On top of the Mount

On top of the Mount
Mount Maunganui, NZ

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Just Go

Just Go

July 15, 2013

I’m sitting in the international departures area at the Auckland airport, on my way back to the States. It’s not that I’m homesick –  in fact, I need more time to settle into the new country before returning to the old. But life splats across our windshields in strange, messy ways, leaving trails of moth wings and smudges of mosquito blood on a surface that grows grottier each day. Somehow, through the mess, you see the sign pointing home.  

The reason for the return this time is family.  Sean’s sister, Stephanie –a major support for me while Sean was sick – is herself experiencing crisis. In late May, after crushing headaches and an episode where she didn’t recognize her hand as her own, she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Glioblastoma, stage three or four. Her husband, John, set up a Facebook page called Steph’s Army and suggested we google the diagnosis to read the average prognosis. Anything measuring average life expectancy in months is gasp-worthy. The tumors are inoperable, so the first round of treatment is chemotherapy and radiation.
August, 2012

Don't Wait

If I learned anything from Sean’s illness and death, it’s don’t wait. Not that I have issues responding – to anything – like health crises; Finley’s lack of urgency to dress himself and get out the door for school most mornings or Fiona’s failure to practice her maths times tables.  My motto: let’s do it/fix it/find it yesterday. My lack of patience is practically tattooed across my forehead: “I DON’T WAIT,” it snarls in black and scarlet. To call me Knee-Jerk Ninja would not be unfair. However, it’s never too soon (or too late) to love each other. We do that best face-to-face.

While Steph hosts another out-of-town family member, I’ll head to Spokane for three days. I’ll see friends and conduct bits of business: discover whether the home I own still stands, whether grass still grows and walls remain intact, discern how much painting might need done before I can try (for the second time) to sell mi casa next spring.

I’ll meet my Dad and his wife in Seattle, and visit with my sister, Heather. We’ll share stories and glasses of wine. We’ll drive together to Olympia (just over an hour south), where I’ll spend just over a week with Stephanie and her family.

I don’t imagine I’m providing giant favors via travel – of course, I’ll help wherever I can, drive when needed (Steph's not allowed behind the wheel), cook if Steph wants a night off in the kitchen (she’s regained control of her stove)… but really, I’ll be there, because like so many of us who love Steph, the bugle’s Reveille has sounded in my head, saying, “Just go.”

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, draws a comparison between a likable narrator and great friend,

…whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, whose lines you always want to steal. When you have a friend like this, she can say, “Hey, I’ve got to drive up to the dump in Petaluma – wanna come along?” and you honestly can’t think of anything in the world you’d rather do.

I’d drive to the dump in Petaluma with Steph. She’s that cool.   

Staging the Musical
     
Getting there is tricky from seven-thousand miles away – a little like trying to stage a musical starring two crazed children who have two weeks off school for winter break. I enlist my co-producer, Pete, who’s past the point of dress rehearsal and opening night: he’s part of the regular, New Zealand-based company. Pete has offered to keep the show going while I’m gone. The PAHT-nah will juggle kids and work for three days before taking the production on tour to visit family in Hawke’s Bay.  The roles of set designer (cleaner), costumer (wardrobe) and chef will be split between Pete, his family and the kids. The roles of chauffeur, chef and child-minder will also be shared by friends and parents of my kids’ friends. Our production company has grown.

Several days leading to the trip feature the same kind of frenetic movements that precede most adventures. I get wonky before travel, whether remaining on this island or hop scotching the globe. You’d think I’d have lost pre-flight jitters by now. It’s not so much the flying I fear (though turbulence still has me nervously eyeing the drinks cart to see if I can coax another wine from the flight attendant), but the thought I WON’T GET EVERYTHING DONE before I leave. What if I forget to pay for kids’ holiday program? Or leave a load of wet towels in the washing machine? Or fail to return the toilet key I accidently pocketed from work?

I enlist the kids' help with last-minutes chores like folding laundry. I bark at Finley after he dons my sports bra and jeans. Meanwhile, I’m on the phone to customer service, trying to configure my new international phone card.

“FINLEY!” I say, using the exasperated tone I reserve for phone solicitors and small, insane kids, “Why do you ALWAYS have to act up while I’m on the phone? Can’t you act your age?”

Did I just say that to a seven and-a-half-year old?

Finley says, “Mom, I AM acting my age.”

 “Are you sure you don’t want me to call in more help while I’m gone?” I ask Pete. Several friends have said they’d be glad to share kid-minding duties.

“No, Hon,” Pete says, “We’ll be fine.”

Based on his history of watching Fiona and Finley while I gallivant with girlfriends, or enjoy a four-night writer’s retreat, I’m inclined to believe him.

Airport Smiles and Smells

My tribe brings me to the airport an hour early, which is about 45 minutes too soon at Tauranga’s tiny terminal. Check-in takes two minutes, there’s no metal detector, no security screening, and one departure gate. Finley runs circles around us, swatting Fiona with her own scarf.

Fiona hands me a note. “Here, Mommy,” she says, “I made this for you.”


The four-inch square piece of paper is bedazzled with sparkly stickers spelling out, "I WILL MISS YOU." The ‘M’ is a side-lying ‘E.’ On the front of the card, Fiona has scrawled in brown marker, ‘to the best Mom in the WORLD!’ I flip to the inside page, where Fi has written, ‘I LOVE YOU’ 17 times down the side, and once again, in large puffy letters. The next page reads,

Dear Mom, I will miss you very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very much and love you a billieone times. Hope you have a safe trip and lots of fun!
Love: Fiona P.S I love you way way way more than a billieone times!

Oh, how I’ll miss Fi’s pixie face and Finley’s hillbilly grin. And my PAHT-nah’s strong arms and warm neck...

Pete tells me to enjoy my freedom, tell everyone hi and don’t worry, everything will be fine at home. I’m too tired and dazed from organizing and re-re-packing to believe I’m actually leaving for two weeks.

Tears well in my eyes, but before waterworks can start, something else happens. Finley (he wouldn’t cop to it, but we’re pretty sure it was him) has released an odor that smells like fetid, four-month-old eggs rolled in dog poo.

It’s time to go.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Teacher Conference - Fake it Til you Feel It

Teacher Conference
Fake it 'Til you Feel it

It started with mid-year school reports. One of my children’s Discussion Guides describes ‘a capable and confident class member’ who completes class work with speed, reads and performs math at the top of the national standards graph, whose writing lands squarely in the middle of the gray shaded box.

The other report shows a child reading near the bottom of the standards; writing below the standard and performing math well below the national standard. This child, according to the teacher, ‘often needs to be encouraged to contribute.’

If you know anything about my kids, you might think the first report is Fiona’s and the second is Finley’s. Nope. 

For the first time, my first-born - my compliant, book-loving daughter, is pegged as struggling student. 

Finley, however, is excelling in his Year Three class, although his teacher says he needs to pay closer attention to instructions and listen, instead of figuring he already knows what to do.

Part of the reason I’m gobsmacked (a popular term in New Zealand which means utterly astonished) by the school reports is they explode assumptions about my kids. I knew Fiona needed help with math; what I didn’t know is she’s also lagging in reading and writing. Knock me over with a blade of seagrass.

Finley’s loud, confident and, well, loud. But maybe there’s truth in his seven-year-old boy treatise that goes, ‘Mom, I already KNOW that!’ Confidence. Finn’s chock full, like an impudent bean bag.

Fiona, at age nine, shows moxie at home and in social situations. She kicks the ball on the soccer pitch (field) instead of twirling her hair; she’s already led her Girl Guide patrol during one of her first meetings (she’d recently moved up from Brownies); and last Sunday, Fiona read two lines of scripture at church. In front of about sixty people. Into a microphone.

“Fiona,” I asked, “Why is it you can stand in front of the church and speak up, but you can’t do it in class?”   

Fiona replied, “Most people in church are old. They can’t hear me unless I speak up.”

Fi’s teacher, Mrs. Styles, tells me, “Fiona’s like a closed book in here. She’s a fish out of water. She reads so quietly in her small group, the other students can barely hear her. And she doesn’t want to ask for help.”

I ask the teacher whether I need to consider holding Fiona back a year. I’m half-expecting, hoping, she’ll say, “No, that won’t be necessary.” 

Instead, she answers, “It’s a possibility. It could be she’s intimidated by the Year Five/Six class [Fi is in a composite class with around 30 students]. She still has a chance to turn it around.”

I emerge from the meeting, head swimming in battle fatigue. This conference has been so different from others. Fiona’s teachers had previously told me what a pleasure she was; how she followed instructions and was becoming a competent reader and writer (if not mathematician). It’s as if the teacher had said, “Fiona hasn’t bathed and she smells bad. And she picks on other kids.” I feel equally gut-kicked.

Wheels on the Mother Guilt Machine start grinding: It’s my fault for taking Fiona out of school five months to travel when she was six; my fault for not continuing flash card drills to learn times tables; my fault for not knowing this sooner…

I discharge my anxieties to Pete as if dumping a bucket of dirty mop water down the drain – I must sluice it quickly, or its dirt and stagnation will permeate the house. I recount Fiona’s failure to thrive in Room 16; convey the confidence void that threatens to pull my little girl into a scholastic implosion. And then, I speak the words I don’t want to Fiona to hear, “I may have to hold her back a year.”

I had sent Fiona to clean her room during my monologue. With her door open, she likely hears every word. By the time I get to her, Fiona is huddled under her bed, crying. Finley and I coax her out.

“Fiona, honey, it’s okay,” I tell her.

Fiona cries, “I don’t wanna be held back in school!”

I try to reassure her that won’t happen – if she starts speaking up in class, learns her math times tables and asks questions. I hug her and tell her we’ll work together. 

In my head, though, I’m thinking staying in primary school an extra year is not a bad option. It’s better than an extra year in intermediate. Fiona is one of the youngest kids in her class. 

And something else bothers her; something I learn after asking why she doesn’t use her voice in Room 16.

Fiona says, “I’m the smallest one in my class!”

“That has nothing to do with the size of your brain,” I tell her.

I hold my sweet girl, dry her tears and say it’ll be okay. I tell her every day before school, I’ll kiss her palm, like the story we got before she started kindergarten called The Kissing Hand. In it, the mama raccoon kisses her son, Chester’s, hand, so whenever he feels lonely, all he has to do is press his hand to his cheek to feel his mother’s warmth.

“I’ll call you Fearless Fiona,” I say.

“But I’m not,” says Fi.

“Fake it ‘til you feel it,” I tell her. “It’s worked for me for a very long time, and it can work for you, too.”

 I tell Fiona about the first time I reported live for the news – I thought the top of my head would blow off. It didn’t.  She too, can fake confidence until and unless self-assurance arrives.

We discuss the teacher reports at the dinner table that night. Pete tells Fiona he, too, was the smallest in his class when he arrived in New Zealand from Scotland. He was eight-years-old.

Pete says, “I couldn’t understand a word the teachers said.”

Fiona says, “Petey and I have something else in common. I can’t say it – I’m gonna write it.”

Fi carefully pens a sentence on the back of Pete’s business card. It says, ‘Both of our dads died.’

Gobsmacked again. I want to cry. I so hunger for my kids’ happiness and success, I want to bulldoze a path to joy and mathematical genius. And while I don’t want to use the fact they lost their father as an excuse for failure, I also don’t want to ignore their loss.

The next morning, I kiss Fiona’s hand while reciting her new mantra, “Fearless Fiona: Fake it ‘til you feel it.’

Two days later, I see Fiona’s teacher at the school gate.  

She says, “I don’t know what you told Fiona, but she’s really making an effort to speak up in class. In fact, I made her ‘Student of the Day’ today.”

I beam. And look for other ways to boost Fiona’s courage. I’m enrolling her in drama classes (against her protestations) next term; the flash cards and computer math games will be an ongoing ritual in our home. For now, the mantra stays:

Fake it ‘til you feel it.