Santa_Claus_BMW_01This is excerpted from an actual conversation I had with Zoe the other night.

Z: “I just want you to know that two of my friends, K____ and M_____, don’t believe in Santa Claus. I’m not saying this is good or bad, I just thought you should know.”

Me: “Well the good thing about our country is that people can believe anything they want to believe as long as they don’t try to hurt other people with their beliefs or force them to believe something they don’t believe.”

Then Zoe mentioned a clarification of something on her Christmas list.

Me: “You’d better write Santa about that.”

Z: “It’s ok, he just heard me.”

Me: “Oh. OK.”

Z: “I know the Easter Bunny must be real because last year he brought me stick-on earrings and I know you would never buy those for me.”

Me: “Oh. OK.”

Z: “And I’m not sure about the Tooth Fairy because I don’t believe in fairies but I kind of think the Tooth Fairy is real. But I’m not sure.”

I explained to her what a contradiction was. I asked if the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real, who was putting the money under her pillow when she lost a tooth.

She pointed toward me.

I said, “Who? Is there someone in the kitchen who brings you money? Is the Tooth Fairy hiding in here?” She laughed.

And we left it at that.

courageboard

I lost count of how many times Zoe kicked her board during Saturday’s growth ceremony at Evolve All. At the end of the day, the number doesn’t matter.

Breaking the board is the final part of the test to graduate to the next belt. In this, Zoe was graduating from the yellow solid belt to the green solid belt, which requires you to break a much thicker board than all the previous belt levels. This is a big-time board.

To be fair, most of her yellow solid classmates found it challenging to break the board. Out of a dozen young martial artists, I think only one or two got it on the first kick, and most of them required several kicks. It was tough. And really breaking these boards is tough for many levels. The young woman who became a black belt during this ceremony, who is fierce and had to break five consecutive boards with different techniques got really stuck on the third board and had to kick it at least a few dozen times before she broke it. So this is not easy. Not impossible, but not easy.

For whatever reason, Zoe just wasn’t connecting with the board with enough force to break through. She had actually broken one of these thick boards before, during a board breaking focused summer camp at Evolve All. So she knew she was capable of it. Of course at summer camp, no pressure at all. She broke it there on the first try.

Back to Saturday, Zoe was the last yellow solid of her group to go. She kicked and kicked but no break. The instructors gave her extra chances and then had to move on to the next part of the ceremony. They took her into another room to practice. She practiced. They coached her. Master Emerson asked her if she thought she could break the board. She said yes. He asked us if we thought she could break the board. We said yes.

They gave her another opportunity back in the ceremony. She kicked. No break. She bowed. They took her into the next room to practice. She practiced. They coached her. They gave her yet another opportunity to break it in the ceremony. She kicked. No break. They said after the ceremony was over she could try again.

At some point during all this Zoe was sitting with me at the edge of the mat and a mom we didn’t know came up to her and said, “You are so courageous!”

The ceremony ended and most students and families filed out. A few dozen people stuck around to watch Zoe make her final attempt. Master Emerson explained to her that this was her last chance, and he couldn’t promote her to green solid if she didn’t break the board. She said she understood. Master Emerson and Mister Christian continued to coach, encouraging her to use her heel instead of her toes, and to fall forward toward the board as she kicked. They let her try different kicking techniques to see where she could draw the most power.

Finally, somehow, she gathered her strength and power and hit it with her heel and the board broke. At last.

Zoe told me later that she was embarrassed that I jumped up and down and screamed and picked her up and spun her around. She buried her head in my neck in a way she hasn’t done in years. She said later that she was crying. Something had to happen to all that tension and adrenaline. Everyone who had stayed was cheering wildly and taking pictures. Mister Christian tied her new belt around her waist and gave her a big hug.

Throughout the whole ceremony, Zoe never once said, “I can’t do it,” or “This is too hard,” or “I give up.” She didn’t cry. She just kept trying.

I took her to lunch after the ceremony and asked how she felt and she said, “This is a great day!” She was smiling and happy and in no way discouraged. I was kind of astonished.

We went roller skating that night and I had already decided that I was in no way going to push her. She started skating last year and was still pretty tentative about it the last time she put her skates on. I figured she’d pushed herself enough all day. But we got there and after a few minutes of skating with the walker on wheels that you can rent (an ingenious invention made of PVC pipe) she asked me to take the walker several feet away so she could skate to it. Over and over she would ask me to take it farther and farther away so she could practice skating without it. By the end of the night she was challenging me to races.

At the community center where the skating takes place we ran into a friend of a friend who we didn’t know but who had also been at the growth ceremony and who congratulated Zoe on her persistence. Then yesterday Randy and Zoe and Zeke were at a playground and another mom they didn’t know who evidently had been at the growth ceremony said, “Zoe! Did you break your board?” and congratulated her when she said yes. Zoe said she didn’t like being famous.

Last night when we were cleaning up, I asked Zoe to write the date on the pieces of board she had broken, so we would remember when it was from. We have martial arts board fragments in drawers and boxes all over the house. She wrote the date and Evolve All green solid break (actually it’s the yellow solid break to become a green solid, but that’s ok). She drew a little belt with the fortune cookie knot. Underneath she wrote COURAGE!

resilienceIt is hard to talk about your children’s failures, whether they are large or small. On social media you can brag about your kids, demonstrate their silliness or cuteness, and it’s definitely acceptable to discuss how they are making you crazy. But rarely do parents share when their kids mess up.

And in this era of what seems to me like excessive parenting, which I’m sure I’m guilty of it sometimes, it seems parents are reluctant to allow their kids to mess up. No one wants to see their kid fail, so it’s easy to try to swoop in and remove obstacles and provide extra support and do whatever you can to ensure your kid succeeds. Certainly as parents it’s our job to help our kids succeed as much as we can, but I realize that is not the same as not letting them fail. There is a subtle but importance distinction.

Yesterday Zoe took a test in her martial arts class to determine if she would be able to move up to the next belt level. She has been working toward this moment for about six months. She has learned upper body, core, and lower body exercises. She has mastered hand techniques, kicking techniques, and her martial arts form (a rapid sequence of kicks, punches, and blocks). And she has contemplated what virtue she could most improve upon and why.

This level of testing is the hardest she has encountered in her two years of practicing martial arts, because it is the first level of elements in the advanced class–the solid belts. She has struggled occasionally with techniques over the past two years, but this time around, the techniques have really been tough. But she is motivated and she has practiced and practiced and practiced at home, and she’s figured it out. Her instructors are kind and patient and encouraging and have provided constant support, often staying after class at her request to help her hone her techniques. That doesn’t mean that she hasn’t experienced many small failures. The steps toward getting each new belt are obtaining a stripe on your belt that indicates your mastery of a particular technique. Students typically test for their stripes when the instructor or the student thinks they are ready, but they sometimes fail. Maybe even often. Maybe other students seldom fail, but Zoe doesn’t usually get her stripe on the first try. Sometimes it takes two or three. The instructors are very demanding. If your moves are not sharp and powerful, or your toes aren’t pointed, or you’re going too fast and lack precision, you don’t pass. They want to make sure you get it right. They always provide constructive critiques and generous encouragement to the students who have failed.

Usually when she gets to the stage of the belt test, which is a big deal, she’s got it all covered. Yesterday afternoon she was exceptionally nervous. She said she wasn’t sure if she could do it. I told her I knew she could. I have also been telling her for weeks that whatever happens, I am proud of how hard she has worked and proud of her for sticking to it. I knew this was not a sure thing. A few weeks ago I told her that whether she advanced to the next belt now or in a few months, I would still be proud of her, and either way she would still be moving toward her goal, which she says is to become a black belt and a student instructor. I struggle sometimes with making sure martial arts is her thing and not my thing. I try to motivate her to practice without nagging. Sometimes I am more successful than others. But I know how good she feels after she practices and I love seeing her face light up when she knows she has turned the corner and really knows what she’s doing.

So she took the test yesterday and she performed her techniques well. I didn’t see most of them because I was chasing Zeke around the studio, but Randy was watching. He left work early to see her test, at her request. After all the kids had tested, the instructors called each student up individually to discuss his or her scores. Zoe was the last of 12.

Because of her nervousness, when she said that the virtue she should improve upon is timeliness, and they asked her to explain it, she froze and couldn’t remember what to say. She knows what timeliness is. She explained it perfectly in class on Saturday, to the same instructor. She has practiced her answer at home with me more than a dozen times.

But somehow yesterday the answer wouldn’t come. That happens to all of us sometimes. At least it does to me.

So she failed the test, even though the instructor said she did great at everything else.

Fortunately she has an opportunity to take the test again on Friday. She will have to do everything all over again.

I realize that this may not sound at all like a big deal. There are no lasting consequences. It’s an enriching activity, not the Olympic trials. This is not going on her permanent record. But to her it’s a big deal. She has been working so hard toward this for months. And months to a seven-year-old can seem like years.

But she handled it well. She was disappointed, but she bounced back. We discussed possible options for helping her to practice and memorize her answer so it would come to her as easily as the techniques that she has engrained into her muscle memory. She was open to my suggestions.

On the back of one of her martial arts shirts it says RESILIENCE. It’s funny because it’s not like they say to your kids when they walk into the martial arts studio, “you are going to fail, so get used to it.” This is not boot camp. They are not cruel. But they know that the kids will struggle and they will fail and that when they finally master something and it all clicks and they succeed it will mean so much more to them. Master Emerson, the head instructor and owner of the studio, has said something to this effect to them many times. And if you can struggle and fail and persevere and not give up, it is indeed that much sweeter when you come out on top.

At the growth ceremony where the students break their boards for the final part of their tests and then are awarded their next belts, there is a lot of communal inhaling and exhaling. They call the kids up in small groups and they practice a few times with targets and then everyone counts down from three to prepare the students to break their boards. Many kids break them on the first try and there is wild cheering and applause. Some kids take a couple tries. Still more cheering and applause. And some kids take five or six or more times to break the boards. Once it took Zoe seven tries. So much tension. So much. Whether it’s your kid or someone else’s, because everyone knows that feeling. And when the student finally breaks that board after so many tries, there is seriously wild cheering and applause. That is a hard-earned victory.

Zoe does not give up. I am so immensely proud of her for this. Like anyone else, she may need a moment to collect herself, to feel all those hard feelings, and then she gets up and tries again. Enabling her to cultivate this quality is so important. The number one thing I want to teach my kids is to be kind, but after that this trait of resilience is high on the list. Whether you’re in second grade or in college or out in the complicated world in which we live, there will always be challenges coming at you, and sometimes they will knock you flat. If Zoe can continue to get back up again and start over, she will survive.

Tonight I was called in for Zeke’s second bedtime shift, after Randy had rocked him to sleep, put him in the crib, shushed him and left the room and Zeke decided he wasn’t yet ready to go to bed. This used to happen often. Now, thankfully, it is only occasional. Zeke typically goes to bed on the first try. He sleeps through the night about two-thirds of the time. That’s just the way it is.

It is easy to become frustrated when Zeke won’t go to sleep or when he wakes up during the night. He is as light a sleeper as his sister is a deep sleeper. I won’t lie and say we don’t often get exasperated, because we do.

But tonight when I went in to take my turn, I sang my lullabies in my scratchy voice and tried not to cough too much. And I snuggled Zeke in my arms. I stuffed his feet back into the sleep sack. I wrapped an extra blanket around him when he gestured to it lying in his crib. He drank a few more ounces of milk and he fell asleep. He was asleep long before I finished “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” traditionally my benediction lullaby, my way of praying for the people we love.

But I kept holding him tight and rocking and thinking of the people who can’t tuck in their babies anymore. My heart broke a couple weeks ago when my mom’s friend lost her 21-year-old son to a rare disease. She was the third of my mom’s good friends to lose a son in as many years. And my heart shattered all over again last week when 8-year-old Emily Barkes and her mom died in a fire in their home. Emily was in third grade at Zoe’s school. Zoe’s beloved teacher was Emily’s teacher last year. Emily’s 11-year-old sister Sarah and their dad survived. Sarah is still in the hospital recovering from injuries. I keep thinking of the fire and the aftermath and how Sarah and her Dad are even functioning. I keep thinking about how that could happen to us. And then you have to stop thinking because your brain just short circuits if you think that way for too long.

Tonight I was thinking about how Bill Barkes never imagined that night would be the last one he would spend with his wife, and that it would be the last time he could tuck his daughter into bed. I just couldn’t bring myself to put Zeke back in his crib. I kept thinking of the chorus of an old Pat McGee song “if I could hold you tonight, I might never let go” even though that’s about a girlfriend and not a son. I felt the weight of his muscular little toddler body in my lap and on my chest. One of his arms around me and one curled under himself. I leaned in and kissed his soft hair. I gave thanks for his breathing. I wished for him happiness, health, safety, and peace. I held him and rocked and promised myself I would always appreciate the opportunity to hold him, even when he’s going berserk and I’m very tired.

This is Emily Barkes. Emily BarkesI didn’t know her, but I know she is loved and she is missed.

If you would like to help Emily’s family deal with their medical expenses and rebuild, there is a fund set up here: http://www.gofundme.com/gsvlsc

emergency truck_IMG_0045Tonight we had to tell Zoe that a third grader at her school and her mom were killed in a house fire this morning. There were no smoke detectors at their house. The girl’s older sibling and dad are in the hospital.

We talked about how horrible it was and how we felt sad for her family and her friends and her classmates. We talked about why smoke detectors are important and what we would do if there were a fire in our house. We assured Zoe that we would run into her and her brother’s room and carry them out of the house.

We held Zoe and rubbed her back and I thought about the other heartbreaking tragedies that have happened to people we know that she doesn’t even know about. I’m not even sure what this means to her, but I know that she, like her parents, has a big heart and a lot of compassion, and the idea of a third grader whom she might have seen on the playground or in the cafeteria suddenly not existing anymore is probably overwhelming.

After a few minutes and a few tears and a few tissues, I asked if she had any other questions. At first she shook her head. Then she nodded, and said, “Can we not talk about this anymore right now?” A reasonable request. So we went downstairs and she got out her colored pencils and we all drew pictures. She drew a bear dressed as a robot for Halloween. It is good to be able to switch gears. I think that gets harder as you grow up.

After I tucked her into bed when I was walking down the hall she called me back into her room. “Will we have a fire drill tomorrow at school?” She asked. I told her I didn’t think so. I was picturing a lot of tearful students and teachers. A lot of questions. She was thinking about how to be safe. I will think a little harder than usual about how to keep my babies safe, as best I can.

gourds!Zeke is so delighted with himself.

Lately he loves to careen into my office, which doubles as our guest bedroom or the bed where Zeke sleeps with one of us when he won’t go back to bed during the night, and scramble up onto the bed and throw himself onto a pillow. He grins this huge grin like he has gotten away with something amazing. Then he pats the pillow next to him, indicating that you are supposed to lie down there with him. Then he pulls the covers up over himself and grins some more. He also loves to climb up on his sister’s bed, using the Lego bins or the dress-up bins as a stool. If there are objects sitting on the bins he will fling them away so he can climb unencumbered. If you move the bins away so as to discourage him from climbing onto Zoe’s bed, he will move them back or find some other way to scale the foot of the bed, perhaps channeling his inner Spiderman.

For an 18-month-old boy, Zeke is remarkably committed to good hygiene. For example, if the bathroom door is left open he will climb up to the sink and wash his hands with some frequency and plenty of glee. He loves turning on the water. He will also sit in the bathtub and play long after you’ve drained the water out. I don’t know why he enjoys this or how he doesn’t get cold, but sitting wet in the empty tub with his toys seems like nothing less than paradise to him. He loves the tub so much that one day when he and his sister were both driving me a bit batty, I stuck him in the tub with his clothes on. (Naked he tends to slide around some). I retrieved from a kitchen cabinet an enormous metal bowl that I have only ever used for food when I once made a huge quantity of salad for a picnic for people who were homeless. The bowl is now primarily used as a musical instrument or for science experiments. So I put some water in the bowl and threw some bath toys in and let Zeke play in the tub fully clothed until he was soaked enough to be uncomfortable. It bought me some time. We’ve recently resumed our efforts to brush his teeth because he has some now, but he prefers to do it himself. I think he is mostly brushing his tongue, but that’s important too, right?

Whether he is gathering and distributing or cuddling with gourds, or trying to scoop Chex cereal out of a snack cup with a small pasta ladle, pasta ladle!or turning on Randy’s clock radio so he can dance, Zeke does things his own unique way. He loves the co-op preschool where he goes two mornings a week. After a few mornings of crying when I dropped him off he now runs (as best he can) for the classroom and tries to scale the baby gate to get in as fast as he can to investigate the sensory table or squish playdough between his fingers. Last week I co-oped in his classroom and they were painting pumpkins with acrylic paint (the kind of paint preschoolers usually use doesn’t stick to pumpkins well, I guess. Or maybe it washes off too easily). Zeke had a paintbrush and a cup of black paint. He painted a bit on his pumpkin. Then he carefully painted the palm of each hand and all his fingers. Then he gestured for his teacher’s hand and painted it black as well. Then, as any creative genius would, he ran his fingers through his hair. Then, after washing hands, he wandered over to the book corner and laid down on a blanket and pillow and rolled around, adding his black paint touch to the pillowcase (I’ve since washed it and you’ll be relieved to know the paint came right out after being soaked in Oxi-clean.

When we drive by a playground, he squeals and claps in recognition. Yesterday at Zoe’s soccer practice he walked across the field on his own to reach the playground and did what all the four- and five-year-olds were doing. I sprinted in pursuit. He loves to carry Zoe’s rolling backpack and was rolling rolling backpack!it up and down the track around the field. Eventually he abandoned it and it sat there on the track with young cyclists and grown-up joggers maneuvering around it until I had a chance to move it at a moment when I didn’t think Zeke was going to leap from a 6-foot high play structure.

I would estimate that his sleeping through the night is up to 50% to 75% of the time. His tantrums run about five to 10 per day, particularly when you’re strapping him into his carseat or changing his diaper or taking away something that he wants but isn’t supposed to have. But when he’s not shrieking in protest, he truly is delightful, to himself and to us.

02392332004This morning at 7:40 when I put the kids in the car to go to school and day care, Zeke spotted a potato chip in his carseat, leftover from my snack Saturday afternoon to stave off low blood sugar as I shuttled Zoe from soccer game to birthday party and home again. I had shared a couple chips with Zeke to assuage his frustration at being hauled in and out of the minivan too many times. So he promptly put the chip in his mouth.

“Mmmm. Old potato chip for breakfast!” I said.

“How delightful!” Zoe exclaimed.

Zeke’s carseat is also stiff and stained around the edges from the pumpkin cranberry apple squeezer that I foolishly gave him during this same day of driving. I uncapped it and handed it to him after we deposited Zoe at the birthday party. We arrived at the playground where I would chase him around during Zoe’s party and pulled into the parking lot. Something funny was on the radio so I sat there for a minute. Also Zeke was very quiet. I was relieved that he was quiet, so I chose to suspend my better judgment for a moment. When I came to my senses and got out of the car and opened his door I discovered him thoughtfully dabbing small blobs of pumpkin cranberry apple puree all over his legs. He had made quite an interesting design. Then he was wiping the blobs off onto his carseat. I reached for the baby wipes and he grabbed some and started desperately trying to wipe the rest of the stuff off his legs and hands and face. I helped. The empty pouch and the dirty wipes, now hardened into a mass, are still on the floor of the car. And I haven’t brought the carseat in to wash the seat cover yet because it is unbelievably complicated to disassemble and reassemble. You may think “how hard could it be?” but unless you have done this yourself with a new model Britax Marathon carseat, I dare you to figure it out any faster than we can, or to do it without swearing.

When we are not feeding him potato chips, and he is eating regular food at the table, Zeke likes to feed himself with utensils. He stabs his strawberries and cucumbers and macaroni with a fork, but not the child sized fork we have thoughtfully provided. Instead he leaves the table and goes to the play kitchen to procure a very tiny fork from one of Zoe’s tea sets and returns to the table with that. Or a tiny spoon or two tiny spoons or a tiny knife but we’ve told him you don’t eat with a knife. Sometimes when he’s done he will reach up and push the tiny utensils into the sink to be washed.

If you’re looking for someone to furnish the sound effect of blood curdling scream for your upcoming Halloween party, Zeke’s your man. So far this afternoon he has demonstrated this skill no fewer than four times, to show his displeasure at such injustices as me taking my keys from him in order to open the front door, me putting him in his car seat so we can take Zoe to martial arts, me trying to extract from his grip the dirty diaper that I’ve just removed from his tush, and I forget the other one. When Zeke was younger we taught Zoe to always try to trade something to Zeke if she wanted something he had, rather than grabbing an object from his hand. Somehow I have not learned that lesson myself, or else I just don’t carry around enough objects to be able to make exchanges for all the things Zeke is clutching that he’s not supposed to have.

While he’s still not technically speaking English, Zeke can still communicate and understand most of what we say and definitely makes jokes. When he’s drinking water from a sippy cup he will often pause after a long sip and say “aaaaahhhhhh!” like he’s in a Coke commercial. When you put on music he will dance by kind of doing squats and smiling. He will put things in the trash can when you ask, wipe his own nose with a tissue, and retrieve your shoes when it’s time to go outside. He loves to play in the tub and fill cups with water. He will climb up to the sink and turn on the water and fill up a cup and pour it out. Anywhere. He makes phone calls on any handy banana. He loves to point at school buses and playgrounds. At said playgrounds, and everywhere else, he climbs like he thinks he’s three.

So much chasing, so much slobber, so much snuggling, punctuated by the occasional head butt.

Happy 17 months!

Sidewalk510.35362649Despite the decade we’ve lived in this neighborhood, we’ve never made close friends here. I have many friends who love their neighbors and live in those close-knit communities that seem like they’re straight out of the movies. But our complex of townhouse condos is small and mostly occupied by childless individuals or couples, or young tenants who come and go every year. I can’t even remember how many groups of people have lived in one house next door to us, although at times I had to call the police or fire department on some of them. Right now that unit is vacant.

Certainly we are on friendly terms with several neighbors. And whether or not you’re close with a neighbor, death is unnerving and sad, sometimes tragic. Within the past six months, three people on our street have died. One was a child, one was elderly, and one middle-aged. One of them committed suicide after struggling with depression for at least half his life. Two of the three died within the past three weeks. I have grieved for the mother, the daughter, the wife who survive. Because I have a son, a mother, and a husband whose deaths I cannot comprehend surviving, although I imagine I would. I can’t bear to think about those things and when I do I feel like my brain is going black.

For many weeks after the child died, even though he didn’t die at home on our street, I felt reluctant to walk by his house when I was out walking my own son at night, trying to get him back to sleep. Somehow I felt like the aura of death or of grief would emerge and engulf us. The other neighbors did die at home, but I cannot pause or be alarmed every time I come and go from home, even steps from where they died. Generally when I come and go I am bringing children, usually carrying a very squirmy one. They are filled with and exuding energetic life, and I don’t think of anything else.

Zoe never knew about the child who died, although she knew who the child was. She overheard in passing the news of the elderly neighbor, because her daughter stopped me while Zoe and I were getting in the car. She saw me go over and hug our neighbor, who never previously pronounced my name correctly, and she asked me what was going on once we were in the car. We haven’t told her yet about the third neighbor, but I know we need to, because she’s watched him come and go every day, even though he rarely spoke to us. His wife always does. She once unexpectedly gave Zoe a nativity set. When she told me what happened, she said she was glad we were out of town so Zoe wasn’t home to see the ambulance and commotion. I’m glad too.

It is hard to know the right thing to do. I give hugs. I write cards. I am not much of a casserole maker, but I can rise to the occasion if necessary. I want to be kind and compassionate, but still neighborly. I don’t know their back story. I only know the cursory details. I’ve learned a lot from the obituaries. I’m not a friend or confidante. What I am is a neighbor. And even if they don’t know it, I grieve for them every day.

marineopium05I should have changed the station when I heard Terry Gross say that her guest on Fresh Air was going to be the New York Times reporter covering Ukraine who was one of the first people on the scene of the wreckage of the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane that was shot down by some evil and selfish people over there. But somehow I didn’t, and so I listened while she described what it looked like when she was walking through the rubble and how some people’s bodies were completely intact, still buckled into their seats, because the plane had exploded in the air instead of just crashing into the ground. When she said, “especially the children,” I had to change the station. And it was too late, because now that image is in my brain and won’t go away.

Yesterday, immediately after hearing the fragment of that story on NPR, I conducted a phone interview with a medically retired Marine. As part of my contract work as a writer for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, it is a privilege for me to interview many former Marines and Sailors and their families about their involvement with the Society, as well as interviewing the staff members and volunteers who work with clients. I have no military background so these conversations are usually fascinating and revelatory to me.

Many of the retired Marines and Sailors I speak with were severely wounded while deployed. At a minimum, they have post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Many also have a variety of severe physical issues as well. Many have struggled with addiction since returning to civilian life and trying to deal with the mental and physical anguish they returned to in the States. Typically I ask about their service–when they joined, where they served, what caused the injury that sent them home. Typically they give me the highlights. “I was blown up during my second deployment in Afghanistan.” Or “I was on patrol in Fallujah when we hit an IED.”

Yesterday the Marine I spoke with took me almost minute by minute through the day when he was hit multiple times by Taliban attacks while on a rescue mission. He just kept talking and I kept listening and writing down everything he said. It seems like the least I can do to listen to his story. And my job is to share his story–chiefly the part where he gets connected with a Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society visiting combat casualty assistance nurse–so other servicemembers like him, or their spouses or moms or siblings can find out there’s another way to get help. So these guys feel less alone.

I am thankful that this is part of my work and it is an honor to do this very small thing to help. But it is hard to hear. It is hard to hear horrible things on the news. It is hard to hear tragedies that strike people I know or the friends or family members of people I know. It is hard to understand why our military is sent out to do unbelievably dangerous work that changes their lives not usually for the better, and for questionable reasons when you hear the news today and know that militants in Iraq are forcing innocent families to die by starvation and no one is able to stop it. Hearing these things just crushes my heart. But I cannot ignore them, and part of me feels responsible for being a witness to the suffering. Still, it crushes my heart.

 

We have retired the baby monitor. Rest assured, the baby is still working hard. He’s even been promoted to toddler, now able to walk as fast or faster than he could crawl, which was surprisingly speedily. Strangers on the playground would frequently remark, “wow, he’s fast!” as he careened around their kids going up stairs on his hands and knees. But the monitor is superfluous. It was only being used by Zeke himself as a toy, because it has buttons and beeps when you push them. He would pick up the monitors and press the buttons and carry them from room to room. If he cries when he’s asleep we can hear him anyway. He’s plenty loud. And if he cries for an extra minute because we are in the bathroom or washing dishes and can’t hear him immediately, he’ll live. We are just callous that way.

Last night after we came home from camp and day care and the grocery store, Zeke was a little edgy. He had started to melt down at the store, occasional threatening cries staved off by me carrying him and Zoe pushing the cart while I hissed at her to watch out every 30 seconds or so when she almost crashed into someone or something. In the checkout line the cashier, a man, thoughtfully handed Zeke the electronic PIN pad so he could push buttons. I don’t know how he knew that Zeke loves to push buttons, but that definitely bought us some time. We made it home, and I plied Zeke with a bottle of milk and Sesame Street so I could bring in the groceries. Sometime during all that he fell down the stairs, but was ok, and I held him for a while on the sofa, as I was dripping with sweat from all the trips in and out and hauling him around and it was a hot day, and he seemed fine. How many times can a toddler fall down the stairs before he actually gets hurt? I don’t want to find out.

By the time Randy got home from work Zeke was really cranky. I hadn’t had a chance to make any food for anyone because I had been chasing him. Randy picked him up and held him and they both dozed off. Randy for only a moment, but Zeke was out. This was 7 o’clock. At least an hour or an hour and a half before Zeke usually goes to bed. And he was wearing a dirty shirt and a diaper. And hadn’t had a bath. But he was asleep, so Randy laid him down in the crib and put a blanket over him. Perhaps 30 minutes later, Zeke woke up screaming. He screamed when I picked him up, screamed throughout the bath, screamed while getting his pajamas on, although he cooperated for all of these activities anyway. He’s very good at putting his arms through the sleeves of shirts, although he does not care for pants. The wailing abated momentarily when Zoe brought up the musical glowworm that used to be hers that we recently rediscovered and she said Zeke could have. She was kind and he was distracted for an instant, and then resumed screaming.

Randy attempted to feed him and get him back to sleep for about an hour, but he would have none of it.

So he stayed up until 11. At least he wasn’t screaming all that time. From 9 to 11 he played happily. He climbed on and off the sofas about 50 times. He wore hats. He carried around a small dinosaur and rearranged all the coasters. I asked him to put the dinosaur on the coaster and he did! I asked him to bring the dinosaur to Daddy and he did! He’s good at following instructions when he wants to. And we read many books. Front to back, back to front. Occasional pages here and there. He prefers books with photos of objects to illustrations. He flips through these books and points to items of interest and says “this?” and looks at us. It sounds more like “dis” and we say the name of the object. Sometimes it feels like we’re undergoing some kind of memory quiz or neurological exam. “LEMON! BOOTS! FROG! BOWL! BATHTUB! HOUSE! GRAPES! GRAPES AGAIN! FROG! APPLE! BOOTS!” We hope we will pass the test.

Last night in one of the books on one of the pages filled with grocery store-related items, there was a red bell pepper. Zeke pointed to it again and again. “PEPPER! PEPPER! PEPPER! PEPPER!” punctuated occasionally by “WALLET AND MONEY!” “POTATOES!” and then back to “PEPPER!” and every time I said pepper Zeke smiled, until he was finally laughing out loud at the pepper. We would close the book and he would open it again, find the page, and point to the pepper, “PEPPER!” Laughter. “PEPPER!” Laughter. Oh thank goodness for amusing vegetables.

Finally he started getting floppy and curling up and Randy got him another bottle of milk and I took him outside for the lullaby walk. Within a few minutes he was asleep. Over the past month his sleeping habits have improved significantly. About 85% of the time — clearly a scientific measurement — he will go to sleep without a fight around 8:30 and sleep through the night, until somewhere between 6am and 8am. The other 15% of the time there is some sort of sleeping calamity, either at bedtime or at 2 or 3 or 4am. But progress has definitely been made, for which, and for that red bell pepper, we are profoundly thankful.

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