From the life I used to have
Most of you won’t read this until Friday, since I’m getting to this late in the day, but Thursday is my big brother’s birthday.
If Dwight was still on earth, this would have been huge. Dwight, who lived with developmental disabilities, was forever a child at heart and every child loves milestones. Loves them.
When Dwight turned 50, the anticipation built up for months. At a time most people are whining about getting old, my oldest brother was ready to leap into his “mature” years. Could not wait to turn 50.
“I be five oh, Sis, five oh. You know that, Sis? I be five oh.”
Dwight’s disability included what some would call a speech impediment, but my middle brother and I were fluent in Dwight-speak. Still, because we are rotten people, we would tease him sometimes, pointing out that his “50″ sounded just like his “60.” Both came out “sit-ty” when we asked him to enunciate.
He trumped us, though, by sounding out the number, making sure his dummy siblings understood.
On the days we really, really miss Dwight, my middle brother and I speak Dwight’s language to each other over the phone. We always laugh, we always hear his voice so clearly in ourselves.
Sixty candles on the cake would be a cherry on the cake in Dwight’s universe. Oh my, I can guess he would have badgered me (and my Dwight sidekick, Ruthy, who worked at his house) for months to produce a celebration worthy of the day. There would have been planning over the phone and through email. And Facebook! I’m sure we would have started a Facebook page just for the occasion.
A decade ago, I still had five kids at home. I wrote a column about Dwight’s happy milestone for the Chicago Tribune, let Dwight’s house staff plan the party, bought him a new shirt and called it a day. Impossible to know I would only have three and half more years to be his baby sister, to help steer his path, to hear about birthday parties, I know that. But I still sort of hate myself for not doing a better job with the “50″ part.
I would have gone all out for this one, I feel certain. The longer I live, the more I understand what a precious gift and task God gave me in my big brother Dwight. I didn’t deserve him, that’s for sure, but I’m so glad I had him.
The email arrived yesterday evening — 0ur favorite dog food store is hosting pictures with Santa. I let out a shout and danced around the kitchen, shouting “Doggies! You’re going to see Santa!”
This tells you a number of things about me: (A) I really am a dog mom, and (B) I am crazy.
Camo Man just shook his head. “That’s not going to happen.”
It is, I assured him. “It absolutely is.”
No dog really wants to go see Santa, I think everyone recognizes this. Their little toenails have to click across the linoleum floor as they are dragged over to some guy in a bizarre get up with a … what the heck is that thing on his chin, anyway … who obviously smells like a stranger who has been SEEING OTHER DOGS.
But I want it because having Cap’n Jack in Santa’s lap is one of the last fun memories I have of my late husband. With our three youngest, we visited a Petco on the West side that December four years ago, to see the guy in red.
To the delight of our girls, all past sitting on the red velvet lap, the Cap’n was a willing foil and we have the picture to prove it. We bring it out every year with the other holiday decor. It’s a great memory and a last picture to commemorate how our family looked then, as seen through a little dachshund’s sweet brown eyes.
We look different now. We have Miss Daphne, 27 or so pounds of love and laughs and liveliness. We have two boys at our house who can roll their eyes at female silliness.
Plus, the photo sessions support two great causes. “Hot Dogs” and “Picture It” 4-H clubs will be taking pictures for community service projects. You may recall I am now a 4-H mom, so that right there is gold. Then, bonus, the suggested $10 cost per picture raises money to purchase items for Night Song Siberian Husky rescue of Dayton and Cats Galore of Milton-Freewater.
Since Jack and Daphne have a kitty sister — and who doesn’t love a good rescue operation — there is no question they’d be supportive of these causes.
And then we’ll have two more dog-and-Santa photos to display, a slice of how our family looks now alongside of a wonderful memory. That right there is Christmas magic, my friends.
And Camo Man will come around, trust me.
What I said in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin this week:
I distinctly remember the first time I believed I was beautiful.
It didn’t happen at home, where my mother hesitated a heartbeat too long when asked if I was pretty. It didn’t happen in Sunday school when our teacher said all God’s children are beautiful. I could see the “lillies of the valley” were ahead of me on this one.
It came in kindergarten, when I arrived one day with new glasses.
White-framed, cats-eye glasses, the kind stuck on every female face in the early 1960s, be the wearer 6 or 96.
I shuffled into school, feeling the weight of those frames on my little nose and the stares of my classmates
It was, however, the last moment I worried about it. One step into my Central School classroom and there was Mrs. Croker, my beloved kindergarten teacher.
“Sheila, come right here,” she said, upon spying my unhappy face. She began to lavish praise upon these fine new spectacles, telling me how big, how brown my beautiful eyes looked behind the lens. Mrs. Croker ran her fingers over the hated corners and along the temple pieces, like an early-day Vanna White. At last she handed them back, and pronounced these glasses the finest she had seen.
And, by the way, I was going to enjoy school more than ever now that I could see the pictures in the books she read us every day. I pranced to the long table, realizing for the first time I was fearfully and wonderfully made, just like they promised us on Sunday mornings.
Oh, my goodness, how I wish I could have reminded Mrs. Croker of that moment. Let her know she shaped my world in mighty ways. But I’m too late.
I returned from my honeymoon and leafed through the avalanche of newspapers on my desk. A name leapt off the obituary page — Dorothy Croker, June 2, 1912 — May 21, 2012.
Mrs. Croker? My Mrs. Croker? Wasn’t she gone like forever ago?
I can be forgiven for thinking so, her daughter told me.
I had called Jean Petke as soon as I got her number by hunting down her brother, Paul. Her mother had only taught in the Milton-Freewater school district for “maybe” six years. Prior to that, Mrs. Croker had owned “Kiddie College” off Ninth Avenue in Walla Walla.
She ran that preschool for a decade, Jean told me. “The playground was our front yard. When she went toy shopping in the summer, we got to play with all that stuff, all the puzzles and the trucks.”
With that sentence, I was instantly back in my kindergarten room and its magical, junior-sized kitchen that boys and girls alike reveled in. I saw the painting easels set up, the paint cups always full and fresh, the paintbrushes clean and ready for a new Michelangelo. It was the most wondrous classroom.
That was how her mom rolled, Jean said. How the world was presented, even the tiny one her students inhabited, mattered. “My mother was always trying to reform the world, to get people to do what they were supposed to be doing.”
Mrs. Croker had the attitude that life might not always be fair, but it’s a personal duty to live it anyway. She was active in church, in the community and in her passions, including women’s rights.
I can vouch she believed in the right of children to feel supported. Monday through Friday, she soothed us through that first year of school with story time and snack, always graham crackers and milk. We had Show-and-Tell without failure, and it was my hope to bring in treasures to elicit Mrs. Croker’s delight.
My teacher talked about her class days in her journal, Jean said, reading parts of it over the phone. Most children were happy to be in school and eager to learn, Mrs. Croker recorded. Her goal was to provide an atmosphere of encouragement. That meant staying one step ahead of the questions, such as when Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space. “She read Time magazine to prepare,” Jean said.
I knew intelligence mattered to Mrs. Croker. I wasn’t the brightest kid in our class, but I had my moments. One day a classmate dropped a container of sewing pins on the linoleum-tile floor.
We all hurried to gather pins before the accident was discovered. I suddenly remembered the previous week’s lesson on magnets. I ran to grab the largest from the “magnet station” and was back sucking up pins when we heard the voice above us. “Who had the idea to use the magnet,” Mrs. Croker asked.
My eyes traveled up, up, up to meet hers. “It was mine,” I whispered, ready to take heat for failing to ask to use Teacher’s display.
Mrs. Croker looked me over, her eyes locking on mine with a gleam of pride and wonder. Silently she transmitted the message — I was smart and I had potential to achieve. Seriously the best gift any kindergartner can be handed.
Jean told me her mother missed her 100th birthday by 12 days, staying sharp to the last breath.
Meaning I had many years to call and tell her how much she mattered to one little girl.
Don’t make my mistake, if you can help it.
Mrs. Croker would expect that much from you.Sheila Hagar can be reached at 509-526-8322 or email@example.com
Author’s note: Almost a year ago I published a series of columns in the newspaper I write for about my three youngest daughters and the challenges they face. Challenges they endure because of choices made by other people before my babies were even born.
I didn’t put those columns on this blog then, but compelling reasons have come up to do so now. My goal, our family’s goal, is public education. We ask only that you respect the facts and send this along to others. Because, as much as we hate the very thought, there are moms out there hurting their unborn babies in completely-preventable ways. Right now, somewhere. And while we’ve been immersed in this information for years, the message is still new to far too many.
Sheila and family
Posted on Tuesday, August 09, 2011
HOME PLACE – Wrong prenatal choice; lifetime of consequences
Editor’s note: This is the final column in a weekly series Sheila Hagar wrote about prenatal injury through drug and alcohol use.
My daughter’s words in block printing sum up the reason for this series of columns: “If moms drink while pregnant, it causes brain damage.”
Then there’s her secondary reason, one that rips my heart out every time I see it: “People already think I’m weird. Now they’ll know why.”
It is her and her twin sister’s fervent hope that by talking about what happened to them, no other children will ever have to know the angst of the world’s most preventable birth defect.
Yep. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, better known as FASD, never has to happen again. Ever.
But it will. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in eight women say they use alcohol sometime during their pregnancy. One in 50 admit to binge drinking during pregnancy. Even scarier? “Only about 40 percent of women realize that they are pregnant at four weeks of gestation, a critical period for organ development.” Data says many women are still imbibing at that moment.
There is no known safe level of alcohol or unapproved drug usage. Carry that one with you.
And in our case, the bigger culprit was anti-psychotic medication used to treat birth mom’s schizophrenia. That provided a daily hammer blow of powerful drugs to my children’s tiny, incubating brains.
As Twin Two writes under the potential outcome of taking her story public: “People will know it can’t be changed if people decide to do that while pregnant.”
You can go to any number of websites and look at the plethora of terrible symptoms of FASD, but allow me explain a little bit how the disorder looks in our family.
Primarily evident to most people are developmental delays. The baby of the family, now 13, has shot ahead of her older twin sisters in nearly every developmental milestone. How she was spared this disorder, we’ll never know – my guess is that birth mom tried as hard as she could to do everything right so the last child of six would not be taken from her home.
The notable result is that my 17 year-olds appear much younger to strangers, physically and socially. I can see it in people’s faces – here are girls who should be talking about driving, dating, their jobs that suck and choosing a college. Instead my daughters are immersed in the topics any sixth-grader might be exploring.
There are huge issues with impulse control in both twins. In Twin One it manifests in violence and aggression; in Twin Two it means poor social reasoning – watch TV or do homework? Let a stranger through the door or call Mom to the door? Lie or tell the truth?
Intense anxiety cripples both my daughters, requiring medication for daily functioning. So that fingernails aren’t chewed to bleeding nubs and no one is frozen with indecision and fear.
There are enough cognitive challenges to fill another newspaper page. Every year I find myself educating the educators about how organic brain damage is going to color the school year.
I could go on and on, listing auditory processing disorder, impaired fine motor coordination, information processing speeds in the fifth percentiles.
For Twin One, the consequences of FASD have been devastating. While her brain damage impacted us from the start of our adoption journey, we were too naive to understand we’d been broadsided by a lifelong disorder.
When the problem decided to roar out of control with a vengeance, we had no more armor against the approaching madness. Although previously private in wrestling with this, my husband and I were forced to knock on the doors of social workers, psychiatrists and residential treatment clinics. We could only hope they knew more than we did.
In the end, however, even the most special of specialists were no match for Twin One’s damaged brain. We spent more than five years learning that very hard truth. No prescription, no therapy, no treatment plan was going to jump the gaps the prenatal poison had channeled into our baby’s poor head.
Lithium, the gold standard to calm most mania, was the only thing that helped. And my daughter needed the highest legal adult dose by age 12 simply to live with other humans. Yet it does not allow her to live at home, especially with the paucity of services in a forgotten county on the forgotten side of Oregon.
Events such as her father’s death cause my child to spiral madly for years. We can only watch helplessly as her brain rejects the reality time and time again.
Twin One now lives in a group home on the west side of the state with four other developmentally-disabled young women. She is who she is at this house; her disorder is just another fact about my girl and no one is trying to therapeutically excise anything.
We call almost every day, we try to visit once a month. We send packages. I spend time every single day as her advocate, trying to give her the best life possible through fervent phone calls and persistent emails.
As you may imagine, I’m not anyone’s favorite caller, although I greatly respect the people who work with my child.
But I want what I want for her and I’m taking no prisoners. It isn’t how most people parent, but it’s how our family looks right now. A friend remarked that it must have been very hard in the beginning.
“It’s still hard. Every day,” I replied.
My twins compiled their final thoughts on this column series together over the phone. They discussed possible consequences of going public for hours. That list is lengthy and I cannot adequately express how proud I am of them for deciding to head forward.
However, it is the final two statements under the “good” side that make me really cry.
“Adoption isn’t bad,” the twins state in Twin One’s beautiful penmanship. “We still love the family that we have.”