Chapter One: Things I Did on my Christmas Vacation

My Christmas vacation is hallowed ground. It’s hallowed because the week between Christmas and New Year’s is really the only week that my son, Sam, gets vacation from his adult day program. I treasure this time with him, especially this year because this year feels like the year he didn’t need me anymore.

Sam is 22 and has autism. It’s hard to use that word because it conjures up an image that doesn’t fit Sam very well. Sam is verbal, opinionated, mobile, social, charming and does not have Asperger’s. He functions at a higher level than many kids with his diagnosis, but I’m not sure what to attribute that to. Early intervention, love, patience, the gene pool? Did I say love? I don’t think we really know. We are all just glad that he can function in the world in a successful way, this little person who needed to have Warheads dropped in a pathway from the house to the bus so his focus would be on picking them up and putting them in his mouth instead of hitting, kicking and screaming on his way to and from school.

He is lucky that he has found his place in the world and his dad and I are lucky to live long enough to see it. Many of our holiday traditions are gone – canceled as a result of his advanced age. Like the one where he picks up every gift under the tree to marvel at the fact that they are for him. Or the one where he looks at gifts that are clearly Nintendo 3DS games while I vehemently insist that they are socks or underwear. This is so disorienting that I feel like I need a class on How to Let Go.

He will kill me for saying this, but you have to understand: this is a young man that did not reach the full apex of toilet training until he was about six or seven. There. I said it. I’m so sorry, Sam.

Nonetheless, just the first few days of vacation have been heavenly. I have spent most of my time sitting on the sofa and obsessing about how I should be doing something else like walking on my treadmill. I call this a bad case of the shoulds. I should have gone to the gym but instead watched the first season of American Horror Story. I should have gone to bed at 10:30 pm but instead stayed up to watch Season 3 of Mad Men. But I’m not all bad. I did watch several documentaries that were charming, like Boo, a documentary about Harper Lee and the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird. I love that kind of stuff.

Sam at Barnes & Noble, January 2013.

Sam at Barnes & Noble, January 2013.

While I was catching up on new or old movies, Sam would wander into the room and ask, “I know that boy?” referring to any actor he has ever seen before. He can also recognize voices in a snap. One of the amazing but financially unrewarding talents that I inherited from my mother (and Sam inherited from me) is the ability to see an actor once and recognize them in any other subsequent movie. This is also true for recognizing voices. No actor doing a voiceover is safe from my savant-like powers when I am in the room. Now there are two of us.

Saturday. On Friday night, Sam and I hung out around the manse – a three-story townhome that really needs new paint and carpet — and on Saturday, we went to Dave & Buster’s. Now that Sam is so mature, I try of absorb the benefits of such maturational bounty. This means that, except for driving him there and back, paying the bill for dinner and games and keeping a general eyeball on him, I have very few official duties. This allows me to bring a book (I am reading The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez which is just amazing and funny and poignant). While I read, I drink margaritas to reasonable excess since we always stay at Dave & Busters for three hours per visit. This makes everyone happy. I probably look like a dork reading a book a Dave & Busters but I tell myself that there’s nothing wrong with bringing a little highbrow to cheeseburgers, beer and video games. Besides, I am way past the point of watching him play for three hours and cheering him on and he is way past the point of wanting his mom to make a spectacle of herself. Better I should sit in the corner reading with a quiet, literate buzz and load the game card when necessary. I think this is heaven for both of us.

Sunday and Monday. On Sunday night, we were planning to go to the movies, but didn’t. We went back and forth about what to see and nothing seemed worth leaving the house for. Sometimes I wonder if Sam has also inherited my homebody tendencies. We are just so in synch most of the time. I don’t know why this surprises me, but maybe it’s just that it’s still such a miracle to think about your children really getting your genes, good, bad or homebody.

Tomorrow is Christmas and the ex-hub is coming over, travelling quite a distance from his wife’s relatives in Iowa. One of the things I truly appreciate about having an ex-husband of 17 years is knowing him pretty much inside and out. Not good, not bad, just knowing who he is really is. And I’m sure that extends to me. Every once and while I’ll hear about some family gathering he’s required to attend with an excess of 14 people attending and it brings a gleeful smile to my face. I was the wife of 17 years who put up with and accommodated his preferences and his I’d rather nots, even when it came to getting him to go to Blockbuster with me and Sam (just to review: that’s him plus two other people). Deep down, there is a part of me that is happy that I’m around to see his new wife avenge such historical resistance. It’s good for him and it works for me.

Christmas Day. Christmas Day and all the days leading up to Christmas have been lovely. It’s like I see a different person emerge from the shell of my goal-oriented, helpful, good soldier self.

Good soldier is what a former boss used to call me. It wasn’t a compliment. I think it was meant to indicate that I did everything I was supposed to do, including the things she asked me to do (see: goody two shoes or parochial school victim). She found me lacking because I was not the kind of person who would either change the world or inspire her admiration. I was unworthy. It soon became clear to both of us that the kind of soldier she really should have hired was a good mercenary. Someone who was willing to play hardball like the big boys and who wouldn’t get breast cancer six months after being hired (like I did). We were both equally annoyed to find out that after all her efforts to publicly lobotomize me during meetings and after all my efforts to keep my face out from under her fashionable heels, that she had really just gone and recruited the wrong sort of soldier.

Opening Christmas presents.

Opening Christmas presents.

After several days of downtime, the person who emerges out of the good solider uniform is thoughtful, fun and much lazier than I usually give myself credit for. She pretty much does what she wants to do, when she wants to do it, but then again, I can be that way at work too. The real change is feeling that I have given Sam the best of me during these days. Not the stressed out, linear-thinking, mom-on-Steroids that he usually gets during my Friday-night-to-Sunday-evening weekend shift. But a kinder, gentler, Here Now me who is willing to count to 10, or 20 if necessary, when he asks me for the fifth time in an hour if we can go to Freeziac for ice cream. (The way he pronounces it, it comes out FWEE-zee-ack) This new Vacation Mom is the one I want to be for him, especially now that time spent with him feels so very precious. Like when my laptop battery is running low and I get a message that says: “Connect to another power source. You only have seven percent of battery time remaining.” That’s what it feels like with Sam these days: that I need a new power source, a new reason for being, because he has moved on.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Today is the first day that I am Sam-less. He is with his dad until Sunday. It is the first of a three-day volunteer binge at the local crisis nursery. Left to my own devices, I would probably prefer to eat popcorn and watch Season 3 of Mad Men on Netflix, but I know they need the help during the holidays and I planned this several weeks ago in order to thwart my own natural lethargy. I usually volunteer every other Sunday morning, but this week I am working a different volunteer shift every day. I’ll get to be with the kids – ranging in age from birth to six years old — during different activities and play with them when they are actually awake.

When I get there, they assign me to the older group of kids who are 5 and 6 years old. I used to dread this age group –I don’t know why – but have really come to love it. I think part of the dread was that you really need to interact with these kids, listen, be involved, make decisions, be present – all things that were hard for me at 7:30 in the morning. I think that’s why I preferred the infant room. It gave me a chance to do good while drinking my coffee at the same time.

While I am sitting with the big kids, one of the staff asks me to feed a two-week old baby girl who is still trying to figure out what a bottle is for. I have to gently coax a drop of milk from the bottle onto her teeny lip so she has a better sense of what’s going on. Then I gently slide the nipple into her tiny mouth. She latches on and starts to feed under the watchful protection of a yellow bib nearly half her size. She is content, but something is wrong. Suddenly as I am feeding her, she uses all her strength to wrest her little hands out from under the bib and resolutely grab the index finger of the hand that I am using to hold the bottle. I am moved by this gesture and have a moment of clarity which reminds me that this is what babies do. They need to touch and be touched. And I marvel at the idea that this little person who has been in the world only 14 days has so much to remind me about life.

I listen and learn from the full-time staff that works at the nursery and after an hour or so, I realize how much I am enjoying playing with the kids. The kids are bright and sweet and when they cry, I comfort them and all their problems disappear until the next power struggle. I am good at this. I think it’s because I understand lost souls and hurt and how it feels to be different in a world of sameness. I understand this from raising my son.

When we first moved to Minnesota from Connecticut in August 1996, we moved in next to this family of four. They seemed so perfect, maybe because they were. Mr. Perfect had a very successful job and Mrs. Perfect played tennis and had a perfect figure and wore little white tennis skirts to the grocery store. After school started in September, the Perfect son invited Sam on a play date because they rode the school bus together. I could tell Mrs. Perfect wasn’t totally on-board with this idea, but we managed to plan a date for bumper-bowling anyway. We drove to the bowling alley together and after a half-hour or so, Sam started having sensory issues with all the noise. He didn’t realize that we were play-dating with The Perfects and started to have a major autistic meltdown. I quickly suggested we cut the date short and take Sam home. Mrs. Perfect gave me a big, perfect smile and said, oh yes, of course that’s the right thing to do. As I turned around to help Sam, she must have expected that I would be looking at Sam, but I wasn’t. I was looking right at her. And that’s when I saw her roll her eyes. She rolled her eyes. Mrs. Perfect rolled her eyes at my autistic son who was having a heartbreaking meltdown on his first ever play date in Minnesota. To this day, I honestly wish I had been looking at Sam instead of her in that moment.

It may be hard to understand what the eye-roll meant to me at that particular moment in time. To me, it meant we were uncovered as people who didn’t fit in and never would — in the neighborhood, in Minnesota, in the world. It meant that, once again, just like in Connecticut, Sam and I were going to be the last ones picked to join the team during gym class. And it meant that my chances of making a new friend that I could wear tennis skirts to the grocery store with was probably a longshot too. And the sad truth was that it was the sad truth. We didn’t fit in. I just hadn’t expected anyone to be so clear about that fact so quickly.

No big surprise, we never got together again. But one day years later, I saw all four of The Perfects playing catch in their backyard like something out of Leave it to Beaver. This was clearly no big deal to them and they were clearly having fun. Fun. As I watched them, tears started streaming down my face out of nowhere. I wanted their life so badly. It wasn’t that I didn’t want the life I had, it was just that these people were so lucky, had so much, had two healthy kids and didn’t even realize I bet just how lucky they were to be able to play catch in their backyard. (Maybe I should have thought of them as The Luckies.) That’s because their son probably wasn’t a runner and if left in an open space, would run to the nearest boundary even if it was five miles away. And maybe if he found a house with an open door along the way, would run in and do $800 worth of damage and scare some poor woman half to death while she was watching a soap opera on TV.

As I say, I didn’t want a different husband or son. I just wanted to somehow take what I had and give my life a better life. I think I saw that on an episode of The Twilight Zone.

So when one of the little girls at the nursery is inconsolable because she wanted to eat dinner with a pink spoon, not a green one, I can see that the staff person’s reaction to this is too tidy and logical. She is not seeing that having a pink spoon for dinner is this child’s world right now. She would desperately like to suck it up, dry her tears and eat dinner but can’t. Nor can she suck up the fact that she probably arrived here, at a shelter, on Christmas Day. That day may or may not have included presents or anything that you or I would recognize or hope for as a typical Christmas morning. (I can’t even think about that.) This is when I reach out and give her a hug even though she is not part of my group. She holds on to me and sobs while the other kids try to both lobby and explain to me about Spoongate. I try to make it better. That’s what I do. It seems to be what she needs. Or maybe it’s what I need.

By Sunday morning, I have been working with the same group of kids for three days. I have witnessed the morning sleepies in their eyes, talked to them during breakfast, and wrestled them into nap time by promising to read two books. (OK, three books if they promise to close their eyes.) It’s hard to leave them when my Sunday shift ends. I’ve made connections with them, wiped tears and giggled alongside them. Best of all, my time with them has kept me from wallowing in whatever the ridiculous things are that I refer to as problems, like: sometimes I have to work on weekends; I need to lose 30 lbs.; someone outbid me on eBay for a pair of earrings I really liked.

Monday. The vacation is starting to get to me at this point and I am slowly trying to gird myself back into the routine of employment from the flesh-softening inertia of time off. What better way to do this than to meet a dear friend for lunch and shoot back a few Mimosas?

Sam and I take off for our favorite ‘hood near The Orpheum Theatre. We pick up my buddy Hadley, who is in from San Francisco, and head off to the Loring Kitchen. There is practically no one at Loring Kitchen since its New Year’s Eve and it’s a great chance to finally catch-up and, more importantly, to talk about the book he’s writing. We spend several hours eating and drinking and talking like I haven’t done in a long time. It’s the kind of talking that you can only do when you are with a friend who accepts you completely. Sometimes I beat myself up for always being so damned careful in my life — careful of what I say and do and the impression I make. I know I don’t have to do this with Hadley. He knows me too well. He’s seen my New Yorker come out in a random St. Paul parking lot when a woman humpf-ed at us for parking too close and I introduced her to my alter ego, Towanda Taylor (e.g.,YOU WANNA PIECE OF ME???) He knows I got a 450 in math on my GMATS — a score I was actually excited about until he oh so gently told me that it was still kinda low— and a six out of seven on my GMAT essay making me a writer savant. It’s so wonderful to have that great feeling again – having a great friend – and it makes me realize how much I’ve really missed his friendship.

Sam loves Hadley too. He is fascinated by the fact that Hadley is gay and I can tell he has a sense of pride in knowing a gay man. After the first five seconds with Hadley and Sam, nearly three hours pass and I realize I’ve just been in the moment. It’s like Zen and the art of friendship. And when I say goodbye to him I can feel that I have part of a Camembert Slider in my teeth and I know I don’t even need to apologize for it. (He’ll just put it in his book.)

Sam and I leave Hadley, on his way to several New Year’s Eve parties, and go to Target. Sam picks out some fried chicken, cherry pie and a pineapple Jamba Juice smoothie – his recipe for a grand way to ring in 2013. I buy some cupcakes I shouldn’t eat and a Diet Coke which I promptly leave in the shopping cart after I put the stuff in the car. It scares me when I am so passive aggressive toward myself and my hips.

Tuesday. My house is awash in dirty dishes, dog bowls, cat food and general chaos. The dog threw up once and the cats are hiding in all corners of the house to avoid the dog as we are only recently gateless. Katie, Sam’s  2-year old Lab/Rat Terrier adoptee, came into our lives in July. She lives with him at his group home. We spent my Sam-summer-weekends trying to gradually introduce Katie to my two cats using a series of gates which could have been designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to thwart Hurricane Sandy. So far, no casualties, and Katie seems to be acting submissive, but I’m still wary of her suddenly deciding she wants a kitty cat sandwich.

Today is a gray day. I am fighting the idea that Sam goes back to the group home today and tomorrow is a work day. Part of me feels ready to go to back to work which should last until around lunch time tomorrow. Then I will start worrying about my new set of deadlines and whether or not I can keep my relaxed-mom-thing going on my shorter weekends with Sam. I’ve also been thinking about going back to the MN Zen Center to get my mindfulness revved up for 2013. I like the peace (and yes, the quiet) that comes from a meditation practice.

I think putting this on my list of to-do’s for 2013 is probably a good goal for me but hugely Zen-antithetical. So maybe once I get myself there, I need to release the idea of goals, especially related to Zen and a sitting practice. It’s confusing. As you can see, I definitely need a mindfulness brush up.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter One: Things I Did on my Christmas Vacation

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