Big news! We’re expanding our family!

Years ago, back when my husband and I thought we were in charge of our destiny, we planned to have one child. Total. When the baby turned one, we’d adopt a dog.

That was our plan.

What actually happened is that Bunz was born under the October full moon and all hell broke loose. No longer did we have each others’ full attention. No longer was our house clean and organized. No longer did we sleep. Or eat. Or think. Everything was new and different and complicated. Breakfast was served at lunch, lunch was served at dinner, and showers were scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays, when my husband’s aunt came to help.

When Valentine’s Day rolled around, my mom took pity on us and offered to babysit. She wasn’t exactly a baby person, so this was a really big deal. We happily accepted.

A few weeks later, I felt like something was off. I felt unusually happy … and normal … all of a sudden. Which sounds kind of funny but, actually, if you laughed just now you’re about to feel really bad because I was in a dark, dark place after Bunz was born. I’m the kind of person who can laugh at a funeral, but not even I can laugh off that darkness.

When you’re a girl in your early 30s and you get that ‘something’s off’ feeling, there’s only one thing to do: I packed up Bunz and headed to the store for a pregnancy test. They were behind a locked cabinet. The store clerk who came to unlock them took one look at me with the crazy hair and the screaming infant, and shook her head. (Later, my mom stood with me at Bunz’ crib and shook her head, too, saying, “Oh, hon. What would you do with another baby?”)

Have you ever taken a pregnancy test and waited way longer than it says to wait just because you’re so terrified/hopeful that the second line will appear? This wasn’t like that. As soon as I peed on that stick, two of the deepest, darkest possible lines appeared. There was no question about it – Little Bear was in the HOUSE.

I looked at 4-month-old Baby Bunz laying on an activity mat in the hallway. I looked at the stick. I tried to picture my husband’s panicked face; decided I’d rather not. I knew it would be a very long time before we got that dog.

Well, fast-forward 6 years and here we are. Meet our newest family member, Crazy Jake.

We’ve been promising Little Bear a dog ever since he could talk. The deal has always been that he could have a dog when he turned 5. We used to think of age 5 as some ambiguous point in the distant future, but somehow he’s already 5 and we’re screwed. “Now remember – you’re going to be 5 for a whole year,” we’ve been saying.

Lately, though, we’ve been feeling like we might finally be ready. So last weekend we went to a large adoption event hosted by several local animal shelters. We weren’t sure if we’d find our dog, but we were at least willing to entertain the possibility.

We walked around and saw all kinds of dogs, large and small, friendly and shy, playful and reserved. One dog, a medium-sized Border Collie/Australian Shepherd/German Shorthair Pointer mix, looked kind of goofy as he perked his ears, tilted his head and stared at an invisible spot on the asphalt, like he was deciphering a secret message. Suddenly he bounced straight into the air on all fours.

That’s one crazy dog, I thought to myself. He’s perfect.

Have you ever met someone for the first time and felt like you’re reconnecting with an old friend? My friend Sara and I met that way. The first time we laid eyes on each other, we were both like, “Oh hi. It’s you. What are you doing here?”

That’s how it felt with this dog. I swear I recognized him from a distant time or place. A fairy tale. A memory. A dream.

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The more I learned about the dog and his background, the more I felt like this situation had my dead mother-in-law written all over it. (See? That’s funny. We can laugh at that.) Check this out: The dog’s previous owner was a kindergarten teacher (like my MIL) who had been training Jake to be a therapy dog (which we need). He’s deaf and is trained to respond to hand signals and some ASL signs (possibly allowing him to be more intuitive and attentive than other dogs). Also, he has brown ears (see “…but what does it MEAN?!?”). And his name is Jake – the name my husband’s grandfather called every one of his grandsons, regardless of their actual names. When Little Bear was born, we gave him the middle name Jacob just so that Pop Pop would be right when he drawled, “Hey Jake!

After some discussion and consideration (in which I purposely didn’t mention the MIL theory), we decided to take Jake home and see how it went.

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Oh God. Can you even imagine what a stressful day that was? My husband and I kept having flashbacks to the day we brought Baby Bunz home from the hospital. Chaos. Anxiety. Clusterfucks.

Our first walk with Jake reminded me of that book, The Diggingest Dog, about a little boy who adopts a dog that doesn’t know how to dig. When the dog finally learns how to dig, he digs up the whole town, including the highway, the barber shop, and multiple vegetable gardens. That’s Jake.

11424665_10106989656194771_8264358147848065838_o“Back up! Back up! Here he goes!” we shouted multiple times that day, as Jake dug holes the size of watermelons in 15 seconds flat, spraying Bunz with fresh soil. Clearly we have some issues to iron out, I thought. On the other hand, he was incredibly attentive and responded immediately to the two hand signals we knew: lay down and potty. It was clear that someone had trained him well.

11206795_10106979630421501_3903009021660262195_oOver the years,  I’ve gotten semi-used to a chaotic house – when you live with three boys, there’s only so much you can control. But adding a dog to the mix has been mind-boggling. Right now, Little Bear is dragging the dog around atop a long carpet runner from the hallway. Bunz is playing the piano, loudly. Drops of dog slobber and water bowl spillage mingle with discarded dry food and dog treats on the kitchen floor. I haven’t played my guitar or worked out in days. Kitty Little is hiding under the bed.

Even worse, my emergency bag of chocolate chips is missing from its hiding place at the back of the kitchen cabinet. Someone found it and ate it.

What I need to do now is clean. Cleaning always helps.

But I’m exhausted.

I’m being over-dramatic, of course. The beautiful moments far outweigh the chaotic ones. Noticing Jake wait patiently for Bunz as we navigate down the front stairs. Listening to Little Bear teach Jake tricks and new signs. Seeing Jake jump into the shower with my husband, uninvited, and then refuse to get out. Finally meeting the older man who lives in the hippie house down our street. I’ve always wanted to meet that guy and now I know his name: Norm. I feel like Norm and I should have a lot to talk about. What I didn’t tell Norm is that Jake is the one who dug that huge hole in his front lawn. Norm still thinks it’s the gophers. Heh.

Every day it’s getting easier, and it’s only Day 4. Here’s hoping that the next time we meet, the newest member of Team Bunz is so seamlessly integrated into our household that we can’t remember life before he was here.

Graduation Day

To everything

there is a season

and a time to every purpose

under Heaven.


A time to be born

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A time to die.

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A time to plant

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A time to reap

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A time to laugh

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A time to weep.

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A time to build up

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 A time to break down.

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A time to dance


A time to mourn

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 A time you may embrace.

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A time to refrain from embracing.

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To everything

there is a season

and a time to every purpose

under Heaven.


Our baby graduated from a mainstream kindergarten yesterday.

We weren’t sure we would see this day …

at age 6 …

or eventually …

or at all.

But here we are.

LeifKPromotion2015102And we are so proud.


In the words of Bunz’ favorite folk singer:

“Take it easy – but take it!”

Congratulations, Bunz.

You really took it!

You are our hero.

xoxo

Happy Mother’s Day, from the Other Woman and Me!

I’m seeing a lot of Mother’s Day tributes floating around the blogosphere, and I love all of your stories! For a few seconds, I thought I’d write something about how my life as a mom is all rainbows and glitter and unicorns. But then I laughed and said, “Psych!” Because let’s be real: My life as a mom is confusing.

Not confusing as in I mix up my kids’ names and call Bunz by my husband’s name, or Little Bear by Bunz’ name. That happens on a regular basis, and we’re ok with that.

Not confusing as in I feel conflicted about the best parenting strategy, or working versus staying at home, or buying organic versus GMO bananas. Those are all good questions, but in all honesty I have a shit ton of other things to worry about. So I just do what works best for us and let the other moms debate the rest.

No, I mean confusing as in identity crisis confusing. As in, I can’t figure out which woman I am in the very first post on Team Bunz: The Other Woman. I look like one mother with two sons but I feel like two mothers, each with one son. And one of those mother-son relationships is not like the other.

Some of you already know what I’m getting at. When you have one child who’s WAY different from the other, your life as a mother gets complicated. You forget who you’re supposed to be for each child, their friends, and their world. You accidentally send your healthy kid on a playdate armed with emergency seizure medication, and your kid with a physical disability to the playground with roller blades and a helmet.

No? This doesn’t sound familiar? Hmm, ok. Let me back up and try to explain.

You know how we all exist in multiple worlds? In our Professional world, we are insightful and polite and well dressed. In our Private world, we wander around the house in our underpants with crazy hair and no makeup, shouting things like, “WTF is this! GET IN HERE, ALL THREE OF YOU! Who dissected fox poop on my office carpet and didn’t clean it up?”

Well, in addition to my Professional and Private worlds, I have Special Needs Mom world and Mainstream Mom world. I’ve had years of practice compartmentalizing these very opposite worlds, especially since Bunz and Little Bear have always gone to different daycares/preschools. But I’m starting to enter the stage of motherhood where I wonder who I really am. Special Needs Mom versus Mainstream Mom. Anxious Mom versus Confident Mom. Amazing Mom versus Regular Mom. Outsider Mom versus Insider Mom. Me versus the Other Woman. Or is it the Other Woman versus Me? Crap. This is so confusing.

Let me show you how this plays out in the real world.

The best example I can think of is last week, when I went to Little Bear’s school for a parent-teacher conference. I parked my car, walked up a steep hill, entered his school, sat down at a kid-sized table, and thought:

Thank you, God, for allowing my butt to fit in this tiny chair. This is excellent. But – gulp – how embarrassing would it have been if I didn’t fit? There must be an adult chair in here somewhere for when that happens. Maybe it’s in the closet. But the teacher is sitting in a tiny chair too, so maybe not? Ugh. No, wait, hold on … I see what’s going on here. The chair is a test! A healthy lifestyle test. And my butt fits, so I’m pretty sure I’ve passed. Whew.

When I finally looked up, the teacher was explaining the results of a Montessori assessment they’d done. I looked at the paper. Every item was checked off. At age 5, Little Bear can: tie his shoes, hold a pencil, manipulate objects of all kinds, clean stuff, count to 129 (not a zillion and thirty, like he told me. I knew that was a lie), write uppercase and lowercase letters and say their sounds, identify the shapes, be helpful and kind, recite various songs. I should buy the BOB books, she was saying, and work with him on … crap. I can’t remember. In my head, I was thinking we need to work with him on not being a Know-it-All. But then I saw his teacher’s write-up and realized that was going to be a hard row to hoe in the foreseeable future: IMG_5190-crop

Let’s compare this with my first parent-teacher conference at Bunz’ school. Ha! Or let’s not. But for the sake of comparison, let’s revisit that day. I parked my car, walked up a (different) steep hill, entered his classroom, sat down in one of those little chairs, and thought:

My God. I seriously think I need medical attention. You can literally SEE my heart thumping through my shirt. Is this safe? This can’t be safe. And my hands are like ice. OMG, did she just say there’s a video. THERE WILL BE A VIDEO OF BUNZ AT THE END OF OUR TALK. It’s not enough to just TELL me how disruptive he is. She actually videotaped it. Fuck. No, no, calm down. This must be a test to see if I’ll voluntarily pull him from the school before I even see the video. No, I will not fail this test. But OMG. My heart.

When I finally found the courage to look up, I remember seeing a checklist – and realizing that a few of the items were actually checked off. Yes! Awesome!!! When I started to breathe again, I realized she was sharing some things we needed to work on. Ok, flash cards. Yes. I can make flash cards. Taking his medicine at lunchtime without a fight. Yes. We can handle that. But the iPad kept taunting me, sitting there so presumptuously on its fancy little stand. Smugly waiting to show proof that Bunz is not the absent-minded genius I believe him to be.

When I finally saw the video, I almost cried. Not in a bad way. In a I’ve-Just-Been-Scared-Shitless-and-Now-What-A-Relief kind of way. Bunz goes to a language immersion school, and the video showed him answering questions (and sometimes not) in another language. It was really cute, actually. Now, months later, he loves to watch that video and say, “That boy doesn’t know the answers? He doesn’t, Mama? But I do.”

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully merge these two Mom worlds, but it’s interesting to imagine how that might play out. For example, if I went all Special Needs Mom on Little Bear’s world, I could seamlessly morph into a Helicopter Mom. If I went all Mainstream Mom on Bunz’ world, I could easily become an Apathetic Mom.

Crossing these new Moms with my Private and Professional worlds, I could imagine myself as an Apathetic Private Mom who shows up to school dropoff in a bathrobe. Or Helicopter Professional Mom who risks spontaneous combustion every time there’s a hint of failure.

I don’t know. None of these sound particularly right for me in this moment. But in the future, you never know … at least then I would have all my marbles in one place!

Hape Modrs Dey, from my loves to you!

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… but what does it MEAN?!?

I’m one of those people who tries to find meaning in everything, if you haven’t already guessed. I think this comes from being raised in an Irish Catholic family. I don’t know about your Irish Catholic family, but mine buried my grandma with a dime to make a phone call. And a few other handy items. We were a superstitious bunch. Predictions and “feelings” ran rampant. I’m just a product of that upbringing, is all. No need to psychoanalyze. Or judge.

Sometimes this is helpful, like when Bunz is spinning down the path towards a seizure. I totally understand those seizure-sensing dogs, because I swear there’s a shift in Bunz’ energy before he has one. Sometimes I’ll lay down next to him in bed and immediately feel uncomfortable, shaky, like I’ve gone too long without a snack. And sure enough, he’ll have a seizure that night. I’m no seizure-sensing dog – I overlook about as many as I predict – but whenever I put my face next to his and sense that change in energy, my prediction is spot on.

Other times it’s not so helpful to search for meaning in meaningless things. Like when I drink too much coffee in the afternoon and get really anxious at night. “I’ve just got this bad feeling,” I’ll say to my husband. “Something’s not right. Bunz did something at school that he’s not telling us about. I just know that teacher’s sitting there on her iPad, typing out an angry e-mail. Just wait!” I’ll say to him. To which he replies, “Hon. Did you drink coffee today?”  Because he knows there’s no meaning in caffeine overload. And by now I do, too. Because I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t predict when I might receive one of Ms. C’s pointed e-mails. How I love that woman. Nice but not too nice.

Anyway, I’m thinking about all of this because yesterday a girlfriend arranged for me to meet with a psychic medium. Yes, you read that right. And it was awesome. If this sounds farfetched to you, that’s ok. We can still be friends. There’s nothing I can tell you that will change your mind. We can just agree to disagree. But for everyone else, let me just tell you what a mind-boggling experience this was. You have to hear what this lady said about Bunz.

First, some history. This medium was discovered several years ago when my friend’s aunt bumped into her at a social gathering. The medium-who-was-not-yet-a-professional-medium was basically like, “Hey, can I share something with you?” and proceeded to give my friend’s aunt a bunch of intimate information about her mother, who had recently passed away. No money was exchanged, and the medium apparently had no way of knowing this information. Now, years later, the woman has become brave enough to offer private readings in her home.

Before I tell you this story, let’s be clear: I’m totally biased. After I heard the story about the aunt, I couldn’t even pretend to be a healthy skeptic. That said, the medium knew only my first name. And she instructed me to answer her questions with a simple “Yes, I understand,” or “No, that doesn’t make sense to me.” I wasn’t encouraged to provide additional information during the reading.

Now I’ve been to visit psychics in the past, but this lady was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. She even seemed to respond to things I was thinking, which was a little nerve-wracking. I realized she was doing this at the beginning of the reading when I thought, “I wonder what my mother-in-law could tell me about Bunz and why things went wrong during his birth.” And without me saying anything, the woman was like,

“You’re wondering about your son. Something about the letter L, the number 6, and the month October. Jackie says she held him first. She says that when he stares off or seems distant, he can see her. Do you have a dog? You’ll get a brown dog. That dog will see her too. She says that if she could paint a picture of how she’d wish him to be, she wouldn’t paint it any other way than how he is. And you’re thinking you wish she could be here now. You regret that she’s not here; you think if she were here she would work with him until he was completely on track. She’s showing me a picture now, I see him surrounded by books. She wants you to read with him. Read, read, read. And be patient. You’re a patient mother. What a surprise that is, huh? Just keep being patient. Someday it’s going to be like a light switch goes on and everything takes off.”

Yeah. So that happened.

An hour and a half later, I left her house with mascara running down my face, a recording, and a pad full of notes. In addition to the bit about Bunz, the medium conveyed some really amazing messages from my mom and some funny things from Pop Pop, who made the medium laugh until she cried (if that’s not a confirmation of his presence, I don’t know what is).

Now. Despite my wholehearted belief in this medium, I have enough self-awareness to realize that I could benefit from a dose of healthy skepticism. Perhaps you can provide this for me in the comments. Go ahead. (See? We can still be friends. Maybe?)

Sometimes I think Little Bear senses my need for that, too.

Right now, the two of us are sitting in the airport, waiting to board our flight back home. It’s been a productive work week for me, and we both had a lot of fun with family and friends. To pass the time, Little Bear is playing with our boarding passes, arranging them in the shape of various letters. First he made an L. Then a T. Then a K, with the help of his little index finger.

When he made an X, I asked him, “So … is that like X marks the spot? Or is it like an X because you got the wrong answer?”

“Mama,” he said calmly, patiently. Looking up at me with his wise blue eyes.

Sometimes an X is just an X.”

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Lessons my mother taught me through dying

I love to celebrate motherhood. Every single day. Isn’t it amazing? Aren’t our mothers just so strong and resilient and beautiful?

The formal date of celebration, though, is a little tricky. It’s exactly 1 month away and I’m never quite sure how to feel about it. You know, because some of us aren’t mothers. Or maybe we’re mothers who lost a child. Or children who lost our mothers. But we all have mothers, or did at some point. There’s always that.

This story is about my mother.

She’s gone now. But she lived once. She was a beautiful Italian woman with long dark hair and brown eyes. She had strong tan arms and painted scenes of barns and cemeteries and cornfields. Before dying, she held me in those arms and told me I was the wonderful, beautiful girl she always dreamed I would be.

That wasn’t so long ago. I miss her so much.

In life, my mother was a nurse to the dying. She often worked the night shift and would bring me a toasted blueberry bagel with cream cheese on Saturday mornings as I sat watching cartoons. She always told interesting stories about her work. So-and-so had died that night, she’d say, and what a beautiful thing it was.

The deaths she witnessed were spiritual, tragic, often joyful, sometimes angry. Some spoke to dead relatives before they passed, others reached their arms to the sky as they took their final breaths. Her stories would make you a believer. She wanted to believe.

My mother taught me many things in life – she taught me not to pick my nose or cheat at board games. She taught me to cook and sew and give handmade greeting cards. She taught me the meaning of unconditional love.

But the most valuable lesson she taught me while dying.

She died on a Friday morning in October, four years ago. Outside, piles of gold and red leaves covered the sidewalks. The sky was blue; the air was crisp and cold. Inside, she lay drowning in fear and discomfort. Her lungs paralyzed, her faith wavering. A woman from Malawi sat at the foot of her bed, reading aloud from the Holy Bible. I held my mother’s hand. What if this is all there is, she’d said a few weeks ago, her voice weak and hoarse. Each word was a struggle. She’d spent too many painstaking words that day telling me she’d realized it was easier to live when she was sleeping. Life was only hard when she was awake.

As she lay dying, her eyes connected with mine. I kissed her forehead.

This isn’t all there is, I whispered. I promise there’s more. Right now you have one foot in this world and one foot in the next. All you have to do is lift that foot and step over. I promise it will be there. Just let go …

When the dying take their final breaths, shallow gasps punctuate long periods of silence. The living hold their breath for a moment, too, wondering if that gasp will be the last. And then a sigh of relief as the wait begins again. As I listened and waited, my inner eye perceived a vivid ball of light over my mother’s left shoulder. It radiated joy and peace, confirmation that the next world had been there for her. She was gone. It was done.

Minutes later, a nurse quietly jotted down the time.

I didn’t cry. I felt like I should, but the tears wouldn’t come. Everyone grieves differently, I suppose. I grieved while listening to Duane Allman’s “Goin’ Down Slow” on repeat, staring at our bedroom wall. I didn’t like to come home so I shopped for new clothes and wooden train track sets for the boys and other things we didn’t really need. I remember one afternoon begging my husband to build train tracks with me on our living room floor. I took great comfort in avoidance, distraction, denial. She was out there, somewhere, still alive, just a phone call away. Not to worry, not to worry.

The first few years after my mother died, I dreamed almost nightly that we were having lunch or sipping Dunkin’ Donuts coffee or cooking dinner or making soaps. Every night we melted glycerin and carefully poured it into the molds. We popped in another videotape, a comedy this time. We laughed and talked about things that were happening in my life. Have you ever heard of Ghost pepper, I asked her one night as I dreamed. Marcus says it’s the hottest pepper in the whole world. We tried it and it wasn’t that bad. Can you believe that? Every night she was healthy again, in remission from a disease that in reality always kills. No one survives ALS. But every night in my dreams, she beat the odds.

One night, I dreamed I was driving fast along a windy country road. Trees filled with amber and gold leaves lined the road. I pulled into a gravel driveway and entered an old house. I didn’t recognize the house, but somehow knew I would find her there. Hours after I woke, I could still feel the comfort of her strong arms embracing my body; her belly jiggling as I shook with the inconsolable grief that never seemed to find its way into the daylight.

Only last year, at a meditation workshop, did it finally dawn on me that my mother is gone. Like Gone gone. Why this realization came more than three years after her death, I don’t know. Maybe that’s how denial works. But as I entered the vast spaciousness of meditation that day, the truth came booming out of nowhere. A sudden, awful shock. I think it was meant to come gently, but it felt like a train crash. I grieved hard that day. I cried loudly and messily. I ran out of tissues and started on the toilet paper. It felt out of place and liberating to grieve after that much time. It was a good thing.

Since that day, she’s only visited me a few times in my dreams and never as the woman she once was. One night, I dreamed we were debating what it means when people say that life is a journey, not a destination. What is that supposed to mean anyway, I said to her in my dream. I always took it to mean that you should stop to smell the roses and all that.

But my mother responded that to journey means to surrender. To surrender the desire to win, to be perfect, to be the fastest or the best. If we’re all floating in a sea of emotion, she said, then to journey through life means to feel all of those emotions without denying yourself the experience that each one brings. To feel pain, regret, doubt, love, joy, and remorse all at once, and to learn from them. To feel elated about your child’s faltering first steps in the same moment that you feel heartbroken about your mother’s faltering final steps. To let yourself bob along in the gentle sea of life with trust instead of fear. To be. Only then can you reach your destination.

The journey matters, I heard her say before I woke up.

Don’t deny yourself the journey.

Happy journeying. 🙂

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Scattering her ashes at sunrise on Christmas Day.

Below: A poem found tucked into her Bible.

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How Bunz saved spring break and made the world a brighter place

1933775_640459726431_9851_nMy husband and I have enjoyed a number of truly fantastic spring breaks in our day. We married right out of college and ran away to grad school, where we studied for as many years as possible to [become well-rounded scientists and] delay our entry into the Real World. Our first year of grad school, we earned a total of $20,000 in teaching and research stipends. Back then, it was all we needed. We spent that spring break backpacking along the Oregon coast and filming cheesy home videos — that was us at age 23.

Before kids, spring break meant: 1) debauchery, 2) freedom, and 3) insanity.

Now that we have kids, the only thing left from that original list is: 3) insanity. And believe me, it’s not the same kind.

Leading up to Bunz’ spring break last week, we’d both kind of hoped it might ignite a flicker of the freedom and excitement from decades past. And why not? Even though my husband’s job is ending soon and we’re skimping as much as possible, we had enough credit card rewards points to pay for four flights to Arizona and several nice hotel rooms. (And importantly, enough points to pay our way back.) What better place than Arizona to live adventurously?

But things are different now than they were in our 20s, which somewhat hampers our ability to live on the edge. In my 20s, I worried about who would take care of our cat and my bacterial cultures while we were away. These days, I lose sleep worrying about the dangers of flying far from the safety net of doctors, therapists, and babysitters who help our world go round.

This year I lost more sleep than usual because our destination was Middle-of-Nowhere, Arizona, where one can drive for hundreds of miles without seeing a gas station, much less a neurologist. Suddenly, Arizona was not looking so good. How would we survive when the only dinner food Bunz eats is macaroni and cheese? What if they don’t serve macaroni and cheese in the desert? Could we invite Bunz’ food therapist to come along? Does anyone have her number? Sigh. 3 am is probably too early to bother her anyhow. I’m sure she has other plans.

Since we can’t afford to bring our safety net with us – and because we don’t normally have an opportunity to enjoy each others’ company quite so continuously – the first few days of vacation were rocky. You could call it a Period of Adjustment. I would call it Insanity.

That first day, Little Bear asked a zillion questions as my husband and I navigated kids and suitcases through the crowded airport.

“Mama? What’s that red thing?”

Which one, Little Bear? That one?

“No.”

That one?

“No.”

THAT ONE???

“No.”

WHICH RED THING?!?

“Mama? What did that man just say to Daddy?”

Which man? OMG. No. Just stop.

“Mama? Is that a picture of a bat? Do they have bats in Arizona? Don’t you know that bats don’t see wif  der eyes? They use echo-location. Echo-location, Mama. I’m-a tell you what dat is. Stop walking so I can tell you what dat is.”

Before we boarded the plane, I asked Bunz multiple times if he had to go to the bathroom. No, he insisted. No, no, and no. Fifteen minutes before boarding, he looked at me with panic in his eyes. I picked him up and we dashed to the nearest restroom. Thank God for special needs restrooms with showers. It was that bad. As I washed him off, he sang merrily and talked about our trip to Utah.

“Arizona.”

What, Mama?

“Arizona, my love. We’re going to Arizona.”

WHAT? NO!!!!! I WANNA GO BEEHIVE STATE!!! HOO, MAMA. HOOHOO.

Meanwhile, my husband and I bickered constantly about everything we could think of. When we ran out of ideas, we bickered about why we couldn’t just enjoy being on vacation without bickering. Someone should have arranged to bring along our freaking therapist, I said. Seriously. WHO WAS IN CHARGE OF THAT.

Traveling without your safety net is hard. But if you’ve ever traveled with a child, special needs or not, you know that impatience and stress only make things worse. I know this, too. My brain knows that no amount of rushing or nagging will help Bunz walk faster through the airport or eat foods that are not macaroni and cheese, even when he’s famished and the airport shops are closed for the night. No amount of answers will quench Little Bear’s curiosity about the world (nor should they … and I hope they never do). Few things will help a man forget that his job is ending soon, and none of those things are appropriate for the airport. Or a family vacation. I know this. But knowing isn’t always enough.

Bunz has an interesting way of coping in times like these. Maybe just to escape our stress, he takes these opportunities to befriend as many beautiful and kind people as possible. Whether he has some secret formula for attracting extra-friendly people or whether he naturally brings out the kindness in regular people, I’m not sure. But one minute he’s holding my hand, walking with me through the airport. The next minute he’s gone. I turn around and see him several feet back, smiling into the adoring eyes of a huggable woman with grey hair. By the time I backtrack and grab his hand, he’s already learned that her name is Evelyn, she’s 68 years old, and her birthday is April 2.

Come!” Bunz appeals to Evelyn as I pry his fingers from her arm. Evelyn looks conflicted, like maybe she’d like to come depending on where we’re headed. But there’s no time for this, my ruthless inner introvert insists. I wave goodbye to Evelyn, grab Bunz and our stuff, and dash to the gate.

Though I don’t always appreciate it right away (or at all), these meetings are a beautiful reminder of the love and patience and gentleness that surround us. So often, we special needs parents commiserate over the stares that follow us through public places. We imagine judgments passed in silence as we walk by. We wonder what people think as they behold the children we love so dearly, whose differences are beautiful to us.

Thanks to Bunz, I now have the inside scoop on this and I’m happy to share it with you. Before some of these people even know what they’re saying, their stories come spilling out and everything begins to make sense. Many of the stares aren’t judgmental at all, it turns out. Some of them are thinking about nieces or nephews or grandchildren with similar issues. Others are thinking that Bunz is cute. Or weird. Many want to understand, but there’s no way to do that without being intrusive. And the teenager I thought was so rude when he came up and asked, “Is he deaf or something?” actually volunteers in a special needs classroom and loves to make the kids laugh. He’s just awkward, that’s all.

So there you have it. More than anything, these random interactions remind me that we’re all immersed in different stages of learning. You see? Learning. It always comes back to that. It’s hard to be in a foul mood when you’re learning about new friends, hearing their stories, and discovering surprising things that we have in common. Believe me, I’ve tried.

teambunz1For example?

When we board the plane, I usually seat Bunz on the aisle and take the center seat so that 1) we can access the bathroom easily and often, and 2) the person who climbs over us to take the window seat really, definitely, for sure, absolutely-without-a-doubt understands what they’re getting into. You’d be surprised at how many people will go to all this trouble to sit in a cramped seat with a frazzled lady and her special needs kid. Even when the flight is only half full and there are no seat assignments. This aggravates me to no end.

But more often than not, these people turn out to be amazing. Not that I think they are angels sent by divine intervention or anything crazy like that. But maybe sometimes I do, just a little. Once, we sat next to a psychologist who counsels parents of special needs kids. I mean, what are the chances? He even offered to play his clarinet, which was stowed under the seat. Who are these people? Lol.

Another time we sat next to an attractive older woman wearing a green one-piece jumpsuit that showed off her toned legs. Her son has autism and is nonverbal, she told us, and she immediately fell in love with Bunz. During that short flight, I could tell something was bothering Bunz. Usually he overwhelms his new friends with repetitive questions but this time he sat quietly with a concerned look on his face. As we were landing, he leaned across me and addressed her for the first time:

“Where are your payunts?” he demanded.

“I ate them!” she said, with a bright smile.

“You … ate them?”

“Yup! Sure did! And they were YUMMMM-Y!”

“Your green pants. You ate them?” he asked, worried.

“I did! Did you eat your peanuts?”

Bunz paused for a second. A slow smile spread across his face. He shook his head,  then leaned over and buried his face in my chest.

“GHEEEEHEEHEE!” he squealed, barely able to contain himself. “Dat lady ate her pants, Mama! Her pants! AH! GHEEHEEHEE!!!!!!”

My body shook with suppressed laughter. Tears streamed from my eyes. I looked at the lady, sure that she understood and worried I would embarrass her by laughing out loud. But before I could say anything, she gave me the sweetest hug and said, “I know. Sometimes I cry, too. Some days are just hard, aren’t they?”

Oh man. I felt so bad. I should have told her. But by that point it was too late.

This spring break, Bunz met a number of interesting people, all of whom wore pants. Bunz and his new friends really helped us out of that first-day funk. By day 2, my husband and I remembered that we’re best friends and we stopped bickering over every little thing. We used all that extra energy to answer Little Bear’s incessant questions and bribe Bunz to eat one microscopic bite at a time with Scrabble Cheez-Its as rewards. This is what it means to live on the edge these days.

Here are some of my favorite spring break moments that wouldn’t have happened without Bunz:

Meeting the real-life “boss of the airport”:

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Saying “Yá’át’ééh!” to Carl, a Navajo silversmith whose high school track and field team competed against mine, though we didn’t know each other at the time:

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Befriending a German family at the Grand Canyon in hopes of grabbing the middle man’s awesome handlebar mustache (check it out!):

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Meeting a donkey named Pedro who shares Bunz’ obsession with bells:

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Getting an amazing 90-minute craniosacral and massage session that helped Bunz feel better, sleep through the night (yay), and walk more confidently on the rocky desert trails:

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Looking at these photos, I’m struck by the irony of it all. My husband and I are definitely not talkers. It’s not easy for us to chat up random people. But my husband’s mother would talk to anyone and everyone. Talk, talk, talk. Man, that woman could talk. We always chalked it up to her being a schoolteacher, but I think her mother was a talker too. My parents lived by the mantra that the humble will inherit the earth and when I was young, they chatted up as many humble people as possible. All the humble people were then invited to our house on Friday nights to play cards. From those experiences, I learned the true meaning of poverty. I learned never to assume that wealth equals superiority. But unfortunately, I didn’t learn the art of casual conversation. And from the looks of things, neither did my husband.

That’s one of the reasons we love traveling with Bunz. I’m not going to pretend that traveling with special needs is easy. It’s not; we all know that. But I’m also not going to pretend that traveling with Bunz is hard, because I know what some of you go through and I love you for it.

All I’m saying is that when we travel with Bunz, we discover that the world is a kinder, friendlier, more compassionate place. It’s a smaller world. A gentler world. A world where we are connected by just a few degrees of separation. Far from the intimidating, judgmental world I fear it will be when I venture out with my special needs son.

In Bunz’ 6 years, there has only been one exception. Last year on a cross-country flight, he befriended a man whose intentions seemed shady. To make a long story short, the stewardess reseated us in the first row of the plane next to an 80-year-old woman named Ms. Barbara, with whom I still keep in touch. Ms. Barbara loves Bunz because he’s cute (clearly), but also because she has a 50-year-old son with epilepsy. When a flight attendant mentioned the “incident,” Ms. Barbara and the others around us got all riled up. They demanded to know what this man looked like so they could watch for him and mutter disapproving things under their breath.

It was starting to get a little outrageous when a 20-something girl sitting behind us announced, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this. If he tries anything, I’ll take him DOWN.” I glanced back at her, amused. Well, look at that. My 23-year-old self lives on. Ha! Even as I sit here, years later, relying on an 80-year-old woman to protect us. How times change. When I was her age, I used my Krav Maga skills to attack a flasher who, day after day, would reveal himself to my friend and I on our early-morning runs through campus. If I could go back in time, I might not repeat such a risky, reckless thing. But back then I had no regrets, and he never bothered us again.

It made me happy to see my younger self still out there, enjoying the three magical elements of every successful spring break. Whenever I start to miss #1 and #2, I will think of her pretty face and remember that the spirit of spring break lives on.

Until then, we’ve got plenty to keep us going.

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Exciting news from Team Bunz!

Hello, everyone!

In case you missed it, Team Bunz was featured not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES this week on The Mighty!

Over at www.TheMighty.com, you’ll read incredibly inspiring stories that reveal the strength of communities and the beauty of the human spirit. The people behind the site are writers and producers at The New York Times, ABC News, NBC News, MSNBC, MTV, AOL, The Huffington Post, and more. I’m honored to join their list of bloggers.  Follow them on Facebook and you’ll never go a day without a smile.

This week, three Team Bunz stories were shared and read around the world – 28 countries and counting! Check them out, and share the love with your families and friends:

Thanks for following Team Bunz!

Anni