The real things

I pushed the big black wheelbarrow wearing big black mud boots through the cleared path of the forest nestled up to our yard.

After scanning the scenery, I found just what I was looking for: a pile of pine needles and decomposing leaves settled into the wet, black earth. My struggling azaleas needed more acidic soil and more shade, so I moved them for respite next to the shadier side of the house and now needed to tuck them into their new bed with some mulch.

With a full wheelbarrow and two blonde, panting dogs at my feet, I tromped back through the new wildflower field in its first bloom, across the chalk-scribbled driveway and past three children in search of a moth. The sun felt hot on my burning arm muscles as I dumped the cool forest soil into the fresh bed (and almost upon the dog who had settled in for a nap.)

It’s official: Spring is here.

I’ve seen it coming for weeks as the wildflowers started peeking their little colorful faces. But now, it’s in full blast. Rabbits are hopping across our country road, squirrels are in abundance chasing up and down the Pine trees, tree frogs are perched on our water hoses, flowers and weeds and grass are all growing — and a weekly mow of the lawn is almost not enough.

Seasons really are a great gift from a God who knows we humans like to keep things fresh and new. Just when we get weary of the wintery cold, the flowers bloom. Just when we wish for more water play and watermelon, summer arrives. Just when the heat becomes a bit too much, the leaves start to fall — and then, we’re craving cozier weather once again.

A new dog with white paws adopted us this winter and decided that we were hers. We found her cold and wet and afraid and after a couple weeks of warming up to a neighbor and us, she told us she wasn’t leaving and we obliged. So now she has a collar and a name and a new best friend in our golden lab and belly-scratching children.

And now this isn’t much of a blog post is it, really? But these normal, everyday things always make me want to write. They are full of beauty and wonder and the comfort that as much as things change, in so many ways they are always the same.

“The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder

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What I didn’t know about Down syndrome

Back before I had my 4-year-old, daughter, Kate, I didn’t know that Down syndrome had a capital “D” and a lower case “s.”

I didn’t know that another name for Down syndrome is Trisomy 21 — or that it is caused by a third copy of the 21st chromosome. I didn’t even know how many chromosomes we had. Or that we had pairs.

I didn’t know that some people have high tone and that others have low tone. Or that the heart has four chambers (But then again, I’ve learned a lot about the heart in these past years — how it beats, how it works, how it grows and changes.)

And in 9th grade, I didn’t know why tears welled in my eyes when I watched the young girl with Down syndrome dancing in my mom’s Jazzercise class. I had no idea what to think about people with Down syndrome — after all, I didn’t know any.

Years before I had any children, I didn’t know why a friend confessed that she longed for a child with Down syndrome.

And before the rainy day we received a Down syndrome diagnosis with our second child, I didn’t know what it felt like when everything you think you know, you suddenly don’t.

A mother once emailed me after a story I wrote about Kate was published in the Chicago Tribune saying that she didn’t know why people called children with Down syndrome “a gift” until she had one. Another mother said she didn’t know what the future held for her child, but really, do any of us? There is much we don’t know.

But there is so much we do.

I know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and that Kate will giggle when I tickle that one spot on the side of her tummy. I know that she will fuss a dramatic cry if one of her siblings gets put in time out, simply because her nature is one of peace-maker. I know that if a door is open, she will shut it. If a drawer is open, she will unload it. If a heart is open, she will fill it with a great sense of love.

I have seen with my own eyes the way she melts the faces of grumpy old men into tender smiles. I have seen the way that by simply being herself, she brings out an authenticity in others. I suppose we all have the qualities to affect the world this way if we could so easily be ourselves.

I would guess that what conflicts the hearts of many expectant mothers carrying a child with Down syndrome is not the stuff we do know, but the stuff we don’t. It’s the what if’s and the why’s. It’s a prenatal test result and a cold doctor’s office and a whole world outside the window that feels different than before.

But if only we knew that a prenatal test knows so little about life and love and the greatness of the human spirit.

The tricky thing about a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis is that it is often delivered at the most vulnerable of times with the caveat of: “Here is all you need to know: An extra chromosome. Extra challenges. And are you strong enough to raise a special child?” Many of us would feel incapable with that plain of an explanation. I know I often did in those first days with knowing so little. So little about myself. So little about Kate.

But now, I know better.

Now I know why parents who already had a child with Down syndrome congratulated me when Kate was born. I know why advocates flock to downtown city halls to fight for the rights of their loved ones. I know why the mom of a 19-year-old son with Down syndrome told me in line at Target, “Welcome to your beautiful journey.”

When Kate was a baby, I took her to talk to the youth group at my church. With arm rolls and a purple onesie, she sat in my lap with a contented grin, blowing bubbles. And as I began my talk, the first thing I asked all 100 middle and high school kids on the floor in front of me was, “How many of you know someone with Down syndrome?”

I was comforted when at least 30 hands enthusiastically rose to the sky. Because this knowledge is what will change the world.

These children didn’t know that Down syndrome had a capital “D” and a lowercase “s.” They didn’t know about the chromosomal makeup of a person with Down syndrome or any of the other random facts I shared — but they knew so much more than I did when Kate was born.

They knew people.  They had friends with Down syndrome. They sat by kids with Down syndrome in school and had neighbors with Down syndrome. They loved and babysitted and laughed and played with people with Down syndrome. And that was all they needed to know.

They didn’t need a pep talk about potential. Or a handout with statistics. They knew that people with Down syndrome are of great value and worth (like all of us) just as I know that one plus two equals three — because it’s fact.

Kate’s new favorite phrase comes out of her pink little lips as a habit every time I ask her for a kiss:

“I love you,” she says confidently as I respond with a smile, “I love you, too.”

And as it is for every parent and every child of every ability forever more — those simple words are the most important thing we need to know.

What I didn’t know about Down syndrome

 

Mama in Wonderland

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

She sat before me in the boat, which was really a raised garden bed not yet planted in. All of two years old with natural Shirley Temple curls that fall from the ends of her golden hair, she looked at me very matter-of-factly:

“Mama, I’m making soup.”

“Mmm,” I responded.

Kate came bounding down from the patio where she had been organizing sidewalk chalk and plopped down beside me with a heavy sigh, accompanied by a beaming smile. “Hello,” she said.

“Hi Kate,” I said, “Your little sister is making us soup.”

The chef was finished. One bird-shaped bathtub-toy-turned-backyard toy full of dirt, ahem, I mean soup for Kate. One for me. One for the mini chef.

“Here you go,” she said sweetly.

“What kind of soup do we have here?” I asked.

She wiped the dirt from her forehead with more dirt from her hands, leaving a perfectly paint-brushed streak and answered: “Kate has carrot soup. You have tomatoes and dressing. I have carrots and hummus.”

“Oh, yum!” I responded taking a big pretend bite.

“Ask me what I have in my bowl, Mommy,” she pleaded gently in the high-pitched voice of a precocious, new-talker.

“What do you have?” I obliged.

“NO!” She responded with a furrowed brow. Her face softened to my playful, puzzled expression.

“Ask me what I have, Mommy,” she pleaded again.

More cautiously I advanced,  asking slowly, “What… do you have…?”

“NO!” She responded again. This time she couldn’t help to let a little snicker out from her “mad-face.” It made me snicker, too. Her face softened again.

“I have carrots and hummus,” she replied as though she had never told me.

I barely had time to take another “bite,” when up the hill she went.

I turned to talk to Kate, who was dipping her finger in her carrot soup, when I heard a little voice singing:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MOMMY!!!! (We obviously like playing “birthday” around here.)

I looked up and there she was, walking slowly, concentrating deeply, carrying a piece of wood from the in-progress garden fence.

“Here Mommy,” she plopped it into my hands, “Open your present!”

I went to open it.

“But close your eyes!”

Ah, well, that makes it a bit more tricky to unwrap.

“What is it?!” I said excitedly once the wrapping was off.

“It’s… a ROCK,” she said proudly.

Ah, a rock in a piece of wood. What a lovely gift.

She handed me another small “present” to open.

I started to unwrap —

“Close your eyes!”

Again, I closed my eyes.

Then I opened them and gasped, “What is it?!”

“It’s… JUICE!” she said proudly.

She proceeded to pour the juice for Kate, her and I into our soup bowls now turned juice cups.

We all took sips of our orange juice — I was informed it was orange — in unison and giggled at each other. How delicious —

“Juice is done!” she said abruptly, hurried to move on.

“Can I have a bit more?” I asked.

“No,” she responded calmly.

“But it’s my birthday?”

“It’s not your birthday,” she said knowingly.

“It’s not?”

“No, Mommy, it’s not.”

She gathered the presents and piled them into her Tonka dump truck to push out of the garden. Before leaving, she turned to me kindly and said,

“Bye, Mommy… Good luck.”

“Thanks..?” I said blowing her a kiss.

And off she went — full of imagination and joy and soup, singing to herself:

“It’s not your birthdayyy… it’s not your birthdayyy…”

And Kate turned to me and giggled, still enjoying the last sip of her juice.

“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.” — Thoreau

 

Gifts of love

I still remember the first Valentine’s Day with my husband — my then boyfriend. Or not even “official” boyfriend yet (we had only been dating a couple of months). I knew I was going to marry him, but we had not defined labels yet.

We were on our way to a movie the week before when he asked me casually: “So, what are you doing for Valentine’s Day?”

I was so excited I could barely wait to duck into the bathroom at the movie theater and call my friend Stephanie, “He asked me to go out with him on Valentine’s Day!” After all, that meant something. I was going to be his Valentine.

Fast forward almost a decade later to today — an unseasonably warm 70 degrees, blue-skied February day in Texas. I asked my husband, “Isn’t it like this every day of the year in San Diego? Why doesn’t everyone in the world live there?”

We spent all day outside, working on the garden fence and the plant beds. With dirt under my nails and children at my feet, I dug up and moved some azaleas and spider plants from here to there. I pulled weeds that held firm to thick clay soil and dug my hands into the cold earth below to make room for transferred plants with dangling roots. Our wildflowers have been blooming early (they are as eager for Spring as I am!) and I pulled a handful yesterday and piled them into a water-filled mason jar turned farmhouse vase. It sat in the middle of our diningroom table last night as friends poured wine and piled pasta and listened to music over the speakers.

There’s a part of the mass where the priest says the words “…Through Christ our Lord, from whom all good things come.” Those words always stand out to me. For these simplest of joys — the dirt, the earth, the plants, the pasta — these are daily gifts from God reminding me: you are loved.

Every time I dig my hands into the earth or wrap my arms around my babies. Every time I cut into a juicy pear or pick a wildflower. Every time I kiss my forever Valentine or share a meal with loved ones — I am reminded, once again, that these are gifts of love from Him who is Love Himself. Him from whom all good things come.

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above.” – James 1:17

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Little Women

“I’m a GIRL!” my 2-year-old declared matter-of-factly with bouncing blonde curls as if someone had told her otherwise.

(This hilarious toddler vacillates back and forth between sweet-as-honey and stern football coach, and this moment was the latter.)

“O.K.!” I affirmed. “You certainly are.”

“And Kate’s a girl and you’re a girl,” — she paused — “And she’s a BABY,” she said pointing to the 10-month-old.

“She is a baby,” I affirmed, “and a girl.”

She nodded emphatically, satisfied that she had made her point, and returned to putting the “hat” (a whale-shaped bathtub toy) on her “baby” (a plastic walrus). Then she put the hat on me — which obviously means it’s my birthday and a song ensued loudly:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR MOMMMMYYYYYY…

And around we went: whale-shaped hat on me, on her, on Kate — Happy Birthday! to everyone.

“Want me to make you cake?” she asked sweetly (when desserts are involved, even imaginary, she always uses her sweet-as-honey tone.)

“Yes!” I agreed. So she mixed up a little something here and then a little something there and voila! Cake time.

Kate is great at eating imaginary cake. She scoops up the air as if it were a bowl of pure chocolate icing, pops the pretend cake in her mouth, closes her eyes, and lets out a complimentary: Mmmmm, Mmmmm, Mmmmmmm. She goes back for more.

The boys — Daddy and the 5-year-old — were at a basketball game, so it was just these girls and I — making cake, fitting hats for walruses, and looking for shapes in the evening clouds. I spotted one: a heart! So apropos for Valentine’s Day “week.” I laid back against the concrete patio for a better view, when suddenly it was blocked by three curious, grinning faces in front of mine, eager to tackle the fallen Mommy.

“One, two,” I said, counting heads.

“Three!” Kate finished with a smile.

These little moments with these Little Women — they prepare all of us for the big moments to come. The big responsibilities and decisions that go into raising girls. Sometimes I find myself thinking too much about the years ahead — when really, there’s more than enough important stuff to think about right now: like cake and birthday hats and being little.

And anyway, I am still a “Little” Woman in many ways myself. Growing as they grow. Learning as they learn. Becoming who, God-willing, I am supposed to be — just as they are.

“Don’t try to make me grow up before my time.”
― Louisa May Alcott, Little Women