Monday, July 27, 2009

Finding Hope Where I Least Expected

July 24, 2009

Something amazing happened last week. To tell you about it means I need to introduce you to my brother, Buddy.

Buddy is my youngest brother. He is 4 ½-years younger than me and consequently, I have always been his second mom, whether either of us liked it. Buddy is caring and kind. He is smart and handsome. He’s funny and talented. He’s also a convicted felon.

Incarcerated since 2002, in many ways, Buddy has grown up in prison. Watching him being convicted and sent to prison was – until my mom’s death – the most painful experience of my life. But we’ve survived it and this week I realized just how much Buddy has grown from it. In fact, I am not sure I have ever seen him more excited than he was when I saw him in prison on Thursday night

After Mom’s death, Buddy was transferred from the Southeast Correctional Facility in Licking, Mo., to the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green. Upon his transfer, Buddy was reunited with a friend, Rodney, who thankfully was acclimated to NECC. As far as I can tell, Rodney has been an incredibly positive influence in Buddy’s life. With his encouragement, Buddy became active in PPF (Prison Performing Arts - check it out online).

When Buddy first told me that he was going to take part in the program, I was shocked but thrilled. I grew up in theatre, speech and debate, but as best as I can remember, Buddy never had an interest in any of it. I loved the idea that he was trying new things and taking advantage of the few growing opportunities provided to him through the Department of Corrections. What neither of us expected was that he would love it too!

This semester-long program concludes with three live performances of a play. Early in the semester, Buddy told me he only had a small role in this Shakespearean play and that it wouldn’t even be worth me making the trip for the "public" performance. But as the curtain call got closer, I began to hear an excitement in Buddy’s voice that was contagious. He was alive in a way that I hadn’t seen him be in years and it was incredibly exciting. You couldn’t have kept me from seeing for myself what had caused this intellectual awakening and personal exploration. Deep down, I don’t think Buddy wanted me to miss it either.

I had no idea what I was in for. I never could have imagined. It exceeded every expectation I had and then some.

I arrived in the normal waiting room and found it filling with other cast member’s family, as well as others that I eventually determined are likely financial supporters of the program. Everyone was friendly and excited. As we made our way through the prison yard, I got to see for the first time where my brother lived; where he runs, plays softball, handball and basketball. I saw the cafeteria and his housing unit. Just being allowed to have this insight into his life was the worth the trip.

I quickly recognized Agnes, the director of PPF and the play. Although I had never seen her, I could tell by her demeanor that she was the woman in charge. Once we all got seated, Agnes called her company to the stage and my heart began to pound. There he was! Dressed in a Hawaiian print shirt and black pants, it was wonderful to see him in something other than his gray jumpsuit that he’s required to wear when I visit him. What was even better was this HUGE smile on his face. It was a smile filled with pride – a pride I haven’t seen since before the arrest that turned his life upside down.

Agnes explained the play and then called her company to their places. The set wasn’t elaborate but it didn’t matter. Once the actors began filling the stage, I was mesmerized. Even with Shakespeare’s challenging language and dialogue, these actors brought their roles to life. They weren’t just good – they were incredible. Obviously Agnes’s company was full of talent and Agnes knew what to do with it.

And then my reserved brother who rarely draws attention to himself, stepped out on stage singing and dancing. Then he was juggling! Then he was leading the crowd in a hilarious rendition of Who Let the Dogs Out (you needed to be there!). He was the comedic relief of the play and was able to take a smaller role and leave a huge impression on the audience. Last time I checked, that’s the sign of a good actor!

A good actor… my brother… a good actor. Wow.

After the play, the company fielded questions from the audience. Being new to the experience, I had a million questions but didn’t have the nerve to even open my mouth. I wanted to ask simple questions like, “How much fun was that?” and “Don’t you love being treated with dignity and professionalism?” Instead, audience members asked compelling questions about how the actors developed their characters and how they enjoyed interpreting Shakespeare. They answered eloquently and freely with confidence and passion for the art.

Afterwards, I got to meet Agnes, Rodney and other cast members and their families. It was the best cast party I have ever attended. As I said goodbye and started the drive home, I let go of the tears I’d been holding back. They weren’t tears of sadness, but of pure joy. I saw my brother with a restored sense of dignity, with a new awareness of how drama can awaken parts of one’s soul that we don’t even know exists. I saw him united with a group of talented men for a common purpose. I saw him excited about giving of himself.

I also saw a group of theatre professionals, led by Agnes, who looked at these 25 men not as convicted felons but as her professional company of actors. They have a heart for these men. They have a heart for my brother and this immediately made me have a heart for them. To them all, I am incredibly thankful.

Thanks to them, I drove to Bowling Green expecting to see my brother in his first play. What I saw was a performance that defined hope and gave everyone present inspiration for the future.

“We are full of joy even when we suffer. We know that our suffering gives us the strength to go on. 4 The strength to go on produces character. Character produces hope. 5 And hope will never disappoint us.”(Romans 5:3-5)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Parent-Teacher Conference to Remember

July 14, 2009

I am crazy about my son. CRAZY! Sitting here thinking about him makes my heart swell with emotion. It’s amazing that I could give birth to him, spend nearly every day of his life with him and yet still feel like I have so much to learn about him. Matthew is complex and tender – and in many ways still a complete mystery to me.

Although we had just celebrated Madison’s first birthday when I realized I was pregnant, I wasn’t shocked. My stallion and I had discussed birth control and decided he would be responsible for making sure we didn’t irresponsibly add to our family with one of those passionate heat-of-the-moments that rarely come along with a toddler in the house. Instead, we wanted to wait until we were ready for another child, plan accordingly and responsibly.

It’s a good thing I wanted a second child and I wanted them to be close together in age, otherwise my stallion might still be in the doghouse.

I was thrilled to be blessed with a second child, but there was a part of me that felt sad for Madison. After all, her time as my baby would be short. I would soon have to divide my time and effort and I worried she was getting short-changed. I also worried about my abilities. Could I handle two babies all day alone by myself? Selfishly I wondered if I could manage the household and continue to pursue my master’s degree?

But it was in the dark and quiet of the nights that I faced my worst fear. As I watched Madison sleep, with a heavy heart I worried that I couldn’t love this child I was carrying like I loved her. I felt terrible for even the thought, but it was real. I wasn’t sure I had the capacity to love another child with the same overwhelming love that I experienced with Madison. I prayed for God to bless me with a healthy child and a heart like His.

I laugh now thinking of those feelings. They didn’t last for one minute – not one. The second the doctor put Matthew on my stomach, I was completely and totally in love with him. I couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine life without him. Being his mother completes me.

It’s a good thing I was totally smitten with Matthew because he made it challenging for anyone else to love him. He didn’t really like anyone much other than me. He didn’t like the bottle. He didn’t like the red sippy cup. He didn’t like to nap. He didn’t like the line across his socks to bunch up across his toes. And he definitely didn’t like to poop on the potty.

With the help of some good teachers and my co-mom (code word for babysitter, but so much more) Tracy Paloucek, somehow my anal and uptight preschooler evolved into a completely laid back youngster. I’m not sure how it happened, I’m just thankful it did. Today, I rarely hear Matthew complain. He’s easy-going and is typically more focused on others than he is himself. He has a beautiful heart and a gifted mind. Sometimes our conversations truly amaze me.

Now for those of you who read my post on April 28, you know that Matthew is human. I’ve also explained my worries related to his progress in writing. This concern prompted us to come to a family decision that Matthew needed a writing coach for the summer to help him be prepared for sixth grade. And so it has been; Matthew’s summer has been structured around his tutoring with Mrs. Rutter.

Mrs. Rutter and Matthew have a cool connection. It’s not one that I could have planned for, but only hoped and prayed for. They meet three times a week and Matthew has daily reading and writing assignments to complete outside of their meetings. Much to my delight and surprise, Matthew hasn’t complained once about the task ahead of him. Instead, he’s committed and enthusiastic about this opportunity to grow as a learner.

After working together for a month, Mrs. Rutter and Matthew decided that it would be a good time to sit down with me and update me on his progress. Yesterday we met and I had the best parent-teacher conference of my life.

I arrived for my scheduled 10-minute meeting and set across the dining room table facing both Matthew and Mrs. Rutter. Much to my surprise, Matthew began the conversation and pulled out a page of prepared notes from which he referred. He explained to me how he developed goals for his summer of writing, what he needed to improve on, strategies he is using to become a better writer and then he showed me some examples. He was articulate, confident and empowered – and it was incredible! Several times during the meeting I found myself distracted from what he was saying and instead just marveling at his progress. Thirty minutes later, Matthew concluded his conference by asking me if I had any questions, comments or concerns.

I obliged Matthew and one by one, discussed my questions, concerns and then offered my comments of praise for his effort and progress. I have never seen him so engaged and in charge of his learning, particularly in a subject that he hasn’t typically enjoyed. It was amazing and several times I had to fight back tears of pride.

Today I was talking with one of my favorite doctors who I call on regularly (for those of you who don’t know, I sell pharmaceuticals to subsidize my writing habit). As usual, he asked me about my children and as I shared this story about Matthew, he articulated what I had witnessed but not yet put in words. With the tenderness of a seasoned father and grandfather, he got tears in his eyes and his bottom lip began to quiver as he said, “Girls need to feel good to do good. But boys – like your Matthew – they need to do good to feel good.”

Truer words may never have been spoken. And with that, I have gained valuable insight into this mysterious transformation into manhood that is appearing before my very eyes.