We’re at the doctor’s office, and we’ve skipped breakfast. Moody and tired, we’ve arrived on time. We’ve requested a blood draw for Bear, the first of what we anticipate will be many tests. Today we’re ruling out the small stuff, checking boxes and asking for referrals as we amp up our quest to get to the bottom of our little dude’s quirks. He hasn’t spoken a word since we arrived, but the color in his cheeks tells me his little heart is racing. From my chair, I can see the tears that threaten to spill over. Andy is awake his first morning home since working nights. On the drive over he struggled to be present with me as I ran through my list of questions. But he’s noticed Little Bear’s anxiety. He’s scooped him up, and now they sit together on a paper sheet, awaiting the nurse’s return.

Two weeks ago we met in a different office, and faced what we already knew; the little school that we have loved no longer feel confident that they can provide Huey with what he needs. There is despair, and we walk to the car, holding hands with shoulders slumped. This was supposed to be where they’d keep him safe. This was where they’d love him too. It’s a bitter pill, and it’s going to take some kind of will to choke it down.

In the mornings that follow I meet grief in all it’s guises. It’s brash and unbecoming. It’s there as we string the lights, and as I roll out the dough for our gratitude pies. We wrestle questions we’ve buried deep. Because it’s been easier these past years to stay comfortable. We give voice to dreams and fears, and talk big ideas at night when it’s too late to be awake.

Then tonight, as we travel the country road to Maeve’s piano lesson, we reach a dip in the road flanked by a creek and a trickling waterfall. “This is my favorite part!” says the little doll in the back seat. Bellies tense as we careen down the hill, and Cleo gives her little “Whoop!” as we reach the bottom. For a millisecond we might fly before momentum carries us up the other side.

Mumford and Sons plays on the radio, and I find hope in the memories; of the woman who flew up I-90 in search of a fairy tale, and the man who bought a voodoo doll to grant her wish. Of a little boy who stalked foxholes to make friends, a little girl in a sailboat dress with too-big shoes, her chickens chasing dogs at sunset. These stories I wish to write and remember as we plan our next move, finding again the heart of this family that faces its challenges with a sense of adventure.

Well I know I had it all on the line
But don’t just sit with folded hands and become blind
‘Cause even when there is no star in sight
You’ll always be my only guiding light

The road passes beneath us, stars wink from behind trees, and there is a chill from an open window. I feel a confidence rise up that I’ve missed for too long. I will keep him safe. I will love him.

On Speech Delays and Big Boy Scooters

We’re all piled up on the couch when Bear says something characteristically sweet. His English at age six is still rough, but we collectively adore his special way of speaking. Huey gets his points across in a series of hand gestures, head wobbles, and sentences at once verbose, and completely devoid of pronouns. “It just doesn’t get any cuter than this guy,” I say, and I kiss his cheek. “Hey”, says Cleo, teasing, but her voice betrays real hurt. “Stop stealing my spotlight Huey.” Shit.

Cleo has been on autopilot for some time now. She bounces out of the car each morning ready to learn, ready to participate and engage. She’s right on target academically, and I’ve always thought she was emotionally mature. At the age of five she wondered aloud “so if the universe is God, and we are all part of the universe, then that means…we are God.” She quite regularly blows my mind from the back seat of the car with similar such observations. She knows exactly how she’s feeling and she’ll let you know. If she is envious of a birthday sibling, for example, rather than stage a full mid-party meltdown, she will state, quite plainly, that she feels jealous. So on this evening, when I proclaimed Huey the cutest, she let me know I had a few things to explain.

I recently did what we call an “observation” of Huey’s classroom. Parents are invited to watch without intruding as the Montessori morning unfolds. It was sweet and beautiful, fascinating, as I knew it would be. But I’ve never done one before. I’ve chosen not to because I know myself. I know that I will measure my sweet child against every other child, and I will worry. I’ve chosen instead to keep a dialogue with his teacher, to trust her judgment, and to trust myself, that I have made the best decisions I could for him with the resources available. He is doing fine.

He’s my tender little boy with the awkward gait. His shoes are always on the wrong feet, but we celebrate because he can finally pull them on himself. He can’t pedal a bike, but he tears down the road on his big boy scooter behind his big sister. He trails along behind her at birthday parties and basks in her confidence. And if he loses her in the fray he will he retreat to my lap, scanning the room in search of her.

At age six, he’s gearing up for first grade. Maybe. Because now it’s time to start asking the hard questions, to find out. What’s wrong? How does he measure up? There’ll be figures and percentiles, and that goddamn dot on the bell curve. We will try not to let it define him, but it inevitably will.

We’ve been here once before. We already have one child who struggles. We’ve thrown money at the problem, and time, even drugs, and we’ve called in the reinforcements. We’ve discovered, a decade on, that there is no real fix for a child who is academically challenged in a society that primarily values academic achievement. We are wrestling now with the toll that takes on a child’s confidence and his emotional wellbeing.

I tell Cleo how much I love her, and I laugh as I remind her just how often I say so. I explain that since Huey has some trouble with his speaking and his learning that sometimes we have to work to make him feel extra good. She nods her understanding. We agree that her little bubba needs some extra encouragement. She knows.

I’ve held on to these years when he was just “Huey”, when milestones mattered, but not terribly. And I will continue to resist what I know will come. There is no place in our society for the sort of challenges my boys face. They are different, but not different enough. The words we use to describe a slow processor or a child who is developmentally delayed are unkind, and I can’t shield him from them forever. I can’t keep from him a world that seeks to belittle and diminish the parts of him I know to be extraordinary. But I can tell him all the ways that he is more than enough. I can tell him I’ve never known a heart as big. I can bolster his confidence with extra hugs and kisses, and I can send him out into the day with his cup overflowing. And for today, at least, I can kiss his cheek and tell him he’s the cutest goddamn thing there is.

Can We Be Real?

As I scroll my email account I notice there’s something new from Cleo’s teacher with the title “late arrivals” in the subject line.” “Shit,” I mutter as my heart speeds up, and I click it to open. Andy has been gone at work for the majority of the school year thus far, but we’re in the home stretch. He’ll be home in two days. I was hoping nobody would call us out before I had the chance to catch up. This month we’ve had food poisoning, stomach flu, and Huey has already been sent home with lice. I’m perpetually behind on laundry, and the car is never not running on fumes. My home keeping schedule is lost under a pile of inbox delinquents since I’m resigned now to just putting out fires. At present my bathrooms can be described as just this side of a state park campground’s at 3am.

I reply to the email, make my excuses. I tell her the big kids never make the bus, that I can’t leave them at the end of the road to wait alone because pedophiles. I explain that Huey is struggling this school year due to the loss of a few of his good friends, so it’s a process every morning to pry him away from the new kitty and into his pants.

What I don’t tell her is that our routine is coming apart at the seams, that I regularly pass out at night on top of the blankets, fully clothed, that we’re doing great if I can remember to empty the litter box, and there’s about a ninety eight percent chance there’s a load mildewing in the washer at any given time.

I’d like to say I stay up, assemble lunches, and set out the clothes, but my thyroid is all busted up because my immune system is an asshole, so more often than not I pass out, mid-story, in the top bunk. So, mornings with lunches prepped and matching socks are glorious and rare. More often I am scraping the previous day’s leftover sludge into the trash can and blowdrying underwear. Wait, nobody else does that? Too bad. I’m leaving it in. Even if we do make it to the car at the ideal time we still have the solar powered gate to contend with that craps out when it rains, and a dog who does not follow commands, so when she feels like a dally down the street at 7:57 all bets are off.

We also have a habit of missing appointments, or at least showing up late. I’m the mom who needs reminding by the teacher that I signed up to wash the class laundry even though I set alerts on alexa and my phone. On any given Saturday I’ve probably just remembered that Maeve has a piano festival scheduled for 11:17, and you’ll find me, red faced at Target scrambling to find closed toe shoes. Or we’ll be the ones at the park with the last minute gift, who’ve arrived ten minutes late to the party that isn’t till tomorrow. Have I ever told you the story about the time I got the week wrong for spring break? Showed up the following Monday, lunches packed, to find a deserted parking lot, and the penny dropped.

Huey recently had a lot of dental work done. Yes, he knocked loose his front tooth when his face met with our concrete floor, it abcessed and became painful, but he also had cavities. Things to know: His molars are crowded, he hates to have his teeth brushed, and he’s afraid of the dentist. He’s also the fourth kid, so he got screwed out of the tough enamel his older siblings inherited, and I got pregnant with him when I was still nursing his sister, so I can only speculate that my stores were depleted. That’s my mixed bag of excuses for why Huey’s teeth were jacked at his four year appointment. Know what else? I did a shitty job brushing them. I just said that out loud.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I am a walking disaster. Chances are you’ve seen me with my hair done, and I may have gifted you a pie. But Mom’s are not superheroes, there are not enough hours in the day, and we all prioritize differently. I for one, hold the ritual of afternoon tea pretty sacred. I like to do art projects with my kids, and probably spend way too many of my working hours at Michaels. I like my home to be beautiful, if not totally clean, and I place a lot of importance on keeping tradition. If there is a choice to be made between decorating a fall mantle and making jello brains, or cleaning out the fridge and pantry, it’s jello brains all the way. I also make most dinners from scratch and insist that my kiddos sit at the same table each evening to enjoy each other’s company. I use the term “enjoy” loosely.

Like most people I put the best version of myself forward on social media, and some of it really is that gorgeous. The rest of it is a real shit show, and some days we are truly mired in it. But the shit is the fertilizer that makes the rest of the stuff more vibrant. Or something else poetic. The shit is when we sit together at the end of the day and we belly laugh because Huey thought it was a real hoot that we would park a whole car in the garage once it was cleaned up. The shit is Aidan and Maeve poking fun at me over Christmas dinner, ten years from now because of that time I got mad cleaning the kitchen. I busted a whole bag of sugar on the floor, and my argument subsequently lost all legitimacy because for the next hour I was the lunatic with the red face, wielding a broom and my shoes sticking to the floor.

Today I bribed my teenager with five bucks to brush the little kid’s teeth. I did it yesterday too. Huey’s been wearing girl’s socks for a week and a half, and I bought the stuff to make banana puddings then just fed the kids Nilla Wafers instead. Your turn.