Data, Data Everywhere. . . There’s More to the Story Than You Think

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I’m back.

It’s been awhile.  Ok, it has been a very long time, but I have been really, really busy.  Now, I am back and writing with force.  There is quite a bit to say and the first topic on the list is the Department of Defense’s Exceptional Family Member Program (aka EFMP).  My dog recently got out of the fight, but over the course of the last year, a number of issues and pieces of information have come to light and maybe it is just time to share them with other EFMP families.

Last fall, I had the good fortune to work with a good deal of really rich qualitative data focused on DoD families and their exceptional family members.

The Research

A little info about research and data analysis. . . .bear with me as my professor self emerges for a few seconds. . . .

Data can be qualitative or quantitative.  Responses can be elicited, evoked, provoked, prompted.  People who give their responses can be respondents or subjects, depending on the type of study being conducted.  Subjects are participants in controlled experiments, any other types of studies, such as ones that would measure attitudes, beliefs, feelings or attempt to describe behaviors, would involve respondents.  Respondents are those who are asked to answer questionnaires where the options are limited, possibly scaled (as in “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”) and no opportunity is offered for additional comments.  Their answers are “prompted” and the data being collected are “quantitative” data.  The researcher is absent, often in a double-blind scenario, which means that neither the researcher sees the person filling out the questionnaire nor does the respondent ever see the researcher.  Traits, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, all measured appropriately and collected as quantitative data can then be analyzed using statistical methods, allowing the researcher to draw conclusions, make recommendations leading to desired changes being implemented.

Qualitative data, while collected with vastly different methods, is equally exciting and can allow the researcher to gain deep insights into complex issues, even if the analytical methods lead to more tentative conclusions.  Instead of questionnaires, respondents can be observed, interviewed, engaged in discussion.  The researcher can be a part of the process or removed from it.  In the case of the EFMP data, the data collected was qualitative, using open-ended questions, a common method designed to gain access to respondents’ feelings, experiences, concerns,  or beliefs.  When a research analyst calls such data “rich,” she is suggesting that the data is filled with patterns of thought, new insights, words and phrases that bring to life the stories the respondents have to tell.  The job of the researcher is to apply an analytical technique called content analysis.  For the layperson, content analysis is an intensive process of reading each word of every response from each respondent multiple times, by multiple readers, identifying recurring themes, and determining the weight of those themes (how often they appear).  Ultimately, the goal is to take thousands of what appear to be unrelated responses to a finite set of questions, find some pattern in them that links them to each other.  Place these themes and patterns within a much larger context where their meaning can then be used to clarify the complexity and offer recommendations for improvement.

Further questions on both method and analysis can be sent to me at lesliedrinkwinephd@live.com.

The Data

For weeks, I culled through the data, reading through it over and over and, when the time came, commencing the gritty task of actually analyzing the data.

The task consumed me.  Sleep eluded me.  I forgot to eat.  All I could think about was the data.  The words of the families came to life, I could hear their voices, see their images and, all too often, felt their pain and struggles.

At one time in my life, we were an EFMP family.  It was difficult.  Five posts in eight years, all east of Interstate 81, allowed me plenty of time to get to know EFMP rules, regulations, policies and failures.  Jack was diagnosed at Fort Bragg in 2003 with autism, we left the Army recently out of Fort Myer EFMP.  Fort Bragg to Fort Drum to Carlisle Barracks to Fort Bragg to Fort Myer. . . .I look back at them now and remember each and every EFMP person.  Fort Bragg was the best the second time around (they still get my award for BEST EVER EVER EVER!). . . .Fort Drum. . .worst ever. . . Fort Myer. . . .first joint base. . . .Carlisle Barracks. . . .so small, made life so easy.  But, if I look at each one of them, we were at different points in our lives, too, and now, that is part of the story.  And, as I examined the data and began the process of placing it into context, I could see why those labels were so easy to assign.

In other words, as I performed the analysis, I could clearly see the multidimensionality of both sides of the EFMP problem is what makes it a nearly insurmountable challenge for DoD, for EFMP families and providers.

Services and the Exceptional Family Member Program

EFMP, believe it or not, is a service offered to all service members by the Department of Defense.  Being enrolled in EFMP is a bit like buying insurance. . . .turns out you might need it, but if you have to use it, the news is probably not good for you.  And that last part is what makes it an “undesirable” service for so many service members.  For a very long time, service members lived with the perception that enrolling a family member into the Exceptional Family Member Program meant that their military career was in jeopardy.  Given that an EFMP designation could possibly impact future assignments, PCS moves or promotions, service members viewed enrollment warily.  Unfortunately, if you or your child needed to be enrolled in order to receive necessary behavioral, educational or medical services, EFMP was a “mandated” option.

As a service, though, wanted or not, there are some principles in play that cannot be ignored.  First, services are intangible, inseparable, heterogeneous, and perishable.  In the world of EFMP, here is what those principles mean.

When you engage with anyone from EFMP, what do you get? And, when I ask you, “what do you get?” I mean, physically, what do you get?

1.  Paperwork:  lots and lots of paperwork.  Do you understand it?  Is it easy to read?  Do you know what to do with it?  Were directions provided?  Pictures?

2.  When you go to their office, is there a place to sit down?  If my experience with EFMP (or any agency on a military post or base, for that matter) is any indication, the chairs are uncomfortable, unmovable (as if I would even consider taking them with me), the coffee is cold, old and tasteless (if there at all), brochures offer little to no meaning, and the television is tuned to some channel with a sign indicating that the channel is not to be touched without assistance.  Am I close?

Intangibility is inevitable with services:  it exists along a continuum from absolutely no physicality present to physical goods accompanied by some level of service (simplest example is dinner at a restaurant: food with service attached).  But without a physical product, or some indication of it, how can you evaluate how well it is working?  What does this have to do with comfortable chairs, paperwork and ambience?  More than you would think.  People need physical contact with even the most intangible services.  Why do you think so many businesses give out pens, calendars, crazy stress balls with the names of their businesses stamped on them?  Tangibility.  I’m not suggesting that pens and calendars are the path to connecting with EFMP (although, stress relief balls may work), but there are many ways in which the first contact with the program can be more comfortable, welcoming, warm.  Because, chances are, if you are there, your life is already tough enough.  Tangibility becomes especially important because it is impossible to know if an intangible service is working.  But when it fails to work, you know it and you are mad.

Inseparability is the source of much that can go wrong with any service and EFMP is no different.  Unlike the IPhone I purchased this past weekend, with a service I am actually present in the production of the service.  Watching Jack and Ellie getting their hair cut this past weekend, I had to participate (as did they) by suggesting to the stylist how much should be cut.  In the case of Jack, I had to quickly train the stylist how to deal with an autistic boy who hates to have his hair cut.  I also had to teach my children how to engage with the stylist:  sit still, don’t argue over hair length (that would be Ellie), let her know if the water it too hot or too cold.

With EFMP, you are also part of the service production while simultaneously consuming the service.  How many times have you moved to a new post, arrived at EFMP to reset your respite care and found that you didn’t have the correct information, had somehow lost a referral or were told that you had zero chance of receiving ABA services in the next thirty days?  Retracing your steps, you remember that you did everything the same way you had at your previous post.  You knew the routine and had followed the blue print.  Still, you had come up empty-handed.

If this has happened to you, you can partially blame the service failure on the inseparability principle.  In order to arrive at a satisfactory solution encounter, both parties must participate equally in the production and the consumption of the service.  Lack of knowledge about how to participate sets the family up for failure.  One of the key themes from the data dealt with this problem.  Not only was there no consistency in the application of the EFMP policies across the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, active duty, guard and reserve units, but there was a clear lack of consistency between posts and bases, making things like PCSing a nightmare that seemed to have no end.

Heterogeneity is the third principle that comes into play when we look at the challenges we face with EFMP.  Anyone who has been touched by the military has argued against the “cookie cutter” approach so often taken by any type of programming available for families.  Even within the same offices, families enrolled in the problem often find it is difficult to get the same answer from more than two people twice.  Consistently, the heterogeneity of the EFMP employees, across services, posts/bases, and even within offices, showed through the data enough to suggest that most encounters were not only difficult, but acted in such a way as to create negative expectations for any future encounters.  Creating negative expectations had a profound effect on the interactions between families and service providers, often leading to a downward spiral where any possibility of service salvage went out the door.

Finally, all services are perishable.  They have zero shelf life.  Can’t use them today?  They can’t be saved until tomorrow.

At first look, the perishability of services seems less impactful on the entire EFMP program than the other principles.  Yet, the size of the enrollment at the larger posts (Bragg, Hood, Lewis, Schofield Barracks, Military District of Washington, all Army, but it’s my perspective. . . .happy to take insight about other services, see email address above) all mean that you have volumes of people needing access to a very finite number of EFMP employees.  Many types of service industries have ways to manage the perishability factor.  Airlines use yield management pricing:  fly off-peak hours, typically, fly cheaper.  Plan your flights far in advance, airfares are lower.  In other words, airlines can motivate you to commit to filling their seats by altering price, something they have determined to be important in your decision-making process.

But what about EFMP?  What control do they have over managing your demand for the finite number of hours they can provide?  Think about it this way:  when is EFMP busiest?  During PCS season.  When, typically, do most families PCS?  Spring, summer. . . .maybe early fall. . .sometimes over the holidays.  Is there anything EFMP can do to increase the hours of the day that they work?  No, but they could increase their man hours per day by having more of their employees focused on PCS types of activities or asking for their higher headquarters to staff them more heavily during those seasons.

What happens when you go to the EFMP office?  Your first signal is to “sign in.”  From my experience, I would rather have my eyes ripped out of my head than try to sit with my son waiting for ANY length of time for a meeting.  Could I possibly avoid this situation?  Sure, as part of the service production, I could leave him home. . .but, wait. . .I am new to the post, I know no one to watch my special needs child, my husband has already signed in to his unit and is already working and, oh yea, the whole reason I am AT the EFMP office is to set up respite care.  Is there any solution to this problem?  There is, but it takes an out of the box approach and the first step is acknowledging that perishability is the elephant in the room and how are you going to work around that.

In the end, the longer I wait, the more frustrated I become, the more likely my child will act out, the shorter my fuse.  Equate that with my counterpart with whom I am going to be meeting once I finally reach the hallowed halls of the EFMP office.  I am probably the fifth or sixth person to show up in the office today.  Chances are that I am missing at least one piece of my paperwork, not because I intended to do so, but I didn’t need it at my last post, so it never occurred to me that I would need it at this post.  The closer to lunch, give or take an hour, the EFMP rep is going to either be starving and I am the person standing between her and lunch or she has just come back and the phone call she received over lunch from the school where her OWN child attends has told her that her evening is going to be spent doing something other than taking care of herself.  She is in no mood to be berated, you are in no mood to be told “no” and, before you know it, what could have been a fairly good start to a working relationship has become a throw down with names and ranks being dropped everywhere in sight.  She has heard it before.  You have said it before.  You threaten to go to the chain of command.  She is already thinking about the phone call she is going to get from someone tomorrow.

After reading thousands of responses, I can readily tell you, this is how it starts.

I can also tell you that it doesn’t have to end that way.

The data I analyzed exposed many themes about the EFMP equation:  families, providers, leadership, challenges, outcomes.  Thanks to this data, I have a story to tell.  Thanks to twenty plus years of studying, researching and  teaching Marketing and Services at top universities across the United States, I have context in which to place this data that offers perspective and recommendations for a way to approach some of these challenges.  With my partners, a five-stage study program has been developed. . . . if the leadership is willing to listen.  They’ve been told.  This information and these recommendations were presented in December 2012 to military leadership in Washington, DC, so they have been told.  Whether they choose to listen is the question.

In the end, though, here is what came out. . . .after reading thousands of responses from over 500 respondents who came from all ranks (full disclosure:  no respondents in the study indicated that they held a rank of O7 or above), all services, posts and bases across the country, with different reasons for being enrolled in EFMP. . . who were Active Duty, Reservists, National Guard, retirees, caregivers, spouses, Service Members, or enrollees themselves, here is one general theme that emerged over and over and OVER again:

EFMP demonstrates no consistency across services, across posts/bases, across states, communities and ranks.  The vocabulary used to describe exceptional family members changes across the different services, the accessibility to programs are a function of the environment outside the control of the Department of Defense.  Reworking EFMP is going to need more than a change of resourcing, it is going to need a significant paradigm shift.  Until then, nothing can really change at all.

©LeslieKDrinkwine,Ph.D., 2013. All material by Leslie K. Drinkwine, Ph.D., www.storiesfromthejourney.org and subsequent studies published under Education Research Consultants, LLC is the copyrighted property of the author.  Ideas presented in this material are the intellectual property of the author and are protected under federal laws of the United States of America.  Any use of this material must have the expressed written consent of the author.  The author can be contacted at Lesliedrinkwinephd@live.com.

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I’m More Than a Bird. . . . .But It’s Not Easy to Be Me

Five For Fighting’s song, Superman, has always reminded me of Jack.  From the time he was a baby, this song seemed to belong to him.  In the same way that Tiny Dancer was christened as Elle’s song, Superman seemed to capture Jack’s essence.  This morning, as I tell my latest story from the journey, it plays in the background. . . .reminding me that sometimes it is just difficult to be who we really are.  Autism makes it so much more difficult to tell the world who you are, what you believe, or how your will find your way in the world.  Like the Superman metaphor, sometimes we just expect so much from others that we forget to look closely at who they really are.

I love to write. . . make no question about that statement.  But, for today, words seem inadequate to tell you the story.  So,  I will use pictures.  Before you get there, though, let me give you the back story.

Both of my children are incredibly photogenic and I have spent endless hours attempting to translate their personalities into colorful photos.  As B’s deployments increased and lengthened, I felt the need to pull out the camera more and more frequently.  He missed so much of how they became who they are that, at the very least, I could send him pictures.  As they grew up, they both gravitated to the cameras.  Some were lost. . .others were broken. . . but not before I was able to see, through their eyes, what made up their world.

Of the two, oddly enough, Jack was my more prolific photographer.  As Elle became more verbal, her need to tell me things moved from the visual to the audible.  She was able to tell me what she wanted, when she wanted it, and what wasn’t working for her.

But, for Jack, pictures, movies and music became his method of sharing his thoughts.  Stealing my IPhone, with a glint in his eyes, he would zoom around the house photographing objects, things, people.

Right before Christmas, one of my lovely friends invited several old friends and me to accompany her on a tour of the East Wing of the White House to see the Christmas decorations.  While we had been told we couldn’t take pictures, I still took my IPhone.  Arriving there early on that December morning, we realized that pics were allowed.  Using my phone (which actually has better definition than my old Canon SLR) to capture the colors, feeling and memories of our time together, I filled the camera roll with special moments.  Intentions are always a good thing. . .even when other things happen to disrupt their movement into behavior.  Sometimes, that disruption looks alot like my Jack.

I had intended to make lovely memory books for each of them. . .using my photos.  Sitting down one evening to download the memories for printing, I realized that they were all missing.  Digging through the files on my design computer, I panicked.  They were missing. . .gone. . . completely (and, yes, my friends from that day. . .that is the reason your books are a tad late).

Someone had deleted my photos.

Skip forward to last night.  Over the weekend, I had refurbished some furniture, intending to post for friends who follow what happens in my studio.  Opening the camera roll to show my new friend the latest work out of Esmerelda Designs. . . . I discovered that, once again, my pictures were missing.  What I found, though, was much more enlightening. …and encouraging.

Jack has been reading Dr. Suess books the last couple of weeks.  Using my IPad, he can have the stories read to him and then he repeats the lines.  As a result, for the last several days, all of our discussions have been about Green Eggs and Ham.  Following me everywhere through the house, he asks me if I would eat them “here or there.”  After four days of these questions, I know the answers as well as he does.

As I said, I love to write. . . .but today, I am going to let Jack’s pictures tell you the rest of the story.  So, download Superman onto your IPod or whatever you use to listen to music. . . .sit back and enjoy some Green Eggs and Ham.

“Would you like them here or there?”

 “Would you like them in a house?”

 “Would you like them with a mouse?”

“Would you eat them in a box?”

“Would you eat them with a fox?”

“Would you? Could you? In a car?”

“You may like them in a tree!”

“Could you, would you, on a train?”

“In the dark?”

“Would you, could you, in the rain?”

“Could you, would you, with a goat?”

“Would you, could you, on a boat?”

More

Falling into The Fray. . . .

The phone rings really early on Tuesday morning.  Groggy from the sleeping pill that has become my safety net over the last few weeks, I squint to see the time on the cable box.  My eyesight has diminished in the last few years. . . the result of the ravages of a disease that I don’t even know I have yet.  Looking back now, I can’t remember if I was in my own bed or if, by that time of the deployment, I had already moved into the sleeping room with the kids.  All that happened that year makes some of the details less easily remembered while others, like the one about which I write today, are so etched in my brain that they never leave.  I visit them once or twice a day. . . and then move on with my day.

Because, for the fourth time in our marriage, my husband is living on a different continent than me, I automatically add the appropriate number of hours to what I see on the clock and think, once again, that I hate doing time travel math and maybe it is time to get an old-fashioned clock with the appropriate face and numbers.  Looking at the caller ID, it is an 800 number telling me that it is from Afghanistan.

The phone calls from B are rare. . . like me, he is a writer.  It is how I fell in love with him in the first place.  He wrote, I wrote and we planned a mythical existence in which we would be happy, joyful with amazing children who would be brilliant little hockey players who would grow up to go to West Point and Harvard.  It was a myth, but it was the blueprint we composed as we fell in love across the miles after a chance meeting on holiday.

But myths are just that:  myths.  They have the bones of the story, but where the bones end and the skin begins is always hard to discern.  Life is anything but mythical these days.

Answering the phone, I hear his voice, cracking across all of those miles.  There has been another death.  I keep a journal that details the stories of the fallen from the brigade.  I find their hometown newspapers and read the words that fill in the holes of stories that I don’t know very well.  Their coaches, teachers, pastors. . . all provide the richness of the details that tell us who they were, where they left their marks and the lives they leave behind. . .hearts that will forever be broken.

As always, he can’t tell me who it is, but I sense that this one is different.  I’ve always hated when local newspapers, FRG groups, and command teams treat the deaths of officers differently from how they treat those of  specialist or a sergeant.  They will, of course, deny it, but I’ve traveled this road far too long and I know otherwise.  To B, though, all losses are painful. . .each one closing him up more and more.  From a few different pieces of information that I can pull together, I make the inference that this lost trooper is an officer, a captain, as well as others.  See, even I do it.  Do I remember this death more clearly because it was an officer or because of all that has come before and all that came after?  I don’t have an answer, but I do have a story.

Still, I say a silent prayer for all who will be affected by this death.  And. . . .the layers and recriminations will last longer, I suspect, than the memory of what happened that day in Helmand Province.  Getting the kids out the door, thankful once again, for Tiki who has been my savior through it all.  Tiki, the woman whom I love more than any other (the exception being my beloved Tina, but more on her in a future post), who has made my life possible this past year.  Without her, I am not sure where I would be. . . .

The kids leave and I get dressed for work.  My boss, a saint in a white man’s body and crisp tie and suit, has made a schedule that meets my needs.  Tuesdays and Thursdays are long days for me, four and a half hours of teaching. . . intense talking, commanding a class of 20-somethings.  On days like this, when I know about a death, but can’t talk to anyone about it, it takes everything in my soul to go into the classroom and put on my professorial hat.  Holding my temper. . . the tears left long ago. . . .when some male, the same age of the two who have died for their country that day in a far off lonely place, asks the question “is this going to be on the test?”

I give the same answer that I always do. . . .everything is fodder for the test.  It makes me want to scream.  Really. . .is that your only issue today?  Why aren’t you over there?  Instead, I smile weakly and move back into the material. . .praying that things like how people learn to be consumers will drown out the anger in my head.

The best part about my job is the drive there and back.  Forty-five minutes of hell-bent for leather speeding (and two tickets) down a country road. . . .testing Lola’s ability to demonstrate her handling power.  The angrier I become, the faster I drive. . . .daring fate to make me change my mind.

But the speeding ends at the gate where I show my ID, proving once again that gated communities come in all shapes and sizes.  For the first time of the day, I click on the cruise control, set it to 20 mph and creep through the neighborhood for home.  Speeding on the back roads of North Carolina is one thing. . . . $500 tickets notwithstanding, you don’t want to get caught speeding on post.  The consequences are much more dire and make writing the lawyer a check to get you off of the court docket seem like a really small price to pay.

By the time I get home, the kids are in full meltdown tilt.  This is the year that I will get the chance to really know my children.  After seven or eight years. . .probably time.  Jack wants pizza. . .his new favorite and I generate the energy to make the call.  LIving on post always means that the delivery time will be longer and, besides, kids in car breaks up the routine and they don’t run around as much when they are beneath the seatbelts.

I’ve just called in the order when the doorbell rings.  WTH?

Elle answers it before I get to it and there are two of the young wives from the coffee group.  Two of my favorites. . . young, energetic, in love with their husbands. . .their friendship has made this year so much easier.  One’s yin to the other’s yang, they are inseparable, reminding me of the last time we were all together for a hail and farewell the previous summer, before the departures began.  The hail and farewell was at Yang’s house and we all dressed like it was the 80s.  I can’t remember if B and I dressed up, but I do remember thinking that the 80s were to them what the 50s had been to me. . .while my friends and I had worn poodle skirts with high pony tails, these girls wore pink and green LaCoste golf shirts, madras shorts and big, teased hair.

There are alot of thing that I remember about that night in July . . . .but, and maybe it is because it sounded so innocent or because of what happened later, I don’t know.  But I remember Yin looking at Yang’s husband, a monolithic presence compared to his much smaller wife, and promising that she would take care of Yang during the deployment. . . . . . months later, it would come back to my mind and plot itself down in the creases of the brain where the pain is stored.

I don’t remember setting up this get-together, but I fake it and I wonder if my exhaustion shows.  They are young and happy. . .I am old and tired.  Maybe they are what I needed this evening. . . .a little laughter, a reminder of the joyful part of this year.  I tell them that we have ordered pizza and that we need to go pick it up. . .are they game?

They’ve come to expect big girl drinks from visits to my house, so I employ one of my old tricks. . . .big girl drinks in polish pottery coffee mugs.  Hey—it worked before. . . .why not now.  I’m pushing the envelope, but I’m too tired to care.  We pile into Lola and head to the local Pizza Hut.

One of the things that I miss about Fayetteville is the drive-through Pizza Hut pick-up.  Life with an autistic child who is a well-known runner (vernacular for those kids who sense no danger in running into traffic) requires you to rewrite the rules on everything from how you lock your house to where you buy your take-out.  Only tonight, the location that I have picked out for pizza doesn’t have an operating drive-through, so I am forced to go into the restaurant.

Maybe things will work out after all. . . . I hate to take the kids into the restaurant and having Yin and Yang in the car make it so much easier to leave them.  I admonish Thing One and Thing Two (alternate identities of J and E) to behave and I rush in to pick up the pizza.

But, karma always intervenes.  She can’t help herself.  I find that the order has been screwed up and I have to wait.  Saying silent prayers, I thank God for bringing Yin and Yang to the house that night.  I have to wait a bit longer before I can grab the pizza and head out of there.

What seems like an eternity but, in reality, is probably only five or six extra minutes, comes to an end and I am back in the car before I know it.  Things seem calm. . . .looks like my plan worked.

Before I even get Lola back on the highway, though, Yin and Yang have spilled the beans.  Apparently, while I was patiently waiting in the store, thankful for such peace, Thing One had escaped from the car.  Running around the parking lot in the night air, Yin and Yang, both childless at this point, get out of the car and begin to chase.

Note to self:  warn all others that chasing the runner is what he wants. . . . chase him and he will run. . .further, faster, laughing these deep belly laughs the entire time while you get tired, winded and start to swear.

Safely back in the car, Yin and Yang tell me the story and we all laugh together.  I remind them that this is what “having it all” looks like.  We reach the house, refill the big girl drinks and, since I am home to stay, I join them over big slices of pizza.

We catch up and talk about how things are going.  They tell me what they hear from their husbands, I take caution to limit what I tell them about B and me.  No one needs to know what we are dealing with. . . the stress of command, the number of deaths, the marriages that are breaking all around us.  At one point, Yin tells me that she talked to her husband that morning.  Like many couples, they have a code they use when they need to share their feelings, but that doesn’t violate the rules of contact.  Their code for “death” is that “bad things happened” today.

Lots of husbands make those calls when the commo blackouts are finally lifted.  They can’t tell their spouses what they know, what they’ve seen, where they’ve been, but their voice on the other end of the line lets their loved ones know that, at least this time, it wasn’t them.  I’ve had more of these phone calls than I care to remember, but am left to retain.

I look down at my pizza.  They need me to say something, but I have to be careful.  There are so many reasons.  Because the brigade is so big, it doesn’t even occur to me that they might even know who died. Most importantly, though, one of the dead on this morning was a company commander. . . .Yang’s husband is one, too, and I don’t want her to even entertain the thought that company commanders can get killed.  Besides, what are the chances of losing two company commanders in one deployment.  It is simply unnecessary to upset her.  I leave the topic on the table and move on to other thoughts.

What I remember from that night, besides the details revealed above, was the sense of happiness they held. . .the anticipation of an upcoming R&R. . . the talk of children to be conceived. . . .vacations to take. . . futures to live.

Twenty-four hours later, I am headed out the door to teach a night class.  The phone rings. . .it’s Yang.  Her voice is cold, formal, angry.  You didn’t tell me who it was last night, she accuses me.  I hold my breath.  Looking at the same clock that had awakened me the morning before, I feel my body tense and hope there is no state trooper on 210 that evening, because I am going to have to set some new speed records if this conversation lasts much longer.

All I can tell her is that I couldn’t tell her the night before.  I hadn’t wanted her to worry.  It turns out that the fallen commander is a close friend, familiar, part of her extended circle of friends.  My silence causes her to calm down and change her tone.  I say again that I just couldn’t tell her.  I don’t ask for forgiveness. . . . there were no other choices and I did what I knew was the right thing to do.  Softening, she tells me that she and her friends have “got this.”  They are going to weave their circle more tightly and take care of all of those feelings that will need to be met.  I walk out the door and run to the classroom. . . where I can think about something else.  Two years ago and I still hear her voice.

Two years ago, today, my phone didn’t ring that morning.  This time, I check my email. . . .something I did nearly every 30 minutes for twelve months. . . for the fourth time in seven years.  There is an email from B.  Reading through it as I pack my briefcase, it begins in a far too normal fashion.  I read it through once and then again.  He tells me that he has just left the tarmac where he held the hand of another fallen trooper.  I close my eyes and make myself go there.  Like everything else he has ever written me, it is beautifully written, rich in detail.

Today, my driving music is from The Fray. . . .”How to Save a Life”. . . . .the words reminding me of how I felt that day. . .that day when I will have to get in my car and make the 45 minute trip and put on my professor’s hat.  There will be someone who will, inevitably, ask if that day’s lecture material will be on the test.  I’ll answer back. . . kindly. . . .patiently.

But, before I go, I call Fred.  He answers and we don’t talk for the first few seconds.  On this day, two years ago, when I felt I could still trust him, when I thought he understood what this world was really like, I turned to him.  He knows it is me, but he waits.  He waits to see how much I know before he answers any of my questions.  But, instead of talking, I cry.  Sitting on my front porch that February day, Groundhog Day, at Fort Bragg, I cry.  For so many reasons, I cry.

The email tells me that the dead trooper is another company commander.  It is Yang’s husband.  The woman who told me two weeks before that she and her friend “had this covered” is going to need someone to cover her.  The fact that B emailed me instead of calling tells me how devastated he is.  I cry to Fred and, before he revealed that he could not be trusted, he cried with me over the phone.

We hang up and I get into my car.  I start it up and move slowly through the neighborhood, navigating the various speed bumps . . . ..I turn on the CD player. . . . I listen to The Fray. . . .the piano notes of the beginning of the song fill the car. . . .”sit down we need to talk.. . . .”

Forty-five minutes later, I walk into the classroom.  I pull up the power point slides and I put on my smile and talk about how to get a consumer to change his behavior.

I’ve got this one.

Not Everything is What it Seems. .. . .

The other day, one of my favorite friends posted on Facebook the irony of liking the Disney show “Wizards of Waverly Place” almost as much as her daughter does.  Another mom chimed in with the words to the title song. . . .”nothing is quite what it seems. . .” I laughed because WoWP is also one of my favorite shows.  WoWP is this generation’s Bewitched. . .offering everyone the opportunity to believe, for just thirty minutes, that magic might be made.

It’s unusually spring-like today in DC.  End of the quarter teacher work days means that I’m home with Jack and Elle. . . .mediating as they denounce each other’s choices of shows, computer games, and overall activities.  Rather than listen to them complain this afternoon, I find myself tackling a project I’ve put off for exactly one year.

On my very first barn crawl last January, shortly after we had moved in and anxious to become the June Cleaver of my dreams, if not B’s, I found an old mantle in the #2 barn.  The barns have three levels:  barn #1 is where you will find creative, interesting things that have been restored or just need cosmetic changes, barn #2 is a bit more “rustic,” holding items where you have to crawl over things to find just what you want and barn #3 containing items that need flights of fancy, strong imagination and a lot of elbow grease.

The mantle is from barn #2 and I leave there feeling like I have found a diamond that just needs a bit of polish. Twelve months later, it is the last piece to be refurbished from the items I bought that day.  It’s old and decrepit.. . . and, as I sit today in the sunshine, beginning the long process of making it mine, humming the theme song from the Disney show, I am reminded that nothing is ever quite what it seems.

I pour the stripping solution over the weathered wood and watch the paint begin to loosen and bubble.  Like any rehab project, this mantle will take time, often requiring me to almost start over with each step.  There are layers of paint, souls from other lives, all that need to be scraped away until I can find my way back to its beginning.  To reach its inner wood and rebuild it to the point where it is mine.

But this is never an easy project. . . .

When I was very young, in a starter marriage that was a sham from the moment the minister asked us to vow our lives until “death do us part,” I met a women with whom my then-husband worked.  Visiting her apartment one day, I was enthralled by two huge canvases hanging in her living room.  They were both the same, paintings of endless ribbons that wove themselves through loops and valleys.  One was done in reds, while the other wall was filled with hues of blue.

“Those are amazing!” I tell her.  “Where did you get them?”

Becky, quietly, explains that she has done them herself.  Before she was a psychologist, she wanted to be an artist.

“Would you make one for me?” naively I ask her, envisioning a similar piece of artwork hanging over a similar couch in my future.  After all, I am ready for my real life to begin. . .the one I have imagined over the years: art work, dinner parties, grown-up things.

Becky doesn’t even entertain the thought.  Those paintings represent her life, broken relationships, exciting beginnings, different directions.  She can’t make one for me because she isn’t me.  I’ll have to create my own piece of art, I barely hear her say.

I have stopped listening, preferring instead to wonder if, maybe, she will make me two paintings.  I hear her briefly describe how she pinned different pieces of grosgrain ribbon to each other, in varying shades and hues, and dropped the entire length onto a board where she adhered it to where it lay.  Over the following weeks and months, she would return to the studio in the art building on campus, rearrange the light and paint for hours. . . .each stroke replaying a word, a thought, a memory of the composition of her life.

It is this memory that I replay this afternoon as I slowly scrape away the layers of paint on my mantle.  Five, six, seven layers of paint. . .all with stories, no one layer exactly what I thought I would find.  It will take time.

Joining me in the sunshine is Jack.  It is, at the very best, maybe 60 degrees today. . .maybe a bit warmer.  Jack is dressed in a swim suit, patiently waiting for me to join him in the hot tub (I won’t), while not so patiently waiting for the man in the brown truck to arrive with his latest quest:  Ook the Book from Amazon.  If he is cold, he doesn’t appear to realize it.

He and Elle have been playing a game of Ellie the Dog.  Ellie pretends to be a dog and Jack taunts her into chasing him.  When she won’t do it, he yells at her “bad dog, bad Ellie dog.”

Jack can read Ook the Book, but he can’t tell me he’s cold.  He can tell Ellie that she is acting like a “bad dog,” but he can’t comprehend what I mean when I ask him if we can have a dog.  Sometimes the answer is yes, but many times the answer is no.

Like the mantle I am refurbishing and the memory of those paintings from so long ago, I realize that Jack is my canvas, a work in progress, the piece of artwork I am creating.  Where I saw a colorful painting, Becky saw her past woven in the colors and strokes of her paintbrush.  When I look at my children, I hear songs from their childhood, I remember their births, and I accept that one may be a painting while the other is a mosaic.

Raising children is a bit like creating art.

In the future, as the world meets Elle, not unlike a hurricane coming in from the Gulf, it will be able to see and hear exactly what she means and who she is.  She will be my painting that I present to the world.

Still, raising an autistic child is much more like a creating a mosaic than a painting or a photograph.  Years from now, people will see a young man with blue eyes and quirky behaviors.  Sometimes, when we look at mosaics, it is difficult to see the entire picture because we are distracted by the disconnects between the tiles.  Meeting Jack, the world is more likely to see those disconnects he brings to the table. . . .the verbal challenges, the behavioral quirks, the occasional meltdowns.  But I, the artist, will remember the extraordinary effort it took to bring his mosaic to life. . . to see his whole self, instead of the sum of his parts.  You just have to know when to believe in the magic.

Because. . . .living with autism is never what it seems to the world outside.  Like the lives of the characters from the Wizards of Waverly Place, our magic is sometimes best kept inside.

This War is Over. . . . .

There are few places in my past that are as inviting as Houston’s Galleria.  For at least one year of my life, the Westin Galleria was, off and on, home base.  Dropping my car with the valet, I would head up to the room we all shared that year.  Hungry. . . call room service or head down to La Madeleine on the bottom floor.  Oddly enough, I never shopped in any of the stores other than Neiman Marcus.  It was the family-go-to store for all our needs.  It’s 1994 and I am in graduate school, but that is just one of part of my life.  If I want to really think about it, those ten guys in Baton Rouge were the needles and thread that held my life together for those years, especially that year when everything else had broken apart.  They gave me my structure, my purpose and I gave them what was left of my soul.

Walking into NM one afternoon, I head up to the women’s clothing area.  I know exactly what I want, that for which I am searching.  It came to me one day and I knew that I would recognize it when I saw it.  There it is. . . .hanging in the designer section.  A DKNY pantsuit.  It wants me as much as I want it.  Putting it on in the dressing room, the soft pleats are just pinched enough to give it form, while the tip of the trousers break nicely across my Cole-Haan shoes.  It is a standout piece. . . .wheat colored, it will become my battle uniform for the future.

This is the one.

I go to pay and, without blinking, charge the $1100 to my visa card.  It’s the only the second time that I will ever pay more than a thousand dollars for a suit and it isn’t the last.  This is just the beginning.

With that last task done, I get back in my car and head east. . . .to the bayou, the swamp, and LSU.  There, Worm Boy, the Princess and her past wait for me to come home.  Nothing has ever felt more like home to me than Cajun Country.  Nothing.  Even now, as I write this, my heart beats just a little bit faster, the landmarks along the way merging into the seasons, the bridge over the Mississippi calling to me.  For five years, I lived within a mile or two from the levees of the Mississippi and, like the river itself, Baton Rouge is where I have dumped all of the sediment of the previous 30+ years.  And, like the delta into which it flows, it stays and builds new islands and wetlands. . . a metaphor that richly captures the last ten years.

It has been more than ten years since I last saw the swamp. . . . tasted a real po-boy or felt the type of humidity that envelopes your body like a well-fitted designer suit.  It’s time to go back.  This war is over.

This past month, the public press tells us, the war in Iraq is over.  I listen to Melissa Etheridge plaintively sing, “this war is over, I’m coming home,” and I wonder about wars.  Of course, if it is in the newspapers, I am convinced, it must be true. . . .well, maybe not so true.

Exactly, for whom is this war over?  We still have troops in Iraq.  They are waiting in Kuwait.  Units still receive orders to go to Iraq.  The ring I placed on my husband’s finger a dozen years ago is still in Iraq.  This war is over?

It makes me think about the wars I’ve fought.  For sure, they have included Iraq and Afghanistan. . . ..even without ever having set foot in either country, I have been a part of that fighting force or, at the very least, my heart has been there.  Four times in seven years. . . . my husband came home, but for me, this war is not over.  And, if it isn’t over for me, what about those whose loved ones came home broken?  What about those for whom the welcome home took place on an airfield in Dover, Delaware?  And, Melissa’s voice continues. . . . .”tell them I’m alright, I am alone.”

Forever intertwined in my war with the War is my war with autism.  Is that too many wars in one sentence?  But, isn’t that what war really is. . . . a series of small wars, cloaked as battles, from which we cannot emerge unscathed?  The beginning of our time with the war began within days of the war with autism.  More than once, I have felt the autism battles have been every bit as physical as what B faced in Fallujah, Baghdad, Kandahar, Zabul. . . .Herat.  My fights have been over diagnoses, insurance coverage, finding the right doctors, and, surprisingly less often, schools.  Like those who have returned from locations far away, I have the invisible scars from the battles where I vehemently fought for my son’s rights, his place in the world.  In my world, Dover was a doctor’s office at Womack in 2004, where the dignified transfer of the remains of our hopes and dreams were delivered.  It was that day that the declaration of war was pronounced, even if there had been ten months of squirmishes and insurgent attacks leading up to that point.

But, like the war in Iraq, it feels as though the autism war is slowing down.  Yesterday, Jack and I went to the grocery store.  Throughout the store, he named all of the products from the assortment.  His battles with speech have produced a brief respite from the ravages of the war.  Using tools like Veggie Tales, Wallace and Gromit’s Curse of the Wererabbit, and Remy’s Ratatouille, he has learned from his battles using movies as his weapons of choice.  For the first time, in a very long time, I feel like maybe we had been at the Paris Peace Talks and we have finally agreed on the shape of the table at which we will plan the end of our war.  Tomorrow, we begin a new round of peace talks that will, hopefully, move us further along this journey.

Like the ghosts that appeared last month, it seems like a lot of the battles I have had to fight are dwindling down. . . . maybe the newspapers have gotten it right for once.

Jack is beginning to talk. . . .”take off my shield.”

For the first time in years, we are not looking at an upcoming deployment. . . .nor are we still recovering from one. . . .”Carry my sword. . . .I won’t need it anymore.”

I’m headed back to New Orleans this spring.  In the same way that she convinced me to be her friend twenty years ago, The Princess has made it impossible to not return this spring. . . . “Find me the sun, give me it whole. . . .melt all the chains in my soul.”

A year ago, I fought the war about being a stay at home mom.  It was one of the shorter ones. . . .”I won’t fight here anymore.”

Oh. . . .and the DKNY suit?  It still hangs in a closet with a plethora of her sisters. . . .Ellen Tracy, Tahari, St. John’s, Donna Karan. . . .remnants of a war-torn past.  They are both the trophies and the wounds of battles from long ago.  Grad school. . . .loss of loved ones. .. .cancelled friendships. . . .vetoed relationships. . . .forks in the road.  Today, my uniform is more likely to be Adidas running pants and a Life is Good t-shirt (not that I am running, but if I did, I would be appropriately attired), not designer suits.

But souvenirs are for tourists and, like the non-sticking magnet that reminds of us a trip we once took, today those old trophies are going in the trash.

“This war is over. . . .I’m coming home. . . .”

But then, isn’t that what they said in the newspaper?

PS:  words in quotes are from Melissa Etheridge’s song, “This War is Over”

All I Want For Christmas. . . .A Look into the Future

This morning, on Christmas Eve, I get to close out the ghost visits. . . .finally.  May they take a year long nap and get in better moods.

For me, the opening scene from the movie, Love Actually, is only surpassed by the opening of Pelican Brief.  I plan to watch both today, since I have, surprisingly accomplished most of what I set out to do to prepare for Christmas.  What I actually love about Love Actually is the anticipation of joy at Christmas time presented by those in the movie. . . . .some years, I can even get through the part where Laura Linney’s character consoles her brother without crying. . . but it usually hits a little too close to home.  Thank goodness for fast forwarding options.

That aside, when I want to get in a better mood, I crank of Mariah’s version of  “All I Want For Christmas,” a key element in the movie.   Today is no different.  Through the Christmas deployments, you could be sure to find Mariah singing, as loud as Lola’s speakers could push it out, reminding me that the only thing that I wanted for Christmas was to have my husband home, safe and sound.  Let me tell you, though. . . .it is easier to envision a North Pole castle filled with happy elves, hard at work building toys, than it is to wish for your husband to be home for Christmas during a deployment.

Even when he was home. . . .I let Mariah sing.  The song can make me cry, laugh, smile, sob. . . .it is a full-service song. . .something for everyone.

This morning. . . . .I have been thinking alot about what I want for Christmas.  The Ghost of Christmas Future visited last night. . .like the previous visitors, she (hey—if I have to have ghosts creeping around, you are going to be sure that I am going to pick the preferred gender, thus, all of mine are female. . . .like I need another male telling me what to do or where I have failed), offered insights. . . .I took notes. . . .some of which might be helpful in your new year as well.

Elle received her first “college” acceptance this past week.  🙂  Sure she is only eight, but when you are a Tiger Mom (a term of praise in my book, not criticism), you start early.  The University of Virginia offers enrichment programs in January and February for kids in grades K through 6th.  Delivered on Saturdays, the options ranged from learning how to write and illustrate a book to acting as an classroom archaeologist, combing through the layers of ancient Egypt.  Another class allowed students to study quilting as a form of communication.  Given her love of art and sewing, I was sure that would be her first choice, but she picked the “My Own Book” as her first.  Acceptance required teacher recommendations and applications.  We like that we are getting a head-start on learning to manage program applications.

Elle hopes to be published by the age of 10.  Girls with positive attitudes and who shoot for the stars usually end up doing pretty well.  Let the indoctrination begin.

Jack. . . .Jack. . . .Jack. . . . .

Let me tell you a few things about Jack’s future that you might want to consider when you reevaluate your financial portfolio.

Invest in Pepsico.  You will not lose, as long as Jack Drinkwine lives, by investing in Pepsico stock, specifically Frito-Lay and Pizza Hut.  Sometimes, I like to think about some category manager sitting in Dallas or Wichita, sifting through piles of data trying to figure out why sales of thin and crispy pizza, cheese, no sauce, have skyrocketed in Northern Virginia while falling dramatically in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Same thing with the brand manager of Doritos Nacho Cheese. . . I wonder if he or she appreciates the bonuses my child generates for him/her every year.

Poptarts:  put your bets on Strawberry Frosted.  You will win.

Strawberry Fruit 2.0 flavored water.  Despite having family members in the production and distribution of bottled water who say that flavored water is a fad, I like to think that we, just the four of us, are personally responsible for that brand staying afloat (no pun intended).

Fisher-Price products. . . . think they are limited to pre-schoolers?  In our house, serious play-acting requires Fisher Price little people or whatever they are called.  This past year, those products have allowed us to enjoy performances such as “The Toys that Saved Christmas,” circus acts and, of course, the inner workings of zoos.  Given the flexibility with which the plastic toys have been employed in our home, I look forward to such Shakespearean plays as “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “King Lear.” 

It is, with some sadness, that I suggest that any stock you bought related to Thomas the Tank Engine has, probably, tanked.  Sorry. . . we have just moved on from the Island of Sodor.

Spouting an entrepreunerial spirit?  Let me give some ideas. . . . .

In an earlier post, I wasn’t kidding about lojacking my kid.  What I had wrong earlier, though, is that Jack is not the  kid I am going to need to have microchipped.  If anything, his umbilical cord has not only been shortened this year, but it appears to have been wrapped in titanium. . . .he isn’t going anywhere.

No, the one I worry about is Elle.  With a strength of personal will that mimics the winds of a Category 5 hurricane, I am anticipating the future is going to be a test of patience, strength and, in some cases, all out war.  My war win column is usually pretty high, but I think she has what it takes to take me down a notch or two.  We are researching convents, along with prep schools and colleges. . . . we’ll keep you posted.

As for B and me. . . . .this year’s New Year’s Eve, we will celebrate our 12th wedding anniversary.  And they said it wouldn’t last.

Yep, we got married on 12/31/1999.  The band at our reception played Prince’s famous 1999 song at least three times that night.  As I remember the bar bill the next morning, I can we all lived up to the request to party like it was 1999.  Looking back at the couples who attended that night, the number of those who have divorced in the last 12 years is more than a little significant.  The ones who have found love since that time has been encouraging.  One couple actually got engaged at our wedding. . . . oddly enough, they also gave their kids the same names we gave ours. . . .coincidence??????  

As for Estelle. . . . the frumpy New Orleans school teacher who found herself naked in an Albemarle jail cell on New Year’s morning after having been arrested at my wedding. . .well, we don’t hear from her much anymore, but I am sure that she has moved on.  Maybe she has found a support group of former arrestees (is that a real word?) from that night.. . . in New Orleans, there has to be plenty of those types running around.

On that night, 12 years ago, Brian and I exchanged wedding bands each with an engraved line from Robert Browning.  Mine said “grow old along with me” while his was engraved with “the best is yet to be.”  I still have mine. . . . jumping out of airplanes and running through firefights in various corners of the world means that B is on his third or fourth version (segue. . . .anyone still left in Iraq. . .if you find a platinum wedding band with those words. . . you can send it back to us, we’ll reimburse you for the postage). 

The other day, one of my beloved readers noticed a picture on my refrigerator of me standing in my favorite spot to be photographed. . .L’Accademia Bridge in Venezia. . . wow, she said, were you 20?  I’m sure she was being kind.  However, while I am nearly 30 years older than 20, that picture was only 12 years ago.  War, Army, Autism. . . Army, Autism, War. . . no matter how you want to play with the words. . . they all add up to one thing:  advanced aging beyond what could be expected in 12 years.  Twisting my wedding ring around my finger, now too difficult to remove without hot water and lots of soap, I think about the words that are pushed against my age-spotted hands.  . . .

“Grow old along with me. .  . .”

For B and me, the Ghost of Christmas Future reminded me. . . .”the best is yet to be.”

Merry Christmas. . . .

The Ghost of Christmas Present: Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow. . . . .

The weather outside is frightful.

And. . it really is or isn’t. . .depending on your point of view.  Winter this year in Northern Virginia has been amazing.  Maybe karma realizes that so many of us have recently moved here from warmer climes, that she is taking it easy on us this year.  I really like being able to walk the kids to school in the morning without having to worry about coats, hats and gloves.

But tonight, frightful is best described as very wet and rainy.  The precipitation matches my mood. . . .a bit dark, fairly dreary. .  .downcast.  Agreeably, it is Christmas and I am grateful.  Believe me, I am grateful.  But I am waiting. . . . .

The recent visit from the Ghosts of Christmases Past has been exhausting.  Which, under the circumstances, is really not that bad.  For every year, as long as I can remember, the weeks leading up to Christmas were a fantasy dash through a lengthy to-do list that began with writing finals and ended with writing syllabi for the following semester.  Over the years, I would use the few days between finishing grades and Christmas to push everything out the door. . . . .tree up, let’s see. . . tree up. . . . I am beginning to feel like the GOP candidate who can’t remember the third agency he would cut.  What this really means is that, for as long as I can remember, getting the tree up was usually the one task that I could ever adequately accomplish during Christmas.  Presents for friends, usually a hit or miss. . . one year, I might . . .three years, I might not.  The once hand-created Christmas cards for 300 have now been replaced with an order to Tinyprints and a typed letter. 

Standing in the rain, I see that I have been joined by the Ghost of Christmas Present.  If the chicks from the past serenaded me with calls to wake me up when December ends, this peaceful presence gives voice to the Beatles’ Let It Be.

Let it Snow. . .Let it Be. . . 

“How are you?” her voice is kind.  I shiver and fail to answer.

Once again, she asks, “How are you?”  I have no answer.  There are no answers. 

She watches me warily and leans back against the wall.  Surprisingly, unlike what you see on television, ghosts don’t necessarily just seep through walls.  This one just stands there waiting for me to answer her.   When I don’t, she takes my hand.  Holding it for just a moment, she is determined. 

But I am very stubborn, very strong and very resilient.  I can outwait her patience. 

“I don’t have to answer you,” I tell her defiantly.  She laughs. . . .”well, of course, you don’t.  It’s why I am here.  Come on.”

 Let it Be. . . .whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

The lights shine throughout the house.  Every television in the house is turned on.  If it is at all possible, every outlet throughout this place is running electricity into some product, appliance, or device.  There are five Christmas trees of varying sizes, garland is hung everywhere and I see that I have even managed to place outdoor decorations around the front of the house.  We are prepped for Christmas.

Or, at least, I like to think that we are. 

“Lovely, isn’t it,” she asks me. 

All I can see is what isn’t done.  The presents, while purchased and currently residing at Stealth Santa’s house a few blocks away, are not wrapped.  The trees are up, but the big one, the one with all of the special ornaments is incomplete.  I keep intending to create the Christmas card, but something always diverts me.  In other words, it isn’t enough.  I haven’t done enough.  Overwhelmed is all that is left.

The Let it Be chick acknowledges all of this.  She reminds me of the time in graduate school when, seeking solace from my priest, he told me that I needed to be mindful.  To be present.  To stop living in the future.  Reminding me of the previous night’s visitors, she points out that living in the past will not do too much for you, either. 

“Stop,” she advises, “stop and look at what you have done.”

I look at Elle.  Eight years old and already worried about getting into the right high school.  Life is tough when your mom is a Tiger Mom.  But, she is so very happy.   A couple of months ago, Elle told me that she needed to have a serious discussion with me.  Watching her eyes fill with tears, we sat on the bed together while she asked me if Santa was real.  Not in the mood that day to deal in flights of fancy, I asked her if she was ready for the truth.  As the tears dribbled down her skinny face, she told me that she had to know.  No, I told her then, Santa is really mommy and daddy.  Her reaction is visceral.  She drops the questions for awhile.

Now, in December, she has announced that she is willing to suspend belief for just one more year.  She writes her letter to Santa and makes pretty pictures to entice him to fill each request.  She tells me that this year, we will not be leaving cookies for Santa, though.  We are going with carrots for the reindeer.  You know, she tells me, because sometimes it is fun to be different.

Yes, I tell the current visitor. . . .she is growing up. 

Let It Be chick takes me into the front room. . .the room for which we still don’t have a name.  It had, in the beginning, been where we had located the bar, but it overwhelmed me when I walked through the door, the furniture too big, too much for the small room.  I moved it all out and brought in smaller pieces. . . this is where the Nativity has been laid this year.

“Look at what she has done,” she says, pointing to the nativity.  Because of where I have placed it this year, I have to kneel down to see where she is pointing.  The Baby Jesus figure is missing from the manger.  I remember that Elle had moved the Baby Jesus earlier this week to another location in the room.  Looking across the carpet, I see that she has taken the small caramel-colored ceramic figure and placed it in front of one of my Christmas decorations, a small wooden block with the word “HOPE” spelled in block metal letters.  I want this to be like it is at church, Elle tells me when she makes this move.  Raising one eyebrow (to the best of my ability) in a silent request for clarification, she tells me that the manger is empty until Christmas morning.    

“See?”  Christmas Present Ghost asks.  “You are helping her soul to grow up, too.”  Suddenly, the unbaked cookies do not feel like such a big deal.

I take a deep breath. . . and we turn to see Jack.

For the past six months, Jack has watched every Christmas movie, on television, youtube, or dvd.  I have, approximately, seen The Polar Express well over 300 times this past month alone, I can recite the script to Frosty the Snowman and, probably most exciting, is that I have listened to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in more languages than I probably ever knew existed.  That youtube thing is really amazing.

Two months shy of his 10th birthday and Jack has put together the puzzle:  Christmas, trees, Santa, presents, Rudolph, snow.  We have had a Christmas tree up in the playroom since the middle of October.  He gave me his list of toys a month ago.  Just last week, he decided that if the weather wouldn’t cooperate, he would create his own snowstorm.  Amazing how much one piece of styrofoam can remain after it has been decimated.  Everyday, I vacuum.  Everyday there is more styrofoam to clean up. 

“This is the year that he has blossomed,” my guest whispers.  Watching him collect his toys and place them around the still unfinished Christmas tree, I nod.  This has been the year, his year.  We have used the concrete aspects of Christmas to teach Jack so many things this year.  Christmas has been a motivator, a reinforcer, a reward.  We have used it to help him figure out calendars, learn the days of the weeks, work on his patience.  If he isn’t quite ready for the abstraction that is the true meaning of Christmas, I am ok with that.  I look over at the Thief that resides in my house and, for once, I cut him some slack.  Autism:  the gift that keeps on giving.

I look across my studio and see that Jack has fallen asleep outside my door on the floor.  Two more days, I told him earlier.  No more school for awhile.  His anticipation has finally worn him out.  Wearing the same night clothes that he has used to act out a character in one of his many holiday movies, his fedora next to his face, he is racked out. 

My Ghost of Christmas Present leans over and lightly brushes my cheek with a kiss.  You did so well, she tells me.  These are such happy children.  From the other room, I hear Elle singing “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. . . .”

She’s gone, the visitor from the present.  Next to me, my IPod lets Paul sing. . . .”there will be an answer, let it be.”

I love my journey.

 

 

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