Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Learning Lessons Young

April 28, 2009

It’s been a week since the shocking email hit my in-box. It was from Mr. Earls and the subject line was simply Matthew.

I wanted to touch base with you about Matthew. He has a realistic fiction writing piece he has been working on---it was due a week ago Friday, but I didn't put much heat on him due to finishing testing. He told me he would have it last Friday and still doesn't have it.

“Due last Friday,” I think aloud, “Today is Tuesday.” My blood pressure starts to rise and I panic wondering if Matthew can even define realistic fiction, let alone produce it.

I kept him in for both recesses yesterday and told him he would not be seeing the light of day from me again until I have it.

What? He missed both recesses yesterday and never saw fit to even so much as mention this to me. In fact, when I asked him the same-old, same-old questions designed to draw out any important assignments, accomplishments and general excitement from a day in the life of fifth grade, all I got was a story about how he perfectly timed a release of gas right as Mr. Earls called on him. I was horrified and asked what Mr. Earls said in response to such a disrespectful and disgusting – yet incredibly entertaining for adolescents – reply. He calmly told me that Mr. Earls said, “Matthew, sadly was the smartest thing that has come from you all day.” Looking back on the story, I wish I could have put my own feelings aside long enough to consider the motivation behind Mr. Earl’s response.

He and his best friend are my two holdouts---I am not really sure what they are up to.

“Best friends? Best friends my hinny. What kind of a ‘friend’ drags my kid down to this level of irresponsibility and deceit?”(Because of course, my kid wouldn’t sink to this level on his own –right!) Just yesterday this young man came over after school and I asked him and Matthew together about their performance at school. Almost in unison they assured me all was well and neither of them mentioned they were in deep, hot water with their teacher. Intuitively I thought their response was a little suspicious and warned them that if I were to find out differently then I would not be encouraging this friendship by allowing him to visit after school.

This boy reminds me a lot of one of my brothers, Chris. He’s polite and charismatic and I can’t help but like him, despite the fact that I know he would feed me a line of bull at any moment – all with a smile on his face. I have a heart for him. Maybe it’s because he’s being raised by a single mother and I can’t imagine being in her shoes. Maybe it’s because I was raised by a single mother and remember the struggles. Maybe it’s because my heart broke the time he and Matthew were watching basketball on TV and he told Matthew he’d never watched a basketball game in his life – or any sport for that matter. But nonetheless, it was time I make good on the promise I had made to these boys and they weren’t going to like it.

Could you have a chat with him to see if you can get him back on track? I will be sending it home with him tonight. Let me know if you have questions. Thanks---


I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. Any questions? Oh, I have questions alright. Where is he? How quickly can I get to his class, yank him out of his seat, take him to the hall and tell him how deeply disappointed I am by this behavior. And how did this happen anyway? When did my sweet and innocent baby become a pathological liar? How did I miss the signs?

I not-so calmly typed a response letting Mr. Earls know that I in no way was aware of the situation. Then I stewed about it all, trying to figure out the best way to begin understanding how Matthew could think any of this was OK, wondering how he is sleeping at night with the burden of this work and his lies. (OK, so a hint of my drama queen was showing through.)

Of course, in perfect “dad timing,” My Executive, His Father was hosting a meeting out of town and couldn’t answer one of my ten calls to his cell phone. Left to deal on my own, I decided to call the school and leave Mr. Earls a message asking him to keep Matthew after school so we can confront him together. Later I found out that Mr. Earls cleverly passed the written message along to Matthew – just to make him sweat it. Sweet!

I spent the rest of the afternoon formulating the perfect mix of words for this meeting. When I got to school, he’s at his desk writing and looks up and smiles at me. It was one of those “I’m gonna test the water smiles – like how-mad-is-she smiles. I don’t smile back and immediately he gets it. His eyes begin to water. See that’s the thing with my Matthew – he’s a good kid at heart who hurts when I hurt. He knows this conversation is going to make him sad.

After the story is all told, I explain to Matthew that my heart will always be for him and there is nothing he could ever do to make me love him less. But, (and you knew that was coming), I was shocked and deeply saddened by his decision to blow off his work and then lie about it for days!

…Fast forward a week. Consequences are in place. The TV is gone. The gaming systems are packed away. The computer is limited to homework only. No email. No phone. Sure, the paper is turned in, but are there any lessons in it all?

Ask Matthew and he’ll tell you he learned that crime doesn’t pay and that bad choices not only hurt yourself but those around you. I believe in my heart he wants to be a man of integrity and wise character. These aren’t new concepts to him; we talk about them regularly. He was as miserable as anyone during the last week.

Ask me and I’ll tell you there are lots of lessons to take away from this little experience on Matthew’s road to manhood. First, I had to ask why. Why did he flippantly blow off this writing assignment? Sadly, for me, I realized he did this because he hates to do it. My kid hates to write and what’s even worse is that he thinks he’s not any good at it. My heart aches in sadness at the reality. How can a person who is half me despise something that gives me so much pleasure? And is he really that bad at it, or does he just think he is? Either way, it doesn’t matter. He has created his reality.

Because I love to write, I want my kids to love it too. Looking back, I am sure they both feel this pressure. I have never said it, but I guess if I am honest with myself I would have to admit that I also expect them not only to love it but to be good at it. It’s like I have become one of those parents I despise. You know, the ones who need their kids to be all that just to make themselves feel complete.

This incident shows me that Matthew is ready to give up on meeting an unrealistic expectation that I have misplaced on him. While his actions are still unacceptable, I have to take responsibility for two things. First, I have to get Matthew the help he needs to translate the brilliant thoughts in his head to something cohesive on paper. I can no longer sit by and watch him struggle at something he’s convinced he can never do to suit me. Without shame for either of us, we are hiring a tutor to help Matthew gain the confidence he needs to - “write enough.” I’m not asking him to love it or create realistic fiction stories for fun. I’m just asking him to write enough – enough to graduate, go to college and support himself and hopefully his family.

Secondly this is an opportunity to remind myself to celebrate Matthew’s individualism. He’s incredible with math and science. He’s funny. He’s caring. He’s handsome. He is my heart. And he is just as God created him to be. He, like his mother, isn’t perfect but rather is being perfected by our Creator. In the process, God is perfecting me too. Some days (and weeks), it’s a painful process.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Minimal Invasion

April 27, 2009

They call it minimally invasive surgery. I find the term kind of humorous and interesting all at the same time.

My Olympian is set for an arthroscopy to repair the meniscus in his right knee. The knee is the largest joint in the body – and one of the most frequently injured. This injury comes as no surprise to me. That knee probably has logged nearly 20,000 miles during the last three decades.

Stephanie is the RN prepping him for surgery. As she shaves his leg, I think about how uncomfortable he must be with allowing a strange woman to run a sharp blade up and down his skin. He lifts his leg and she takes the razor to the underside of his leg. It leaves him in a vulnerable position and she makes a joke that he looks like he doing his Jane Fonda workout. With the fluorescent lighting, my Olympians pale skin tone and cleanly shaved leg lifted in the air is quite the sight. It’s the same leg that pounds out a sub-three hour marathon, I remind myself. It will be strong again.

Stephanie looks very pregnant. Cute, pregnant. Not bloated and puffy. Not big all over. Just cute, basketball-in-the-front pregnant. If I had a promise of being pregnant like Stephanie I would have been much more tempted to have done it a third time. But that’s another story for another day.

Dr. Wilson Beckett has probably done as many of these knee repairs as miles my Olympian has run. He comes in with his scrub top neatly tucked into his bottoms, draw string pulled tight. It’s not his best look – somebody should probably tell him he looks a lot like Homer Simpson. But on the other hand, his jovial spirit is equally as entertaining and it endears me to him, despite his bulging mid-drift. He makes us no promises about my Olympians running future and for a moment I was overcome with sadness at the idea that someday we won’t be able to run. It was one of those moments that made me face the reality that one day our bodies will deny us the activities that today we (ok, I) take for granted.

As Stephanie scrubs the newly-shaved knee and leg, she respectfully calls Dr. Beckett old school. He was around in 1983 when my Olympian had his first knee surgery - when arthroscopy was considered cutting-edge health care. Today, technology has driven improvements in the scopes and the cameras and these “minimally” invasive procedures occur as if they are as natural as the gentle rain falling outside enabling spring’s berth.

My in-laws are on home duty, enduring the dreary Monday morning with my two angels who are already more than ready for summer break. I am thankful they’ve come up to help – and for a second I think of how today might be different if my mom were still alive. It probably wouldn’t be that different; she would have wanted my Olympian to have his parents here with us. But no doubt she would have been holding us close in prayer. Somehow, I feel like she’s holding us close today from her new vantage point and I am glad.

My mother-in-law sent us to bed last night with instructions for me to tell the doctor about this or that that happened 26 years ago when he had surgery. I feel bad thinking to myself that none of that matters now, technology has come so far – after all this is no longer a big deal, it is just a “minimally invasive” procedure. The reality is that it’s probably always a big deal when it is your kid, when you know that something that he loves to do, something that completes him, is on the line.

I am glad that she will be with him at home after the surgery. No one dotes over my Olympian like his mother – and with a son of my own, I can appreciate that. I’ll go to work; she’ll take care of her baby – all is right with the world. It’s not that I can’t take the day off to be with him; it’s just that his mom will do a much better job than I would dream of. My maternal, caring instincts are best served with my children.

Sitting in the waiting room, images of Bea Arthur flash on the TV screen. She died “peacefully at her home with her family” at the age of 86. It seems to me that 86 is a reasonable age for dying. For a moment I am confused with conflicting emotions. I remember how mom loved the Golden Girls and how much joy those women brought to her. Although she rarely watched any television program on a regular basis, Golden Girls seemed to be an exception to the rule. But the sweet memories surprisingly turned painful as I couldn’t help but think, “why did her family get 23 more years than I did? Why did she get to die peacefully at home instead of being blind-sighted by a death that we didn’t see coming?” I fight back the tears and remember all the blessings in her death. Looking at Bea’s picture, I am happy that I am not left with an image of my mom’s aged body and face at 83. My mom will forever be young and that makes me smile.

This waiting room is much like this surgery, much like all of life really. It’s all become minimally invasive. I focus on my computer. A man in front of me doesn’t take his eyes from the book he is reading. The woman beside me knits, her hair in her eyes, as she chomps her gum. “It’s almost a lost art,” says an elderly woman who passes by walking slowly with a cane. Her comment spurs a lively conversation that boosts my spirits. It reminds me that life’s all about being invasive, it’s about connections – God made us to desire them and these two don’t miss an opportunity for a genuine encounter. Eventually the knitter wipes her bangs from her eyes, lifts her head and tells a beautiful story of how her mother gave her $50 and told her to go buy something that would make her happy. The knitter took the money and purchased the items necessary for her to begin her craft. Funny how her mom blessed her in an unknowing way and now this knitter blesses others with one-of-a-kind, original sweaters.

At 8:25, Dr. Beckett appears and motions for me. He sits me down in a quaintly decorated, comfortable room, shuts the door and sits across from me. He explains that my Olympian’s knee “was terribly chewed up” – whatever that means. I guess the meniscus was quite a mess and he cleaned it up and said this surgery would definitely help him. “Help him?” I repeated. “I don’t mean to sound neurotic, but running really is like a very important part of his (our) life. I was hoping to hear you say you had fixed him and he’s good as new.”

By this time I’ve decided I love Dr. Beckett, as he calmly encourages me to adopt his philosophy of focusing on what we can do – not what we can’t. Our bodies, he reminds me, are meant to break down and then we die. “The lucky ones are those who die before their body defies them.” The lucky ones? I know he’s right but hearing the statement stabs me in the heart and my eyes fill thinking of my young, sweet mother who walked five miles on her elliptical the day before her stroke.

For now, my Olympian can and will be able to run again – starting in six weeks. But, as the doctor explained, it may also be time to take up some other fitness activities, because after all, 40 miles a week is 2,000 miles a year – and that will be a lot for this knee. Forty miles a week, a lot for this knee… My Olympian isn’t going to like the sound of that.