Honestly I was feeling fairly optimistic and even ready to take Amelia to the Emerald City by the Sea. Tim and I had “done our job” and now it was her turn to take the reins. Transporting her across the Cascade Mountains was our grand finale of parenting our child. Don’t get me wrong, I realize there is more parenting to come and more memories to be had. However, no matter who you are or how you look at it, taking your young adult child to college is a major milestone for everyone who resides within the inner circle, aka your tribe.
During the early years, the simple thought that one day your most precious possession will eventually grow up and leave the nest elicits a palpable grief and anxiety among most. When our babies are young, every molecule, every peptide, every cell in our bodies is genetically wired to nurture and protect our offspring. Undeniable and primal. However, nothing and I mean nothing, escapes the effects of time, including the human connection between a parent and child. As the days, weeks, and years goes by your child slowly and steadily develops into an independent human all the while you too evolve into a middle aged adult who yearns for time freedom and self interest. If you ask me, mother nature actually designed this whole system quite well. However, the challenge remains in trusting this process and to not spend too much time struggling against it. This is the hypothesis I have been banking on since the day Amelia entered our world. These are the words that circled in my mind and calmed my heart for the past several years as I witnessed my first born child march her way through our public schools. And now is the moment in my parenting timeline, whether I like it not, to test, measure, and surmise whether my hypothesis is indeed reality. Shit.
We headed toward Seattle on Thursday evening after working a full week in clinic. Tired but motivated to get going. With the help of Ed Sheeran and chocolate malts from Zips we powered along I-90 taking in the farm lands, the dessert, and the mountains that divide our state. Amelia talked a mile a minute, reviewing with me for the 1000th time which outfit she was going to wear which day for Fall recruitment, which houses she imagined were going to be a good fit for her based upon her endless Instagram research and what she thought she might want to study for the next 4 years at UW. Her chatter was both exhausting and entertaining during the seemingly endless drive to the west side. Five hours and 18 minutes later we rolled into my parents drive way in La Conner. The plan was to stay with my mom and step dad for two nights and then return to Seattle on Saturday. After a little small chat with my parents, the four of us sauntered off to bed to the Land of Nod. Their home sits on a rock cliff above the brackish waters where the Skagit river the Puget Sound diverge into one. My mermaid self most have sensed I was home. Sleep came as swiftly to me as diving into the deep blue waters with out the need to come up for air until the sun rose early the next morning. Bliss.
As soon as the four of us sat down for breakfast the next morning, my mom’s cell rang. My step dad picked it up. “It’s Bellingham”. Pause. We have learned to hold our breathe when ever there is an incoming call from the North. The past 3 years or so have been difficult for my family, especially my mom as she is the primary care giver/overseer for my grandmother. Dementia has taken over my grandmother’s brain and subsequently my mom’s waking hours. “Yes, this is Cathie. Uh yes. I see. Well ok. Ok, I will head on up then to the ER. Thank you for letting me know.” she said. We were all looking up at my mom awaiting the most recent event. “Sounds like she fell this morning and is in quite a bit of pain. Her nurse has called the ambulance and they are taking her to the hospital. I guess I am going to have to cut this short you guys, I need to get up there.” she said without skipping a beat, powering forward to her next mission and denying her body the rest and time with us that I know she craved and needed. “I’m sorry momma” I said, “We’ll take care of breakfast.” And with that the three of us cleared the table while my mom grabbed her things and headed North for the millionth time this year.
With the change of events, Amelia and I decided to hit the road early and head south to Seattle. She had already managed to lose her UW ID card that was issued to her at orientation in July. Now we would have plenty of time to get a new one but not without me first lecturing her about the importance of keeping her shit together, of course. As we drove from La Conner to Seattle, I took full advantage of every moment to remind her of our shared herstory along the farm lands to the interstate. “Remember Snow Goose Produce Amelia ? This is where we use to go for bubble gum ice cream on summer afternoons and pick up fresh caught halibut for dinner. Oh wait, do your remember this old white church where you went to preschool and you use to say that this is where Jesus lives.” On and on it went… all the way to Seattle. And it did not stop there. I had to show her where I studied dance with Pacific Northwest Ballet at the Good Shepherd building on 50th and Sunnyside and the house I lived in with a principle ballerina on Burke avenue. I explained to her in detail how I took the bus every morning by myself at the age of 14 from Wallingford to where I went to high school my freshman year at the big dome on the north side of Capital Hill, Holy Names aka Homely Dames. Desperate to steal every last second with her. Desperate for her to know me, to know “us”, before we all move on to our next chapter. Not surprising, just part of our process for preparing for one of the most monumental phases in parenting, “letting go”. We shared a dream-like kind of day together driving down memory lane, hitting up U Village for lunch and shopping, UW book store for must-have gear, and finally on to my best friend’s home in Edmonds for the night. I am grateful we shared such a relaxed and special day together however, I swear I could hear the quiet ticking of Father Time in the back of my mind. Unescapable and a cruel reminder that tomorrow was just a few short hours away.
The next morning Amelia was scheduled to check in to Haggit Hall for Fall recruitment at 9am. We were out the door on time and made our way back to UW without a hitch. The panhelenic society was organized. I love it ! Signs pointing where to park and where to unload suitcases and bedding. They had their shit together. Thank you lord as I was starting to feel “off balance”. Within an hour she was unpacked, clothing organized neatly in the few drawers that were provided in the dingy and antiquated dorm. I was relieved these accommodations were only temporary. We went down to the third floor to say hello to her girl friend from Spokane who was doing the same exact thing with her parents. This was an intentional decision on my part as I could not bare to leave her in her depressing dorm room, especially since her roommate had not yet arrived. “Ok, so I am going to head out Amelia”. I said not sure if I was making a statement or asking a question. She followed me into the hall and I started to try to convey some words of wisdom but before I knew it hot tears filled my eyes and all I wanted to do was steal her away back to my nest. But she was ready to fly, ready to launch. “Mom, I am going to see you next weekend. It’s going to be fine. Don’t cry mom”. She said with such love and maturity. Breathe Shelley, breathe. “I know Amelia, I know. This is a little more difficult than I had imagined. It’s going to be ok, I know.” I mustered out these words … I gave her one last quick hug and picked up my purse and headed toward my car, quickly.
I could feel the ugly cry pushing and struggling it’s way through to the surface but I held it back by the power of sheer vanity. I would not allow myself to totally break down here in this public space, not here. Even though I am 48, I still possess a natural reflex to hear my mom’s voice when I am feeling distressed and unsettled. As I drove away from Haggit Hall I connected with my mom on speaker phone. First my step dad answered. Why is he answering her phone ? “Hi Tony.” I said I trying to cover and disguise my true emotion. “I am working on Cece’s new phone. You want to talk with your mom?” He asked. “Uh huh” I replied as the ache in my throat grew bigger. “Ok, I will get her. Hold on a second” Ironically, I could hear in his voice that he knew I was upset. In fact I could hear him holding back his tears too. Oddly ever since my step dad hit mid-life he has turned into John Bayner, you know the infamous Republican and former house majority leader that regularly wept on national TV. My step dad does not cry all the time but definitely when he greets us after a long time without seeing one another, when it is time for good byes, or when some thing very stressful is happening within the family, which has been a lot lately, unfortunately. This is quite the paradox. When I was growing up, he was often emotionless and in fact I would dare say as cold as ice . I prefer the softer, emotion filled version of my step dad.
“I told Tony this would not be a good time to be working on my new phone.” She said . How are things with Grandma ? ” I said, trying to remain above water. She went on to tell me that the ER doc said nothing was broken and they sent her home with a few pain pills. She was distraught because the director at High Gate wanted my grandmother to now have a wheel chair. Cece was fearful of this next step. She saw it one step closer to the day when she would no longer have her mom in her life. She was right. “Well mom, it probably is the best decision for Grandma to have that wheelchair. And it’s ok for them to give her pain meds mom. It is all about safety and comfort for her.” I said in my care provider lingo… “Well, I don’t know… just seems like a downward spiral if we accept this as our new normal. So how are you ? How are things going ?” she asked. I pulled my car over to the side of the road and allowed my self to open the flood gate half way. The tears and emotions were now in third gear. I told her I did not think it would be this hard, that Amelia was my little assistant and how much I needed her at my side. I explained to my mom how she was my golden moon beam and how she lit up my life and I could not bare to leave her in that disgusting old dorm. I told her I couldn’t breathe. I could not breathe. My mom went into her higher self mode, she listened, soothed and agreed with all of my emotions and pain. She acknowledged how special my daughter Amelia is and how this would be a difficult transition at first. She told me it would get easier and that Amelia is ready to launch. She reminded me to be proud and we had done our job well, more than well, superb. “OK mom, ok, I know. This has been just too much. Watching you go through everything that you are with my grandma and Amelia leaving for her new life, it’s just so ironic we are both hitting major life transitions at the same time”. I was starting to feel like I could safely drive the 20 miles north to Edmonds where I would stay with Monti before heading home to Spokane without Amelia the next day. “Ok, mom thank you. Keep me posted on grandma. I love you.” I said.
Twenty minutes later I arrived at Monti’s home, walked up the front step, past the violet and sage colored hydrangeas, and her brightly painted benches where her wind chime hangs above. I let myself in the front door as I always do and was so relieved to see my best friend sitting by herself drinking coffee and watching TV. The gods knew. The gods arranged for the softest and safest place for me to land. Grateful.
“How’d it go ?” Pause. “Oh babe you don’t look so…” before she could finish her sentence I collapsed into her lap and allowed myself to open the flood gates all of the way, this time. For the next little while she brought me Kleenex, water, rubbed my head and just let me blubber like a freaking idiot. I am fairly confident that she knows me better than I know myself. Monti has been my safe harbor through every dark storm in my life since I was 12 years old. And I dare say, my life has been filled with many storms. “I can’t, I can’t do this…. Who is going to be a witch with me at Halloween….If anyone hurts her I swear to the Gods I will kill them Game of Thrones style “. These were the words that for me in that moment symbolized and expressed the pain of letting go. Clearly, I have never lacked in the drama department. She let me blubber but directed me back to sanity as needed. I knew I could fully break down because she was there to put me back together again, as she has done countless times in the past. Thank God for my Monti. Truly.
A few days prior when planning this voyage to deliver Amelia to the UW, Monti and I had made last minute arrangements to go to Olympus Spa Saturday afternoon, other wise known as the Naked Spa. How fortuitous was I. There was nothing that I needed more that afternoon than spending a few hours at the naked spa with my best friend. We had done this once before, so I knew what we had to look forward to. Earthly Bliss. Before we made our way there, Monti led me through her town’s Saturday Market. I breathed in the cool sea air as we sauntered through the market stalls. The smell of fresh baked goods and hot coffee was delightful, seeing the hand crafted jewelry, the visual explosion of fresh cut local flowers, sunflowers to be exact, my favorite. Just what my soul thirsted for. Positive and hopeful feelings were beginning to replace that sense of feeling so lost after letting go of my Amelia earlier that morning. I knew I was going to survive. Monti would not leave me in the dark alone.
As we pulled into the parking lot of Olympus spa, she handed me a “starburst” candy. No judgement please. Well actually, now that I am well into my 40s, go ahead and judge me I do not really care. Honestly. If ever there is a place for healing in the middle of a modern day city, this is it. For the next 3 hours Monti and I quietly languished in the heat of the charcoal and salt rooms, soaked our naked bodies in waters rich with healing minerals while we waited for our number to be called for the grand finale, the scrub followed by a moisturizing treatment. While we laid face down on massage tables meant for water, ever centimeter of our bodies was scrubbed and rinsed with warm milk, honey and olive oil. Through out this entire process I intentionally imagined all of the stress, anxieties, and fears for my daughter and for myself being rinsed away, leaving me fresh and polished. It was time to let go of the pain and sadness and instead call in my dreams and goals for the next phase of life. Amelia was not the only one who was ready to launch that day, so was I.
One thing I know for sure, joy is waiting for you to discover her. She is not elusive or hiding, she is right beside you. Most of us spend our lives thinking I will be happy “when” I lose 20 pounds, “when” I earn 6 figures, “when” I have time freedom. But here’s the thing; while you are waiting to achieve said milestone, your life is happening. Your opportunity to be peaceful or joyful is now, as tomorrow is not a guarantee. I am not writing anything you do not already know. We all know this. It is like losing weight or saving money, we all know what we need to do. But sometimes hearing or reading this message in a new way or new form helps it to sink in one level deeper.
I do not know about you but lately I have been feeling like it is becoming more difficult to find joy and much easier to feel the pain of this world, especially as of late. Partly I believe this to be true because as I approach my late 40s so does my inner circle of friends. My tribe is circling that age where parents are aging, all too common mid-life diagnoses are popping up unwelcomed, and big shifts are happening as families transition into the next phase of life with kids leaving for college. Mother earth also seems to be on a mission to hit the reset button. I do not mean to be chide by this comment but truly, the past few weeks of fires, suffocating smoke, violent hurricanes and earth quakes has been, well let’s just say a little over the top.
We all have life circumstances that challenge us on a daily basis. All of us. No one escapes life unscathed. Complicated and difficult relationships, finances, chronic pain, addictions, you name it. Even the people out there driving Land Rovers and wearing Lulu Lemon have difficult life circumstances, it just may not seem so. I remember a few years back when I was going through a particularly challenging time I could not keep my mind quiet while in downward dog at the Union. I would think to myself all these women, perfect bodies, decked out in Lulu, driving their Land Rovers… their lives must be blissful compared to mine. The whole point of going to flow yoga at the Union was to help my body and mind transcend into a higher and more positive frequency and instead I left the yoga studio feeling inadequate and frustrated. Blah Blah Blah. Get a grip Shelley. Fortunately with steady self-work and the tincture of time the negative self talk has subsided and I am finding that I am coming more and more into my own as I approach the later half of my 40s. Thank God and knock on wood !
Seeking or acknowledging joy in the simplest aspects of life is one of the ways I stay centered. You might assume based on some of my writings and the simple fact that I have a daughter with a significant disability that my life is filled with hardship and despair. I would be lying if I said you were totally wrong and that my reality is actually all about feeling #blessed and pink unicorns. I guess the truth lies somewhere in the middle and I owe Elle a huge amount of gratitude for showing me every day that joy is just waiting for me to welcome her into my life. For example, last Sunday morning while I was putting clean sheets on my bed, I could hear Tim and Elle in the bathroom taking a shower together. Yes, Elle takes showers with us on a regular basis. All of the sudden I heard Tim and Elle singing a little song they made up “Clean out the cracks… I say clean out the cracks”. I started giggling to myself. Oh my gosh how ridiculously cute is that… a 40 something year old papa in the shower with his 15 yo daughter singing a little tune of clean out the cracks. If you can’t find joy in this moment then you may want to schedule a visit with a therapist.
I guess what I am trying to convey today is if you are struggling with where you are at in life, do a self check and examine whether or not you are making time for joy. I know this is kind of an old cliché self help theme and it has been written about a zillion times … but it really is a thing. Take time to really appreciate what is golden in your life. Take a moment to truly feel your spouses warm embrace. Get excited with your child when he shares something funny that happened at school. Run your fingers through your daughter’s silky hair while you watch America’s Got Talent on the well loved sofa. This is what matters. This is what’s precious. This is what life is about.
PS. I love this picture of my mom and all her sugar cookies… this is one type of Joy.
A few weeks back amongst the stack of Costco adds, utility bill, and Fall catalogs there was a cream colored post card addressed to Elisabeth Northern inviting her to freshman orientation at Ferris High School. I didn’t put much thought to it but decided to tack it to our fridge in hopes we could make it happen along with getting Amelia ready for the UW and Charles prepped for middle school. Lots of changes.
Elle technically should be a sophomore in high school registering for AP English literature, choir, and staying late after school for girls soccer. I know it is absurd to think this way but sometimes I find myself imaging what Elle would have been like had her brain developed according to MY plan. I base my hypothetical fantasy upon the simple facts of how she presents today in spite of her malformed brain; a lover of books (even the yellow pages), a fan of any sport that involves a ball, and the joy she expresses when she hears music of any kind, especially John Mayer. Sometimes I have visions of her just running across a soccer field full steam ahead with all her “fantasy teammates”. If I was granted 3 wishes, I guarantee one of them would be for Elle to experience the thrill and power of having her muscles and bones fiercely carry her body in any direction her mind and heart desires. I can literally see her impulse to run whenever she watches Charles play soccer. It is as if her mind forms a plan to “act” but a short circuit between her brain and her legs prevents her from following through. Instead she ends up flapping her wings and takes steps forward as if she is trying to lift off. Unfortunately the hard reality of her genetics keeps her tethered to the earth.
On a few occasions, deep in the night my subconscious takes me far away to a place where my mind and heart safely play out scenes of Elle talking in complete sentences with her siblings as if it was totally typical for her. Sometimes, these scenes also include my daughter running after a basketball or chasing our new kitten. Inevitably, the minutes and hours tick forward signaling my subconscious soul to swim back to the surface where I find her as God intended… physically and intellectually limited. Harsh.
Some how we managed to save time on Tuesday morning to take Elle to her orientation. I was excited for her to have the opportunity to meet her teacher, see her classrooms and tour the high school. We arrived just a few minutes past 8am and made our way through the tall glass doors by the administrator’s offices. There were a few people hanging around chatting but no clear signs pointing us toward freshman orientation. At this point, I began to have a feeling that maybe we weren’t invited after all. Armor on, sword ready, shield up.
I have been in this battle a million times before. In fact just before we left for orientation I had made another attempt to contact our DDA social worker to see where Elle’s file was with regard to the final approval for services. Of course I received the case worker’s voice mail for the 1000th time. I called back and asked to be connected with our caseworker’s supervisor and again was sent directly to her voicemail. Since persistency is one of my strengths, I called a third time and explained to the woman on the phone that this is exactly why I fucking gave up when Elle was 3 years old. ( I can not remember but i may have actually said “fucking gave up”). Ever so politely I shared with her that the system is designed specifically so that parents give up and that their lack of basic action is all part of the grand scheme, to keep the outflow of money to a bare minimum. I also reminded her that the services we are requesting are in actuality derived from the 33% of my income dollars that I have paid since my first taxable job at McDonalds in 1986. The woman on the phone, quickly and politely told me her other line was ringing and put me on hold… I hung up. That was futile… again. Maybe I should change my approach. (FYI, I should be getting my period in about 5 days).
By the time Elle and I walked through the front doors of Ferris High School, I had already waged one battle on my daughter’s behalf. As you can imagine I was in no mood for another. It quickly became apparent that Ferris had not intended to “invite” Elle to Freshman orientation. Apparently this occasion was only for the normal high school students…. as if that is a thing. A very helpful and kind office lady could see we were lost and offered to find Elle’s new teacher. After a few moments she returned with a very tall woman wearing a FHS red t-shirt. The woman looked a little surprised to see us. “Elle received an invitation to freshman orientation. Will there be an opportunity to see her classroom or take a tour of the high school this morning ?” I kindly inquired. “Well, our kids don’t typically attend these events you know, since they are in a self-contained class… you know… and ummm, well no we are in meetings all day today, so uhhhh…” she replied. “OK, so what you are saying is that there is nothing organized or schedule for the incoming special needs students with regard to orientation even though we received an invitation ?” pause…… “Correct.” She answered. “Great, well that would have been helpful to know ahead of time and not sure why we received an invitation if we weren’t really invited in the first place. ” I felt badly for being so tight with my words and emotions. But I am unmeasurably tired of this battle. How could the special education teachers and leads of their department not for see the need to be clear about freshman orientation ? Why have these things not have been ironed out ? Clearly we are not the first family with a special needs kid transitioning from middle school into high school ?
I know it is hard for people with typical kids to even begin to understand our plight. But it really is not complicated and in fact it is quite simple. Please do not exclude us. Please assume we want our child to be treated just like every other kid. Our daughter does not have a contagious disease, she is not stupid, she does not bite. In fact our daughter in spite of her disability loves to make friends, enjoys most everything your child enjoys, and appreciates being included… just like your child does. Why does this have to be so hard in 2017 ? How could FHS not have thought this through? Why does the special ed teacher not already know that all it takes is a simple letter or email to all her incoming freshman kids explaining why these kids are not “really invited” to orientation and instead she is offering xyz as an alternative ? I do not have the energy or time to do other professional peoples jobs’. This is not my job, I already have a thousand other jobs… mom, wife, daughter, women’s health care provider, therapist… OK, so now I need to hold the hand of the educators too… Fuck it. I am tired. Never mind.
I took a deep breath and took elle’s hand and headed toward the gym where the class of 2021 was celebrating their kick off. I decided that I was not going to just walk out with Elle. I wanted her to at least have some what of an idea what she was getting into… and to experience the fun and excitement surrounding the incoming class. As we approached the gym, the cheers and chants were echoing in the halls. Elle was getting excited, her little wings beginning to flap. She was ready for take off ! So much young energy and joy! As we walked in and found our seats in the empty bleachers off to the side, Amelia’s former cheer team recognized Elle right away and began waving and smiling directly at her. Welcoming her with authenticity and love, ONE LOVE. The music was blasting and Elle was incredibly excited to be there. “This is your new school Elle, you are a Saxon!” I told her . Before I knew it two of the cheer girls came right over to her and took her hands encouraging her to dance along with them as the music played. I could feel my armour melting away and the familiar lump in my throat began to rise from inside my wounded heart. This is all I was asking for; for my daughter to be included. It’s not that hard really, in fact it is quite simple.
Transitions are happening all around me. The weather, school starting, our oldest daughter leaving for college, my body, my life…. I can’t help but think of Stevie Nicks Landslide. She must have been in her 40s when she wrote that song. Can I sail through the changing ocean’s tide, can I handle the seasons of my life ? Her lyrics and melody capture every aspect of what it is like to be a wife, mother, daughter, woman at mid life. Complicated, exhausted, wise, reflective, and uncertain of what life holds next. I have always loved this song but appreciate it beyond words in this moment, in this season.
This past Sunday morning we had Caleb, Amelia’s boyfriend of almost 3 years, over for traditional Sunday waffles as a chance to wish him well as he heads off to college in Vancouver . We are incredibly proud of him as it has been a goal of his to play baseball at the college level; he has made this dream come true. I knew that Amelia and Caleb had been going through the emotional rollercoaster of saying their good-byes but was caught off guard when he walked into our kitchen with blood shot eyes, splotchy cheeks, and tears streaming down his face. “Oh Caleb, come here.” I said bringing him in like my own to comfort him.
I never realized my daughter’s boyfriend would become like a son to me, but it happened. Their friendship started off so innocently. Frosting Christmas cookies together, going to the movies and hanging out on Sundays. But then their relationship grew, inevitably hitting a few bumps, big bumps; but they held on tight and became even stronger, even closer. I started looking forward to his visits and always made sure we had enough skittles in the snack drawer. Before I knew it, I cared deeply for Caleb as well as the bond he and Amelia had created.
They both painfully know they are too young to make a life long promise. They both realize that they need to spread their wings for a little while before they can contently circle back to the nest. It is just way easier said than done. Before I knew it, little Elle wanted in on the hug too … and Amelia joined in along with us. “This is not the end, you are a part of our family Caleb, and always will be. I consider you to be like a son to me.” Ugggh. This is so hard. No one ever warned me “this” was included in the “Mother Package” that I so willingly signed up for 19 years ago. What was I fucking thinking ? After we finished breakfast, Tim and Caleb loaded up an old futon couch and television from our basement we rarely use and gave it to Caleb for his new chapter in life. One last hug and we waved good bye as he and Amelia walked out to his car to say their good byes.
Amelia is not the only one in our little family going through significant changes. Charlie our baby, made it his 13th birthday wish to “re-do” his bedroom. Sunday we spent the better part of the afternoon putting his room back together after we had the Denver Bronco blue and orange painted over with a “mature” tan at Charlie’s request. I offered to paint it Seahawk colors in an effort to keep things “balanced and fair” but he was not having it. I don’t blame him, time to move on…. He wanted tan.
It has been a while I dare say, since I have spent any length of time in his bedroom. In general, I try to avoid the basement area where Amelia and Charlie co habitate. Not only is it out of my “loop” but it is not my favorite thing to walk through their shared disaster zone. Sorting and reconfiguring was long over due. First it was a matter of arranging the bed, desk, and dressers followed by going through all the drawers of clothing that are past their prime. Next it was the top shelf of his closet. Stuffed animals and old blankets were folded neatly and tucked away. I spied his baby blanket and reached for it right away immediately time traveling back to the days when I carried him on my hip and fed him rice cereal. Sky blue fabric as soft as bunny fir bordered with a wide white satin trim; I swear I could still smell the spilled rice cereal and A&D ointment.
I treasure those early days. The days when your baby giggles as you softly tickle him under his chin, the way he rests his sweaty head on your chest after waking up from an afternoon nap. “What are you doing mom ?” Charlie asked bringing me quickly back to the here and now.” “Why are you burying your face in that old blanket?” he asked. “This is your baby blanket Charlie, don’t you remember it ?” ( Please tell me you remember all those long gazes we shared, all those tender moments when I rocked you to sleep, all those times we went on short walks around the neighborhood looking for acorns and other signs of Fall) “Oh ya, sort of…” he replied. “Don’t ever throw this blanket away Charlie, it is a keep sake. Got it ? ” I said with complete certainty. “I hear you mom, ok.” he replied.
After a few hours, we managed to sort out all the stuffed animals, old pajamas, and match box cars. Presently, his tan painted bedroom includes a table with a lamp where framed pictures sit of he and his closest friends at Hoopfest and a picture of him holding the fish he caught at Priest Lake this past summer. There is also a desk with a lap top and a laminated map of the San Juan Islands tacked above. It suits who he has become without me even realizing it. Charlie is more like Charles now.
Then there is Elle, she is now a Saxon at Ferris HS. We spent an hour or so at freshman orientation this morning. Over all, we had a positive experience at orientation but the details I will save for another day. The best part of our morning was the drive through Cool Beans… One raspberry Italian cream soda for Elle and one Extra Large cold brew a little heavy on the cream please. Therapy comes in all forms right ?
Times are changing, the kids are getting older, we are getting older. I can feel it. It is in the way my life is taking new shape, it is when I no longer look down but up to see my childrens’ eyes, it is in the salt and peppered 5 o’clock shadow my husband sports, it is in the way I feel flushed through out the month, it is in the way I marvel at the young woman Amelia has become… it is in every single way … every single cell. And I hope and pray that I will be able to sail through this season intact and content.
You can feel it in the air. The skies remain sleepy in the early morning and the cool winds are starting to pick up signaling a change of season is on it’s way. Ready or not we are heading into a busy time of the year with back to school shopping, one last dip in the pool, and the beginning of holiday commercialism mayhem. I stopped at a local craft store on Monday to gather supplies for our family photos that we had taken yesterday. The isles were over flowing with plastic pumpkins, quilted turkeys, and wooden statues of Santa Clause. Not ready. And this year I swear I will hold sacred the true meaning of Christmas and not succumb to the pressures of corporate America. Tim likes to remind me that I say this every year. This year I promise.
Long before pumpkin spice and the traditional attire of leggings, long sweaters and boots, Fall has been my favorite out of all the seasons with Summer running a close second. My birth sign, Cancer, is spot on… I am a lover of all things home. Apple spice scented candles, soft cozy blankets, and a crackling fire in the fireplace make my heart content. One of the benefits of having school aged kids is experiencing the newness each year brings in the Fall. A new teacher, new friends and of course new pencils. I love the smell of freshly sharpened pencils. Is that weird ? This Fall our family is entering into a major transition zone. Charles will be starting middle school, Elle is moving onto High School and Amelia is off to UW. They are growing older, so am I.
Transitions can be difficult. Seasonal transitions are typically when people come down with a cold or flu. Nothing like the transition of starting a new job which conjures up feelings of awkwardness and dis-ease. The transition from the final moments of the first to second stage of labor is the most intense for a woman about to give birth. And being the new kid in school is one of the worst transitions… right ? But the thing to always keep in mind about transitions is that by definition they are short lived. Intense but brief. Of course, in the moment, they feel like they are never going to end…. but they do…. eventually…. and usually without you even realizing it.
Fall of 1985 was a major transitional time in my young life. I was the new girl in school. This was not an ordinary school however. It was more like Hogwarts for girls, only it was Annie Wright, constructed in 1885 along the cliffs above the Puget Sound south of Seattle. A beautiful and historic building. I have not been back since graduation, maybe things have been updated since then. However in 1985, the foyer was carpeted in Royal Red with a larger than life size portrait of the school’s name sake at the top of the stair landing which led to administrators’ offices and student boarding rooms. Down the hall to the left is where we studied English literature, French, and art history. To the right of the foyer was the Dean’s office and the Great Room where we gathered for demi-tasse and held student council meetings. The descending stair case led to mathematics, science labs, and world history class rooms. Quite a place, quite an experience.
I lived at Annie Wright for the last two years of high school. If you have read my blog The Four Swans, you already know that I spent my Freshman year in high school at Holy Names while I studied ballet at PNB. Towards the end of my freshman year when it became apparent my body did not fit the mold of a classical ballerina, I moved back home to Mt. Vernon. Feeling out of place and no longer connecting with the identity of “Shelley the dancer” I began the process of reconnecting with former middle school friends and found my place as a sophomore at MVHS. I was ready to let loose, be like all the rest of the kids I had known for years, go to parties, go water skiing with my boyfriend and his buddies, and skip class. These were the days of big hair, Purple Rain and Miami Vice. These were the days when my best friend Monti and I sang along with Prince at the top of our lungs while acting out hand movement “You, I would die 4 U ” as we flew down the dike roads boarding the pristine Skagit valley. Fun and liberating needless to say.
One of my favorite memories at MVHS took place in late spring after tulip season. The farmers select certain fields in which they do not clip tulips for the purpose of selling the flower but for the intent of cultivating the tulip bulb. Once the tulips are fully grown they are clipped at the top, leaving rows and rows of rainbows of colorful petals. As part of a MVHS tradition, one spring evening I joined a large group of friends and traversed out into the fields and gathered garbage bags full of tulip petals. We all met back on the front lawn of our high school and spelled out the names of the people we were supporting for our student council elections. Such a great memory. I can still smell the fresh cut grass, feel the dirt on my hands, and remember the comradery of gathering with my mates. We were fully engaged in an activity that was unique to our home town. Clearly this predates Facebook. This was a time where kids actually had real “face time” and texting was not even a thing…
I had every intention of finishing out my high school years at MVHS. I even made the cheer team and was measured for my new uniform for the up coming school year. However, my parents had an alternative plan. They wanted something different for me, and for them. One evening at the dinner table my mom handed me a booklet describing the offering of an all girls boarding school south of Seattle. She reminded me that she had gone to an all girls school and had loved it. My parents were concerned about the “quality” of education I was receiving at MVHS and the friends that I was keeping. Hmmmmm….. I guess they did not like that I had told a few white lies. Apparently sneaking out to the lake to go water skiing when I was suppose to be at cheer practice was not acceptable behavior. Whoops. Our secret plan was not so secret. Some how my stepdad had over heard, followed our trail and left his business card on Monti’s little pick up truck. He wrote a message on the back of the card which read ” see you back at home”. Yes, we both about shit our pants as we hustled back to town. Or maybe it was the time my parents would not let me go to the Elks Club dance because it was on a school night. I desperately wanted to go as everyone would be there. After my mom said good night and shut my bedroom door, I slid out the basement sliding glass door and met my boyfriend on the street below our house. Apparently my step dad saw my shadow trotting across our yard. Whoops. Not exactly sure how he always seemed to be on to me but rumor has it he may have had my land line tapped… not kidding. (Imagine Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents, sort of like that).
Before I knew it my mom and I spent a day together late that spring visiting Annie Wright. And before I knew it, I was enrolled. Sigh. In spite of my initial displeasure there was a small part of me that knew this was probably a good thing for me and a good thing for my parents. This was also during the time that the old sitcom The Facts of Life was a weekly favorite of mine. I was slightly intrigued by what it would be like to go to an all girls school, to be a border, to wear a uniform, and to have a new house mom. At the same time, I had found my clan of friends at MVHS, was excited to cheer at the games and continue to experience life as a typical teenager. But times change, plans change, seasons change… change is one of the certainties in life…
This decision hit home the hardest on the first Friday night I spent at Annie Wright the following September. I had not made friends quite yet with anyone and there were no awesome parties to be had. Instead, I spent that first night alone in my room thinking about how I should be cheering at the first football game of the season back home. Ugh. That was rough. Feeling cheated, angry, and lonely. I was not a happy camper. I could hear the band, I could feel the energy of the crowd, I could see the boys in pads with their backs to us lined up along the bench. But I was not there cheering in front of the stands. No where near there.
As time goes, I moved on. I transitioned into a new season. I began to appreciate being free of the pressures of coed life, appreciated the unique setting of small classes and single sex education, and taking part in the sacred tradition of Wednesday morning chapel. Annie Wright prepared me for life in ways that I could not fully understand or appreciate at 16. It would be a few years before I began to realize this truth. And thanks to Zuckerberg I remain in contact with a small handful of “AWS” sisters to this day.
Fall is coming. The season is changing. Life is changing. Change is constant. The challenge is learning to go with the flow, take what you learned and what you valued from one experience, one phase of your life, and carry it with you to the next. And repeat.
Here I sit, two months later from my very first post, Love Anchor, and we are waiting, still waiting to hear back from the Department of Developmental Disabilities or now as they call themselves the Developmental Disabilities Administration. In the mean time summer has happened. Tim has been busy running “daddy day camp” as I like to call it. And I have continued to disappear every morning, coffee in hand, down the hill to the clinic. Had we started this application process for DDA a little earlier we may have been able to possibly have a little more time freedom as I like to say… but not this summer. I feel like summer is coming to an end to quickly. Doesn’t the earth’s axis in relationship to the sun understand or care that I still haven’t swam in a lake, roasted a few marshmallows by a campfire or hit the road for an adventure in my own back yard, the Inland NW ? Apparently not. One thing I know for sure, time does not slow down or stop for anyone.
Back in early June when Angel our newly appointed caseworker came to evaluate whether Elle qualified for services, we were told that we should hear something no later than early August. I knew that would probably not be the case based on life experience, however I was still cautiously optimistic. Consequently, as we have for the past 10 years or so, Tim and I have worked side by side to keep Elle busy and occupied. Funshine day camp has been on our schedule for the past several summers. There are 6 one week sessions at the tune of $175.00 per week. We have also signed her up for therapeutic horse back riding summer session which costs roughly $300. And lastly, we have tried to fill in the gaps with our ever so amazing “team elle” at $14 per hour. All totaling approximately “a lot of money” for two months of summer time activities and care in an effort to keep our lives balanced and to not totally lose our GD sanity. Expensive.
Not sure why I feel the need to vent this morning. Possibly because I woke up too early and have the hazy fuzzy tired brain thing going on. Or maybe it is because I just spent about 30 minutes in “haz mat.” mode along with my husband cleaning the adult size shit off of Elle’s body, giving her a bubble bath, stripping the linens, opening windows and starting a load of laundry with oxy clean all without losing my cool…. yet. We have come a long way. In the past, this was my recipe for a total GD melt down. However, over the years, Tim and I have learned to stay calm and carry on. We have just figured out it does no one any good to become enraged or bitter. Sink or swim, we choose swim. Since I am what Tim likes to call “the medical professional” I typically have the job of skillfully removing her feces filled pull up, wiping her down, and getting her in the tub. Tim is my assistant. He runs the water, brings me wipes, removes the trash bag, and tries not to gag in the process. As a nurse-midwife, I am very use to bodily discharge. However, I must say, I do not enjoy this aspect of being Elle’s mom. It is kind of a cruel trick the universe has played on me. Yes, I live for catching babies and don’t mind at all looking at slides of abnormal vaginal discharge under the microscope but wiping shit off of my teenage daughter’s genitals is actually not in my wheel house. Are you there God, it’s me Shelley ?
One of the survival strategies we have employed during these not so glamorous moments is to turn on some music. Like I have written in previous posts, Ellie is a musicophile. A few days ago, because yes this same scene played out on Tuesday morning as well, I searched my iTunes library and selected a little John Mayer. I had to chuckle, as I was wiping the shit off Elle’s inner thigh, Ellie was singing along with John. ” I keep on waiting, waiting, waiting for the world to change”. Ahhhhhhhh yes. I am waiting for the world to change. I am waiting for DDA to determine whether or not it is still my parental duty to be my 15 year old daughter’s care giver 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year. I wonder if they might hurry up ? I wonder if “they” know that when they closed state run institutions for children with developmental disabilities back in the 1960s that they ALSO promised to provide SUPPORT for families with challenges like ours. Funny. Other than public Education, Elle (we) have not received one drop, one penny, one second of care from our government. Our government that is supported by the 33% they take from our hours spent working. Our government that allocates billions of dollars to fund illegal wars, bails out white collar criminals, and wastes billions of dollars on meaningless shit… and meanwhile … meanwhile I am here waiting for an ounce of what I have paid into the governing institution that promised to care for the MOST vulnerable Americans, our disabled children. Does anyone give a fuck ? Just wondering.
A few weeks back we received a letter from DSHS stating that if we did not respond within 2 weeks all funding for our daughter would be stopped. I had to laugh because Elle does not and has not received any funds… ever ! Because I am motivated to see this process through to the end this time, I diligently called our assigned case worker Angel to see what this letter was about. Notice I said “this time”. When Elle was a toddler I tried to apply for services. Elle was evaluated and diagnosed as “eligible” based on her developmental disabilities but there was a wait list for funding in Washington state. We were #3,057 on the list. We waited for 4 years and then when she turned 7, we received a letter from DSHS stating that we needed to reapply. As you can imagine by this time I was over it. I had moved on. I did not want to waste time arguing with powerless case workers at DSHS, we had a life to live and a daughter to take care of.
As usual my call went straight to voice mail. I pushed zero which the automated voice mail prompted me to do in case of an emergency. I figured our situation qualified as an “emergency”. Luckily, I was connected with a young woman that could hear my distress over the phone and she promised to investigate. The next morning she gave me specific instructions which led to another 45 minute phone interview with a stranger in Olympia in which I answered all the exact same questions I had previously put down in black and white in early June when we initially applied for DDA. This was one of the more peculiar conversations I have ever had with a government worker. Apparently he needed to confirm our financial information even though funding through DDA is designed to be purely based on a child’s developmental need/diagnosis and not related at all to her family’s finances. It’s complicated. Medicaid is provided for the poor and disabled. The middle class, on the other hand, is left to fend for themselves even when you have a child with a financially draining birth defect through no fault of their own. However if you are lucky enough, patient enough and diligent enough to be on a wait list for years, not give up, and keep fighting for your disabled child and your family, you just might be rewarded with some respite services. Lastly, if you are of the 1% …well frankly, then don’t give a shit…. plus you do not pay 33% in taxes in fact you may not even pay taxes under our current stellar government system. The 1% have plenty of extra funds for private round the clock nannies. Hmmmm… I am sensing injustice.
He asked a lot of personal questions about our finances. Wanted to know if Elle had any resources. “No.” I replied. He wanted to know if I had recently transferred any of Elle’s resources to anyone else in the family. “No she has no resources I said. She is a disabled 15 year old girl.” Where does your husband work and what is his net take home pay ? He asked. “He works for Central Valley School District and I told him his net monthly pay” He replied. “Wow, is that all ? They sure don’t pay teachers enough do they.” Seriously. Why on earth do I have to subject myself to this assholes comments. I was silent. Fortunately I held my tongue, did not tell him to go fuck himself, and professionally finished the conversation. Keep on swimming, keep swimming …
So this brings me today, Sunday. Alex, one of the most awesome humans I have ever known, will be here to get Elle out for a few hours. I am planning to close my eyes for a few minutes during this time and hit the reset button. In the mean time, the waffle iron and Meet the Press is calling my name. Tim and I call this “church” and I am pretty sure God does not mind. God knows I connect with her and soak in her golden light in those moments that I draw a warm bubble bath for Elle to get her cleaned up and sing along with John Mayer. I absolutely adore hearing Elle sing along with Johh… “I keep on waiting, waiting for the world to change…” Me too Elle, me too….
Earlier this Spring one of my friend’s teenage daughter was hospitalized for anorexia. I do not know this family well, but I do know she comes from a good family, she is a smart girl, and she has plans to attend college this Fall. Her parents are doing everything that they know how to help their daughter to find her center and her wings so she may rise again. Hopeful for her and her family, and all the other families out there struggling through this challenge.
As with most situations, there is a process of walking your child through difficult news. What does this mean ? Why did this happen ? How does it make you feel ? And as every mother of a teenage daughter knows, body image and weight is a delicate but critical topic.Amelia and I talked about this family’s situation for a few minutes at our kitchen island that day. I had just gotten home from work so my listening ears were numb but still available to her, always available to her. I have found both personally and as a women’s health care provider that teenage girls tend to have somewhat of a dark curiosity with eating disorders. Amelia shared a little bit about her feelings of the external pressures for girls to “look” a certain way to be considered desirable or acceptable not only by boys but also by their own girl friends. We talked about the importance of self esteem, the value of the whole person, the beauty from within, and that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. This is not the first time we have talked about these issues and in fact these discussions have been woven into our every day life since the start. I have tried to be aware of what messages I send Amelia about my own body and my own eating habits in the hopes that she will learn a healthy way of viewing her own self. It is tricky isn’t it?
It was not that way for me when I was young. My life started out differently than Amelia’s in countless ways consequently leading me down some dark paths when it came to body image and eating disorders. By the age of 7, I stood in first position at the barre with a group of other girls my age. Low bun, black leo, pink tights and nude leather ballet slippers. The rickety turn table played along as we began to learn the fundamentals of classical ballet. Intimidating at first but over time I began to take pleasure in the sense of control I felt over my body in the ballet studio. Big windows, a light filled room, old wood floors and the notes of Chopin providing the melody. This was a place of power and peace, a safe place to express my tender self. I appreciated the structure, the self discipline ballet demanded, the growing ability to align my body in a way to create beautiful angles with the tilt of my head and turn of my torso.
As the years went by dance became my identity. While most of my friends played on green fields, I was in the ballet studio. I did play on the 6th grade girls basketball team but decided it was no fun to have my classmates snicker at me when ever I went to the basket for a lay up because of the way I automatically pointed my toes every time I jumped into the air. That’s ok, I got over it ! By middle school however, I could no longer keep up with the girls who played sports; my gym was the ballet studio.
It was not long before I was taking class 5 days per week and the majority of summer break was spent at ballet camps, one of which was in Walla Walla at Whitman College. In addition to classical ballet we were exposed to character, modern, and jazz at ballet camp. I loved learning the steps to Chorus Line complete with a top hat and cane. And to this day I still remember every step to the Dance of the Four Swans from Swan Lake. All you have to do is start the music and I am back, arms crossed with my head turn and in position for the first note of Tchaikovsky. Pure Magic.
The summer before my freshman year in high school I auditioned for Pacific Northwest Ballet summer school and was excepted to their 6 week summer intensive. An accomplishment for the young girl who lived where the local ballet school was mediocre at best. It quickly became apparent to me at age 14 that I was no longer in Kansas … so to speak. Pacific Northwest Ballet had a stellar reputation for a reason. The “barre” had been risen. You could just feel it in the air as you walked the halls. Serious shit. This is when dance became real. This is when it was no longer enough to know the positions or memorize the sequence of steps. This is when everything about my body, including the size of my breasts, the width of my torso, the length of my legs and the arch of my foot would make or break my future as a ballerina. And consequently, this was also the same time that I became conscious of the definition of an eating disorder.
I clearly remember one summer evening watching a segment on 60 minutes about the rise of anorexia and bulimia in young girls in the United States. I had never really heard anyone come out and speak about it let alone see a report on the television. Although 60 minutes was trying to increase awareness and prevention, I translated their message as as an opportunity to try something new in an effort to stay thin and stay dancing. I had already implemented strategies like wrapping my body in saran wrap while I slept to sweat off water weight and never went to bed without completing one hundred 100 sit ups first. However, I had never employed severe restriction of calories or purging as a way to stay lean. It makes me cringe to write about this now and so sad for my young self that this is what I thought would help me to achieve dreams of the soft white tutu, the satin toe shoes and ultimately approval in the spot light.
Eating became a game if you will. A mind game. And when I felt I had not followed my own rules, I would purge. Sometimes it was the cookie dough that I new I should not have eaten and sometimes it was too much pasta at dinner. And one time it was my entire Thanksgiving dinner. Sick. Wrong. But this was how I survived. This was my new reality. It worked. My 14 year old body remained that of a 10 year old. Perfect for a classical ballerina.
After completing the 6 week summer intensives at PNB, I was invited to continue as part of their ballet school. One step closer to my goal. My home was about an hour north of Seattle, too far for my mom to drive me to and from ballet class on a daily basis. Instead of living at home, PNB helped us to make arrangements for me to live with a seasoned principle ballerina in the company, Deborah Hadley. She was in her early 30s and had two young boys of her own. Another young student named Celeste, also moved in to her home and became my new roommate. She was from a small town called Coupeville near the Naval base on the coast. It was an exciting and daunting opportunity for me. I remember feeling proud of myself and wanted this chance but at the same time the ache and pull I felt to remain at home and under my mom’s wing was unbearable. Keep swimming. Keep swimming.
One morning in ballet class, our instructor Ms. Fedine, lectured us about the importance of staying thin and that she had wondered what we had all had for breakfast that morning because we looked sluggish. She firmly stated ” A pound of lettuce is still a pound of lettuce and you girls can’t afford those pounds !” She proceeded to call out approximately 6 or 7 girls and asked them to step forward. I could feel where this conversation was going and terrified she would call out my name, but she didn’t. Ms. Fedine stood in front of us that day and shamed my classmates by ordering them to drop weight BEFORE the Nutcracker otherwise they would not be joining the rest of us on stage. I remember a huge sense of relief that I wasn’t called out. But also scared to death that it would be me next time.
With the change in my home arrangements I also had to find a new high school. Up until this point in my life I had been a public school kid. No longer. Now I was enrolled at Holy Names, an all girls Catholic day school on the North Edge of Capital Hill in Seattle. My mom had gone to a similar school for a few years when she was in high school and has ever since been a big supporter of single sex education. I don’t really remember much about how I felt about this decision to attend an all girls school other than the hard fact that I missed my buddies, my best friend Monti and my first love Danny. I also missed my old orange cat Mr. Peaches and the smell of my mom’s cooking. I felt alone.
At age 14 I took the city bus from the Greenlake area near 50th avenue to Holy Names on Capital Hill aka Homely Dames by the boys at O’Dea. After school I ran down a steep hill to catch the bus back to the Wallingford center, a historic building built in 1906, and the home of Pacific Northwest Ballet. With my cheek pressed against the cool glass I would gaze out the window taking in my new life, the people, the hustle of the city. I imagine my eyes must have been pretty big as I was use to a quite town where not a whole lot happened on a day to day basis. Exciting and a bit frightening. Ballet classes started promptly at 4pm Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings at 10am. About once or twice a month my mom would pick me up after my Saturday morning class and shuttle me home in her silver Porsche for remainder of the weekend.
I ached for my mom. Home sick. I remember sitting in class at Holy Names while the nun lectured on world history and wondered what my mom would be making for dinner that night even though I would not be at the table with her. In stark contrast, Debra made dinners that existed of steamed broccoli and broiled chicken. I still remember her sharing with Celeste and I how she stayed trim for dance. She never ate more than half of what was on her plate and drank the left over water from steamed broccoli for extra calorie free nourishment. Gross.
My body cooperated with this starvation plan for the first half of the year however in January my hormones forced through to the surface and changes started occurring to my body that felt out of my control. When I started by Freshman year I weighed in at 93 pounds, had no breasts to speak of and had not yet started my period. I still fit “their” idea of what a dancer should look like if she was going to have any chance of a career in the world of ballet. However as we know, time is unstoppable and my body was trying to follow the predetermined genetic code and evolve from a prepubescent girl into a woman. During school I remembered my pants began to feel tight causing me great panic. I did not really understand what was happening with my body. Why was my plan not working any more ? I amped up my purging routine which did not seem to make much of a difference. Out of control. And within a few months, Ms. Fedine called me down to her office. I had been right, it was my turn to be told my body was not good enough. I had to either lose weight or go home. I wanted desperately to go home. I toughed it out a few long months and performed at the end of the year recital with all the other PNB students, then returned home to Mt. Vernon. My body failed me.
Stepping away from dance was not easy, it was in fact very difficult and confusing. I felt as though I had lost my identity and did not know who I was any longer or who I was suppose to become. My mom tried to help me find a new creative outlet that summer. I remember she took me to a voice lesson, she thought this would help. But strangely, every time I tried to do what the instructor asked me to do, my voice would quiver and I had to fight back hot tears. Looking back, I was grieving. Being sent home from PNB because my body was not good enough to be a classical ballet dancer was beyond tough. I wish I could say that within a few months I was on the mend, no longer felt the need to purge, and languished in all the normal social activities of a teenage girl. However, this was not the case. Honestly, my eating disordered lingered through high school and for the first few years of college. It was probably about the time that Tim and I met the summer before our senior year at WWU when my life took a dramatic turn for the better.
I still continue to dance with my issues around accepting my body and my weight. And I know I am not alone. Having a teenage daughter has given me with the chance to revisit this complex issue and hopefully to get it right this time. When Amelia put down her ballet slippers and asked for soccer cleats I honestly was relieved. One last battle to contend with to keep my daughter safe from what I had gone through as a young girl. Over the years I have tried to instill in Amelia the importance of focusing on health not the number, loving herself for all that she is, and not the number. Life is too short, too precious to do anything but….
If you happen to follow me at all on Facebook you probably know I just spent a week in Scotland with my mom and my oldest daughter Amelia. Our trip had been planned for the past year or so as a milestone celebration for Amelia’s high school graduation; she is a fortunate girl. Originally our itinerary included London but after the third ISIS attack in less than 6 weeks this past spring, we formed a consensus to for go London this time. A bummer indeed, as I have agreed with the mentality that we can not live in fear otherwise “they” win. However, I have also come to know that it is always best to listen to that inner voice, especially when it heads warning.
Because Cece was an elementary school teacher for over 25 years, she naturally gives every vacation, trip or party a theme or title. Scotland would be no different. Castles and unicorns became the top headliner for this special voyage. She even placed little castle stickers on our paper itinerary which she kept folded neatly in her overstuffed purse. This is one of the things I’ve always treasured about my mom. She is incredibly gifted with adding the special touches to every situation in our lives. The detail in her method of wrapping our Christmas presents each year, the way that she has managed to mail off Halloween and Valentines day care packages to her sugar cookies no matter that they are now all teenagers, and the thoughtful toasts she has written for milestone moments in our lives. She is the queen of family celebrations and ceremonies.
It is difficult to put into words what this trip meant to all three of us. In fact I think I am still processing each little nuance and exchange the three of us girls shared. We chose Scotland for good reason. Both Tim and I come from Northern European roots and thus made traveling to our native homeland extra meaningful. I have also always wanted to take Amelia to the Harry Potter exhibition at Disney World ever since it opened however as life goes, we have never managed to make it happen for many reasons but primarily because of the extra challenges we face with Ellie. It is complicated. Choosing Scotland also meant an opportunity to see where in 1995, JK Rowling sat in a coffee shop on a cobblestone street tucked below the Edinburg Castle and wrote her first words about a school of wizardry and a boy named Harry. And of course, every little “big” girl can relate to the common fascination of all things castles, unicorns, and forbidden love. Scotland takes the cake in this category.
Our trip got off to a bumpy start. Just as we were ready to depart to Seattle to meet up with my mom, British Airways canceled our flight to London. Talk about major let down. I was dying to get out of town, sick of the sizzling heat of the Inland NW and honestly just fucking burned out. Summer time for working moms is no Bueno. And summer time for mom’s of special needs children is extra no Bueno. We don’t go to the lake for weekend nor do we go camping or hiking. These traditional summer time leisure activities are essentially impossible with Ellie. I do not mean to sound bitter and I am not seeking pity, it is just our reality. Over the years, Tim and I have navigated this challenge by often taking separate vacations so that one of us can stay home with Ellie. On occasion with the financial backing of primarily my mom, we have left Ellie at home with a care giver so that we can enjoy what “normal” families take for granted. Very grateful for these rare and special opportunities.
We waited stand by for several hours on our scheduled departure date but after a while it became apparent that we would not be leaving until the following morning. Sigh. After a brief break down, I gathered myself back up, poured a glass of chilled pinot gris and set the alarm for the following morning. Our second attempt went off brilliantly. Traveling with Cece is always extra nice, she surprised with an upgrade from coach to business class. Individual sleeping pods and champagne on take off was something I have never experienced before. Ahhhh, I could get use to this. I thought as we lifted off and headed towards our destination.
When ever you travel in close quarters with your family you are bound to have some amazing moments and some not so amazing moments. Towards the end of our trip we spent the day touring Sterling Castle and also made a stop at Roslyn Chapel. Both breath taking in and of themselves, however Roslyn Chapel took the cake for me. If you have ever read the DaVinci code or seen the movie, then you know a bit about this sacred place. Nestled in a small town in southern Scotland stands a not so large chapel. But this is not an ordinary chapel. I liken it to when a friend invites you out to her family’s “lake cabin” on Coeur D’Alene and it turns out her cabin is a 7000 square foot “Eddie Bauer lodge”. Same goes for Roslyn. Although it is not necessarily large in size, the ornate details, sculptures, and stained glass could keep your heart and mind fully occupied for weeks. When we first stepped foot into Roslyn, that ever so familiar feeling of the delicate hairs rising up on my neck and forearms, informed my soul of the sanctity of this space. By this time, the three of us girls had worked out some of our “traveling kinks” with one another and our mother daughter grand daughter energy was smooth and fluid making our time at Roslyn even more special. There was even an old black cat named William who has made the chapel his home and he laid asleep on one of the ancient pews while a wee Scottish woman gave us a descriptive historic overview of Roslyn in Shakespearean style. I felt as if we had literally time traveled back hundreds of years in that short visit to these sacred grounds.
One of the most hilarious and self deprecating moments took place on the first day we arrived in Scotland. As you walk up to the main entrance to the Edinburg Castle there is a very large courtyard. At this time of the year there were rows of cascading bleachers along the edges forming a center stage if you will. Amelia commented that this was the place in which the tattoo took place during the month of August. She explained to me how it was a very big deal – sort of a military ceremony. I nodded knowingly, but was secretly confused. “So why do people come to watch all the newly enlisted service men get tattoos and how on earth are they going to be able to see anything way up at the top of those bleachers ?” I inquired. My mom and Amelia both spun their heads toward me and busted out in laughter. “Why are you guys laughing at me ?” “Mom. Really. You don’t know what a Tattoo is ?” Amelia replied in the way that only a teenage daughter can. “Wow, you have been in Spokane too long. ” My mom chimed in. (Of course a dig on Spokane) Ugh. Apparently there is more than one meaning for the word tattoo. Just in case you are not up on your vocabulary like me, the Edinburgh Tattoo is an annual ceremony of the armed forces in Scotland complete with pomp and circumstance, attracting thousand of visitors from around the world. Now I know there is more than one meaning of tattoo and it happens to be a big fucking deal in Scotland.
On about the third day of our trip we took a bus tour to the Alnwick Castle just across the border into England. If you have ever watched a Harry Potter film then you have seen this castle. Although I was looking forward to our day, it ended up being sort of heavy and tight between my mom and I. On the way to our destination our tour bus stopped for a short 30 minute break in a historic little town. We did a quick scan of the streets and found a restroom and then began our way back toward our bus. I spotted a cute little café just across the street from where were to meet the bus. “Mom, let’s go check this café out real quick, we still have 10 minutes until we are suppose to meet back at the bus.” She quickly looked at her watch and began to take a few steps forward with me and then she hesitated. “Come on Mom, relax, we have plenty of time.” I said as I wrapped my arm around her shoulder. Ohhhh. She did not like that. She took my arm and peeled it off her body. She said something to the affect that she was tired of us not giving her credit for her travel experience and that those bus drivers want you to be on-time. It was not so much what she said but how she said it that sent me shriveling back to my child self. I felt punished but not sure exactly why. I was just trying to get her to relax a little and lighten up. However I did not reply to her harsh words with my small child self. Some where in that exchange I found my voice and stated with confidence that I would not stand for her treatment and turned back toward the bus without her. “You can’t do that Shelley, come here.” She protested. “I don’t have to subject myself to that kind of energy mom. You have been so tense and cranky lately and I am tired of it. This whole thing that is going on with your sisters and Grandma has changed you. It makes me angry.” I stated. It was a fact. Over the past year I have observed the disintegration of my mom’s side of the family. As my grandmother has been steadily losing her mind, my mom and her sisters have lost their way with one another and it has truly broke my heart. I need these women to always be “the force” the “white light” that they have symbolized to me ever since I can remember. As I have mentioned in previous writings, these are the women that taught me the ways of life and celebrated life’s milestones with me and now they are no longer a trio. Now two are against one, my mom. It is complicated. I won’t share any more on this issue. Except one thing…. I will always support my mom, she comes first.
The rest of our day together was fairly silent. We were kind to one another but the energy was not fluid. After 10 hours on this bus tour I was finished for the day. Amelia and my mom went on for a nice dinner out together and I offered up an excuse to return to my room to read my book. This was a lie but I needed some down time. At first I was going to find something to watch on TV but instead grabbed an umbrella and headed out the rotating doors of the Waldorf Astoria. The rain was coming down in sheets while the wind blew softly. For the next hour or so I roamed the side streets and alleys of Edinburg. I felt like I was 20 years old again back packing through Europe on a dime. Alone but content, exploring the realness of this ancient city, not the parts that the tour buses show you. The smells of local foods, the sounds of ambulances in the distance, the sites of side street restaurants with out door seating where locals sat relaxed enjoying meals with friends after work, all the while the rain was rinsing my soul out… clearing my mind and heart again. Another world far from home, although I felt like I was at home…. I soaked it all in and sealed it into my treasure chest as I returned back to our hotel for the night. Restored.
My mom and I began the next morning drinking our coffee and eating the best croissants with a fresh start. It was almost as if we needed that dark moment to release the tensions that are inherent with travel, and then we proceeded forward together again. I chose not to bring “it” up however she casually mentioned on a few separate occasions her own thoughts about our exchange and acknowledged that the events with her sisters has affected her and she was seeking a more joyful way of living what ever that may be. I fully support her.
To be able to lift up out of your daily life and time travel to another land with the most special people in your life is a priceless gift, especially to a place like Scotland… If you ever need perspective on your life, there is nothing like walking cobblestone streets, peering into shops, gazing at ruins that have existed since the 1100s and before to help you put your existence into perspective. For me it is like trying to wrap my mind around how the television works or the cell phone or even whether there truly is a god – my mind is incapable of comprehending how it all works. History is a little easier to grapple with, it is not abstract. But still, to walk the halls and enter grand rooms where the queens roamed, where countries were formed, where blood spilled…. just mind blowing. And now they are gone. The only thing left is the stories we tell and their tomb stones where their remains are buried. Did we really time travel to another land or was it just a dream? Will my life be here and then gone just like those before me, I think so…. huh.
In the Summer of 1993 I landed in a city far from home. A place where the heat was suffocating and the people spoke their own dialect of English which was difficult for me to comprehend. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Familiar evergreens and mountains were replaced with decrepit brownstones and shiny high rise buildings. I had arrived in Baltimore. Only hours before, Tim dropped me off at the airport. We have never been good at saying good bye, especially in the early days of our relationship. With heavy hearts and lots of tears, we hugged one last time before he left me standing at the check in gate for United Airlines. Waving until I could no longer see the back end of his maroon 4 Runner, I entered the busy airport and boarded my flight to Baltimore. I was headed to Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and Tim was on his way to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb to complete a masters degree in outdoor curricula.
Johns Hopkins was not even on my radar until a few months before I submitted my application. One of my friends in my microbiology class knew I was applying to nursing schools and told me that Hopkins offered a 13 month accelerated BSN program for people who already had a bachelors degree. Yes, that was me. I had been introduced to the profession of nurse-midwifery by my other mother Carolyn when she referred me to one of her dearest friends, a nurse-midwife named Winnie McNamara for my first woman’s health exam when I was just 18 years old. By the end of my visit with Winnie, I knew what I wanted to become, a midwife like her. The way she dressed, her mannerisms, and most importantly the way she lived her life as a nurse-midwife was fascinating and exciting to me. Uno problema, I had no confidence when it came to science and math. My strengths were more along the lines of English and Art. And at that time in my life, I had not yet learned how to be resourceful in an effort to overcome obstacles. Ahhhh, the value of life lessons. So I put midwifery on the back shelf and followed the path of least resistance.
By the beginning of my sophomore year at WWU, I found my love of politics as well as a brief love of the professor who taught it. This is it, I remember thinking. My plan was to major in political science, minor in French, and become an attorney for UNICEF after completing a stint in the Peace Corp preferably on the Ivory Coast of Africa. Planning, always planning…
As part of my major I was allowed to complete an independent study. Still fascinated by all things birth, I wrote a 30 page paper titled The Politics of Midwifery. I devoured every book I could get my hands on that had anything to do with childbirth including eco-feminism, anthropology, women’s studies, and the history of medicine in the United States. By the end of the quarter, I knew my education would not lead me to law school. Instead, I had to figure out a way to get through the science classes, go to nursing school and on to graduate school for midwifery. Tim and I walked together at graduation in December 1991. (the 4 year plan plus one quarter) And in January I started my nursing prerequisites at Whatcom Community College while pulling shots at a Starbucks near Bellingham Bay.
I did a lot of soul searching during this time. I knew my end goal but was not confident that I had what it took to become what I wanted to be, a midwife. In my spare time I enrolled in a Doula certification program through the Seattle Midwifery School. ( And for all you birth gurus out there, it was taught by the infamous Penny Simkin) One night as I drifted off to sleep I prayed for a sign to cement my earthly calling. Please give me a sign that I should pursue midwifery were that last thoughts I was cognoscente of before I drifted off to sleep. Six hours later our phone rang. It was my chemistry lab partner who also happen to be a lay midwife working towards her certification. “Shelley, I am so sorry to wake you but would you be able to go to my house and get my birthing chair and bring it to me ? I could use your help at this birth. ” Without a second thought, I quickly dressed, kissed Tim good bye and flew out the door before the sun had had a chance to rise. I could not believe the universe would be so kind as to translate my prayer from the night before in such a manner. Seriously WTF !!! Before noon, in a farm house, north of Bellingham, I witnessed the first birth of a baby that I had ever seen. Not an easy birth, face presentation. But she knew she could do it, so she did. Grateful for this answered prayer.
Not long before I flew the nest for Baltimore, my great grandmother Violet was admitted to a nursing home north east of Seattle for a bout with pneumonia. I adored her and she adored me. With a delicate pot of African violets in hand, I went to her bedside to say good bye, since I would be leaving for Baltimore soon. We visited for about an hour and just as I was about to leave she said “So Shelley, your dad tells me that you want to be a midwife.” I nodded my head yes and told her I had been thinking about it. She went on to tell me “Well, you know, I was a midwife. I was what they used to call a farm midwife in North Dakota. I went to the births that the doctors could not make it to.” I was kind of stunned by what she shared. It was starting to all make sense to me; this calling to midwifery. At this point, I came to realize that I did not really have a choice in the matter; midwifery was in my blood and the Gods were calling my name. I gave my great grandma a long hug good bye. This was the last time I saw her. Violet Birks passed away a few days later, the same day the jet plane lifted me toward the eastern sky. I will always cherish her last earthly gift to me; she gave me a significant piece to my puzzle of my life.
Summer of 1993 was not my first time I had lived on the east coast. During my undergraduate degree while studying political science, I spent a quarter as an intern for our state senator Brock Adams in WA DC. This also happened to be during the same time our country was fighting in the first Persian Gulf war and before Monica Lewinsky changed our country’s notion of what an intern’s job description entailed. It was an incredible experience. Taking the shuttle from the Pentagon onto the hill every morning was an accomplishment in and of itself for this Skagit Valley girl. Fearless, I have always been some what fearless.
My second stint at east coast living was quite different. Nursing school at Johns Hopkins is a whole other world. Although we lived on campus housing in West Baltimore, the medical campus was directly in the middle of the inner city, East Baltimore. Culture shock. I had never witnessed such poverty and destitute in my life. It felt horrifying and kind of thrilling all at the same time. It was not long before I found my pack of nursing school buddies, Jen West, Kristin Koprowski, and Suzanne Vierra. We shared the best and the worst of times. Study sessions for pharmacology, public health rotations in the cockroach infested high rises in the inner city followed by mandatory debriefing sessions in the a cozy basement pub called PJs. Steamed shrimp with old bay seasoning and lots of butter washed down with cold beer on tap was a weekly event for the four of us and what made nursing school at Hopkins survivable. We shared stories about our clinicals, discussed whether we had met any interesting boys, and planned out our futures after Hopkins.
I mostly despised nursing school, except for the quarter we learned about obstetrics. I was all in. This was in my wheel house… and I excelled. On one special day, our OB professor invited a woman named Ruth Lubic to come speak to our class. I knew she was a CNM (certified nurse-midwife) in the rough parts of New York and was known for opening several birth centers in the under served boroughs. She was an older woman, probably in her early 60s at the time she came to speak with our class in 1993. Little did I know, Ruth had just been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her outstanding contribution to her profession in midwifery. She spent close to an hour talking with us about obstetrics, women’s health in the united states, and my favorite topic the profession of nurse-midwifery. Toward the end of her time with us she opened the time for questions. My inner core was trembling, that familiar old sign that something important was about to happen. I think I was the only one who rose my hand and since I was standing near the front door since all the seats were full, she quickly spotted me. Ugh. “Yes you, what is your question?” With my voice slightly trembling I asked her in front of all my 105 classmates how do you know you have what it takes to be a midwife? I did not plan on asking her that question, but it had been something I had been carrying around with me like a heavy back pack for the past 5 years. Without saying a word, she walked over in my direction and stretched out her arm to me. Without thinking, I took a few steps forward and reached out my hand to her to her. “You have what it takes. As a midwife you have to have the presence of mind and heart to always be able to meet a woman where she is at, to meet her half way. ” That moment carried me the rest of the way through nursing school at Hopkins. I was on a mission.
But then life happens. After graduation from Hopkins in summer of 1994 Tim and I began our new life on his mom’s house boat on Lake Union in Seattle. I took a job at Overlake Hospital in labor and delivery and the reality of the responsibility of being a nurse-midwife began to set in. In spite of my apprehension, I persevered applied and was accepted to the University of Washington nurse-midwifery program for the following Fall. It felt like I was pushing through, slinging the ice pick forward up the glacier; but my heart and spirit were not ready. Boughts of insomnia and anxiety were crowding my life and shaking my self confidence. After the first quarter of midwifery school, I stepped back, I had to. I was not ready. As difficult as this was to accept, I had no business adding more stress or sleep disruption to my life. Tim and my mom supported my decision but would not let me drop out all together. I transitioned into the perinatal masters degree program instead. No pressure, no nights. I was disappointed in myself, it felt like my body and my mind had failed me. I still longed to be a midwife and was never satisfied as an OB nurse. It just was not my time, breathe, keep on swimming…
By the time I graduated with my masters in nursing from the UW I was pregnant but did not know it quite yet. I wondered at first why I teared up during my presentation of my thesis on supporting women in labor and why I was so out of breathe walking up the steps to our loft bedroom at the houseboat. Preggo !! One of the best days of my life was the day I found out I was pregnant with Amelia. I told everyone. Fast forward, over the next six years, Tim and I built our home on Dragon fly ranch, had Amelia, moved to the ranch, had Ellie, went through hell and back, moved to Spokane, and had Charlie. During this entire time I kept seeking ways to pursue midwifery, to find my way back to MY path. And then one evening, when I was working at Deaconess, I was chatting with one of the pioneer CNMs of the Inland Empire, Catherine Shields. She said, “you know sweet life, this midwifery thing is never going to go away, so you might as well just figure out how to do it, and get it done.” Love her.
You know that saying you see on memes on Facebook “She thought she could, so she did.” Insert here. That is what happened, essentially. I thought I could, so I did with three kids under the age of 7, including one with special needs and working part time. Sometimes you just have to do it and figure out the details later. In 2008 I graduated from the University of Washington again, only this time I held the degree in my hand that I had always longed for in my heart. Unlike nursing school, I loved midwifery school. In fact the day our instructor taught us the cardinal movements and hand positioning during the birth of a baby, I began to cry. Once one midwife students start crying then all the rest join in gathering around, comforting and listening to her as they are taught to do in midwifery school. What a moment. I told my cohorts what I believed to be true; that being present and being the one to deliver the baby is not only a huge responsibility but also an honor. There is nothing more sacred then birth, don’t take it lightly. It was finally my turn, and it meant the world to me.
I have spent 10 years caring for pregnant women and catching babies as a nurse -midwife. I had some of the very best and some of the very worst days of my life during this decade. Last spring, in an effort for a better work-life balance, I decided to let go of the birthing aspect of being a midwife. However, I continue to spend my days listening to and meeting women of all ages “where they are at” … extending my hand out to theirs in hopes of helping them to find those wings and keep on flying…. To be a midwife means to be with woman. I am a midwife, I am with her.