Letting Go

Letting Go

June 27th, 1999. I’m making a quick trip to the grocery store. As I’m backing out of the driveway, I have this nagging feeling that I’m forgetting something. I brake and look over; purse is in the passenger seat. I shift to reverse again and give the car a little gas. Still not out of the driveway, I screech to a halt. Then it hits me, “Oh, shit! I have a baby!”

Now, in my defense I had given birth four days earlier and had gotten maybe a total of 45 minutes sleep in the days that followed. I was determined to breast feed this child. All of the research said he would be more intelligent, have fewer ear infections, and bond more completely to me. I was sold on the idea. I had visions of me, clad in skinny jeans, laughing and rocking him while he breast-fed and cooed, lovingly and contentedly. The reality was me, a zombie (seriously, I was hideous and a little surprised that my baby didn’t recoil from me in fear) wearing men’s sweatpants, and crying hysterically while my baby drank ferociously from my mangled breast, then passed out cold like a binge drinker at an open bar.

It was my first clue that, despite the fact that I was head over heels in love with this kid, I wasn’t going to be a natural at the motherhood thing.

The breast feeding experience gave me a new found respect for animals that can’t resort to Enfamil when the going gets rough. In fact, I still wince when I see a baby anything latch on. I did find, though, that what I lacked in breast feeding expertise, I made up for in other areas. I perfected cleaning with my right hand while I carried him in the crook of my left arm. On the rare occasions when I actually laid him down, I placed a compact mirror under his nose at regular intervals to be sure he was breathing. I selected his baby food with great care, trying each jar first and discarding the truly nasty stuff. There’s a lot of truly nasty baby food.

Because I lost the coin toss, we named him Jake instead of Landry. Jake and I became inseparable. I shielded him from that psycho purple dinosaur, bought him Baby Einstein DVD’s, and introduced him to classic rock. Imagine my pride, when at 2 1/2 years old, he launched into ‘Purple Haze’ in the middle of my ultrasound appointment while pregnant with his sister. Even the doctor remarked that he had never heard a 2 year old sing Hendrix before. Jake was having lots of fun ruling my universe. So much so, that when I brought his sister home from the hospital, he took one look at her while I was changing her diaper, expressed his dismay over the fact that she didn’t have a penis (after all, what would she play with in the tub?) and asked how long before we could take her back.

In time, Jake acquiesced and his younger sister became a much loved, although not breast-fed, part of the family. Then, when he was about 6 years old, his father and I separated. Divorce isn’t always a bad thing. There are times when it turns an emotionally-charged and unpredictable home, into a relaxed and stable one. This was one of those times.

Relief doesn’t describe how I felt. It was a physical lightening. If you’ve been through it, you know what I’m saying is true. I was worried though, about my kids and how they would adjust. My daughter was 3 and too young to really have a grasp of what was happening, but Jake was 6 and he understood exactly what the deal was. On top of that, he was a boy and I wasn’t. There was stuff he would have to be taught and I wasn’t sure I had it in me.

It’s no secret that I wasn’t the conventional, “Dr. Spock” kind of mother. My kids listened to rock instead of Kids Bop because I consider bad music a form of child abuse; I didn’t make them eat green baby food; I never had the extra outfit, remembered to pack a snack, or watered down the juice; neither one of them took a nap after they were about a year old; and when they fell down and skinned their knee, I clapped. Yep, that’s right. I clapped and cheered like they had just jumped the Grand Canyon on a Honda CR-50. In the blink of an eye, they would go from a possible level 10 meltdown to thinking they were the coolest cat on the planet and wearing that Band-Aid like a badge. Learned that one from my good friend, Gina. Try it.

So, as the years rolled on, I began to truly see what this boy of mine was made of. I did my best to fill in the voids and I’m sure I failed miserably often, but he never let me know it. Sure he would love football, I signed him up to play. After much research, I took him out in the yard to teach him how to tackle. I went into this detailed explanation about velocity being the result of the distance he traveled and the time he traveled it in. “It’s important” I said, “that you not hesitate or you’ll lose force.” He looked at me in complete seriousness and said, “Why do I want to run into another person at full speed? That doesn’t seem very smart.” A better mom would have seen the light, scrapped football and signed him up for tennis. He played for a few years, trying to make me happy, before he finally admitted he hated it.

And so began the evolution of this boy who, through no fault of his own, was forced to deal with the shortcomings of an unconventional mother as he evolved into a man. Being a single parent, mother or father, creates a parent/child dynamic very different than the one that exists in a two-parent household. When you’re a woman trying to raise a boy to be a man, it’s a true balancing act. As much as I wanted him to grow up blissfully unaware of the challenges we faced, that would have been impossible. Had he not been wired with the emotional maturity of a 40-year old, the wit of a stand up comic, and been smarter at 10 than I am now, life might have gone in a different direction. I desperately wanted to do right by him, and he never wanted to disappoint me, so we navigated life as a team.

I learned that the perfect time to talk to him about life was while he was shooting basketball. He loosened up and I had my best shot at dissecting his world to figure out what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. He learned that even though my jump shot was sketchy, I was great for running down rebounds.

I learned that being left out of father/son outings wasn’t going to kill him, even though it almost did me. He learned to surround himself with kids who had similar situations or who were the square peg in the round hole for some other reason.

I learned that the legendary “good ole boys” club is alive and well. He learned to be his own man and to let something go when it stops being fun.

I learned to stop worrying that he was too shy, or too laid back, or not motivated enough. He learned to step up and take control of his life, his grades, and settled comfortably into being who he was born to be.

I learned that no matter how I tried to hide the stress of too many bills and not enough money, some kids can’t be fooled. He learned that with life comes challenges and that giving up isn’t an option.

I learned to stop feeling guilty because I wasn’t home to bake the class cupcakes and I was way too tired to cook dinner many nights. He learned how hard single parents work to keep life on track…and I guarantee you he’ll be one hell of a great husband and dad because of it.

When I took him to kindergarten, we were both excited and said goodbye with a big smile and a fist bump. I looked around at the red-rimmed eyes of the other mothers and thought, “What is wrong with these people? They aren’t going off to war, they’re going to school. This is the natural progression of things.” I saw it with each transition; elementary to middle school, and then middle school to high school. There were a couple of times I was sure I had pulled something during a hard eye roll. I called those women bad names. Names that mean weak and wimpy and look like the word fussy.

Enter karma.

There are 206 days until this boy of mine graduates from high school. 221 days until I can no longer call him a boy. I know because I remind myself every day. I often hear parents say to their children, “I’m not your friend.” They say it as if they’re proud of that; as if it, in some way, makes them a better parent. Hell, I’m no expert. Maybe it does.

I’ll tell you this though, my son is my friend. He has walked all the way through the fire with me. Helped me find ways to make $10 last four days. Convinced me the meal I fed him was absolutely delicious when I knew it was barely edible. Reminded me that it was important for me to nurture my own love relationship, because one day he and McRae were going to be gone. Made me laugh so hard I cried, when all I really wanted to do was collapse in a heap and have a pity party. Stepped in and educated his sister on the many short-comings of teenage boys, among those the ability to lie through their teeth when they’re talking to teenage girls. Forbidden me from going to bat for him because he wants to be his own man. Told me he’s proud of me when I wasn’t very proud of myself. Taken care of me when I wasn’t feeling well. Supported my volunteer efforts. Gotten up to discuss world events with me over a cup of coffee, even when he could have slept in. And best of all, over the years he’s kept my house filled with happy, funny kids who consistently reminded me what life is really about.

In my book, that’s not just a friend. That’s a best friend.

So, on most days I find myself trying to quell the tears that appear for no real reason. No real reason other than I’m one day closer to letting him go. One day closer to not hearing him call out “Stevie”, instead of “Mom”. One day closer to chasing the boys away from McRae by myself. One day closer to only having one child to say, “You’re fantastic and I love you” to as we head out into the world each day. One day closer to collapsing in a heap and having that pity party, but quietly because I know it’s selfish. One day closer to sending my man-boy off into a world that doesn’t seem as kind as it did when I was his age. One day closer to reducing my role in his life to one that’s less bossy and more advisory. One day closer to having no idea if he’s going to class or hanging out with the right crowd.

One day closer to having no idea if he’s home safe before I go to bed. And that, my friends, is the worst part.

I’ve done what I set out to do, but never believed I could. His entire life I’ve stressed independence and self-sufficiency. I’ve reminded him how my job is to prepare him to leave. In every aspect of my life I’ve been an underachiever; until now. I knocked this out of the park. There are days I wish I had eased off the gas a little. I wish I could see some hesitation in him. I don’t. I see a man ready for the next chapter. Eager to expand his world intellectually, physically, and emotionally.

He’s ready. The question is, am I? Regardless, I’ll practice what I’ve preached.

I’ll be tough, stay focused, give him a smile and a fist bump, and whisper to myself,  just like I did all those years ago, “This is the natural progression of things.”

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Saving Seven

I’ve had a number of people, over time, encourage me to write a book or start a blog. Primarily due to the stories I tell about my children, Jake and McRae. They supply funny material daily.  So, about a month ago, I finally sat down and created this blog, my intention being to share my funny stories in a place where people could see them if they liked, but not have them “forced” on them via Facebook’s timeline. This wasn’t what I had planned for my first post, but it needs to be shared.

Life has a way of taking a swing at us when we least expect it. You think it’s all going great, you’ve got your ducks in a row, and WHAM. Out of nowhere the love of your life decides they’re not up for pushing through the bad times, the company you work for decides they don’t need you anymore, or your dishwasher springs a leak and floods your hardwoods. It happens, and when it does we can get consumed by it. Feeling sorry for yourself is easy.  I’ve had some disappointments of my own lately, and I was all prepared to assume the fetal position, when someone reminded me that life is about showing up when times are tough. It’s easy to show up during the good times. Everyone loves “happy”; everyone loves “easy”, don’t they?

Imagine being one of seven children. Seven children whose parents have failed them so many times, that Social Services has finally stepped in and said that the people who brought you into this world, aren’t fit to provide you basic care each day. If you’re one of those seven children the prospect must be terrifying, because this is the only home you’ve ever known. If you’re one of the older siblings, you know enough to know that you’re not going to be living with your brothers and sisters anymore. The system will split you up and farm you out, and there’s a possibility that you’ll never see some of them again. Imagine that for just a second.

If this were Hollywood, a rich white couple would swoop in and save all seven, and after some dramatic, ticket-selling moments, all seven would grow up and prosper. But, this isn’t Hollywood, it’s rural North Carolina and the clock is ticking. Would you open your home? Those of us that are responsible have budgets. We don’t buy houses we can’t afford, we don’t have children we can’t support, and we skip vacations because the money isn’t there. As a single mother, I know all about not having enough resources and saying, “no”.  I also know that today, my household couldn’t take on a cat without serious consideration, much less more children. If you know someone who would step up for seven children, raise your hand. Guess what? You can’t see me, but I’m raising mine.

On Sunday, July 19th I received a text message from one of the men I work with.  As a little benefit, I manage in-house savings accounts for them and he was requesting that I send him all he had.  His wife’s sister and her husband were losing their children and he and his wife weren’t about to let them become part of the system.

David and Charlene are people that have done everything right. They are hard workers, are active in their church and community, and are working hard to raise two teenagers of their own. They are kind and they are good. They, like most of us, pay their bills and try to put a little back for unexpected emergencies. They do not live in a McMansion with multiple guest rooms, but they came up with a plan; David and his wife would take four of the children and David’s mother-in-law would take three. David and Charlene’s children went from having rooms of their own to graciously sharing their space. David and Charlene went from parenting two teens to adding a 14 year old, a 12 year old, a 3 year old, and a 1 year old. Charlene’s mom went from an empty nest, to parenting a 4 year old, a 7 year old, and an 8 year old.

The children came with nothing but the clothes on their backs. No one had bothered to take the time to potty train the 3 year old or teach the 7 year old to tie his shoes. Someone had taken the time, however, to tell the 14 year old girl that she was worthless and ugly, as often as possible, so she arrived without any self-esteem. I can’t talk about her or think about her without crying. Seriously crying and I don’t do that often.

Your parents are supposed to be your soft place. They’re supposed to be the people who believe you to be better than you even are. They aren’t supposed to chip away at your soul every day until someone else takes the knife away.  In so many ways, our parents are a mirror that we look at as kids to see who we are and what we’re capable of achieving. This 14 year old child has been looking in that mirror and seeing nothing. Charlene tells me that they’re working hard to build this young lady up. She’s learning that she does look pretty when she dresses for church and that she has capabilities in school that she never dreamed she could have.

David has taught her that it isn’t acceptable for a man to call her names like “bitch”. For the first time, she’s getting to see what a gentleman is, so she will be able to recognize them when she’s ready to date. I wish I could tell her 50 times a day for the next 10 years that she is beautiful, that she is smart, and that she is worthy of love and respect. But I know that even if I could, it would never be enough to completely undo that damage. Within the first week of their arrival, this young lady thanked Charlene and told her that she felt safe for the first time in her life. Think about that. At 14, she feels safe for the first time in her life. All seven children have many challenges to overcome. I could fill page after page with the simple things that the children have never been taught or shown. David, Charlene, and Charlene’s mother are working together to help them catch up in school and in life. They have a long road ahead of them.

Here’s the thing, it would have been easy for these people to say no. No one would have faulted them. They could have listed 100 valid reasons this was more than they could handle, but they looked for a way to say “yes” instead. They looked beyond the financial burden, the loss of personal space, and sleep and time. They stepped up when it wasn’t the easy thing to do, and I’m sure they have days when they look at each other and say, “What were we thinking?” So often, the right thing isn’t the easy thing. In my book they’re heroes, pure and simple.

It’s been said that, “Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the ability to act in the presence of it.” Action isn’t without risk, but with risk comes the possibility of reward. If you always stay in your corner and play it safe, you will never grow spiritually, intellectually, or emotionally. I’m trying really hard to watch and learn from my friends because I know I have plenty of room left for growing, as do my children. These kids haven’t had many opportunities to feel “special” in their lives, while my two get to feel special every single day.

So my kids and I sat down and discussed it. We discussed how, every year at Christmas, they agonize over coming up with a list of items they want. They have everything they NEED and they know it. Although we don’t have a big budget at Christmas, they readily agreed to picking a few items they could put to good use and directing the rest of our budget toward making sure that these seven children had a Christmas they could remember.  I feel certain that this won’t just be a great Christmas for these seven, beautiful kids who are full of promise they haven’t even realized yet, it will be a great Christmas for my kids too.

If you’re reading this, you’re one of my friends. We would like to invite you to make a difference too. I really want to show David’s family and these children that they have a village behind them. For the record, they don’t have a clue what I’m up to and I hope to keep it that way. If you feel moved to participate, email me at rstephens2@windstream.net and I’ll be sure to include you in our plans. Thank you for reading. I’ll try to deliver something funny next time. I promise.