"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Modern Family

When I met Mike he was footloose and fancy-free—an unattached, single man in his late thirties with no children, a rarity in Utah. With my shared custody arrangement for my daughter, I often have four day/five night stretches free from the daily tasks and responsibility of mothering.  For several months we enjoyed days on end of fun, frivolous time together, just the two of us enjoying each other’s company, doing what we wanted when we wanted.  In many ways it seemed like we were in a charmed, protected little bubble. Little did I know how dramatically things would change.   
Most people who know me also know that Mike now has a foster son, Isaac.  Newspaper articles published earlier this year tell the story about how he came to be in Mike’s care.  To read them, click on these links. Expected Step, Fighting to Become an American Citizen
Going from being childless to being responsible for a 17-year old boy is a huge change.  Fortunately, Mike is very laid back and pretty much takes everything in stride. Isaac is similar, which is probably due to his upbringing, and the fact that he had to learn to roll with the punches early in life. Things have definitely changed from the early days of our relationship, with more than a few bumps in the road due to the many challenges that come with making the abrupt shift from being childless to having a teenager.  I have to admit that at times I’ve been less than supportive, and have been discouraged by the many hurdles due to Isaac’s lack of citizenship. Not having legal status hampers his ability to legally work, making him dependent in ways most American teenagers his age aren’t.  Along with the challenges though, there have been many fun times and new experiences shared. Isaac is a hard worker, and a compassionate, caring person, who rarely, if ever, complains. He’s also just plain fun to be around. I’ve been able to re-experience many things that have become commonplace to me as Isaac discovers them for the first time.
Dinner the other night is a great example.  It was a pretty ordinary meal of chicken salad with blue cheese dressing (No offense to the cook for calling it ordinary.  Like everything Mike makes, it was beautifully presented and very tasty).  Even though it was an unremarkable meal for us, it marked another first for Isaac.  He’d never had blue cheese dressing before!  Mike teased him about blue cheese being what sophisticated people eat. Not that Isaac cared; he just thought it tasted good. The rest of the dinner was spent talking and laughing about the many new experiences Isaac’s had, some good, some not so good, like the Wasabi peas Mike goaded him into trying.  Those definitely fall into the “Dislike” category, and I think Isaac still holds a bit of a grudge for being tricked into trying them. 
Here’s a short list of just some of the new things we’ve experienced together this past year

  • Sushi – the verdict is still out on this.  Isaac ate more than one roll, but he didn’t rave about the meal. 
  • S’mores – I had no idea that Isaac hadn’t had them before, which explains his lack of enthusiasm when we talked excitedly about making them around the fire pit one night early this summer.
  • Driver’s license – this was more a formality than anything else.  Like most teenage boys, he’s very comfortable driving a car. 
  •  Quinceañera – this was kind of a first for all three of us.  Isaac performed traditional Mexican dances at the celebration, and Mike and I attended our first Quinceañera.  
  • Stadium concert – The bar may have been unintentionally set a little high by taking Isaac to see U2 for his first stadium concert experience.
  • Cooking for a date – Mike taught Isaac his go to “cooking to an impress a lady meal” of Chicken Alfredo with Bananas Foster for dessert.
  • Corn in a cup, sliced mango with chili powder and Sopes with cooked pigskin – Isaac treated us to traditional Mexican snacks one evening.  Mike and I were good sports and took one bite of the Sopes with cooked pigskin, but refused to eat more.   
  • BLT’s – again I was perplexed at his lack of enthusiasm for this summer favorite using fresh garden tomatoes.  After having a bite, Isaac asked what was on the sandwich.  He’d never had a BLT before!
Isaac performing at the Quinceañera
Me, Mike and Isaac at U2 Concert
Homework Time
Isaac's First Sushi Meal

This list is off the top of my head.  I’m sure there are many others that I’m forgetting.  There have also been some unpleasant firsts.  Isaac had to say goodbye to his dad, sending him back to Mexico with the knowledge that he may never see him again.  He also spent just over a month living in a Juvenile Justice Services shelter while waiting for Mike to be approved as his temporary foster parent.  For the past year he’s experienced so much upheaval and change. His resilience and good nature through it all has been amazing to watch.

For the first time I’ve experienced subtle, unspoken racism.  It’s funny how people are so supportive when they hear about Isaac, but when confronted with interacting with him in their familiar, middle-class, Caucasian-filled environment most pretend that he doesn’t exist.  Maybe they’re uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say? I could go on about racial stereotypes, but that’s a topic for another post.  On the positive side, I’ve watched a friendship develop between my daughter and Isaac, something that’s been very fun to watch.  They tease and support each other much like siblings do. Sometimes, Isaac takes Gillian to the Mexican market for a snack of fresh mango with chili powder. Many evenings they’ll both be at my kitchen table doing homework with the puppies snoring beneath their feet. I love those nights! I also love the nights all four of us eat dinner together, teasing, laughing, and making fun of the cultural differences and misunderstandings that frequently happen with us. Sometimes Isaac tries to teach me a Spanish word, but he usually ends up shaking his head at the futility of it. 

On our first date, Mike promised that if I spent much time with him I’d be pushed out of my comfort zones.  He wasn’t kidding!  I never could have foreseen the many challenges and uncomfortable situations I’ve faced over the last 17 months.  Sometimes I want to go back to that time when it seemed I was in a safe, protected bubble, but I know that isn’t possible.  Life happens, not always the way we think it will.  I’m trying to roll with the punches and enjoy all the new experiences I’m having, but mostly I’m trying to focus on gratitude.  Gratitude for Mike, for Isaac, for my daughter, and for the connection we all share. 

Not long ago I walked into the kitchen to find the three of them with their faces buried in their phones.  I started to say “Is this modern day family time?  You’re together but ignoring each other because of your electronic devices?”  I stopped myself before I said family.  Then it occurred to me. We are a family. Maybe not in a traditional sense, but we do what I think families should do.  We care for each other, we help and support one another, we share the good times and the bad, and we offer shelter from the storm, both literally and figuratively.  We try to instill knowledge and values in our children, hopefully giving them the skills they need to live life successfully as adults. I never imagined this is what getting out of my comfort zone would look like, but I’m glad I took the challenge.     

Mike and I - April 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Puppy Love

My boyfriend introduced me to the new love in my life.  I didn't expect to fall head over heels in love that day.  It had been a busy week and I was focused on running errands and getting back to school supplies bought for my daughter.  The three of us, Mike, Gillian and I, headed to Target that evening.  I was all business, as usual, focused on the task at hand, and checking items off my list.  Before too long, Mike and Gillian grew bored and disappeared to the toy aisle to find some fun.  I kept shopping, but they didn't come back like they usually do.  After about ten minutes had passed, I called Gillian to find out where they'd disappeared to.  She told me they were outside.  I asked what they were doing.  "Oh, nothing.  But don't come out here."  What?  Of course I was curious and pestered her with questions.  "Why?  What are you doing? What's outside that's so interesting?"  I walked outside as I was talking to her, looking around, but I couldn't see them. "I'm out front.  I don't see you."  Now I was getting exasperated. I had things to do! "Mom, you can't see us? We're down by the curb, look to your left." I turned in the direction of the sporting goods store and PetSmart and that's when I saw them. They were sitting on the grass playing with a litter of eight Yellow Labrador puppies.  

I walked towards them, determined not to be drawn in by all the puppy cuteness. My determination didn't last long. It only took a few seconds before I was down on the grass with a puppy in my arms. Immediately I knew I'd be taking one home, but still I tried in vain to reason my way out of such a crazy, impulsive purchase. People don't just go to Target for school supplies and come home with a puppy for Pete's sake! Besides, I already had a puppy at home, a nine-month old Shih Tzu-Schnauzer mix named Lucy. Gillian looked at me, beaming. Mike, wisely, kept pretty quiet. I started listing out loud the many reasons getting a Lab puppy didn't make sense. Finally, I said,  "You know I can't make a rationale decision about a Yellow Lab. Why did you even let me see these? I can't just buy a puppy on impulse. Let's go to dinner and talk about it."  
Me with baby Lucy 
The really funny thing is, until nine months before I wouldn't have imagined having one dog, let alone two.  Not that I dislike dogs, I just haven't wanted the responsibility of owning one. That all changed in January when Mike's dad brought home a 6-week old puppy with the intention of giving it to his grandmother for companionship. She didn't want a puppy.  Mike debated keeping the puppy, but his erratic work schedule just wasn't conducive to pet ownership. I decided to keep her, and Gillian and I welcomed 6-week old Lucy into our family. Nearly everyone who knows me thought I'd lost my mind.  You see, I'm just not a "dog person" and suddenly I was completely enamored with Lucy. I couldn't even explain it myself.  
Mike and Lucy Lou
Oddly enough, before Lucy, the dog I'd become most attached to was my sister's dog Phoenix.  He was a big, hyper, somewhat neurotic Yellow Lab with a tail that wagged so ferociously that it could knock over small children. Although he was endearing, his hyperactivity and his lethal tail really annoyed most people, causing them to keep their distance. For years, I too mostly tolerated him. That changed when I began going to stay more frequently with Julie at her place. Phoenix would sleep next to her bed. When I visited, we'd share her bed. This always put Phoenix in a state because he didn't know who to protect. He'd spend the night pacing back and forth, ultimately taking turns sleeping on both sides of the bed, guarding both of us. Eventually, I even welcomed Phoenix into my home, because I didn't think it fair that he'd have to stay in a kennel when Julie came to visit. Julie used to laugh at me because whenever we'd go out, leaving Phoenix behind, I always told him goodbye and said we'd be back soon. Slowly, he'd managed to work his way into my heart.  
Easter morning at mom's with Julie, Phoenix, Buster, Hannah and Mason
When Julie died, I was tormented for weeks thinking about her last hours. It broke my heart knowing she'd died alone. Then one day it dawned on me. She wasn't alone. Phoenix was there with her. I'll never know what he did in her last moments, or for the many hours after when he was locked inside her apartment. I'm sure he was very distraught. But it does give me some comfort knowing he was there with her. I wish I could describe the emotions the first time the family saw Phoenix after her death. It was then that I knew beyond a doubt that dogs absolutely sense human emotion and suffering. Phoenix came to each of us individually and nuzzled us. When he got to my sister Amy, probably the most heartbroken and suffering right then, he quietly climbed up into her lap, looked into her eyes and nuzzled and licked her, burrowing his head into her neck. It was like he absolutely understood her despair and was comforting her any way he could.  

Phoenix now lives with Jason, Julie's former boyfriend and dear friend. For many of my visits to Colorado after her death, I stayed at Jason's. Phoenix would abandon his usual spot next to Jason's bed and sleep in the guest room on the floor next to my side. Having him there with me on those nights brought me unbelievable comfort.  

Taking Sophie home
After our dinner, and my weak attempt at pretending to weigh the pros and cons of getting a Yellow Lab, we headed back to the Target parking lot.  By then I'd admitted this was mostly an emotional, illogical decision, which was okay.  Everything in life doesn't need to happen because it makes perfect sense.  Sometimes the best things happen by throwing caution to the wind and listening to your heart.  That's what I did that day.  I scooped up my fat, squishy, velvety soft, brown-eyed puppy and opened up my heart.  

Not too long ago, I was playing with Sophie, completely caught up in our little moment when Mike  said "You know she's going to be the great love of your life, right? Embrace it.  Enjoy it."  I am.

Me and Sophie
Gillian with Lucy and Sophie
Lucy and Sophie 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Babies Don't Keep

Cleaning and scrubbing can wait 'till tomorrow
For babies grow up, we learn to our sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs and dust go to sleep
I'm rocking my baby and babies don't keep.

When I was young, a hand embroidered picture with this saying on it hung on the wall in our house.  As a child it meant very little to me.  As a teenager, for some unknown reason my cousin and I liked to recite it to each other and laugh hilariously.  It wasn't until I became a mother myself that it became meaningful and somewhat poignant to me.  Babies do grow up much too fast!  Yesterday my one and only turned 13.  Here are some pictures showing highlights from her day.

New warm, fuzzy socks and a robe.

Sushi at Tona for dinner. Yum!  It was Isaac's (my boyfriend's foster son) first time having sushi.
Gillian struggling with her chopsticks. 
Mike and I

After dinner we went to FatCats to play arcade games and ride bumper cars.

Decisions, decisions...

Gillian's favorite prize? The Big Ripper Whoopee Cushion!
Gillian requested a tie-dye cake with a peace sign.   
Voila! I thought I was done until Mike pointed out to me that this was a Mercedes symbol, not a peace sign.
Much better. 

The birthday girl.
The tie-dye inside.  It looked much cooler than this picture shows. 
 Gillian celebrated at her dad's house with some of her closest friends.  They didn't have to be asked twice to pose for the camera.