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I’ve been volunteering once a week in Zoe’s class this year to help kids with reading and writing. Next week is my last time in the classroom for the year. As I’ve written here before, it’s been a wonderful experience. Recently the class has been working on writing letters, so I wrote them one of my own.
May 29, 2015
Dear Zoe, Zain, Ryan, Parin, Morgan, Madeleine, Lillian, Kevin, Kari, José, Jonathan, Jon, Jeremy, Jackson, Isabel, Hannah, Denis, Clare, Christopher, Bryant, Brenda, Ben, Angela, and Ms. deOlazo,
Thank you so much for welcoming me into your classroom as a volunteer this year! I have really enjoyed getting to know all of you and working with you to strengthen your writing and reading skills.
I have been impressed by how hard you have worked, how creative you have been, and all the great questions you have asked. I’ve seen your reading and writing grow so much throughout the year and I am so proud of you! You’ve written beautiful haikus, funny limericks, lovely letters, bold book reviews, and more. I’m always interested to know what you’re reading and I love seeing it when you get really wrapped up in a book. I love your enthusiasm for the stories that Ms. D reads to the class and how you can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Just as much as you’ve improved your reading and writing, you’ve also grown as people. I like how you are so generous in helping each other when your friends get stuck or need to know how a word is spelled. I like how engaged you are in the games and activities that Ms. deOlazo comes up with, like the concentration exercises, stretching and meditation, and even four corners. I know that the abilities you are developing now will be incredibly useful to you as you move through school and into life. It’s wonderful that Ms. D is teaching you how to work together, how to solve problems in interesting ways, and how to be flexible and imaginative. Those are important skills for everyone to have.
I will miss spending time with your class so much! I hope you have a wonderful summer and that I will see you all next fall.
When my dad first bought a video camera I was in fourth grade and I jumped at the opportunity to interview people on film. Using an upside down tennis racket with a foam clown nose stuffed on the handle, I asked my classmates what I thought were pressing questions as he got it all on tape. While a tennis racket is no longer involved in my interviews, I still love asking people questions and helping tell their stories. It is far and away my favorite part of my work.
Over the past couple decades I have interviewed all kinds of people–executives, volunteers, foster parents, recovering addicts, teenagers, immigrants, attorneys, educators, artists, entrepreneurs, and so on–all of whom have fascinating stories to tell. I am always grateful that they trust me with their stories and I have the opportunity to share them.
For the past few years I have had the great privilege of working with the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. I write articles for the Society’s newsletter and blog. Before this assignment, I had little experience with the US military. I’ve only known a handful of people who’ve served, and admittedly didn’t have much of a clue about what service members and their families experienced.
One of the extraordinary services that NMCRS provides is a visiting nurse program. Nurses travel all over the country–at no cost to their clients–to help combat-injured Sailors and Marines and their families, as well as new moms who serve or are married to service members, retired service members, military widows, and others who have been a part of the US Navy or Marine Corps and need medical help. But medical help is really just a small part of what these people do. They find resources and make connections for their clients and the clients’ families. They help clients navigate the maddening world of mental and physical health care. They provide encouragement, tough love, confidence boosting, and most importantly someone who will listen.
NMCRS nurse Bobbi Crann put it well: “As a nurse we tend to be a jack of all trades. You are an educator, nurturer, coach, and counselor. A lot of what we do as a nurse is listen. When you’ve been a nurse for a while, there’s a sixth sense. You watch the body language. If they’re agitated or have anxiety, it may not come out in words. You learn to read patients as you become experienced. You help them identify what they’re feeling and what’s going on. When they have traumatic brain injuries, it’s difficult for them to hold on to much. It’s difficult for them to remember what you’ve discussed or their appointments.”
I have interviewed many of these nurses and many of their clients and every single time I am astounded by what they tell me.
“For a long time my wife would wake up in the middle of the night to find me under the bed looking for my rifle, speaking Arabic in my sleep,” recalled Sgt. Michael Van Deren. “I was constantly staying busy because anytime I had down time my head would start wandering. I never left the house. I would get groceries at 3am because I couldn’t deal with people. I had to be armed to leave the house, even to take the dog out.”
I talked to Robin Carpenter, the mother of Medal of Honor Recipient Kyle Carpenter, about her family’s fears and anguish when Kyle suffered serious injury after throwing himself onto a grenade to save a fellow Marine, and how NMCRS nurse Kim Bradley was–and continues to be–the family’s rock and lifeline.
When I talked with Sgt. Craig Carp he said, “I fell through a roof in 2003, was blown up in 2004, and was medevac’d again in 2006,” When he was medically retired in 2010, Carp was suffering from PTSD, a traumatic brain injury, shoulder and back problems, and speech and hearing issues.
Former Marine infantryman James McQuoid decided while on security detail in Afghanistan to take the SATs. “When you’re in a foreign country that you’re trying to stabilize, 90% of the time it’s unbelievably boring, interrupted by short moments of intense horror,” he said. After doing demolition in Iraq during a previous deployment left him with undiagnosed traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and then he found out his wife was pregnant with their first child, he realized he needed to pursue a new path. He decided to become a physics teacher and when he returned home found an online degree program because going to campus would be too challenging for him because of his PTSD.
Most people I interview don’t hold anything back. Staff Sergeant Jay Vermillion said to me, “I came home and I was about ready to blow my head off because no one was helping me,” until he met NMCRS nurse Kim Bradley. “She called me one day when I was at my worst.”
I spent hours talking with Drew Provost and his wife Crystal about Drew’s struggle to make a new life for himself after leaving the Navy. Here’s what I wrote: Even after the encounter in Fallujah when the IED blew out his eardrum, knocked him unconscious, and caused him to vomit, Drew Provost assumed he was fine. As a Navy Corpsman assigned to a Marine unit in Fallujah, he was used to seeing serious casualties. Since he could still walk and talk, Provost quickly went about his work checking on the condition of other Marines and civilians affected by the blast. He was 19 and a rising star. It took four more years, another tour of duty, a divorce, struggles with alcohol abuse, and a new relationship for Provost to be diagnosed with, and correctly treated for, a traumatic brain injury – thanks to the intervention of NMCRS visiting nurse Ruthi Moore.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and while clearly the people I’ve interviewed are survivors, it is unmistakable that they mourn pieces of their hearts and part of their humanity left behind in war. Today in church Rev. Aaron preached a powerful sermon about the moral weight we bear by asking our young people to fight and then not taking responsibility for the consequences when they do, and when they come home. Or when they don’t come home. The sermon (watch it in the archives on the home page), and the music, just wrecked me. But in a necessary way.
Rev. Aaron acknowledged that he doesn’t know exactly how we can escape this cycle of violence, make these wars obsolete, or help heal the brokenness of those who have suffered through the wars, only that we must try. I certainly don’t have an answer either, but for as long as I can, I will continue to listen to and retell these stories, because they must be told, and they must be heard.
As much for my comfort as yours,
feeling vulnerable as if the window and wall that separate us from the water
might dissolve at any moment and we would drown
Your sleep is punctuated by coughs and
I would think you had a fever
if I weren’t intimately familiar with your solid little furnace of a body
from so many minutes and hours and nights of rocking with you and
sleeping with you in the office bed or in our bed,
sometimes peacefully but mostly not,
as you are drawn to climb on top of me and wrap your limbs securely around me
like you’ve summited a mountain and must embrace the ground in gratitude.
When your shoulder leans into my windpipe
I try to rescue myself
without waking you up
In real life not every special day turns out perfectly, and not every moment is worthy of photographing. But my Mother’s Day weekend did include plenty of mothering, which is something to be thankful for.
Zeke has had a fever since Friday afternoon, which translates into a lot of intense snuggling. Not that you ever want your child to be sick, but the snuggling is not so bad. Even when he wakes up from an intense nap, during which he has burrowed so intensely into me that we are covered in sweat and possibly his pee, I don’t even realize what’s happened or particularly mind. I’ve had plenty worse bodily fluids showered upon me by my children. Sometimes, even years after the spit-up phase has ended, I have to change my shirt two or three times in a day when a special mixture of tears, snot, and drool saturates it.
Or sometimes I have to change my shirt because I sweat through Zoe’s activities, like her soccer game yesterday afternoon, which ended up being a massive defeat, so much so that her team was invited to bring an extra player on the field at some point. It was a hot day and her team was missing a few subs and we were in full sun, but I stayed on the sidelines (along with my dad, another loyal fan) to high five Zoe every time she came off the field and hand her a water bottle. I often sweat through her martial arts classes, even though they’re indoors and not because I’m doing martial arts, but because the studio can get stuffy with all those kids kicking and punching and running and I am sprinting around after Zeke for 45 to 90 minutes, depending on how many classes Zoe has that day. Zeke’s usual state is in motion, which is why it’s all the more surprising when he’s sick and wants to be still.
So this morning I couldn’t go to church because I couldn’t bring Zeke to the nursery with a fever and Randy had to take Zoe to a learn to ride a bike class we’d signed up for months ago. There was no breakfast in bed because Zoe was rushing around to get ready to go this morning. Fortunately our church streams services live online, so I was able to watch at home. At first Zeke was watching with me, and even said “church” a few times, which was a new word for him. (He also learned the word “boob” this weekend because he kept poking mine and giggling when I said “hey! don’t touch my boob!”) He pointed at the people on the screen and I explained who they were a few dozen times. Then he snuggled up to sleep while I watched the rest of the service and wept. I cried during the song that the director of religious education sang about mothering people whose own mothers just weren’t good enough, and during the rendition of “For Good” from Wicked. And when Rev. Aaron talked about the cards that he and an artist in the congregation developed for members in the congregation hand out to people to show that we recognize the divine in each other. And when he talked about his Tibetan friend who was identified as a rinpoche–a reincarnated spirit–at age three and who went to live in the Buddhist monastery and whose family had no idea they would never see him again. And I wept some more at the end of the service when he invited some children up to make the Tibetan singing bowls sing.
A little while after the service ended and my tears subsided, Zeke woke up and I decided to give him a bath. He requested bubbles and we had fun throwing animals into the air, listening to them plop into the water and disappear under the bubbles. After a while Zeke had the idea to put some bubbles on me, and he gently scooped up bubbles and arrayed them on my arms. Then he decided I needed to get clean too. He took the extra washcloth that I had gotten out in case he wanted to wash himself, and he squirted soap on it, and dipped it in the water to get it wet, and washed one of my arms, and then the other. It was kind of like Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, but the two-year-old and his mom version. With bubbles.
I didn’t want to leave Zeke to go to the planned Mother’s Day celebration at my parents’ house, and I didn’t want to share his germs with his cousin, but Randy insisted that Zeke would be fine with him and that Zoe and I should go. We arrived late, and on my parents’ back porch, Zoe shared with everyone the Mother’s Day gifts that she and Zeke and Randy had given me. My favorite was the letter she had written to me in school. The past few weeks have been more exasperating and exhausting than usual, as we’ve faced epic tantrums from Zeke and have been helping Zoe address some physical challenges. All of us have been a little crankier and more fragile than usual. Randy has been by my side every night, united on the parenting front. He has typically been the only one who has been able to finally subdue Zeke into sleep at the end of the long night. But there has also been the blowing of bubbles, and the drawing of chalk pictures on the patio, and the doing of many puzzles.
So there’s been a lot of mothering. And moments when I had to go outside and sit on the front step in my pajamas late at night before I completely lost my mind. But then there’s this. Deep, slobbery snuggles, and “always remember that you are my star.”