Too blind to see

I was too blind to see that you were too deaf to hear me.

A few weeks ago I had a long weekend with my son in Denver. It was an overdue visit, and I treasured the time to connect in person. Although we keep a steady stream of texts and calls going, nothing takes the place of face to face.

I read a quote a few weeks back…a self-professed quote-a-holic, these things catch my eye and lodge in my mind….

“If you had an essentially happy childhood, that tends to dwell with you.”     Tracy Kidder

Motherhood was a joy to me, and I’ve written about that. I took pride in that role; not that I thought I was perfect, but I thought I was good. I was passionate about it. I loved my kids. And I was good at mothering, in many ways. I did so much for them and with them. But with this quote newly echoing in my thoughts, I asked Alex, sitting across from him in the midst of a light hearted conversation if he felt his childhood had been happy. I knew how I would characterize it.

Imagine my surprise, my dismay, when he answered no. When he said he had been bullied through much of his elementary school years, and often felt lonely. He never told me that before, and I never saw, never guessed. It never came out in parent/teacher conferences or any time through the years he was a kid at home. When I asked him why he never came to me with this, he just said he didn’t think I could help. Didn’t think his teachers could help. My instinctive response was of course I could have helped, could have changed that. But maybe with the vision of childhood, he had believed that if he made a fuss, called attention to the bullying, it would only get worse when adult eyes weren’t looking. And of course that’s when bullying happens.

Imagine the shift in my perception. Imagine my heart breaking listening to his words, telling me very calmly, and just because I asked if he had been happy as a kid.

In many ways he was a highly verbal child; as I used to say, he could talk to a post. We often had long conversations, and he never seemed withdrawn. Yet he was also a self-entertainer, spending a lot of time playing video games and building with his Lego sets. He had a few friends, kids that seemed, like he often did, a little different from the crowd.

By the time he was in 7th grade, he was coming home from school angry, and I did see that. We pulled him out of public school at the semester break, and after briefly trying a private school or two, we opted for home schooling. I cut my hours at work to spend time with him and the curriculum we chose. For the next couple of years the circle was Alex, family, youth group, soccer, and a few friends he kept from elementary school.

By the time he entered high school, in a new public school setting, he seemed to have outgrown the anger, in large part, and I put it down to the difficult transition that a lot of middle-school kids face…that most awkward time of life when you’re neither child nor adult, big or little. I thought the issues he had with school stemmed from the fact that he wasn’t really a student at heart, even though he was smart.

I noticed that he often gravitated to kids that were on the fringe, that seemed left out. And I worried a little about that. Was he not fitting in? But he also seemed popular enough, seemed well liked. I thought it was just Alex.

During our heart-to-heart a few weeks ago, he told me he had chosen to befriend the kids who were left out because he had felt that way too. He decided he could be a victim or a hero, and he chose to be a hero. I know he doesn’t trumpet his own acts of kindness because the ones I know of are the ones I discover in a round-about way. He loans money he can scarcely do without; he reaches out to people who need a friend. He’s a gentleman with an old-fashioned sense of courtesy that I love to see. He helps the lost and the old.

He’s dating again, a girl that he first met in church youth group. He first connected with her in high school because she was new to the group, and he thought she could use a friend. Now he’s the one who’s new in town, returning after six years away. And she reached out to him.

I think about things I hear…kids who take their lives because of bullying. Kids who get into substance abuse or join gangs to fit in. Kids from homes without love, without supervision. And kids from homes like ours, where the parents thought they were watching for danger, doing a good job, listening, seeing. Sometimes when you read about these kids, these children of other people, you wonder…how did this happen? Where were the parents? And without meaning to, without intentionally assigning blame, I’ve done exactly that. Even knowing that parenting is perilous and not for the faint of heart, I’ve wondered. Well, now I know, at least in part. I know bullying can happen without visible signs. Or maybe I was just blind because I thought it wouldn’t happen to my child, in our little neighborhood school, in an upscale suburb. And maybe that was the biggest miss of all…I didn’t think it could happen. I never even thought to ask if Alex’s school issues could be related to bullying. I thought it was all academic.

Thank God, we didn’t have to learn about this through tragedy. I feel sadness enough about the impact of this issue on Alex’s life. I can’t sort out what those impacts have been. But the mom in me wants to go back and relive those years…dig deeper, question the teachers…what were they seeing? why weren’t they seeing it? be more aggressive. Maybe if I had been more aware, a lot of things would be different.

When I voiced that…my gut reaction that I had failed at the most basic role of parenting, to protect the child, Alex disagreed. He’s not holding a grudge, not bemoaning his childhood. He says we taught him how to be an adult, and that was the important job we had to do. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to see it that way. That’s a part of it, but to my mom’s heart, the role of protector is still the first priority, especially in light of what I know now.

Bullying can take many forms, and obviously some kids are more affected by it than others. I know awareness has grown, and maybe there’s more help available for kids today than even a few years ago. If this post can help even one parent think about what they may be missing, ask questions, dig deeper, then some good will have come from Alex’s experience. And knowing him, he would probably think helping someone else is reward enough.

Everyone is a product of the mix of life…the good, bad, the intentional and the accidents. I know that, and I know that even if I could have protected Alex’s childhood from any scars, adulthood would bring experiences I couldn’t shield him from. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing I could have a redo. I am thankful that Alex is who he is. And I am humble. I know, all over again, that I can’t understand someone else’s situation without knowing their story. Reminds me that I need to give grace when I don’t understand. Maybe there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. And I need to receive grace when I make mistakes. Maybe, in spite of my best efforts, I’m missing something important. In spite of my good intentions, I’m falling short.

Thank God for grace. Thank God for Alex, teaching me, forgiving my failures as a mom, and finding the good.

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Riley’s table

Riley, two-year-old princess and budding dictator, came to visit at Thanksgiving, bringing her parents along. Believe me, a two-year-old is always the star of the show, whatever the personality or parenting style may be. This is not to say that she is intentionally allowed to run wild, or take over…there’s a lot of effort going into training, molding, shaping, squashing, and occasionally silencing the little angel. I say all of this with a smile on my face and a wealth of love in my heart. She is a joy, and a bundle of energy, and a two-year-old. I know, I already said that…but it bears repeating.

So on her visit to Gram and PB’s house…she had been to Alaska once before, when she was about eight months, but she wasn’t really mobile yet, so that hardly counts…she explored a bit…got comfy with all the rooms and beds and spaces under the breakfast bench in the kitchen, and craftily hid small toys in places that would take me months to discover. I like to think that we’ll be fully recovered before her next trip.

Her most lasting gift, other than the photos we took, was a small inscription on my pine coffee table. Now, I’ve had this table and some matching pieces since the early 90s…these are classic, traditional Southern-Living-look pieces that have served me well, and migrated about the country from Michigan to Colorado to Alaska with scarcely a mark. But now, the coffee table has met Riley.

On the afternoon of Thanksgiving, I was doing something in the kitchen (my native habitat), when I heard an outburst of “NO RILEY, DON’T DO THAT!” coming from the living room. I rushed in to see if she was ok…not really concerned about anything but her…and saw that she had very thoughtfully been signing the coffee table with a blue ball point pen. This is her handiwork:

Riley’s signature

And although I immediately (truly!) recognized that it was her toddler attempt to leave a memento of her stay, and I also (immediately!) realized that the table just grew in value to me…after all, it was only valuable to me anyway…I must admit, I did give it a good polishing with a variety of products, hoping to at least remove the blue from the marks…I knew those were carved to last.

Well, I didn’t get the blue out, and now, as I look across the surface, that’s pretty much all I see anymore. But it’s growing on me. I’ve already decided that Riley will inherit this piece…whatever else I have to leave to her, she’s getting this table. It’s solid, and it’s hers. She put her stamp on it. And I’m ok with that.

Joking aside, it’s really a great metaphor for the experience of parenting (and now grand-parenting) in general…These little people mark on your heart, little knowing or understanding that they’re leaving a permanent imprint of themselves in your life. Some marks are more on the order of medals, others are definitely scars. But the surface and the marks are unique to the parent and child. (Or grandparent…I keep forgetting I’m in the second category now.) I’ll never look at my coffee table without a reminder of the little girl who signed it. And truly, even though the marks are blue, and don’t really belong in my color scheme, because she put them there, they’re right at home in my space, and in my heart.

If you had an essentially happy childhood, that tends to dwell with you. Tracy Kidder