brother, death, Holidays, kids, loss

That silver bell

I’ve been struggling to get into “the Christmas spirit” this year. This happens to me often, but hasn’t been as bad the last few years with small-ish children. I try to recreate for them the magic that was Christmas for me growing up, and in doing so, that magic just gets all over me like red and green glitter. The first year after Riley died was a difficult Christmas. Part of my holiday experience was missing. All of my Christmas memories involved my brother, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around my new reality. This year feels eerily similar. I know that a large part of it has to do with my grief for Laci. It’s hard to have Christmas without her, when she’s been such an instrumental part of it for the past 17 years. Thinking about her, going through routines that she should be part of, planning, and celebrating Christmas just can’t be the same, and it feels broken. I also think about mark and my niece and nephew, and my heart breaks for their loss this holiday season, and that adds to the hurt. To top it off, it’s (still) 2020 and nothing is normal. We aren’t doing any of the things we usually do. No large family gatherings, big gift exchanges or dinners. No reason to get dressed up or do my hair or put on lipstick. Where are you, Christmas?

Tonight is Christmas Eve, and I did the things I always want to do with my kids but usually can’t. We had hot cocoa, made cookies, watched a Christmas movie, and then sat by the tree and read The Polar Express and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. It’s a ritual I grew up with, and we are usually too tired and rushed to do it. We put out cookies for Santa, and magical oats for his reindeer. On paper, tonight was perfect. But it isn’t. I don’t feel the way I want to. this holiday has rushed at me fast this year, with much to do and a lot of warm and even hot days to help me forget it’s supposed to be winter.

As I read the conclusion of the Polar Express, I almost cried. I wouldn’t hear that bell; I’ve lost the magic. For me, it’s all to-do lists. There is no space in my life for magic or wonder or the beauty I used to find in every little detail. In its place is an exhausting few weeks trying to cram in productive activities with festive ones, pretending to feel something I just don’t feel while I do them. I want it to be magical for my kids, but can I achieve that if it doesn’t feel at all magical for me? Can I ring the silver bell if I don’t hear the sound it makes?

Well, this has made for a depressing post. I’m sure that didn’t help you! In these last hours of Christmas Eve, I hope the magic finds you, and that you can make the best—even of this year.

brother, jackson, jacob, kids

Beautiful and heartbreaking

I feel compelled to describe a moment that has, at least momentarily, brought so much meaning to my life in this trying and tiresome time.

Jackson made something at school. It was in a brown paper bag, emblazoned with glittery stickers, and he was really excited about it. As soon as he climbed into the car, he told me that he had a present. For Jacob! He couldn’t wait to pick his brother up from school and have him open it up.

Inside, Jacob pulls out a clear ball ornament on which Jackson has made a white-painted handprint, and turned each finger into a snowman with markers. Jacob smiles sweetly and tells his brother how wonderful this ornament is. “I made the snowmans all by myself!” Jackson proclaims.

“Are you sure you don’t want to give this to mommy?” Jacob asks.

“No. I made it for you because you’re the best brother.”

My heart swelling with pride and affection I watch as this love-fest continues; Jacob praising Jackson’s artistic talent, and Jackson telling Jacob how much he deserves the gift. It’s really cute, and I am reflecting on the fact that I get to enjoy this ornament on my own Christmas tree, with its darling little finger-prints, as Jacob decides he will place it on said tree so we can al enjoy it.

He takes a couple of steps and something happens. The ornament slips from his hand and explodes on the brick floor, turning almost to dust in an instant. Jacob immediately starts wailing with sadness and anger. Jackson freezes, looks at the broken glass and his crying brother, and runs up the stairs in tears. I hear anguished sobs coming from the direction of his room. My heart breaks for each of them at the same time. Oh and the ornament. It’s destroyed. Three tiny pieces remain on which you can see the hand drawn faces of the “snowmans.”

I take Jacob into my arms, but he cannot be consoled. “I am the worst brother!” He yelps. “I don’t deserve to be given nice things! He made this for me! Out of love! And I BROKE IT!” He cries until his face is bright red, veins protruding from either side of his neck, so much like his father when he is angry. I call Jackson down and ask him why he is crying. Is it because the ornament is broken? “No!” He cries, followed by an unintelligible cluster of words. “What?” I ask.

“I’m. Sad. Because I. Have emotions. For other people!” He spits out, sad and frustrated. This is the big reveal. He’s not sad that the ornament is broken, his work gone and his kind gesture spread in pieces on the floor. He is simply sad because his brother is sad and cannot be consoled. His brother is sad and he can’t make him feel better, can’t do anything about it. All he wants from life right now is for Jacob not to be sad.

“I’ll stay at school as late as I have to and make you another one!” He promises.

I sit with Jacob. I explain to him that his brother isn’t disappointed in him, or angry that he dropped the gift, just experiencing empathy in a beautiful and pure way. His description of empathy is perfect for a five-year-old: he has emotions for other people, and right now, he feels the sadness and anger that Jacob is experiencing, and he wants to make it better. I tell him that the reason the ornament was special wasn’t because the object itself was special; it was made special by the love of the maker for him. The ornament is just a thing, just a symbol of the love that made you view it as precious. The love of a little boy for his big brother. And that little boy is crying quietly over there, so badly wanting you to be okay, and I think what he needs is for you to sit with him, and tell him that everything will be alright, whether or not you feel that way right now.

Because it will be, of course. Jackson is still here, he can still take his little hand and coat it in white paint and make another set of snowmans. And even if that one was to break, we have our memory of it, and the knowledge of that love and excitement, and that is what really matters. We still have that, and always will.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t think wistfully of my own brother, or my sister-in-law, and the things I wish I had, from them, to hold on to. Sometimes things are all you have left that are tangible, and that makes them precious. You feel the need to touch and hold something to reassure yourself that it is real. As I swept up the tiny shards of glass I thought about that compulsion to hold something in one’s hand and feel reassured by the solid physicality of it. How unnecessary that is, when all that matters can be felt and remembered, even if no part of it can be seen or felt.

We have, inside of us all, the mementos and treasures of a million special moments. With this story, I have added one more.

The next day at school pickup, Jackson came to the car with another brown bag. This one had two ornaments he had made that day. I hung one on the tree and tucked the other away for safekeeping. Apparently I don’t trust the faulty computer hard drive of my memory. I just want to know that, if I need to, I can hold that ornament in my hand and remember the beauty of this moment in time. I don’t need the thing, but I want it just the same.

jackson, jacob, kids

School at home and homeschool

We are back to school, or back to school at home, and it has been ROUGH. Let me explain. Jacob has the same teacher that he did last year. I requested her, because she was amazing for him. He was in a 2/3 combo class, which I initially didn’t like the idea of at all, but once I went to Back to School Night, I was intrigued, and by October, I was completely on board. Rather than splitting her time in half, Jacob’s wonderful teacher has all of the students at their own individual levels in each subject. She splits them into small groups and does a lot of individual teaching. This lets the students stay on topics that they need more assistance with for as long as they need, and also to accelerate forward as far as they can and want to go. Jacob did so amazingly well last year. He gained confidence and ability by leaps and bounds. He loves his teacher. I would say her style of teaching really works well for Jacob! He is online now with her from 8:10-1:30 with two ten-minute breaks and one 40-minute lunch break. I like the one-on-one time with his teacher (who is alone in their classroom), but the very short breaks and lunch don’t leave much time for exercise (also hard to do during this heat), and we have a lot of pent-up energy over here. He is very independent and can handle the day mostly on his own, barring any computer or internet issues.

Now for Jackson. During parent-teacher conferences last year, Jackson’s Pre-K teacher told me that he was definitely not ready to start Kindergarten next year. She suggested TK or Transitional Kindergarten. The problem was that the school district has a birth date cutoff for TK, and it’s June 29. Jackson’s birthday is on June 30. He is a perfectly smart and well-behaved boy, but he is emotionally not ready to learn certain concepts. Letters and numbers fly into one ear and out the other. He seemed to stall out last year. In preschool, he could count to 13. In Pre-K, he started to struggle to make it to ten. He can recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory, but he just doesn’t seem to care about those little squiggles that mean numbers. Or letters. He can maybe recognize four uppercase letters. By the end of the school year, as I was seeing firsthand during distance learning, the rest of the class was onto lowercase, and we were still struggling to know any of the uppercase letters. I had him screened for learning difficulties in February, and he seems to be developmentally “on track” for his age. He is just…well, he just doesn’t care to learn things he doesn’t care about. He doesn’t show signs of dyslexia or hearing/vision problems, so it comes down to maturity.

I started early on my quest to get Jackson into the appropriate class this year. After the assessment, I enrolled him on day 1 of enrollment for our district’s TK. I figured they would see his birthday on the form and contact me. Instead, they just pushed him into kindergarten. I called the district enrollment person, and the TK coordinator, and I was getting nowhere. Then the pandemic hit, and everything changed. It was hard to make plans for a future that was so uncertain. Once the district had a plan in place, I had him assessed by the kindergarten teacher. She strongly suggested that he wait one year before entering kinder. With this, I called the district again. Eventually, they offered Jackson TK at a group of schools, none of which I could reach if school goes back into the classroom, which I hope it does. Jacob’s school does not offer TK. I have to get two kids to two schools at 8am, and I have to walk Jackson into the classroom. Looking into other options, I found that the state offers a homeschool program for free, and I called to see if I could get Jackson into their TK. “Of course!” the representative told me. He can learn at his own pace, and have a teacher, so I would be in the role of “teaching coach.” I hadn’t been interested in homeschooling because of the time it would take; I have a lot to do! The role of learning coach was to be available to your student around 4 hours a day. No problem! I figured that, given we were all going to be at home anyway, a teacher who knows how to teach over the Internet is a better choice than a regular classroom teacher, struggling to engage 30 small children. Oh, but there’s a catch. The homeschool program also enrolled him in kindergarten due to his age. So after all of my hard work and effort, I’m back to where I started: a class I don’t think he is ready for, and my fears that he will get frustrated and dislike school, which is an issue when you’re only 5!

We are now on day 5 of homeschool. It’s been tough. He has around 10 modules/subjects a day. The lessons take between fifteen and fifty minutes each. Our first days started with math and ended with art and learning the continents. It was a LOT of work, and Jackson needs my assistance the entire time. He can’t read, which makes it difficult for him to operate a computer, and the activities are online and then offline, with the myriad textbooks and activity books provided by the program. If Jacob were in this, I know he would love doing science experiments, and being challenged with art, but Jackson has a much shorter attention span. He is easily frustrated by the lessons, which are often way over his head. I am frustrated with crouching over his little workspace and reading his assignments, and answering his constant questions about when he can be done, and how much longer? He is frustrated and exhausted, and so am I. So we are working on how to balance the day, and mommy is prioritizing which lessons she feels are most important to focus on before we totally lose him for the day.

Pray for us, friends. We need to find guidance and balance, and a better-working system here. Thursday and Friday we worked on school on and off from 8 am until about 4 pm. That’s one tired and grumpy five-year-old, and an even grumpier 36-year-old. Also, with the prospect of schools reopening, I am really questioning this homeschool decision.

adventures, kids, road trip

Road Tripping

We take a LOT of road trips. I feel like I’ve learned from experience some tips I want to share with you. We have tried a lot of things. We have regretted some of them. We have traveled with babies, toddlers, and now school-age children. The best packing and activity tips I have found are compiled here.

1. Plan, plan, and plan some more.

Really, no trip should begin without a host of lists and notes. I write down the weather along with each day’s activities, so that I can plan what to pack. It’s nice to know that on Thursday it will be chilly in the morning (pack Uggs and sweatshirts) and we will be hiking (hiking boots!) and later on showering and eating out (a nice outfit). We plan where we will stop for food and gas on the drive as well.

2. Pack for the way you want to live

Do you like living out of a suitcase of jumbled up clothes? I don’t! We pack in plastic, interlocking lid bins from Home Depot. Each family member has a dedicated bin with his or her name on it. They are heavy-duty and stack uniformly and nicely. Because we are RV campers, I usually take my clothes straight into the closet of the trailer, leaving things on hangers and putting folded items in the drawers. For the kids, my favorite method is to pack each day in an extra-large ziploc bag. This limits rummaging and complaining, two of my least favorite things. 🙂 I save the bags to reuse over and over. I label them with my label maker, and those labels can be peeled off for future bag use. For a typical day I’ll pack the kids layers: undies and socks, pants, shorts, a t-shirt and sweatshirt, and pajamas. That way, whatever the day brings, they have things that match. I recommend packing cubes for adults, and I usually pack like items together: all pajamas in one cube, all undergarments in another. My clothes don’t fit in the ziploc bags, plus I do know how to match things. Hehe.

3. What rides in the car with you?

If your kids are like mine, they’ll want fifty random things with them in the car. Usually a blanket, pillow, some toys, books, and a lot of snacks. Josh really can’t handle this. I try to keep our in-car activities (which will also double as trip activities) and snacks in one structured basket. This one collapses when not in use.

4. Lap trays are your friends.

I have two repurposed cookie sheets that I bring along for the kids on road trips. They are lined with bright contact paper (totally unnecessary) and serve as lap desks and tables. The raised edges keep crayons from rolling away, and they are perfect for eating a meal on the road. They are easy to wipe down and sanitize, then get back to fun. As a bonus, magnetic cookie sheets can be fun with magnetic letters or other magnets.

5. Options are good

If you know kids, you know that their attention spans can be quite short. This basket looks like total overkill, but sometimes they will do one activity for two minutes and move on. I have a plastic drawer thingie (technical term) where i keep all kinds of things so that i can change it up and provide fresh, new activities for different trips.

Some things i like to bring;

  • Road games (you can spot a wooden memory game; also car scavenger hunts, eye spy bags, and things without parts that can be lost, like a Rubik’s cube, are fun to have.)
  • Coloring and activity books
  • Highlights and Hive Five magazines
  • Reusable sticker books
  • Magnetic letters
  • Drawing paper
  • Stamping markers
  • Chapter books
  • Felt activities (I have a build-a-pizza set I made)
  • Inexpensive lined notebooks
  • Magic ink markers and books
  • Dry erase pockets and pens

6. Mother-in-law hack

My MIL came up with a great activity: she packs a baggie of Cheerios or fruit loops along with a piece of string with a washer tied to one end. The kids can happily load the cereal onto the string, eventually making a necklace which they can then eat!

7. Don’t forget refreshments

Here i packed snacks in a ziploc bag with 2-3 plastic trash can liners. These are small but hold a lot, and great for banana peels! I bring small cups in case we have something shareable (like trail mix or pretzels). We usually have lidded containers for water with a jug to refill them—of course you don’t want to drink too much water on the road! And of course, napkins and wipes are a necessity if you’ll be eating any more than snacks on the road.

Enjoy making happy memories on the road!

jackson, kids

Jackson is 5

It’s always hard to summarize a year in my children’s’ lives. So much happens, they change and grow so much, and my heart expands to make room for the new facets of their personalities, like jewels I am uncovering day by day. Jackson is…precocious. He is sweet, kind, tender hearted, fearless, scary, honest, wild, shy, caring, protective, snuggly, and talkative. Sometimes I can’t believe how beautiful he is, and that he is my little boy. How did such a beauty come from the likes of josh and I? (With no offense to josh and plenty to me). His face is perfect, like a doll’s, and he has the teeniest, squeakiest voice you could ever hear. I call him my squeaky mouse and revel in the darling, staccato notes of his words. He has these amazing eyes: blue and bright white, round and perfect like marbles. His eyelashes are long and full, and his cheeks have the perfect amount of “squish” to them to feel delicious pressed against my face or shoulder. He is no longer the chubby baby or round toddler, but a skinny-legged creature; a little boy in the truest sense of the term. He can be frustrating and insistent. He can seem cruel at times, when he tells me with complete honesty that I am not his favorite. But then, when he does tell me he loves me, I know it is equally honest and heartfelt. My heart melts. He is my forever baby and I love him so. Once again, words don’t come close to describing his wonderfulness, his soft skin, his sweet voice. You just have to know him, and I am so blessed that I do.

Watch the slideshow I made for this special guy, and a fabulous YouTube video of his birthday parade made by our friend , Devon.

Birthday parade

Watch the movie here