Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Looking Forward, Looking Back

I remember when my kids were babies. We'd visit the pediatrician every month for the first six months of their lives, then every three months until they were a year old.

"He grew an inch. He gained a pound and a half. His head circumference grew. Here are four more shots he'll need today."

It took me a long time to stop shaking my head in awe at such exponential growth every few months, but after a while, I got used to it.

When the kids got older, their exams dwindled down to once a year. This seemed like an awfully long time to go before checking on things. And when we did go, the growth for a year was about the same as it had been each month when they were infants.

But after a while, I got used to that too.

"Grew an inch, gained three pounds." This became our new way of measuring. "Eats well, sleeps well, likes school, no scoliosis. Flu shot, booster shot, see you next year."

Well now, it seems, the annual physical exams will hearken back to those of their infancy. I imagine this is a pre-teen/teen thing, as this year's was the first glimpse I've had.

"Your 11-year-old will need to see the eye doctor; his vision is 20/70. He'll probably need glasses."

"Your 14-year-old is doing well. You can expect him to grow about four inches this year."

I'm sorry, what? He's going to be as tall as me in less than a year? Yes, that visible, fervent morphing from boy to man is beginning.

How did I deal with this news? Like any rational mother when she's told her firstborn is leaving his childhood behind and there's not a damned thing she can do about it. I told my husband to brush up on his shaving lesson skills, and stocked the refrigerator with lots of meat. Then I pulled out all the baby pictures and videos I could fit in my lap, sat down on the couch and cried at how fast it's all going.

OK, not really, but I felt  like doing that. Because for all the trials and tribulations of sleepless baby nights, tantrum-y toddlerhood and social navigation maneuvers that the last 14 years have wrought, I could not give you a single detail about any of it that I'm happy to leave behind. I only remember the good, none of the bad (though I'm sure there had to be some bad, right?) and what I do remember all feels like a dream.

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend time with my neighbor and her 22-month-old son. Little M is at that stage of development where everything is fun: reading Elmo books, playing with trains and having stuffed animal tea parties. For me, participating in these activities with him was like a gift. The memories of my own boys' early years came flooding back, and I could not stop smiling.

I know the next several years will be full of new experiences: dating, shaving, driving, college. After that, the boys will be gone--on to their own lives and worlds, and no longer part of my immediate orbit. And I know that those years are going to be challenging, probably even more so than the toddler years were. But I also know that they are going to fly, leaving me to replay them over and over in the rear view mirror of my mind.

So I'm hugging my man-boy a little tighter these days, even as he makes his way forward toward independence. I try to plan experiences with him that will create fond memories for both of us to recall once he's gone. And maybe when he does, he'll pick up the phone and give me a call to say hi, and tell me what kind of big changes he's looking forward to that week, that month, that year.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Love, Loss and Learning

There are a lot of things I say these days that make me sound like a mother:
"I don't care who started it."
"Homework first."
"Because I said so."

But the one that's echoing the most these past couple of weeks is, "Life isn't fair." I often say it when someone who didn't get their way and feels he should have cries "that's not fair!" in the hopes of some change. I want my kids to learn that just because something isn't fair doesn't mean it isn't right. We might not always understand why events have to happen the way they do, but we still have to accept life as it comes.

At the end of the year, my kids proved that they understand this a bit better than I.

Almost three years ago, we lost our dear friend and neighbor Augie, who left behind a goofy little Beagle name Flash. Augie's wife Mary had passed away just a couple of years before, and now Flash was completely alone. So we took him in and our pack grew. Bailey was both excited and dismayed to suddenly have a brother, but we had known Flash for years, so the two just had to get used to living together, which they quickly did.

Learning how different our two dogs were from each other was a lot like being a parent and learning the differences between your children. You raise and care for them equally, they share the same experiences, but how they approach life reveals much about their personalities, outlook and interpretation of the world.

It didn't take us long to fall in love with Flash. Silly and unpredictable, with big soulful eyes, and ears that felt like mink, he soon grew comfortable with us. He went from a one-on-one family with his dad to a boisterous, busy family of five, but he didn't seem to mind it a bit. So many hands for belly rubs! So many people to beg for snacks! And of course a big brother to tussle with. We had to teach him the rules of the house, no easy feat with an 11-year-old dog, but by gosh, he got it.

As kids, we worry that our parents love one of us more than the other, especially when it's a big family. And parents always explain that they love their children equally, that love is not a finite thing to be divvied up between family members. More members of the pack means more love grows. I hope Flash was able to feel that in his new home.

Right around Christmas, Flash slowed way down. He tolerated all the comings and goings of holiday revelers but stayed in the background. Then all at once, he stopped eating and drinking. He wouldn't get out of bed, and his breathing became very shallow. We carried him up to the vet who ran tests and told us of multiple problems throughout his body.

We knew what we had to do. Flash was weeks away from his 14th birthday. We had talked about this in the past, and agreed we wouldn't put either of our dogs through excessive testing, medications and treatments just to avoid saying goodbye. Yet somehow, now that it had become real, it all seemed terribly unfair. And I was angry. Angry that I had to make such a decision, angry that he could get so sick so fast, robbing us of the chance to give him time to heal, angry that I felt so helpless.

What helped me get through it was the strength and stoicism of my kids, so full of love and hugs for Flash and for each other and me. I reminded myself that Flash would be joining Mary and Augie again, that he wouldn't be suffering anymore, and that we'd had great fun with him for the short time he was with us.

We stayed with him until the end, which was peaceful and painless. He closed his big brown eyes as we caressed and cooed to him, telling him how very much we loved him, what a good dog he was and that Bailey loved him too. Now we are all giving Bailey extra hugs and petting, since he seems sad and a bit lost. I wish we could explain to him that Flash is in a better place now, but of course, we can't.

Life isn't fair, but there's nothing we can do about it. We just have to love each other as much as we can for as long as we can.