two to four (and I went back later and read the first chapter on my own).

Noah also had a couple pleasant revelations.  “I accidentally won the geography bee,” he told me when I asked how school was.  He had not realized there was a geography bee and had not studied for it, but he won nevertheless, which is just classic Noah. He’s a little disgruntled about having to advance to the next level (competing against the winners of other social studies classes at his school) because he thinks she should study this time, but I pointed out that not studying seemed to work out pretty well last time.

The big news, though, he kept to himself.  At dinner Beth asked if he’d gotten his IDRP back and he said, yes, and then casually, “I got an A on it.”  Because he got a C on the rough draft, we were not expecting this. I’d already told him that I didn’t care what grade he got on the final paper because he’d worked hard and I was proud of that regardless of the grade. I meant it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy to hear he’d done that well. It’s good to have your work recognized.

So we were feeling celebratory as we headed off to the winter concert. We took June for the first time since she was in preschool.  Because she napped back then, she actually had a later bedtime than she does now. Last year the winter concert was pretty short, though, and we thought we’d try bringing her to this one.  We may not be doing it again any time soon because they have a new band teacher now and he does a lot of things differently, and one of them is that the winter concert is approximately twice as long. June was leaning against me for much of the concert and she did not get to bed until and hour and a half past her bedtime. I think she enjoyed it, though, especially when the orchestra was on stage and she could imagine when she will be old enough to play violin in a concert.  She’s particularly interested in the concept of being first violin, a distinction not available to percussionists.

Speaking of the percussionist, we could sometimes see him, more often his hair than his hands or sticks, but he says he played snare drum, triangle, crash cymbals, suspended cymbals and tambourine and I believe him. Their last number was “Bolero,” which is always fun to hear.  Because the percussionists don’t take their instruments home they are supposed to return them to the music room but the other three musicians abandoned the job to Noah so Beth and I helped him in the interest of getting home.  I had a lot of reasons to be proud of him that day, but the fact that he would never, ever think to leave the instruments on stage and assume someone else would take them where they belong was one of them.

Long Weekend: Original Four-Day Version

Friday Noah got to relax because Fridays are a no-homework zone, no matter how much homework he has, and he did have a lot. I read to him before leaving for June’s basketball practice and then again after she was in bed. We finished the last book in the Fablehaven series, Keys to the Demon Prison. We’d been reading these books since around Labor Day, so that was satisfying. When we came home from basketball, he was practicing his drums, without my having reminded him, which was also satisfying.

Saturday morning Noah and I picked up another series we’re also reading, The Norumbega Quartet, where we’d left off, with book #4, The Chamber in the Sky, and then he did algebra and media homework.  I wanted him to get all his non-social studies homework out of the way because he had to write rough drafts of the annotated bibliography and a process paper for his National History project.  They have to turn their IDRP into a new format, so he’s making a documentary about product liability law, or he would be making it if he didn’t have so many preparatory assignments getting in the way.  By Sunday afternoon he was ready to start on the annotated bibliography and he worked on it until Monday afternoon.

A great many parents told me it would be better after IDRP and I’m not really in a position to judge yet, as it was five weeks ago that they turned it in and they were on winter break for almost two weeks of that time, and then they barely went to school this week…but National History Day is a pretty big project, too. I hope once Noah gets to actually making the film, he will enjoy it more, but right now while he’s fleshing out his research, it’s kind of a slog.

Beth and I both have a very strong desire for Noah to have more free time than he does right now, so we’ve been considering his options for high school and thinking more and more seriously of encouraging him not to apply to any of the academic magnets, although a performing arts magnet is a possibility.  He’s been in magnets since fourth grade and in general the rigorous curriculum has been good for him, much better than when he was in third grade, bored, unchallenged, and unhappy. But his ADHD and slow processing make the work harder for him than for many of his peers, and I think this year he may have hit the point where just working harder than everyone else is becoming a less viable strategy. Also, once he’s in high school it will be easier to piece together a schedule with enough AP classes for him to be challenged but not so many that he’s doing homework all the time. That’s what we hope anyway.

Monday morning Beth took Noah to the orthodontist to get spacers in preparation for the braces, and then she took him back as soon as they got home because one of them had popped out of his mouth. He’d been complaining that one felt wrong all along and I guess he was right. Beth gave him some painkiller before the procedure and he didn’t seem to be in much pain. In fact, he got himself a bowl of tortilla chips in the afternoon, which helped me decide not to bother pureeing the cauliflower soup for him at dinner.

On the way to the second trip to the orthodontist, Beth dropped June and I off at Value Village so we could brave the 50% off MLK Day sale. Value Village is a huge thrift store, think big box size, not particularly well organized, and crazy busy on a sale day, but it’s also very cheap and June’s outgrown a lot of clothes recently.  We went in with a list of thing we hoped to find: basically leggings and long-sleeved tops, including turtlenecks and sweaters. I told her we were there for practical school clothes that fit now, nothing out of season and not anything to grow into because her style changes. Given that as we walked in the door, she was saying, “How about a party dress?” I think I was lucky we walked out with two pairs of fleece pants (there were no leggings, at least none I could find), three tops, and a white knit poncho. The poncho was not on the original list, but I decided it could serve the same function as a cardigan, so I relented. She loves it so much that when we went to Starbucks immediately afterward and wanted a hot chocolate and I said she could have one but she’d have to take off the poncho to drink it, she opted for water.  All these purchases, plus a pair of snow pants for Noah, cost less than seventeen dollars.

At home, I ran a load of laundry, the third one of the day, this one consisting of other people’s size 6 and 14 clothes that are now my kids’, mixed in with a bunch of baby clothes they once wore, which I’m giving to a pregnant friend. I am so sentimental about the kids’ baby clothes that I still have a lot of them, though fewer all the time, because I give some away every time someone I know has a baby. Before I put them down the laundry chute, I looked at them all, and marveled that my quickly growing man-child, who’s taller than me and who has a deepening voice, and has sprouted hair on his legs and a strange shadow on his upper lip, ever wore those tiny onesies and sleepers and footed leggings, but he did.

Tuesday morning Beth took Noah to the orthodontist again for the actual braces while June and I made banana bread and muffins, and watched the snow come down outside. Noah came home with braces.  They caught me off guard every time he smiled, and he did smile, which I don’t think I did the day I got braces.  He didn’t seem to be in any pain, ate raw carrots at lunch and didn’t take any painkiller. This is very different from how I remember this experience. I’m not sure if there have been advances in orthodontia since the early 80s or if he was having a mercifully tactile under-sensitive day.

Noah worked on his process paper most of the rest of the day. June and I delivered the banana bread, along with the baby clothes to Wakako. She lives just far enough from a bus stop that it felt like an adventurous trek in the snowstorm but not so far that it was arduous.  June looked sleepy on the bus home, but she stayed in the yard sledding and making snow angels when we got home.  Shortly before we left, June noticed that all the radiators were cold. Beth called for a boiler repairperson and fortunately it was an easy fix, because it was supposed to be frigid the next day, with highs only in the low twenties.

Beth took June for a walk in the woods by the creek later in the afternoon and while they were gone I buckled down to work, which I had been doing only sporadically for the past couple days.  I had deadlines and the threat of a school closure the next day had put the fear of God in me. When Beth and June got home, Beth had a conference call and June took it upon herself to shovel a good bit of our long walk. She did a great job, but it was still snowing, so it got covered again soon and then Beth did the whole walk and then it got covered yet again.  Shortly after dinner, Beth got the notice that school was closed the following day.

Weekend Coda: Snow Day

When we woke up, the house was freezing. The radiators were cold again so the morning was a rush of calling the heating oil company (Beth once, me twice) to get a service call, going to the hardware store and buying some space heaters (Beth), and trying to shovel the icy walk and then giving up (me). Then Beth drove June over to Megan’s house and left for work, and Noah and I holed up in the study to work. He had a series of essay questions to answer about his film topic. When we turned on the new heater, it registered the temperature in the room as 43 degrees, but over the course of several hours it got up to 69 degrees.  Not bad, considering that outside it had been in the single digits overnight and didn’t get past 15 during the day.

The repairperson came around noon and by one, he was finished and the radiators felt faintly warm. I fetched Megan and June and brought them back to our house where they continued their seven-hour play date. When we came home, I found Noah asleep in his computer chair. He woke when I came into the room and said he had a headache and stomachache, so I put him to bed.

I salted the walk, ate a late lunch of grilled cheese and black bean soup, and then went in to check on him. I asked if he wanted me to read to him, and he did, so I read for an hour and twenty minutes.  Then he was feeling better and he went back to work while I took a long-handled ice scraper to the ice on the sidewalk and chipped away most of it. By the time I came in, tired, cold, and sore, and discovered the lentils I’d left simmering on the stove had burned, I was feeling as if the day, or maybe the whole endless weekend, had really been too much.  And I learned from my friends on Facebook, that there was a two-hour delay the next day.

But the next morning the kids went to school, Noah frustrated he had never completed his essay questions. I tried hacking at some of the more stubborn icy spots on the sidewalk, cleared the toys off the living room floor, read just a tiny bit of a new novel (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam) and sat down to tackle my own backlog of work in a quiet house. It’s a new semester and time to make a fresh start.

His Different Mind

This post is part of the National Parenting Gifted Children Week Blog Tour, hosted by SENG (http://www.sengifted.org/)—Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. Here’s a list of all the participants: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=125046060917217.

I’ve had this book, Different Minds: Gifted Children with AD/HD, Asperger Syndome and Other Learning Defecits (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/210358.Different_Minds) on the bookshelf by my bed for almost a year now, but I’ve never read it. We got it from an educational psychologist who evaluated Noah for Asperger syndrome last summer after a particularly difficult third-grade year. I keep meaning to read it but with a preschooler at home and a big to-read list, I never seemed to have enough time, especially since it no longer feels urgent. Noah is much happier now than he was a year ago and has been for most of that time.

I would read it differently now than I would have a year ago, too, because Noah was evaluated the psychologist said he did not have Asperger’s, even though she saw some “Asperger’s characteristics” in his behavior. This is how it goes with him.

Last August I wrote:

“Noah is a quirky kid, no doubt about it. Over the years we’ve considered or various teachers, his pediatrician, and therapists we’ve consulted have suggested the following diagnoses: OCD, Tourette’s, Sensory Processing Disorder, Asperger’s and ADHD. But with the exception of Sensory Processing Disorder, he’s always fit some of the criteria but not enough for a diagnosis. (And even SPD diagnosis he received at the age of six was a borderline one.)”

It’s a pattern. We think we might have figured out what makes him so different, aside from or in conjunction with his giftedness, then read a bit or consult a professional and discard the diagnosis, or in the case of SPD, learn he has a mild case that requires only minimal intervention. When he got the SPD diagnosis, we bought him a bouncy castle (like the ones you see at carnivals) and a hopping ball to provide him with the deep muscle stimulation that often calms him. The bouncy castle is gone, now, having been broken beyond repair by years of hard use and being out in all weather. We replaced it with a mini-trampoline we keep in the basement. (He also has a pogo stick he refuses to try because he’s afraid of falling off. His daredevil little sister is eager to inherit it when she’s big enough, though, so I’m confident it will get some use.)

Shortly after the SPD diagnosis, we were intending to get Noah set up with an occupational therapist, but during the summer between kindergarten and first grade, all his disturbing misbehavior disappeared, even as the clumsiness and difficulty reading his body’s signals persisted, albeit at a milder level. We suspect that his symptoms had been magnified by an unsympathetic teacher and that once he was out of her class, they receded to a more manageable level. So, we never took him to the therapist.

Flash forward three years. During the spring of his third-grade year Noah was drifting away from his best friend of several years; he was being teased and ostracized at school, and saying, “no-one likes me” with disturbing frequency. Around his ninth birthday I wrote:

“Noah is such a puzzle to many people. He seems simultaneously older and younger than his years. He reads at least two years above grade level, but he still sucks his thumb and he calls me Mommy, while many of his peers have switched over to calling their mothers Mom. He charms many adults with his cheerful demeanor and intelligent conversation, but in the past couple of years he’s had trouble making and keeping friends. He often plays alone at recess (or does yoga). And a lot of adults are just baffled by him. He’s so smart, that his absent-mindedness, his social awkwardness and even his physical clumsiness seem like things he should be able to overcome if he just put his mind to it. But Beth and I suspect there might be more to it than that, possibly even more than his sensory issues can explain. We’ve been considering having him tested for Asperger’s syndrome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asperger_syndrome). When I read the descriptions I go back and forth between thinking, that sounds like Noah all right and, wait, he’s not nearly that impaired. So it might be good to find out, so we can have more guidance on how to be better parents to him for the next nine years.”

At the same time, he was not being sufficiently challenged academically and he was bored with school. This was new, as his first and second grade teachers were very skilled at working with kids at different levels and keeping him engaged. That fall we applied to a gifted magnet school for fourth and fifth grade. He got in, off the waiting list, the last week of third grade.

The new school was a very good fit for Noah, both socially and academically. He’s still the same quirky kid he always was, but he’s never been teased or excluded from lunch tables or playground games. He invited eight kids to his tenth birthday. When he turned nine, he could barely think of three he wanted to invite and one was a boy who had been unkind to him on occasion. We never sent him to the social skills group in which we had considering enrolling him because things looked up for him almost as soon as he started fourth grade at the new school.

Over the course of the year our concern shifted from his social skills, which seemed adequate to his new environment, to his mental processing speed. One piece of information that came out of Noah’s evaluation last summer was that he’s a slow processor. Here’s how I put it back then:

“What he has and as far as I know there’s no official name for it, is a big gap between his intelligence and his executive function. Or to put it simply, he’s really, really smart and he’s also a really, really slow worker. He excelled on a verbal IQ test (in the 99.6th percentile) but on a writing speed test he scored in the 20th percentile. This wasn’t news to us. Noah’s teachers have been telling us he takes a long time to complete his work ever since kindergarten. Whether they interpret this as laziness or an intrinsic part of the way his mind works often determines what kind of relationship they have with him and how effectively they can teach him. We’re scheduling a meeting with Mrs. B, his fourth-grade teacher, to discuss the report and the psychologist’s recommendations in hopes that she can make some accommodations for him, though the lack of any official type of diagnosis at this point means we don’t have any legally binding action plan. I’m okay with that for now. I’d rather just talk to the teacher and say this is what we think he needs and see how it goes.”

After a year of accelerated work, which has been fun and enriching and challenging and also quite exhausting for Noah, we’re ready to see if we can find that official diagnosis that would entitle him to extra time, and possibly other accommodations when he needs them. His teachers were understanding for the most part this year, but Noah was often behind. He was forever bringing home class work that he had to do on top of his already sizable homework load. One of the standardized tests he took this year was untimed. When he was tested at the fourth grade level he completed it in the amount of time expected, but when he was tested at the level of math he was actually taking this year (sixth grade) he got a decent score, but it took him two and half times as long as the rest of the class to complete it. On the timed MSA (Maryland’s version of the high-stakes tests mandated by No Child Left Behind) he scored in the advanced range for reading and math, but not by much and we know based on his placement and his teachers’ impressions of him that he ought to be close to the very top.

His math teacher told us at an end of year meeting we requested, that his inability to finish his work was why he got a C in math in the fourth quarter. Math has always been one of Noah’s best subjects and we are considering applying to a math and science magnet for middle school, so we were concerned. If we decide that the accelerated path is just too much for him, or if we apply to middle school magnets and he doesn’t get in, he’ll be back in regular classes, and possibly, bored and alienated again. Although, maybe not. We live in an excellent school district and good teachers abound at all schools. As with so many things in life, a lot depends on the luck of the draw. But we want to give him the best chance at being fulfilled and happy at school we can.

So Noah will undergo another battery of tests in early August in hopes of getting a 504 plan in place for him for fifth grade. An ADHD diagnosis is one possible outcome, which I why when I finally read Different Minds (and I think I will when the kids start school) I imagine I will pay more attention to the ADHD sections and less to the Asperger section than I would have a year ago. I would not be surprised, though, to find out that he doesn’t have ADHD, or that he does but just barely. No diagnosis ever seems to fit him quite right.

Noah’s home this week for the first time after three weeks of day camps and a week at YaYa’s. At first he was a little unsure how to occupy himself because it’s been a long time since he’s had so much downtime at once, but he’s reading 39 Clues books and The Washington Post and listening to NPR and music and playing on the computer and watching television and practicing his drums. He and June helped me make a blueberry kuchen on Monday afternoon and he had a drum lesson this afternoon. The late afternoon lesson was scheduled at the very last minute so I had to abandon my somewhat involved dinner plans. We ended up eating out at Roscoe’s (http://www.roscoespizzeria.com/). On the walk from the restaurant back to the car, the kids played with the kinetic musical bicycle sculpture on the sidewalk nearby. It the kind of wonderful loony thing one’s always seeing in Takoma Park.

Noah and I have had the past three mornings alone together as this is the only week this summer when June has camp and he doesn’t. It’s been pleasant, so pleasant that my plans for splitting the time between hanging out with him and working have pretty much gone out the window. (It helps that last week I turned down a brochure-writing job for unrelated reasons). We’ve been taking walks together, going to coffee shops– Starbucks on Monday, Mayorga (http://www.mayorgacoffee.com/) yesterday, browsing at Radio Shack and Ace Hardware, which is something that I would never, ever do on my own, but it seems to make him happy. I read two or three chapters of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban aloud to him every day because he still likes me to read to him and I will keep doing it until he doesn’t want me to anymore. We talk about global warming and whether a planet orbiting two suns at once would have an orbit in the shape of a figure eight, and what his favorite vacuum cleaner attachments are. He doesn’t mind if I sing along to the radio in public. (And really, who could resist “Love Potion #9”?) He reaches out to hold my hand as we walk down the sidewalk.

I was watching him eat his banana bread at Mayorga yesterday morning and maybe the light was just right or something, but I was struck by one of those moments of mother-love: I was momentarily stunned by how beautiful his hazel eyes are, how the green and gold seem to be shining out from under the brown. I want to help the green and gold in him shine out always. I want a school environment for him that will keep doing that. I don’t know if I’d be happy with an ADHD diagnosis because it might give us a peg on which to hang the help he needs or if it will make me worry about the difficulties he faces, but Robert Frost notwithstanding, I want the gold to stay.


Last Wednesday morning we left the kids with a new babysitter so we could meet with the educational psychologist who evaluated Noah earlier this month. The sitter asked the kids when they’d be starting school. Neither knew, so I told her September 7 for June and August 30 for Noah.

“That’s soon!” Noah exclaimed in surprise. We’d been telling him school started soon, of course, but I remember how when you’re a kid the summer seems endless. It just goes on and on until all of a sudden, and quite surprisingly, it’s over.

Later that morning, as I walked out of the appointment, I told Beth, “It’s what they always say about him.” Noah is a quirky kid, no doubt about it. Over the years we’ve considered or various teachers, his pediatrician, and therapists we’ve consulted have suggested the following diagnoses: OCD, Tourette’s, Sensory Processing Disorder, Asperger’s and ADHD. But with the exception of Sensory Processing Disorder, he’s always fit some of the criteria but not enough for a diagnosis. (And even SPD diagnosis he received at the age of six was a borderline one.) So, this is a long way of saying the psychologist doesn’t think he has Asperger’s, even if she does she recognize some Asperger’s characteristics in his behavior. She thinks ADHD is a possibility, but she wasn’t ready to make an official diagnosis of that either.

What he has and as far as I know there’s no official name for it, is a big gap between his intelligence and his executive function. Or to put it simply, he’s really, really smart and he’s also a really, really slow worker. He excelled on a verbal IQ test (in the 99.6th percentile) but on a writing speed test he scored in the 20th percentile. This wasn’t news to us. Noah’s teachers have been telling us he takes a long time to complete his work ever since kindergarten. Whether they interpret this as laziness or an intrinsic part of the way his mind works often determines what kind of relationship they have with him and how effectively they can teach him. We’re scheduling a meeting with Mrs. B, his fourth-grade teacher, to discuss the report and the psychologist’s recommendations in hopes that she can make some accommodations for him, though the lack of any official type of diagnosis at this point means we don’t have any legally binding action plan. I’m okay with that for now. I’d rather just talk to the teacher and say this is what we think he needs and see how it goes.

The week before school started was busy. As I mentioned earlier Noah had play dates with Sasha, Maxine and a pair of twins who will attend his new school and he also attended Sasha’s end-of-summer pool party. On Tuesday morning I let Noah walk to Sasha’s house alone for the first time. This is something we’d been mulling over for a long time, but since he will need to walk home from the bus stop by himself this year (June’s school schedule rules out my getting him), we thought we should start letting him practice walking places by himself. As I stood on the porch and watched him set out, I could tell by the set of his shoulders and the way he held his head how proud and grown-up he felt. And it felt right to watch him go.

The next play date was Wednesday. The dynamic of meeting two new kids at once was a little challenging. At first one twin seemed more interested in playing with Noah while the other hung back, and then the twins played together with Noah left out until their mom suggested we move the play date from the playground to an inside space where it might be easier for them to interact. An inside space, of course, meant our house, which was nearby but in no condition for guests, particularly guests I’d never met before. So I just said, “Well, I didn’t clean,” and she said not to worry so we went home and as it turned out they did play better when they had something more structured to do. (They played Monopoly.) Monopoly was the game of choice again on Friday when Maxine came over. She stayed from 9:30 to 1:30 and they actually finished the game, which was satisfying to Noah since the twins had to leave mid-game.

I had the chance to watch Noah at Sasha’s party since it was a parents-invited potluck. At the beginning when it was only Sasha, Sean and Maura playing in the pool he did pretty well. He splashed in the pool, played with the squirters and ate chips when the kids got out of the water and hit the buffet. But as the party got bigger he started to hang back. I encouraged him to join the other kids when the herd of nine-year-olds moved to the trampoline because he likes bouncing, but he stayed on the screened porch with the grownups. By the time the activity had switched to sword fighting with sticks, I didn’t even mention joining them anymore because I know he’s not comfortable with that kind of play. He’d gone back to the pool to anyway. He was alone but he seemed to be having fun. We haven’t been swimming much this summer and he ended up spending almost the whole three hours and fifteen minutes we were there in the water. I think it was okay, given how big crowds of kids overwhelm him. He spent a lot of time alone but he did socialize some, too.

Of course, in addition to the play dates and party, there were school events, too. The ice cream social was Wednesday night. The principal and the teachers played Two Truths and a Lie. Each one had a Power Point slide with two true facts and a lie about himself or herself and the parents and kids had to guess which one was the lie. We didn’t know which teacher he had yet at the time but I think Mrs. B was the one who has gone bungee cord jumping from a crane. Or maybe she was the one who once parachuted out of a plane. In any case, she did not try out for the Olympic Track and Field team. I know that for sure. After learning about the teachers there was a human treasure hunt in which you had to find people in the room who met certain characteristics. (For instance, I signed a lot of people’s sheets as their vegetarian.) Beth and I both find these kinds of icebreakers tedious, so we were happy when it was finally time to line up for ice cream. We did see a few families from Noah’s old school and get to talk a bit, which was nice.

We were back at school on Friday afternoon to meet Mrs. B and tour her classroom and see who Noah’s classmates are. Samira, who has been at the same school as Noah since nursery school days, is in his class, along with Maura who he has been friendly with on and off since kindergarten. There was also a boy who recognized Noah from Improv camp (though Noah couldn’t remember where they’d met until the boy told him) and one of the twins. So there should be plenty of familiar faces.

I studied a flow chart about the writing process and noticed there was a great quantity of books on the bookshelves and a beanbag chair nearby. “Can I come here and sit in the beanbag chair and read?” Beth asked me. A couple of the kids did just that, picking out a book from the shelf and settling in to read.

There was also a display on the wall about different kinds of ecosystems. I said it looked like they were going to study ecosystems and Noah, standing right in front of the wall, said, “Why?”

Then they all had to ask the teacher a question before they left the room. After giving it a tremendous amount of thought, Noah asked why the wall of cubbyholes was filled with two-liter bottles. For a science experiment was the answer. On our way out we bought a car magnet with a wolf on it, as this is his new school’s mascot.

On Saturday afternoon Noah practiced walking home from the bus stop. He and Beth walked there together and then she waited five minutes to follow. Sure enough, they both got home, five minutes apart. I asked him if he felt confident about walking home and he said yes. After a pause he added, “But it was a little scary walking alone.”

On Sunday I made him copy his summer reading log over again because it had gotten wet at some point during the summer and the bottom was all raggedy. More importantly his handwriting was nearly illegible. He made a new grid on the computer, printed it and filled it out by hand, somewhat more neatly. As he was doing this he realized he had not actually finished one of the books he wanted to put on the log, so he spent most of the evening doing that. After he finished he paced around the house, seeming nervous and keyed up, but he went to sleep pretty quickly after going to bed at his new bedtime of 8:45. (We moved his bedtime back when we made June’s earlier. He thinks going to bed fifteen minutes later and having a bedtime after his little sister’s for the first time in his life is “awesome.”)

He slept until 7:00, which qualifies as sleeping in for him. Beth made him his requested lunch of shredded cheddar cheese, saltines, mango slices and grape juice. I took his picture at the gate and (he wanted to pose as an old man) and at 8:10, he and Beth walked off to the bus stop. Fourth grade, I thought. That is old.

June and I went about our day. I took her to Great Kids Village (http://www.greatkidsvillage.com/drop_in_playtime.html) to see Banjo Man (http://www.banjomanfc.com/), who has a Monday morning gig there, and we had a picnic lunch nearby before getting back on the bus to come home. She fell asleep during Quiet Time for the second day in a row. (She would do it the next day as well.) We’d just finished reading several chapters of James and the Giant Peach when Noah walked in the door at 4:25.

“The first day was good,” he said, before I could even ask him and he gave me two thumbs up. He likes his teacher. She had students from her last class write letters to her current class to tell them what to expect. “You shouldn’t be dreading all the homework people say you are going get. True, there are long-term projects but they are usually fun. Mrs. B is an awesome teacher and you are lucky to have her,” begins the letter Noah received. They are doing a lot of get-to-know-you activities right now. For homework he had to write five interview-style questions for the teacher, which she will answer at a mock press confererence and he had to put several objects in a “memory bag” he’ll bring to class and explicate. (So far he has a magnet in the shape of West Virginia and a potholder he made at his old school in the bag.) They have a whiteboard that you write on and what you write is projected onto a screen. They painted on a real canvas in art class. He played with other kids at recess. He said it was less scary walking home by himself the second time. He seemed really, really happy talking about his day.

I don’t know what Noah’s first year as a Wolf will be like. Of course, there’s a lot I could worry about from his uneven social skills to his wandering mind to the logistics of getting him to school and back and the question of how he will respond to the increased workload. But I have a lot of hopes, too, hopes of fun and challenging assignments and kids to whom he can more easily relate. Wolves are pack animals after all. Most of all, I hope he finds his pack.


The First Half: Being Nine, or The Best Part of All

When Noah got off the school bus on the last Friday in April, I asked him, “How was your last day of school as an eight year old?” He looked surprised. Because his party was over a week away, his actual birthday kind of snuck up on him. He hadn’t realized it was only three days away. (This despite June’s complaints that everyone was “always” talking about Noah’s birthday and it was “very ‘nnoying”).

The next few nights he had trouble getting to sleep at night. He’d call me back into his room to ask birthday-related questions, and one night he was up past ten. (His bedtime is eight-thirty.) He’s also been experiencing pain in his ankles at night, growing pains, I assume and that coupled with his excitement made it hard for him to fall asleep.

Over the weekend, he came up with the idea of opening his presents early so it wouldn’t have to be fit into the bustle of a school day. I tried to put the kibosh on this plan. His class party was the day after his birthday and his home party was the following weekend. If he opened his presents before his birthday there would be nothing special about the day, I argued. “But I’ll be nine,” he protested. “Isn’t that the best part of all?”

In the end, he agreed to wait, but when he woke up on Monday morning, there was a new complication. He felt sick, he said. Noah’s sensory issues can make it difficult for him to distinguish between different kinds of bodily sensations. It’s easy for him to mix up feeling sick, needing to go to the bathroom and being hungry. I asked him to go back to bed and try to really listen to what his body was telling him but he was having trouble getting a handle on it. He thought he was too sick to go to school– no, he wasn’t– yes, he was–well, maybe not.

We tabled the issue and by 6:55 we were all assembled in the living room for “the opening ceremony” as he dubbed the present opening. There were many car-related presents. June got him a little yellow metal VW Bug with a friction motor, my mom got him a subscription to Car and Driver, my sister got him a copy of the movie Cars (I asked her to do it so we can return the Netflix copy he’s been watching over and over since March). He also got books and t-shirts and pajamas, a Bananagram word game (http://bananagrams-intl.com/checkcountry.asp?page=index.asp), an Extreme Bubble Making Kit, and a new scooter to replace his old one (the brake fell off and we’ve been unable to get it repaired). It was a pretty good haul. He decided to wear the green t-shirt with a classic car on it to school, if he was going, which was still up in the air. He wanted to know if he could go for a ride on the new scooter and I said, “If you’re well enough to ride the scooter, you’re well enough to go to school.” It was one of those moments when I heard Mom-speak just coming out of my mouth without any warning. I wonder if that ever happened to our moms when we were kids.

As June and I left the house to walk to nursery school around 8:00, I heard Noah and Beth seeming to come to the conclusion that he would go to school, but I wasn’t completely sure whether I’d find him there or not when I got back. I came home to an empty house with a note on the front door. “Noah went to school,” it said.

At 11:05 the phone rang and I got off the exercise bike to answer it. It was someone from Noah’s school. He was throwing up, she said, and I needed to come get him. It was about five minutes before I needed to leave for June’s school, and to complicate matters, I had agreed to walk the Yellow Tulip home that day, to spare her very pregnant babysitter the walk. I told the woman I’d be there at 11:45. This turned out to be an optimistic estimate.

I left for June’s school right away, hoping to get there early enough to arrange for someone else to take the Yellow Tulip home. I was too flustered to realize I should call her parents or the school before I left to facilitate this, and once I got there it took a while to straighten everything out. The Blue Maple’s mom graciously agreed to take the Yellow Tulip and we left June’s school around 11:35. By myself I could have made it to Noah’s school in ten minutes, but I had June with me, and she was tired and distraught. When I explained the situation to her she realized almost immediately that this meant that we’d get home late and she’d miss Dragon Tales. She began to cry and kept it up pretty much non-stop for the next hour. Initially, I felt sorry for her. She’s tired that time of day and her after-school routine is very important to her. It’s why I never accept invitations to go to the playground after school, even for a half hour. Eventually, I stopped trying to comfort her, as nothing I said—appeals to compassion for her sick brother, promises of different television later in the day– seemed to have any effect. I just held her hand as we walked along the trail by the creek. We arrived at Noah’s school at 11:55. I went to the office to sign Noah out and then to the Health Office where the nurse said he didn’t have a fever and we left. June was still sobbing.

The birthday boy, however, didn’t seem too upset. They had an interesting book about horses to read at the Health Office, he reported.

“I guess we shouldn’t have sent you to school,” I said.

“But if I hadn’t gone to school, I wouldn’t know how to find the area of a triangle,” he said. Then he told me how to find the area of a right triangle (they haven’t covered other kinds yet) with great enthusiasm. He’d asked Señor S how to find the area of a circle, but he said they weren’t covering that this year. This happens to Noah more often than I’d like, that teachers don’t satisfy his curiosity and tell him he has to wait. He’s been waiting to study negative numbers since kindergarten. I wished then that he’d gotten into the gifted school, but he’s waitlisted. He could get in over the summer or during his fourth grade year or the summer before fifth grade, or never, so we could be in limbo for a while. But to avoid fretting, we’re assuming he won’t be going and we’re trying to figure out how to advocate for him more effectively at school so his fourth and fifth grade years are more satisfying academically than this year has been.

We got home around 12:25. Noah changed into clean clothes and June insisted she needed a change of clothes, too, because she’d gotten paint on her shirt at school. (I don’t remember her ever caring about this before.) So they both got changed and June had lunch (she stopped crying as soon as I put the food in front of her) and she napped. We’d planned to go out to dinner and get cupcakes at Cake Love afterward, but Noah was still complaining of stomach pain on and off all afternoon, so we didn’t go. By 6:00, though, he was feeling well enough to try out his new scooter and he ate a small bowl of plain udon noodles with tofu and broccoli for dinner. Around 6:40 he glanced at the clock and said, “Hey, I’ve been nine for over a half hour.”

“I’m glad you were born,” I told him. “You’re my best boy.”

And he is.

The next day he woke up feeling well and chipper, so we sent him to school. June and I delivered two trays of mini-cupcakes to his afternoon class. I had to wake her up from her nap to get there at the appointed time, and it was more like a forced march than a walk to his school. For the second day in a row, I walked into the main office, with my weeping daughter trailing me. She cheered up though, once we were in his classroom and cupcakes were imminent. On the way home we stopped to wade in the creek. More presents had arrived in the mail that day, and he opened them. One of them was a book of science experiments he’s eager to try. And that night he had his belated birthday dinner at Asian Bistro (http://www.asianbistrocafe.com/) and his cupcake. The festive ceramic panda cups in which the children’s drinks arrived were a high point of the evening. While we waited for the food to arrive, Noah decoded the secret message in the birthday card my mom sent and Beth looked up the formula for determining the area of a circle on her phone. At Cake Love (http://www.cakelove.com/locations_silverspring.php), Noah selected a banana split cupcake, an appropriately complicated confection. The cake was banana-flavored and the frosting had vanilla and strawberry layers. It wasn’t a bad day, as make-up birthdays go.


At dinner on Wednesday night, Noah said something was bothering him. I asked him what it was. He said he leaves papers he’s supposed to turn in on the desktop and Señor S has threatened to start throwing them out if he does it again. Noah wasn’t sure if he’d have to do the work over or if he’d get no credit, but either option was upsetting and he didn’t think he could always remember to turn in the work. So Beth and I decided to have a meeting with Señor S next week to discuss more positive ways of helping Noah stay organized. It’s no easy task. I supervise his homework most weekday afternoons so I know. But neither of us thought punishment was the way to go. In addition, Noah’s last report card hinted that some of the aggressive-seeming behavior he had in kindergarten might be re-surfacing. I asked Noah what he thought Señor S meant and he said he’s been bumping into people in line a lot, by accident, he insisted. So we want to talk about that, too. Oddly, Noah’s at-school behavior often seems to deteriorate in the spring. I don’t know if he get worn out and the end of the school year or if it’s something else. He even has a set of facial tics that surface each spring and then disappear in the summer. Beth calls it his “seasonal Tourette’s.”

Noah is such a puzzle to many people. He seems simultaneously older and younger than his years. He reads at least two years above grade level, but he still sucks his thumb and he calls me Mommy, while many of his peers have switched over to calling their mothers Mom. He charms many adults with his cheerful demeanor and intelligent conversation, but in the past couple of years he’s had trouble making and keeping friends. He often plays alone at recess (or does yoga). And a lot of adults are just baffled by him. He’s so smart, that his absent-mindedness, his social awkwardness and even his physical clumsiness seem like things he should be able to overcome if he just put his mind to it. But Beth and I suspect there might be more to it than that, possibly even more than his sensory issues can explain. We’ve been considering having him tested for Asperger’s syndrome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asperger_syndrome). When I read the descriptions I go back and forth between thinking, that sounds like Noah all right and, wait, he’s not nearly that impaired. So it might be good to find out, so we can have more guidance on how to be better parents to him for the next nine years.

The Second Half: The Party

Friday night, the night before Noah’s party, both kids were wound up and having trouble getting to sleep again. Around 9:30, after June had finally dropped off, Noah came out of their room and told Beth he was worried about something and couldn’t sleep. It turned out he’d told Sasha that his Solve-the-Mystery party would culminate in a chase scene and Sasha started to brag about his karate skills so Noah was worried Sasha thought there would be real fighting at the party and that someone might get hurt. Beth assured him we’d set out clear guidelines before the party started and he went back to bed. Soon he was up again, but Beth talked him until he was calm and we didn’t hear from him again.

After an already busy day of soccer practice for June and swimming practice for Noah, June and I took our positions on the front porch at 2:55 Saturday afternoon. Noah’s guests were due to arrive at 3:00. I was to explain the party rules to them and escort them one by one to the garage where they would receive their instructions and their initial clues from Noah, who was already in character as the detective agency representative who would hire the three agents to find the stolen diamond and apprehend the thief.

As he did last year, Noah put his party theme up to a vote. The choices were Castles, Human Body, Mystery or a secret theme guest would find out at the party. Human Body was a leftover theme from last year and no one voted for it, but after the first round of voting, it was a three-way tie for the other options. As Noah was trying to figure out how to break the tie, he told us that the secret theme was mold. This was a surprise. I wondered what kind of decorations, activities and cake he would want for a mold party, but it wasn’t to be because one of his guests changed his vote and soon we were planning a mystery party. Not that much actual planning was involved. This year Noah didn’t want any decorations or goody bags for the guests and he designed the invitations and devised all the clues for the game himself. I took care of calling his friends’ parents in advance of sending out the invitations to determine a date and time all three of his guests could attend (he had such a small guest list I didn’t want anyone to miss the party) and Beth made the cake—a fancy cake, Noah said; it was a vanilla layer cake with coconut frosting and crossed forks and knives in black piping. (The cake was supposed to be disguised as something you might find on a table.) It was half a relief and half a letdown to have so little to do.

One thing I could have done was to double-check his preparations because there were a number of snafus during the mystery-solving portion of the party. The guests, working as a team, were looking for clues in envelopes hidden throughout the yard and the house. Each clue was written in symbols that had to be decoded using a key Noah provided and which would tell the players where to look for the next clue. In theory it was all very well thought out, but two of the clue envelopes were empty and one had the wrong directions in it, which caused some chaos. (June also contributed some of her own clues she made by cutting up Noah’s rough drafts—but these were marked as “June’s Clues” and they boys knew to disregard them.) It took almost an hour for the detectives to find the construction paper diamond hidden in the laundry basket and they only did after I advised them that the treasure hunt was “good, clean fun,” which sent them running to the laundry room, and advised them that “small people often have great wisdom” shortly after June started rummaging through the laundry basket on her own. Elias was the only one listening to that gem, so he found the diamond.

Once the diamond was located the boys had to chase the thief (Beth) through the back yard until they tackled her– relatively gently–and brought her to justice. Noah declared that her punishment would be to pay a fine of buying pizza for the detectives. She made the call and while they waited for the pizza to come, the boys played outside. The first thing that occurred to them was a sword fight–it might have been Elias’s idea; he voted for castles–so they grabbed the foam building tubes from June’s fort-building kit. Unfortunately, the tubes have metal tips where they snap together and almost immediately Sasha got hit in the mouth and ended up with a swollen lip. I confiscated the swords and they argued for a while over whether to play tag, hide and seek, cops and robbers or vampires and vampire slayers. I’m not sure why it mattered what they called it because all the games they played basically consisted of leaping off the porch walls and chasing each other through the yard and driveway. They were nice enough to include June in the game of tag. Whenever she was it I let her tag me and then I’d take off after one of the boys.

Then it was inside for pizza, cake and a brief game of online Monopoly. Sasha stayed over for a post-party play date and they continued the game and then watched about half of Cars. After Sasha left, around six, Beth asked Noah how he’d like his party. “Thumbs up?” she asked.

“Yeah, you didn’t get killed,” he observed.

“Success!” Beth said. I think it was, mixed up clues and all.

Today is Mother’s Day. We celebrated with cards and gifts and breakfast at IHOP. Then Noah and I watched a PG-rated movie (Shortshttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt1100119/) while Beth and June went grocery shopping. He was very excited about seeing a movie with me and without June and may have lorded it over her a bit too much. “We should do this every week,” he said. After June’s nap, we took an afternoon stroll in the National Arboretum (http://www.usna.usda.gov/) and had dinner at Plato’s Diner (http://www.platosdiner.com/). It was a very nice day.

In the bathroom this morning I was telling Beth how June told me recently she couldn’t decide whether to be a construction worker or a Mommy and I told her she could be both, either at the same time, or she could be a construction worker before and after she was a Mommy. “There’s no after,” Beth corrected. “Once you’re a Mommy, you’re always a Mommy.” I suppose she’s right. Noah made me a mother nine years ago, and although he’s halfway to being a man, I am not nearly half done being his Mom. That’s forever.

Inside the Snow Globe: A Countdown to Normal

Friday: Normal Minus Five

On Friday, Beth went back to work, after four days at home. The kids were still home and June’s drama class was cancelled, but I was determined to attempt something close to our normal routine. Our old Friday morning routine before drama class started up was a leisurely morning at home, laundry and Sesame Street, followed by a walk to Starbucks. I knew the walk would be a challenge and Beth thought we should take a bus, but I walk a lot and this snow will be weeks melting so I wanted to get a lay of the land, on a low pressure outing without needing to arrive anywhere at any specific time.

With June in the stroller it’s fifteen minutes to Starbucks and fifteen minutes back, making it a forty-five to sixty-minute outing, depending on time spent inside. If she rides her tricycle or scooter it’s more like an hour and a half. So taking that into account, I think the fact that we walked there — sometimes on neatly shoveled walks, sometimes on narrow paths pedestrians had packed down on unshoveled walks, sometimes on the street, sometimes scaling the glacier-like peaks at intersections– in two hours and five minutes is not so bad. And we even stopped at the grocery store on the way home. I intended to pick up some Valentine candy for everyone to share, but somehow we ended up leaving with a heart-shaped box of candy, a heart-shaped balloon, a vase filled with candy and a tiny balloon and one Valentine card (for June—she picked it out herself, being a little unclear on the concept of Valentines). And June was crying at the register because I drew the line there.

Of course, we lost the balloon on the way home. It was a Mylar helium-filled balloon, the kind that comes with a weight on the end of the ribbon. I figured if June let go, it would be too weighed down to escape. But after a while she got tired of carrying it and handed it to me. As I walked under some low-hanging branches, it got entangled and the ribbon came untied. I turned to find it about a foot above my reach. A tall man or a very tall woman could have easily rescued it. But there were no tall men or very tall women in evidence. As I considered my options a breeze parted the branches and the balloon drifted up into the wild blue yonder. June started to cry, a keening sob, occasionally punctuated with the single word “Balloon!” She kept it up all the way home, even as I lifted her over snow banks and backtracked a quarter of a block to retrieve a lost mitten. It was the low point of the trip, worse than when the man who was shoveling out his driveway yelled at us for walking by him too slowly and delaying his ability to dump snow onto the street. So, I’d have to say it was only a partially successful outing. I did get a latte and we all got some sunshine and exercise. Beth spent two hours on a windy Metro platform that morning as train after overloaded train went by, so that puts things in perspective.

Noah spent a lot of time outdoors that day, exploring the wild new terrain of our yard and working on reconstructing his sled run. In the afternoon, he made Valentines for his classmates and helped June make Valentines for hers. He actually did most of the lettering on her cards (I did a few) and he drew all the hearts for June to color in and he was much more patient than I would have been with her often unclear instructions and teary recriminations when these instructions were not followed to the last detail. I feel he should be awarded some kind of medal for his participation in the project. He’s such a good brother sometimes. So when they disagreed about dinner music—he wanted Blue Moo (http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Blue-Moo/Sandra-Boynton/e/9780761147756) and she wanted Wheels Go ‘Round (http://www.kindermusik.com/shop/product.aspx?pid=3-10-90040&cid=1100)—I went with his choice.

Saturday: Normal Minus Four

On Saturday morning, the Valentine-making bug had not left June. But she did not want to make them herself and she had run out of people willing to help her. This resulted in crying. I muttered something about never celebrating another holiday again. June heard me and was stricken. She has a birthday coming up next month. I had to promise her that yes she would indeed have cake and presents and a party for her birthday.

Clearly it was time for me to get out of the house without children. Fortunately, Beth and I had a date scheduled, our second in the space of about a month. We’d been unable to get a sitter for Valentine’s Day and decided the day before was just as good. We were planning to leave at three for a movie (Crazy Heart), coffee and dinner at Mandalay (http://www.mandalayrestaurantcafe.com/), a Burmese restaurant in Silver Spring and one of our favorites. Since June usually wakes from her nap between two-thirty and three I expected a nice long mental break. Her nap started early though and was quite short. The disproportionate depth of my despair when she woke at one-thirty and I found myself alone with her and needing to fill an hour and a half (Beth had taken Noah to his swim lesson, which—hooray!—was not cancelled) was instructive. Since becoming a stay-at-home mom, I never get enough time alone, but I am operating on a much thinner margin right now. And what I miss just as much, if not more, is time alone with Beth, which is always in short supply.

So the date was fun. The movie was reasonably good and dinner was delicious. We ran into another lesbian couple we know at the movie and then again at coffee portion of the date. Their older son was in Noah’s class at the Purple School and their younger son just finished preschool last year. We didn’t talk long, but it was nice to get a dispatch from the outside world, to be reminded that the world has not shrunk to our little family of four.

Sunday: Normal Minus Three

“Is today a regular day?” June wanted to know when she woke up. Beth wasn’t sure what she meant and said yes. June was exasperated, “But it’s the day after yesterday!” she said. We told her the day before that the next day would be Valentine’s Day. Once that was cleared up she had me dress her in her “holiday dress,” the green velvet jumper with rosebuds on the bodice. We took to calling it that so she would wear it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and not require separate dresses for separate holidays, but now she will use any semblance of a holiday as an excuse to wear it. She wore it to school on the Red Gingko’s birthday because birthdays are holidays. And Valentine’s Day is a holiday, too, she reasoned. I’ve never considered Valentine’s Day a dress-up occasion, especially if you intend to spend it entirely at home and at the grocery store, but apparently June does.

At breakfast the kids discussed their favorite holidays. Noah said he liked his birthday best. June said she liked them all. I felt a little guilty for my anti-holiday tirade the day before, but I was still unable to maintain a spirit of cheerfulness as the morning wore on.

“I need another date,” I told Beth after she found me crying in the study around ten in the morning. She was getting ready to take the kids grocery shopping and Noah had been looking for his boots for a long while. Every time I suggested a new place to look, he asked, “Have you seen them there?” in a snotty tone until I snapped and yelled, “Noah, stop saying that!” I hate it when I yell at them, but I do sometimes and more often now than when Noah was little. I just run out of patience more quickly these days.

Beth pointed out that Noah didn’t seem to have suffered any lasting damage. It’s actually pretty hard to hurt his feelings, while it’s quite easy to hurt June’s. She had spent much of the morning whimpering about some mysterious slight she refused to divulge. Beth also said, by way of cheering me up, “You get to go to the dentist on Tuesday.” She was only partly kidding. These days a dentist visit to get an impression taken for a crown qualifies as me time.

Eventually, Beth found Noah’s boots (they were in the study with me ironically) and they left. While they were gone I cleaned house and wrapped the kids’ Valentines presents and arranged the wrapped presents, cards and candy on the dining room table. They returned shortly before noon with a pink, heart-shaped Hello Kitty balloon and heart-shaped shortbread cookies with pink and red sprinkles. And while this was not strictly speaking a Valentine’s present, Beth bought a Pepperidge Farm lemon cake because she knew I’ve had a hankering for one for several weeks and she saw one at the grocery store for the first time since I mentioned it. I put it in the freezer for after the Valentine’s treats are gone.

June was simply delighted with everything. She loved her card (the one she picked out herself); she loved her books (Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse! and Maisy’s Valentine Sticker Book) and thanked me multiple times. She wanted to try all the treats. She had made Valentines for all of us. She had drawn a box of Mike and Ikes on Beth’s because Beth often buys them for her; mine had a heart colored blue, because blue is my favorite color; and Noah’s had a stick figure carrying a bouquet. June’s drawing has recently and suddenly become representative and all she wants to do some days is draw and paint. I have a thick folder of her drawings just from the past few weeks. I’ve been meaning to sort through them and pick a few to save, but I’m pretty sure the blue heart is a keeper, even though there are a lot of them in there that are more detailed or technically adept. It’s the first Valentine she ever made for me.

Noah seemed indifferent to his book, Magic Treehouse #43 Leprechauns in Late Winter, which was a surprise. I’m no fan of this series, but he has loved it since he was five. (He started listening to it on tape before he could read.) Even more puzzlingly, as they are well below his reading level, he then said that he never understands them. I wrote it off to the crankiness that is slowly enveloping all of us with each passing day of cabin fever. Later he went to bed and tried to take a nap, which made me wonder if he was sick, but he said he was just tired.

After June’s nap, the kids were tearing around the house, playing with the Hello Kitty balloon. Beth warned them several times, but they chose to ignore her words of wisdom and soon June was crying because the balloon had a big gash in the front and the helium was all out of it. I taped it up so it wouldn’t rip more, but it no longer floats.

Suddenly turning on the Olympics seemed like a good idea. And that’s pretty much what the kids did for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Noah’s interest in the Games is largely technical– how do the cameras follow a skier down the hill, he wants to know—and personal—he likes the features about the athletes, particularly if there’s discussion of gruesome accidents in the athlete’s past (and no, he has not seen the footage of the luger who died). June just likes to watch people swooshing down snow-covered hills and jumping and twirling on the ice. Most of the figure skating is on past the kids’ bedtimes, but the one pair she saw skating riveted her.

Monday: Normal Minus Two

I woke thinking about my father. It was the one-month anniversary of his death and according to my original travel plans, I was supposed to be visiting him over President’s Day weekend. I’m pretty sure that part of my inability to cope with the disruption of this storm comes from feeling emotionally wrung out and near the edge already.

Right before breakfast June finally told us why she’d been crying on and off for hours the day before. Recently, Beth and I have been trying to cut back a little on Noah’s monster breakfasts. He has always woken hungry and eaten his biggest meal of the day then, but because of his sensory issues he’s not always aware of when he’s not hungry anymore and we suspected he was only eating so much out of habit, especially on the weekends when he’ll eat two waffles and then ask for a bowl of cereal and then another. Anyway, he’s been complaining in a joking sort of way that we want him to shrivel up and die and sometimes we joke back that yes, that’s our evil plot. Anyway, June heard this and took it seriously and was convinced we wanted Noah to die. She was relieved to hear this was not the case. Poor June! She’s not even four and often seems to have the weight of the world on her little shoulders. I worry about that.

“Today is going to be boring,” Noah declared soon after that was cleared up.

Beth surprised him and me by saying, “Do you want to come to work with me?” (She would normally have President’s Day off, but because her office was closed four days last week, they cancelled the day off.) It took him a while to answer, but he decided to go. I wasn’t sure whether this would make my day easier or harder. It would be quieter certainly, but as much as they bicker, the children do play together a lot and now I’d have to entertain June by myself all day long. It was different, though, and we all could use a change of pace.

Faced with a different day than the one I thought I was having, I wondered what to do with June. I’d been thinking of just staying home all day, but without Noah, this no longer seemed like a good idea. And while I have standing emergency back-up plans for some days of the week, Monday is not one of them. Before June was in school, I used to take her to the Community Playtime sponsored by the rec center on Mondays, but I never really liked it much. It’s noisy and chaotic and I’m too shy to talk much to other parents without a more organized activity going on. Plus I had no idea what the sidewalks are like on the long, steep hill we’d have to climb to get there.

Then I decided I would try to catch up on the newsletter clipping I do for Sara while June watched Sesame Street and then we could build an outing around going to the post office to mail the packet. Mayorga (www.mayorgacoffee.com) has re-opened at a location in that direction so I was pleased with this plan. Then a few minutes into my work, I realized—President’s Day. The post office would be closed. It’s so hard to keep track of why the children are not at school when they never go. I went ahead and finished the work, getting everything into an envelope, addressed and ready to go so I could take it with me and mail it on my way to the dentist.

When June’s show was over, she came into the study. I told her I thought we should go somewhere. She brightened. Then I told her I wasn’t sure where to go and asked if she had any ideas. She piped right up, “Starbucks!” For once, I didn’t particularly want to go there. I asked her if she remembered how long it took to walk there on Friday and if she was really sure. Yes! Yes! She was sure. She wanted to go. Could we go now?

So without a stop at the grocery store, this outing takes an hour and forty-five minutes. It would probably go more quickly if June would walk on the sidewalks that are cleared, but she prefers to trudge through the snow. We stopped at the bridge over Long Branch creek and threw snowballs into the coffee-colored water. June was chatty. She asked if I thought the Yellow Gingko has ever watched Sesame Street. I said I bet she had. “Yellow Gingko is cool,” June said. “You are not cool. You are interesting.” Then she paused and asked, “Are cool and interesting the same thing?” Not exactly, I allowed. But even though I am not as cool as her friend, she did tell me at two different points in the walk, “Mommy, I like being with you,” so that was nice. On the way home, she kept falling backwards into snow banks, seemingly on purpose, and closing her eyes.

“Are you tired?” I asked. She said yes. I suggested that home might be a better place for a nap and tugged her gently to her feet, only to watch her do it a few yards later. Finally, we got home, ate lunch, read a book and I put June down for her nap.

All the while I was keeping my eyes on the sky. Slow, sleet and rain were forecast, but when we’d set out on our walk at 10:45, the sky was mostly blue. It clouded over as we walked. And sometime between two and two-thirty, as June slept, it started to snow. I remembered something Beth said after the last snow. She said it was like being inside a snow globe that a giant child will not stop shaking. I even felt a little queasy watching it come down. Within an hour, even though the snow wasn’t even sticking to the streets or the sidewalks (and it never did), Montgomery County Public Schools announced a two-hour delayed opening. This meant Noah would go to school, but June would not. Normal had been pushed back another day.

Tuesday: Normal Minus One

I left for my 11:30 dentist appointment at 8:50. I did not really expect it to take me over two and a half hours to travel from Takoma to my Dupont Circle area dentist, but I simply could not wait to get out of the house. Public transportation is still sluggish, especially the buses, but by 10:15 I’d mailed my packages and was ensconced with a mocha, the Health and Science section of the Post and a collection of Alice Munro stories. Life was good for an hour or so.

I was home with my temporary crown applied and my mouth half numbed by 1:30. I was trying to decide whether to nap in my room or June’s when she met me at the door. “June, you’re still up!” I said. No, Beth informed me, the nap was over. That was a disappointment, but it didn’t seem right to complain, after having cut out so early on a day when Beth was trying to get some work done at home.

We muddled through the afternoon. I read to June and helped her make meals for the castle people out of modeling clay. While the kids watched television, I got back on the exercise bike for the first time in longer than I want to admit. I made cauliflower-cabbage soup. I defrosted the lemon cake and we ate most of it, even though the Valentine’s sweets are not completely gone. I was in a celebratory mood. It was the eve of normalcy.

Wednesday: Normal!

Noah went to school. June went to school. I exhaled.

It was not exactly a normal day. Noah had after-school science, and then we had dinner at El Golfo (http://elgolforestaurant.com/Home_Page.php) with several nursery school families in honor of the boy formerly known as the Grasshopper and his family (they moved to Seattle and were back East for a visit) and after that Beth had a nursery school board meeting. June and I walked a lot. As the sidewalks are not passable by stroller yet, June had to walk to and from her school and then to and from Noah’s school for a total of almost two and a half hours walking in one day. The day was stuffed full, so full that Noah had to do his language arts homework at the restaurant. But it was better than the alternative. We are out of the snow globe, for now.

That evening, I gathered up all the sympathy cards I’ve received, read them one more time and put most of them in the recycling. I put the rest, along with the blue heart, in a box of special papers.

Meteorology is not at its most accurate this far out, but they are anticipating several more storms this winter, including one on Monday, June’s next day of school and the day before the newly re-scheduled Geo-Bowl. If that happens, I am thinking of hopping a freight train south.

A House Without Heat

This wasn’t going to be another post about my father. It was going to be a post about Beth’s and my anniversary and I guess it is, but it’s about my father, too. That’s just how it turned out.

On Sunday night, as I was getting ready for bed, and Beth was lying in bed with her eyes closed, I slipped an anniversary card into a zippered compartment on the front of her suitcase. She was leaving for Sacramento in the morning on a three-day business trip, the first day of which was the eighteenth anniversary of our commitment ceremony.

“I’m not as grumpy about it as I was the last time this happened,” I’d told her at dinner. I was referring to the fact that she’d been out of town on the twentieth anniversary of our first date. We have two anniversaries and she travels a lot, so it happens. Although possibly I shouldn’t have let on that I didn’t mind so much because the last time she took me to the beach for the weekend to make up for being gone on the actual day. Anyway, we decided to celebrate the following weekend. I got a babysitter for four hours on Saturday, enough time for a movie and dinner out. It was what I meant to do for her birthday back in November.

June woke me around two in the morning and I noticed it seemed cold in the house. I was too sleepy to give it much thought, however. When she woke me again around five, though, I realized it really was quite cold. I put my hand on the radiator in our room and found it stone cold. I decided I’d tell Beth about it when she woke, but she got up and checked the furnace before her usual 6:30 wake-up time and before I was awake enough to tell her. She placed a phone call to the emergency number for our heating oil company and was told the message would be forwarded to the local office when it opened at 7:30. Beth and I conferred about what to do if the heat could not be restored quickly. We’ve been having unusually cold weather for the past week or two. It’s in the twenties at night, with daytime temperatures in the thirties. (The snow that fell in mid-December is still lingering in patches here and there on our lawn. It’s still deep enough in places to make snowballs, which we do on occasion.) I thought with the use of a space heater in the kids’ bedroom we could probably stay in the house for at least another night. The house has thick walls and holds its heat pretty well. Beth was out the door on her way to the airport by 7:20, agitated about leaving us behind with no heat. I put my arms around her shortly before she left and joked, “An anniversary without you is like a house without heat.”

I took advantage of the fact that Monday is the one day of the week I pick June’s clothes to bundle her into corduroys over her pajama bottoms and a heavy sweater over a turtleneck. She’d been spending the morning at school but I wanted her to be prepared for a chilly afternoon. I decided if we had no heat tomorrow, I’d institute a no-short-dresses-with-tights rule until the heat was back on, but I didn’t tell her. No point in having an argument before its time.

I carried my cell phone with me (which I almost never do) on our way to school. Usually Beth waits for Noah’s 8:20 bus with him while I take June to school since she needs to be there at 8:30 and it’s a fifteen to twenty minute walk depending on how many acorns need to be picked up or how many frozen puddles need to be slid across. When Beth is out of town, Noah walks with us and we try to catch his bus as it passes a different stop. This usually works, and it did this day, too, but just barely. As we were approaching the busy street where the bus stops, nearly a block away, I saw it pulling up. “Run, but don’t cross the street!” I yelled to Noah, hoping the bus driver would see him waiting on the wrong side of the street. I grabbed June off the ground and ran with her. I don’t think we would have made it if it hadn’t been for other bus stop parents who saw us coming and asked the bus driver to wait. I thought that was nice of them, given that it’s not our normal stop and they don’t know us. By the time the bus pulled away, with Noah on it, I was coughing hard and struggling for breath. It turns out running uphill while sick and carrying a three year old winds me pretty quickly. I didn’t mention I’m sick on top of all this? Well, I am. I’ve had this cold for close to two weeks, and it’s moved down into my chest. It seems to happen all the time now when I get sick. It’s a disturbing pattern.

Anyway, my cell phone didn’t ring on the way to school or on the way back home. The message somehow got lost between the answering service and the local office so it was 1:00 p.m. before I was able to get anyone to tell me when someone would be coming to look at the furnace. Fortunately, they acted quickly once that was straightened out and the repairperson arrived at 2:30 and at 2:50 the furnace roared back to life. By this time the temperature in the house had dropped to 53 degrees. (We usually keep it at 64 degrees.) But soon it was climbing again and I thought the day was finally looking up.

Noah came home from school. We played out in the yard, and then he came in to do his daily reading. He’s reading my old copies of mysteries by Wylly Folk St. John. I got the idea to introduce him to them because he liked the A-Z mystery series so much and those are really formulaic and much too easy for him. I wanted to provide him with some better written mysteries. He started with The Christmas Tree Mystery last month, since it was seasonal and from then on he was hooked. He’s on his fifth one now. He watched some television and snacked and did some homework (more than half his math packet for the week actually). My only clue that something was wrong with him came right before he started to read. He and June were playing with Lincoln Logs and he was trying to make a large house with an unstable floor plan. It kept falling over. Then one of the little houses I made for June got knocked over and both kids were crying, Noah as hard as June.

I shrugged it off, since he does get like that sometimes and he calmed down pretty quickly, but when it was time for dinner he said he didn’t feel well. I was surprised because he’d seemed fine up to then. He wasn’t feverish, but he said he had a headache and a stomachache and he didn’t know if he should eat. I’d made macaroni and cheese with broccoli, a standard Beth’s-out-of-town dinner and one of the kids’ favorites. I said it was up to him. He should do what felt right. He wondered if he was hungry or sick. Or maybe he needed to go to the bathroom. (All these states can feel very similar to him because of his sensory confusion.) So he tried going to the bathroom and then he ate a little of his dinner. Go slowly, I advised him and see if it makes you feel better or worse. Worse was the answer. He left the table, went to rest in my room and was asleep on my bed by 7:00. I tried to rouse him so I could move him to his own bed and maybe get him into pajamas, but after opening his eyes, he just closed them and rolled away from me so I decided to leave him there.

Now June does not like to go to sleep in a room by herself, so she wanted to sleep in the toddler bed that’s still in the corner of our room and I let her. Then I had to decide where I would sleep. There was room in my bed, since Beth was gone, but I thought if he’s contagious maybe I’d be better off in the kids’ room. It seemed like a different illness than what I have and I didn’t want two illnesses at once, so I slept in June’s bunk.

Beth and I had been exchanging phone calls and emails all day, about the heat situation and Noah’s illness. I’d told her to look in her suitcase for her card and she couldn’t find it. Eventually, we realized I’d put it in the wrong suitcase. I checked and there it was still in her closet. “This day just keeps getting crappier,” I wrote her, before turning in.

June woke me at 2:00 and again at 3:30, and then Noah was up at 4:30, feeling fine and wanting to know if he could get up for the day. The answer was no. So I was completely exhausted when I got up for the day and read my stepmother’s email.

Once I did, none of it mattered, not missing our anniversary, not the cold house, not Noah’s passing illness. My father’s cancer is progressing much more quickly than we thought it would. He’s close to the end. It could be in as little as a month.

It was my morning to co-op at June’s school. I’d put out a call for a substitute on the class listserv the night before but it since no-one was able to sub on short notice and Noah was feeling better, I put him on a bus and hoped for the best. He does bounce back from illness with amazing rapidity most of the time and he wanted to go. He was even mad at me for not taking him to the before-school Geo-Bowl practice. (He’s participating in a geography contest for third to fifth graders next month. It’s a big deal at his school.) I didn’t think we could make it to the 8:00 a.m. practice in time, though.

I drifted through my co-oping duties, not feeling entirely there. I didn’t want to co-op that day, but once I was there it felt like a good thing to be in a busy, cheerful place full of three and four year olds. When June and I came home, we ate lunch and napped. I fell asleep quickly and slept deeply.

June’s school provided our dinner that night. It was something the membership co-ordinator had been meaning to do for us sometime to thank Beth for her work on the board and the fundraising committee, but when she’d heard about our heat troubles and Noah being sick she decided this was the day. She didn’t even know anything about my father. I can’t even really call it dinner, it was a feast: a baguette, a salad, two kinds of pasta salad, kale, beets, green beans, three kinds of candy, including a big dark chocolate bar with almonds. We could eat off this for days, and I think we will. Thanks, Jill!

That night was tidying up a little while Noah was in the bath and I realized I hadn’t gotten past the front page of the newspaper and I hadn’t ridden the exercise bike that day. It wasn’t that I hadn’t gotten around to those things or I’d decided I was too overwhelmed to do them. I’d just forgotten two of the most ingrained parts of my weekday routine. I decided I needed to be finished with this day, so soon after both kids were asleep, around 9:35, I was in bed myself. June let me sleep until almost six, for which I was deeply grateful.

I think I’m going to Florida soon. I’ve been exchanging email with my sister and stepmother about it, but I need to wait until I can talk to Beth in person to figure out what makes the most sense. And depending on when I go and for how long, she’ll need to make arrangements for childcare, either taking time off work or inviting her mother to come stay and watch the kids while I’m gone. It’s all up in the air right now. I can’t wait for her to get home this afternoon so I talk to her in person and not be alone with this grief.

But I’m also wishing I could go back to Monday when my biggest problems were a sick child and a house without heat.

When We Were Down Beside the Sea

There were probably more reasons not to go to the Outer Banks this week than to go. It’s a long drive, Beth is swamped at work and there’s a nursery school board meeting tonight, plus there’s an Open House at Noah’s school on Friday and Sasha’s having an end-of-summer-vacation pool party immediately afterward, not to mention Hurricane Bill had the potential to make driving treacherous. But my mother and stepfather had rented a house and invited us. I’ve been going down to Avon with them since I was eighteen years old. At first we went every year but in recent years it’s been more like every two or three years. The last time we went Noah was five and June was five months. And since I would find turning down an invitation to the beach roughly akin to chewing off one of my own limbs, we went. These were Beth’s terms: We’d come back Wednesday so she could attend the meeting and we could all go to the Open House and pool party and it would be a working vacation for her. The ratio of three beach days to two driving days was not ideal, but it was something. I said okay, probably more grudgingly than I should have.

“Beth must love you a lot,” my mom said as we were discussing her plans to spend two days driving and then most of the rest of her time at the computer. I think she does.

Day 1
We got a later start than we intended on Saturday morning because ten minutes into the drive I realized we’d left the diaper bag at home and we went back for it. (That would have been a convenient time to remember we’d left Noah’s suitcase in his room but we didn’t make that discovery until bedtime.) We arrived just before six, after a nine hour, fifteen minute drive that featured rain, intermittent traffic jams, June’s first-ever bout of carsickness and a half hour of screaming over video choices. Guess who screamed for a half hour? Hint: it wasn’t me or Beth or June. Beth went right back out to pick up enough groceries for dinner and the next morning’s breakfast, despite the fact that it looked like it was going to storm and she was feeling jittery from the stress of the drive.

Just before we put the kids to bed, I slipped down to the beach. Bill had stirred up the sea, creating waves that looked massive from the deck. I had to see it up close. When I got to the beach I saw the outer edge of the extensive dune system had been washed away, leaving tufts of sea oats stranded in what looked like the middle of the beach. Of course, the beach was a lot narrower than usual because the water was up so high. When I got close to the water I could see that what had looked like enormous waves from a distance was really a series of merely large waves, one on top of the other. There were waves close in and waves far out and waves every place in between with no breaks at all. The National Weather Service had issued a warning not to swim Saturday and Sunday and I saw why. It looked impossible.

Day 2
Sunday morning it was raining, but June, stalwart girl she is, was eager to go to the beach with me. While Beth and Noah went shopping for clothes for him, we made dribble castles in the rain, collected shells (June favored the white and purple ones, which she later presented to Grandmom and I found a sand dollar) and we compared the relative size of our footprints (conclusion: mine are bigger). We observed how quickly the water rushed up in the holes June dug with her little shovel in the waterlogged sand and I recited the following Robert Louis Stevenson poem:

When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.

My holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up,
Till it could come no more.


She looked at me thoughtfully, as if surprised I knew the perfect poem for the occasion. “Say it again,” she said, and I did. On the way back to the house we saw a group of five pelicans fly over our heads.

That afternoon, the skies cleared and I took June down to the beach again with Mom and Jim. Beth and Noah were out shopping again. It turns out boys’ underwear is very difficult to find on the Outer Banks and they drove all the way up to the GAP outlet in Nag’s Head, an hour’s drive each way, to buy him some. At least they got to make a stop at Bodie Island Lighthouse (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodie_Island_Light), which he wanted to see. He was really good-natured about spending so much of his day driving and trying on clothes, better than I would have been in his place.

I didn’t stay at the beach long because I was cooking corn chowder for dinner. I’d picked that evening to cook because the no-swim warning was still in effect. Shortly before I went back to the house, Beth brought a newly outfitted Noah down to the beach and we admired his new shark t-shirt and Hawaiian print swim trunks.

Day 3
Monday I squeezed in as much beach time as I could, making four trips down to the water. On the first trip the kids made sand castle after sand castle and June lost her sunglasses. This is how it happened: The three of us were standing in the surf and Noah said he didn’t think she should be wearing them in the water because she could lose them. I don’t know why she chose this moment to listen to him, but she removed her sunglasses and promptly dropped them into the ocean. The water was shallow but foamy and flowing rapidly back and forth and as soon as they went under, they disappeared. I tried to make a grab for them, but I couldn’t see where to grab. Realizing what had happened, June burst into tears. Feeling responsible perhaps, Noah did, too. I tried to calm them both, telling Noah it wasn’t his fault over and over. Before I could tell June we’d buy her a new pair of sunglasses she stopped crying abruptly and before her brother did. “Can I get Dora sunglasses?” she wanted to know.

The kids wanted to return to the house soon after that, even though it wasn’t close to lunch time yet, so I hustled them back, showered and dressed them, foisted them off on my mother, and went back to the beach for my first swim of the trip. The water was still very rough, but the waves were spaced out so I thought I could manage. Even so, it was a difficult swim. It took a lot of patience and effort to get past the breakers to my favorite place, where the waves are swelling and just starting to curve. I did it, but after only a few waves I got pulled back into the rough surf and I decided to call it quits. (I grow old… I grow old…. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled– http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html.) I returned to the house, had lunch, napped with June and then Beth took a break from her work to take us all to Dairy Queen and to go sunglass shopping for June.

The swimming was better that afternoon. In fact it was the best swimming I’ve had in years. It was close to low tide and the waves were very big, but gentler now. I faced them and jumped up into them right before they broke and they sucked me up their slopes and dropped me down. On the way down, I fell through the air for several seconds before I hit the water, laughing out loud. After I tired, I placed myself just to the side of where the big waves were breaking and I stood sideways, watching the late afternoon sunlight paint their swelling surfaces silver and gold.

I returned to the beach that night after the kids were in bed. With no boardwalk lights, the beach in Avon is darker at night that Rehoboth Beach, but the darkness lets you see more clearly what light there is—the stars sprinkled across the sky with the Big Dipper in the West, the tiny phosphorescent creatures twinkling in the wet sand and in the shallow water, the lights of the fishing pier, the bonfires crackling on the beach, the beams of light from flashlights held by kids tearing around the beach looking for the crabs that come out of their holes at night. As I walked along the water’s edge, looking at the stars, I felt a rare awareness that I was walking on the surface of a planet among many other planets, at the edge of a continent among many other continents. It didn’t make me feel small. It made me feel grounded.

Day 4
Tuesday morning Noah and I went out to breakfast, just the two of us. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had an Avon tradition of slipping away one morning before anyone was up and having breakfast alone at the Froggy Dog (http://www.froggydog.com/). I’d always get the same special: two fried eggs over easy with grits and a biscuit. After I’d eaten I’d linger at the table, drinking my coffee and reading or writing and then I’d leave the waitress a big tip for monopolizing the table. The first time Beth came with me to spend a week with my folks at the beach, the summer after I graduated from college, I took her. I still go every year we’re there with different combinations of people, but I don’t read or write at the table any more. I chose to take Noah this year because although I am frequently alone with June, he and I don’t have much one on one time.

It was a fun meal. We talked about the upcoming school year and whether he’d prefer Spanish in the morning and English in the afternoon or the other way around (English in the morning he said, so he could ease into his day). We tried to decide whether the art on the wall was a painting of two unicorns walking in the surf or a doctored photograph of horses. (Painting he said, but I thought it might be a photograph.) He bounced in his seat along with the music, a mix of 70s and 80s pop. I wondered if I would need to explain what a “macho, macho man” was while the Village People tune played (http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/Macho-Man-lyrics-Village-People/B4F3065622CA393F48256DF20009B350), but he didn’t ask. When he needed help cutting his pancakes and spreading strawberry and blackberry jam on them, I thought about how delayed he is in self-help skills, partly due to his sensory issues and his ensuing lack of co-ordination but also because he’s in his comfort zone having us do this kind of thing for him and doesn’t often want to try to do it himself. Usually Beth helps him while I’m helping June so I don’t reflect on it much.

We walked back to the house, picked up June and we all went to the beach. I was sitting on the wet sand with June on my lap, when Noah came over and asked me a question (he wanted to know if my watch was waterproof and if I should be wearing it so close to the water). I turned to look at him and missed a big wave. June got knocked right off my lap and ended up about a foot behind me. I grabbed her out of the water. This happens to her a lot– she’s so little and the waves are so big. In fact, just the day before when I was back at the house cooking dinner, my mom was sitting in a beach chair near the water with June on her lap when a wave went right over both of them. That time she wanted to go back up to the house, but this time, she shook it off pretty easily.

After lunch, a nap and another trip for ice cream, I took both kids to the beach with Mom and Jim. I had a swim, very nice but not as glorious as the day before. Then I waded back into the shallow water and played with the kids. This time it was Noah’s turn to get knocked over. He was going in even deeper than he had in Rehoboth and jumping around in the waves. When they knocked him over he would just laugh, as long as he kept his head above water. His face went underwater once, and he came up with all his hair wet and slicked down except a dry stripe sticking up on the very top of his head, like a Mohawk. He was serious and subdued for a few minutes, but he regained his good humor quickly.

The kids moved up the beach to where Pop was sitting. They built dribble castles (together and separately) while I sat and watched the ocean. Too soon it was time to go back to the house for dinner. Noah was cold and he needed to use the bathroom, but none of us wanted to leave. Noah wanted to go deep into the surf and let three waves crash into him before we left. Then I rushed into the water and dove under one last wave, not knowing if I’d get to swim again before we left the next morning. Then as I turned to go, I heard another one forming behind me and I dove under that one, too. When I finally got out of the water and started rinsing off the sand toys, June wanted to press the pelican mold into the sand one last time.

That night my mom made peach crumble (using as topping the crumbs of the oatmeal scotchies I’d brought from home, which had gotten crushed in the car). We ate it on the deck after dinner, watching the ocean on one side of the house and the setting sun and rising moon on the other.

Day 5
We did make it back to the beach this morning for a little playing and swimming time before we piled into the car and drove back to work and meetings and a new school year. When Beth told June it was time to leave beach and go home, she doubled over and cried. “She’s your inner child,” Beth commented. Beth and Noah went on ahead to start their showers as I tried to drag June off the beach. She lagged far behind me as I called her over and over.

Our holes were empty like a cup. In every hole the sea came up, till it could come no more.

When the Clock Says Fourteen

A few weeks ago Beth asked June when she would start to use the potty. Her answer: “When the clock says fourteen.” As far as we can tell, that does seem to be her current plan.

We approached potty-training June with deep dread. She has not shown much interest and we probably would not have started yet if not for a looming early September deadline. She is supposed to be trained when she starts the 3s class at the Purple School. We’ve heard from another parent of a late trainer that the rule is not ruthlessly enforced, but I think we need to make a good faith effort, so a week and a half ago, we switched June over to underpants when she’s at home and awake. So far this is the score: eleven days, one success, and more loads of laundry than I care to count.

A little background–training Noah was a nightmare. Looking back on it we’re pretty sure his then undiagnosed sensory issues played a part. The summer he was three, several discouraging weeks into potty training, we urged him to “listen to his body” and he replied, “Sometimes it doesn’t talk. It needs a microphone.” It turned out to be an apt description of the problem. Even now a lot of the time he still doesn’t know when he needs to go. He has a schedule and that’s when he goes.

Meanwhile, he flummoxed his daycare teachers who ended up breaking their own policies by allowing him to move up from the younger preschool group to the older preschool group untrained. After six months of changing his wet and soiled underpants several times a day they gave up on him and put him back in diapers when he was three and a half. He was just barely trained when he started the Purple School at almost four and a half. He was still having frequent accidents, but we counted on the fact that he was only at school fifteen hours a week to minimize how many of them occurred there. It worked out pretty well. We still were peeling dirty underpants off him a couple times a week, but it only happened at school two or three times. We felt like we were pulling off some kind of ruse, passing him off as a potty-trained child. He was close to five before he was what I’d call functionally potty-trained.

Although it manifests itself differently in me, I think I have at least a touch of Noah’s sensory difficulties (I’m pretty sure it’s why I have never learned to drive) and I am almost certainly the genetic source of them. But we’ve been watching June for signs since she was a baby and she doesn’t seem to have them. She’s reasonably well co-ordinated for her age and other than a sensitivity to light (which I’ve heard can come with blue eyes) she doesn’t seem to respond to sensory data in an unusual way. So why is she the oldest untrained child in her class? Did we jinx her by unconsciously communicating our fears to her? When June was younger we used to say when she reached potty training age we’d find out if Noah was really hard to train or if we were really bad at it. We were joking (mostly) but right now it’s not seeming very funny.

One day last week, after an accident, I asked June what it feels like right before she pees. “I don’t know,” she responded in an annoyed tone. I asked if she ever had a funny feeling right here and I pressed lightly on her bladder. “I don’t know,” she repeated. Please not again, I thought.

Last week at Kindermusik, conversation turned to potty training. There’s a girl in the class, who just turned two, who is already trained. Someone else mentioned training her son shortly before his second birthday in a weekend. I will admit I had some uncharitable thoughts upon hearing this, but I congratulated the mother of the recently trained girl and shared our tale of woe. One mom asked if we were using rewards. I explained June was getting one M&M for every half hour she kept her underpants dry, three if she peed on the potty, and that each time she pees on the potty (or sleeps through the night) she gets a sticker on a chart. Four stickers are redeemable for a trip to the video store. “That’s a complicated system,” the mom said. That’s the problem, I immediately thought, it’s too complicated. We’ve confused her. Clearly, I am more than ready to second guess myself.

I don’t know what our next step is. June likes her underpants (especially the cheap, thin Elmo ones, which she prefers over the soft, absorbent, organic training pants I favor). I don’t think she wants to go back to diapers. The Velcro on her diaper covers is wearing out so they pop open at inconvenient times and scratch her legs. I know I don’t want to invest in a whole new set of covers now and I’m pretty sure the ones we have in the next size up would be too big. But one success in eleven days is pretty discouraging. Basically, we are using the training pants and underwear as diapers. June doesn’t like to sit on the potty, never volunteers to do so and has to be jollied or bribed into it. The one time she did pee there she was so alarmed she jumped up and started to cry. Not that she’s comfortable wetting her pants, either. That makes her cry, too.

Yesterday was my day off. I went out for coffee, read down by the creek and swam laps. Beth took June to Circle Time at the library, picked up Noah from his after school science class, made dinner (with banana splits for dessert!) and handled most of the underpants changes and potty sits. I’m hoping this break will let me go into today and the days that come with renewed patience. I will try, but I’m not sure my subconscious is getting the message. I dreamed last night I had to take June to a party where underpants were required and I kept changing her into outfit after outfit but each time I got her dressed, she would wet herself and I’d have to start over. For his part, Noah’s tying to create underpants excitement by calling out from his room which ones he’s chosen for the day each morning: “I’m wearing my star underpants because I’m a star!” he’ll say. Leave it to Noah to put a positive spin on the situation.

Still, I’d say we are all getting pretty impatient for fourteen o’clock.

The House of Crazy

Noah had almost finished his bowl of brown rice crisps on Sunday morning when he noticed, “Hey, there’s milk in this cereal!”

“Milk on your cereal?” Beth cried in mock surprise.

“What is this?” Noah said. “The House of Crazy?”

Noah prefers orange juice on his cereal. It’s a bad habit he picked up from YaYa. (Andrea has no other bad habits I know of, so I hope she will forgive me for telling the Internet about this one.) I object to juice on cereal on two counts. First, it’s gross. Second, I have to badger Noah into drinking more milk at meals if he doesn’t have it on his cereal. I hadn’t put the milk on the cereal to be sneaky, though. I’d genuinely forgotten. Beth usually makes his breakfast. I’d volunteered to feed him so she could focus on packing.

Beth’s mom underwent minor surgery last Wednesday and then a series of unexpected and scary complications ensued. The evening after the surgery she stopped breathing and had to go on a ventilator overnight. The doctors thought it might be a reaction to a painkiller but no one really seemed to know why it happened. Shortly afterward she came down with pneumonia. This was likely caused by either the ventilator or the chest compressions performed by the student nurse who found her. Unnecessary chest compressions, as it turns out. She had a pulse all along even though he couldn’t find it.

Beth was frustrated by the lack of clear answers from the hospital and antsy being away from home during this family crisis. After a few days of confusing ups and downs she decided to forgo all or part of our week’s vacation at the beach and go home. She drove us out to the beach on Saturday and helped us get settled into the house. She stayed overnight and left for Pittsburgh Sunday morning.

“You’re going to miss the House of Crazy,” I told her. Both kids were still seated at the breakfast table, singing different songs quite loudly.

“I will,” she said emphatically, though she pointed out she was headed into a potentially crazier situation.

I cried a little as I watched our red Subaru pull out of the driveway of the beach house. I felt so many emotions: relief for Beth, who was on her way to where she needed to be; worry for Andrea who almost left us and who might not be out of the woods yet; and sadness for this separation during my favorite week of the year.

I wouldn’t be single parenting, though, because my mom was due to arrive that afternoon. I’d been glad she was coming all along but now I was even gladder. On Saturday evening while Beth was grocery shopping for us, I took the kids to the beach and we got back before she did. Just getting everyone showered was an adventure. Both kids were encrusted with sand and I didn’t want to let them set foot in the house. How to get soap, towels and clean clothes into the outdoor shower with them outside? I herded them into the shower and had Noah lock it from the inside so June wouldn’t wander into traffic while I was in the house. June was not pleased with this arrangement and screamed bloody murder while I rummaged through our half-unpacked belongings. I gave up on finding the shampoo and washed Noah’s hair with bar soap. I’m reasonably competent at taking care of the kids on my own most of the time, but on new turf, out of our routine, it’s a bit harder. When Beth got home from the grocery store, both kids were clean, in pajamas and snacking. I knew we’d manage fine, even if things got a bit crazy at times.

Day 1
Sunday morning was rainy so after Beth drove off, Noah and I settled in on the screened porch to read Dragon Slayers’ Academy #6 (Sir Lancelot, Where Are You?) (http://www.kidsreads.com/series/series-dragon_slayers-titles.asp) for over an hour. He’s supposed to read or be read to for twenty minutes a day for his school reading log but we’d been so busy getting ready to go to the beach (and squeezing in a trip to the Montgomery County Fair) that we’d skipped two days. He wanted to make the time up now. June wandered in and out, sometimes sitting with us and listening, sometimes paging through her own books, sometimes rearranging the seashells that decorated the porch.

When the rain cleared up, we went to Candy Kitchen to stock up on candy necklaces, fudge, gummy butterflies and saltwater taffy. Then we hit the beach. After just a half hour, thunder rumbled, lightning flashed and the lifeguards cleared the beach. In my former life, I would have hung out on the boardwalk until the lifeguards left, then returned to the beach, relishing having it more or less to myself. But now that I’m a mom, walking on the beach during an electrical storm no longer seems like a good idea.

The rain started while we were still picking up our sand toys and by the time we reached the boardwalk, the drops were so big they looked like hail. We hid out in Funland until it let up a bit and then we hurried home.

Mom arrived mid-afternoon, shortly after June woke from her nap. Noah was finishing up the very last page in his summer math packet. He jumped up from his work and ran to the door.

“Welcome to the Haunted Mansion of Delaware!” he greeted her. He and Beth had been poking around in the basement earlier and Noah, who loves the mess and jumble of basements, wanted to pretend it was haunted.

We took another short jaunt to the beach, came home and showered with less screaming. It turns out June prefers being swung in the hammock by Grandmom to being locked in the shower with Noah. Go figure.

Dinner preparations were something of a comedy of errors. The water Mom put on to boil for mac-n-cheese was cold long after she turned on the stove. So was the burner. What was wrong with the stove? I was too preoccupied to help just then because I was trying to open a can of black olives with the kind of can-opener that just makes triangular holes because I couldn’t find a more suitable one. Finally Mom found another one and now able to open cans, if not boil water, we decided to have baked beans with veggie hot dogs instead. Noah ate yogurt. After dinner, the kids dug into their candy and everyone seemed satisfied with the meal.

I cleaned up in the kitchen, then I read to June while Mom and Noah played crazy eights. I called Beth and received the welcome news that Andrea was being moved off the ICU and might be discharged the next day.

Day 2
At nine sharp I called the realty about the stove. It turned out the cleaners sometimes disconnect the burners. I checked and sure enough they weren’t really connected, just resting on their foil-covered bowls. I plugged them in and they worked. I was relieved not to have to spend the day waiting for a repairperson.

“Beth would have noticed this,” I said.

“Jim would have, too,” Mom said.

Mom and Noah set off on a grocery-shopping expedition and I took June to the beach. This childcare arrangement ended up lasting the entire day because we kept missing each other. Mom and Noah were still out when June and I returned and June was napping when they got back. I tried to get out of bed to greet them, but June started to stir and I thought better of it. Mom and Noah left for the beach before June woke up and we passed each other as they were returning and we were headed out to the beach. Mom offered to take June so I could swim, but I didn’t want to snatch a beach outing from June a half block from the beach, so I kept her.

We built a little sand castle down by the water. I stuck a piece of beach grass in it for a flagpole and as I was searching for a bit of seaweed to tie to it, I noticed June sticking in more and more pieces of beach grass. Clearly, she thought this was the plan, so I went with it. Soon the tiny mound of sand bristled with spikes.

When we came back, Mom and Noah were assembling Mousetrap (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mouse_Trap_(board_game)). I’d seen the box inside earlier and I’d wondered if it belonged to the house or if Mom had bought it. (She did.) My first thought on seeing it all boxed up was, “Noah will love that.” My first thought on seeing the fragile-looking, half-finished contraption with many of its tiny pieces scattered around the table was “Not toddler-friendly!” I hurried June off to the shower.

After our postponed mac-n-cheese dinner, we set off for the boardwalk for ice cream. Noah wanted a shake. June wanted something yellow (it’s her new favorite color) and Mom and I wanted frozen custard. The boardwalk did not disappoint. Noah got a cookies-n-cream shake, June got a vanilla cone with a butterscotch dip (more of a golden brown than yellow but she didn’t complain), I got a peanut butter and chocolate twist with chocolate jimmies and Mom got a chocolate and vanilla twist. We found a bench and ate. I decided to let June walk part of the way back instead of riding in the stroller. Mom held her hand and she ambled through the crowds, beaming.

I’d promised Noah he could have his fortune told by the mechanical Gypsy mannequin, but we passed her and had to backtrack. Finally we found her. She passed her hands over her crystal ball and in an Eastern European accent, told him his lucky color was green as the ball turned green. “And that is your favorite color,” I told him as he stared at the fortune-teller with a look of mild surprise. The machine spat out a card, his fortune, which he guarded jealously.

As we left the crowds for the quieter part of the boardwalk, Mom heard her phone beep. There was a message. I called Beth. She was a bit downhearted because Andrea had not been released that day. Beth was hoping Andrea would be released the following day.

Day 3
Tuesday morning I decided to start dinner while the kids watched television. Mom was taking the kids to Funland in the late afternoon while I had some solo beach time. I wasn’t sure what time we’d all get home but I thought it might be late. I was making pasta with a tomato-cream sauce with mushrooms and garlic (and tomatoes from our garden). The first thing to go in the pot was the olive oil. A minute or so after I measured it, I noticed the bottle, now half-empty, lying on its side on the counter which was covered with a rapidly growing puddle of oil. It had gotten on all manner of things and cleanup was so involved–thanks for pitching in, Mom!– that I let the kids watch an extra show, much to their delight. Finally, the sauce was in the fridge and the kids and I were headed for the beach and my mom for the outlets.

After fifteen minutes of playing, Noah announced that he had to go to the bathroom. I should have been glad he told me. Due to his sensory issues, she still has problems knowing when he needs to go. He’s also more than a little scared of public restrooms. (He doesn’t like the sound of all of toilets flushing.) He actually used the bathroom four days in a row at drama camp last week so we were all feeling a bit celebratory about that. So I didn’t say, “Are you sure?” or “Can you wait?” Instead, I dragged June away from her enthusiastic digging, got her in the stroller and walked the fifteen minutes down the boardwalk to the nearest restroom and stood outside the men’s room door, nervous as I always am when he’s in a men’s room. When he came out he said he couldn’t go and he didn’t feel the feeling anymore.

“I guess we came all this way for nothing,” he said, looking sheepish.

I wasn’t annoyed anymore, just filled with compassion. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m glad you tried.”

My sympathy lasted until we were less than halfway back to our spot and both kids started whining that they wanted to go home. The phrase “miserable ingrates” did not pass my lips, though it did pop into my brain. Instead I said in a bright and even tone, “It’s eleven o’clock. We’ll leave at 11:30.”

It was 11:10 by the time we got back to our towel. June was happy to resume playing in the sand but Noah wanted to know why we had to go to the beach anyway. Then he wanted to know why I had to keep following June back and forth between the water and the sand instead of staying in one place and playing with him. Finally, we were all in one place, peacefully making dribble castles. (Noah calls them “drizzle castles.”) Noah doesn’t quite have the hang of how to hold his fingers but he was getting a few good dribbles. June was trying it, too, with almost as much success. The kids were quiet and focused. I looked at my watch: 11:30. I decided not to say anything about it. June might melt down if I kept her out too close to nap time, but I didn’t want to lose this moment. Five minutes later I was rewarded for staying by the sight of several dolphin fins skimming across the calms seas.

On the way back to the house, Noah said with a sigh, “I wish we could live at the beach.”

Later that afternoon, June opened her eyes, blinked sleepily and was on the verge of falling back asleep when Noah’s triumphant cry, “It worked!” woke her definitively from her nap. She wanted to go see what Grandmom and Noah were doing. I carried her into the living room where we saw the Mousetrap fully assembled and working. Mom explained Noah had figured out why the finished contraption wasn’t working. They hadn’t attached a rubber band they’d assumed was just part of the packaging. Noah picked up the instructions, which they hadn’t consulted, relying instead on a diagram on the box, and found the answer. His mechanical ability is either the result of his donor’s genetic contribution, or something he picked up from watching Beth work on things or both, because he certainly didn’t get it from me.

As promised, Mom took the kids to Funland and Candy Kitchen after she and Noah played a quick game of Mousetrap. I was alone on the beach from 3:15 to 5:30. I read; I swam: I chronicled our adventures. (I am so old school I sometimes handwrite this blog.) I was just sitting on the towel watching the ocean when I heard a familiar voice say, “I think that’s my Mommy” and June came trotting over.

Noah wanted to play in the surf with me so we left Mom in charge of June. I explained that her ear-piercing screams as the waves come up over her feet are really happy ones. You can tell by looking at her face. Noah and I waded into the water. He’s going in a bit deeper this year. I told him it would be high tide in fifteen minutes. He wanted to be in the water at the exact moment of high tide. I held my arms out and he ran around me, grabbing onto one hand as he swung over and let go of the other one, circling me over and over and the waves crashed around our legs. His hands felt large and strong in mine.

I sang to him:
The tide is high but I’m holding on.
I’m gonna be your number one.
Number one, number one.


I’m not his number one all the time. I share that honored position with Beth and someday we will both cede it. But even as he dances around me and we loosen our grip only to clasp hands again, I am holding on. Always holding on.

I called Beth while Mom got the water boiling for pasta. Andrea had been discharged and was home with an oxygen tank to help her breathe at night.

Day 4
June looked up from her oatmeal on Wednesday morning and said, “Where’s Bef?” It was the first time in three days she’d asked. In the course of a normal weekday she asks where Beth is about twenty times so I guess she was distracted by her new surroundings. Just the day before Noah mentioned missing Beth for the first time without adding something like “so she can fix the iPod.” I told him I missed her, too.

“She’s at YaYa’s house,” I answered June. “She was sick and she had to go to the hospital.”

June face lit up. Ever since she fell and bit through her lip and had to go to the nighttime pediatric urgent care last spring, she has been very interested in hospitals and doctors making your feel better.

“She’s home now,” I added. “She’s better. Beth is taking care of her.”

“The doctor helped her feel better!” June said triumphantly.

Well, not exactly, I thought, but I said, “Yes.”

“The doctor turned on the tv,” June said sagely. The televisions at various doctor’s offices have made a big impression on June. She’s sure they play a big part in the healing process.

Late in the afternoon, Noah and I were playing in the surf. We were pretending to be in the bubbling soup pot of a giant who thought we were noodles. “We’re not noodles!” we yelled. I tried to remember how to say “noodles” in Spanish so I could yell it in Spanish, too. (Noah will need his Spanish again in a couple of weeks so every now and then I switch over to Spanish when I’m talking to him.)

“He doesn’t understand English or Spanish,” Noah said. “He’s a French giant. Beth speaks a little French.”

“Too bad she’s not here,” I said.

This was the day I really started to miss Beth. I was tired. Physically tired because I hadn’t been sleeping well, with June rolling around in the double bed without Beth on the other side to anchor her, but also mentally tired of refereeing the kids’ bickering. I had that late afternoon when-is-Beth-getting-home feeling all day long.

At one point I’d run over to see why Noah was pulling June roughly by the arm and why they were both screaming. As I approached, Noah’s screams grew louder and even more dismayed. Apparently I was standing in a shallow depression he’d dug in the sand, the hole from which he’d just pulled June. “Noah, let go of her. You can’t have your own part of the beach where no one else can walk,” I said.

“Why not?” he demanded, as he let her go.

“Because she doesn’t understand and it just upsets her,” I said. But as I watched her run over to the hole and stamp her little footprints into its damp, sandy bottom with fierce glee, I wondered if maybe she did understand after all.

Mom watched the kids while I went for a swim. When I returned, I was informed that Noah wouldn’t stop pestering June as she tried to snuggle into the sand underneath the beach towel (yes, underneath, not on top) and she deliberately threw sand in his face. I told her that was a naughty thing to do and her face crumpled. “She was provoked,” Mom said. Remembering the hole, I thought he was, too.

The recipe I’d planned for dinner (a vegetable cous cous pilaf) took longer than expected to make. The kids were hungry and grumpy as Mom and I scrambled to get dinner on the table. I called Beth while the cous cous was soaking in hot water. She said her mom was doing pretty well and might come home the following day.

As he got ready for bed, Noah said, “I wish we were staying longer.”

“Me, too,” I said.

For the first time since we arrived, June did not go easily to sleep that night. She was up well past 9:30 (I stopped looking at the clock) crying miserably for reasons I could not fathom. I held her until we both slept.

Day 5
June woke early. I wondered if this, combined with her late night would make her cranky. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. When I rejected her suggestion of pretzels for breakfast, she fell to the floor and screamed.

At 8:05, after I’d made French toast and veggie bacon, eaten, cleaned up the kitchen and started reading The Return of the Dragon (http://www.amazon.com/Return-Dragon-Lonely-Island/dp/0763628042) to Noah, Beth called. She was coming back.

Returning from the beach for lunch, Noah decided we were superheroes from outer space. We got to work on our identities. Juney Jupiter and Noah Neptune were easy. Should I be Steph Saturn, Mommy Mars or Mommy Mercury? I thought that last one had a nice ring, but Noah thought I should use my given name so Steph Saturn it was.

“There’s no planet that starts with B,” I noted.

“Elizabeth?” Noah suggested. I shook my head.

Noah thought we should make up a planet. I was leaning toward assigning her Venus since the B and V sounds are similar. Plus, I thought, but did not say, Venus is the goddess of love. Then the answer occurred to me. “Earth starts with E” I said.

“Elizabeth Earth!” Noah cried.

I wondered how close she was now.

Later that afternoon, Noah, June and I were nestled in a little cave someone had dug in the sand near the high water mark. Every now and then a wave washed gently over our legs. I was a little nervous that big wave might swirl in and knock June off her bottom, but Noah insisted that this was our superhero hideout and June was delighted with the little enclosure so we stayed put and I kept my eye on the ocean. After we’d been there awhile and only the occasional tail end of a wave reached us, I relaxed. That’s when the cave filled with frothing water up to my chest. June was completely submerged. I couldn’t see her. Instinctively, my hands shot out to the spot where she’d been and I pulled her up out of the water. Her wet hair was filled with sand. Her blue eyes were wide and shocked. She didn’t cry at first. Nor did she cough or sputter. I think she must have managed to keep her mouth shut under the water. “I float in the water,” she said solemnly and then she started to cry.

She didn’t cry long and I held her until she stopped. Then I took her up to Mom. June stuck close by her, playing with her sand toys and cuddling on Mom’s lap for a long time.

I was swimming when I saw Noah waving excitedly from the shore. I got out of the water. “Is Beth here?” I asked eagerly.

“No,” he said. “Well…it looks like you’re finished swimming.”

“No, I wasn’t,” I said, starting to wade back in. He looked disappointed. “I’ll come out soon,” I promised. I didn’t want, too, though. The sky was a robin’s egg blue, streaked with cirrus clouds. The waves were big and gentle and so clear I could see tiny fish swimming in their crests. As I drifted northward, I admired a series of elaborate sand castles on the shore, including the Great Wall of China with “Beijing 2008” and the Olympic rings etched onto it. It was the one that looked like a dragon, though, that made me get out of the water for a closer look. It’s the Summer of the Dragon for us. Noah and I are reading three separate books series about dragons. It wasn’t actually a dragon, but just a half-eroded castle with a line of turrets suggestive of a dragon’s back scales. Still, I thought Noah might like to see it, and the Great Wall of China (which he’s long wanted to visit) as well. So I set off in search of him.

As we were visiting the castles, and Noah was jumping into a big hole someone had dug, I saw Beth walking down the beach toward us. I gave her a big hug and got her front all wet. Noah hugged her, too, and soon Mom was walking and June was running toward us. Beth swung June up into her arms. After five days and four nights, Elizabeth Earth had returned to the House of Crazy.

The Land of the Purple

Noah has drama class after school on Wednesdays now, so those afternoons are tight. It was easier last year. I would take him his old nursery school where the class is held and wait there, playing with June and socializing with other parents in an unused classroom until the class was over. Then we’d walk home and he’d do whatever little bit of kindergarten homework he had while I heated up my designated quick dinner of the week.

But now he’s in first grade and his homework takes forty-five minutes on a good day. That’s how long it would take most nights if he was consistently focused, and well, not Noah. But he’s not a robo-child; he’s my daydreamer, my wool-gatherer, my highly distractible boy-child. Sometimes it takes an hour and a half. We get home from drama around 5:30. You do the math. Or better yet, do the language arts worksheet, because that would be one fewer thing that Noah has to do. On Wednesdays he has to read or be read to for fifteen minutes, to practice two lists of spelling words (the class’s common list and an individualized list created partially by the teacher and partially by himself—recent words learned: “Antarctica” and “kaleidoscope”) and he has to do a language arts worksheet. This week’s was an open-ended writing assignment about Martin Luther King. They listened to the “I Have a Dream Speech” at school and he had to summarize MLK’s dream and describe one of his own dreams. A lovely assignment, really, but my heart sank as I read it. This was going to take so long. It was exactly the kind of assignment Noah drags out. Give the boy a math worksheet and it’s done before you can say Jack Robinson, but ask him to think about his dreams and you’re in for a long ride. Well, there was no helping that now, I thought as I stood in the living room examining his homework folder. The best thing would be to get at least some of the reading done before we left for drama. It was now almost 3:25. He was using the bathroom. We needed to leave by 3:35. We could read for ten minutes, then we might be able to finish up at the school while we waited for class to start. We’d have one task complete by the time we got home. We settled in on the couch. I read him two stories from a library book of myths about the formation of the constellations from different cultures and we left.

Noah skipped and ran and chattered happily all the way to drama class, just as he had the week before. As if limbering up his imagination, he started every other sentence “Let’s pretend…” We were explorers seeking the fabled “Land of the Purple.” (The nursery school is painted bright purple with lime green trim. Students and parents call it “The Purple School” as often as by its real name.) Noah loved attending this nursery school. He loves the drama class, which he’s taking for his third straight year. He loves the teacher who teaches the 4s class and the drama class. Noah has been in daycare or school since he was sixteen months old. He’s had some wonderful teachers (as well as some not so wonderful ones), but in her respect for children and in her innate ability to enter their social, intellectual and imaginative worlds, Lesley has no equal. Last spring when Noah was having so much trouble at school, drama class nourished and replenished him. So it was no surprise when after a fall of no after-school activities he chose drama when we offered him a choice of up to two extracurricular activities for the winter and spring. (He will start after-school science, also a favorite from last year, in March.)

We arrived at the school at 3:55, just in time to finish our last five minutes of reading. We walked around to the playground behind the school. June took off running toward the slide. I motioned for Noah to sit on the steps as I dug the constellations book out of the diaper bag.

“I don’t want to hear that book,” Noah protested. I stared at him dumbly. We’d been reading it after school all week. I thought he really liked it. “I only want to read two stories from that book every day.” At once, I understood. It so happened that on Monday and Tuesday two stories came to roughly fifteen minutes. It doesn’t take long for Noah to notice a pattern and insist on its repetition. I tried to reason with him. We hadn’t read for fifteen minutes yet and this was the only book I’d brought. I tried to bribe him. If he’d listen to the next story I would buy him a treat at the convenience store on the way home. (This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. I had already committed to stopping there after drama “some day.”) He wouldn’t budge. I gave up. There wasn’t time to convince him. He played on the seesaw with June until it was time to go inside.

June and I stayed on the playground, despite the cold weather. The equipment is toddler-friendly and she was having a blast going down the slide, crawling in the tunnel and playing with the toys scattered on the ground. All the time we were playing I was irritated at Noah’s stubborn insistence on doing things his way. I know my own irrationally intense desire to get the fifteen minutes of reading done before class wasn’t much different, but knowing you should let go and actually letting go are different things. We’d had what Beth calls one of our “Taurus moments” and it wasn’t quite over.

After a while we went inside. The nursery school is full of books, puzzles and other toys (June is especially drawn to the felt board) so it’s a great place for her to play. I was hoping the mom I’d talked to last week would be there. Her five-year-old son took yoga with Noah at the Purple School two falls ago and he was excited to see Noah. She and I started talking and I learned her son also has Sensory Processing Disorder (a more serious case than Noah’s) and also had difficulty in kindergarten, so much so in fact that they switched schools and they were already planning to have him repeat kindergarten next year. This week, though, she didn’t stay. There was a nanny and a mom there, but the nanny was talking on her cell phone and the mom was engrossed in her PDA. I found myself missing Kathleen and Chris, whose daughters took drama last year and who were always good for companionable conversation. I read to June and played with her until 5:00.

On the way home Noah updated me on the ongoing story they’ve been acting out. It’s about a jewelry heist in a castle. Noah is a guard. He’d built a spider web-trap and was granted the super-power of being able to yell so loudly people thousands of miles away can hear him. (It’s not such a stretch, that last one.) When we passed the convenience store I couldn’t stop myself from sighing loudly and saying what a shame it was we couldn’t get a treat. (Did I mention how sometimes I can’t let go?)

We got home. I preheated the oven for potpies, changed June, and we got to work. I read Noah a story from a book of Cornish fairy tales. He practiced his spelling words. I sat at the dining room table and listened to him whine that he didn’t know what to write, he didn’t have any dreams, etc. I asked some gently leading questions about what might make the world a better place and finally he came up with people not littering. He wrote a paragraph and drew a picture of someone throwing trash into a trashcan. Somewhere in between assignments we ate dinner. Eventually, the homework was finished.

This morning, Beth and I were back at the Purple School to observe the 2s class. We are in the midst of preparing June’s application for next fall. Because Noah’s an alumnus, we have a reasonably good chance of getting in, but competition for the twelve slots in the class is intense. When June and I were at the rec center’s community playtime a few weeks ago, I overheard a conversation about getting into the Purple School. The mom in question conceded that she probably had little chance and outlined her second, third and fourth choices of preschools. We don’t have any backup plans. I wondered if we should.

The children in the 2s class were predictably cute. I recognized a few (including Chris’s son) who’d had older siblings in drama last year or from seeing them on the library-circle-time-community-playtime toddler circuit. I watched the teacher and the co-oping mom calmly handle routine crises (a tower of blocks knocked over, a child pushed). I noticed how rapt the children all looked when the teacher read a story about a princess who takes on the dragon who has made off with her prince. During the Q & A afterward, Beth and I had few questions (“How is the 2s class unique?” was the best I could do) while the other parents nervously peppered Lesley, the 2s teacher, and the membership committee representative with questions.

Later that day, Beth sent me this email: “I actually ended up catching a ride with the woman who was also observing this morning. She’s stressed out — about getting in, about how to handle naps if both kids get in, etc. It is so much nicer to be in our position.” I asked Beth if by “our position” she meant having widely spaced kids (the woman in question is applying for slots for two kids, one in the 2s and one in the 4s) and therefore not having to co-ordinate the two classes, which meet at different times, or to do double committee work, or if she meant feeling more relaxed about our chances of getting in. She said both. If I had to give that woman advice, I would tell her the logistics are worth it. The Land of the Purple is not an easy place. It demands a lot of your time, in the classroom and on committees, and it can be hard work. You don’t always love other people’s children on their bad days. But it’s also an enchanted place, a place children run to, a place that gives them super-powers.