He Was Such a Good Sport

September 25, 2017

One day, several years ago, I opened the door to my apartment and there, perched on the top of my ladder-back dining chair was a bird. He was very still, just staring at me. Neither my cat nor my dog had attacked him or eaten him, and in fact they seemed very calm, as through this little guy was a natural part of our menagerie. My immediate thought was that someone must have broken into our apartment or smashed a window, enabling him to fly in. I felt like I was in a dream as I quietly walked around my apartment inspecting the windows. They were all in tact, closed and locked. The cat and dog followed me around the apartment as I tried to solve the puzzle. I have an air conditioning vent in the wall with tiny slats in it and I concluded that is how he must have gotten in. I was struck with an unusual blend of feelings: wonder, awe, compassion, fear. I searched for a meaning to this encounter. Did this bird have a message? Was it a sign? I felt he had come expressly to visit me. I set about releasing him from the confines of our apartment by climbing up on the window sill to open the top of the window for him. I spoke to him and pointed to the window and he flew right out, leaving me bewildered and ecstatic.

I have thought of this strange encounter several times this week, because my cat died. And the overwhelming sorrow I have felt at his loss has stunned me. I have been so profoundly changed because of relationships with my animals and I am only beginning to realize the role they have played in my life.

After 9/11, I began to long for a dog. That day was life-changing for everyone and I noticed that many of my friends reached towards marriage or having children in the aftermath. I think we all were reaching out for a tangible connection to this world. Career ambitions began to take a back seat to building relationships and creating families. As for me, I wanted a dog.

It took me about two years before my life was arranged to accommodate a pet, but I brought my dog Baby Fish Mouth home in August of 2003. I was immediately changed. Where I had once been insensitive and unfeeling, I was suddenly expressive and compassionate. My heart just melted and I began to see the world around me in a new way. A few years later I adopted my son and of course that change was even more profound. Becoming a mom changed me. Like a phoenix, I was destroyed and reborn as a Mother. And I loved it so much that I wanted to “mother” everyone. Jesus once ended a passionate sermon with, “O Jerusalem…how often I have loved to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” That is how I felt about everyone I saw. I longed to adopt more children and fantasized about having a large family of ten.

Then about two years after I brought Rahul home, my apartment became infested with mice. I battled them with every weapon I could think of, but to no avail. (I guess I didn’t have much compassion for them!)  I thought about borrowing a friend’s cat–a tactic that has brought great success at mouse elimination in the past. (I’ve heard that the scent of a cat in a home can keep mice away). Then I was struck by a new idea: I needed my own cat! I had never had much affinity for cats, but suddenly I wanted one badly. I wanted one who would keep the mice out of my home, who would be a playmate for Rahul and a companion for my dog. I wanted another creature to nurture and to love. Within days, Rahul and I set out for the ASPCA.

I was concerned about Rahul’s reaction to being in basically an orphanage for animals (since he spent some time in an orphanage himself) and tried to prepare him for the experience.  I didn’t want him to fall in love with every cat we saw, only to have to let it go. When we arrived we had to fill out reams of paperwork and I answered their questions as carefully as I could in order to streamline our process. However, the volunteer assigned to show us the cats didn’t read any of what I wrote and ended up showing us literally every adult cat in the whole joint. Rahul fell in love over and over and after being rejected as a match for every cat,  Rahul was in tears and we stormed out. On our way out the door, as I was hurling insults at their procedures they said, “Why don’t you try the kitten room?” Well, it was too late to try again that day, but I came back by myself the next day and introduced myself to every kitten they had. The volunteer and I opened each cage, one at a time, and if the kitten hissed or cowered, I knew it wouldn’t be a good fit. There were a few that allowed the volunteer to pick them up, but they wouldn’t let me hold them. Then there was a beautiful 5 month old black cat that had only recently arrived at the ASPCA. Well, he just bounded out of the cage when we opened it. We both exclaimed that here was a cat that should do well around a child and a dog! I picked him up and he purred, so I knew there was just one final test. I grabbed a toy that looked like a mouse and threw it on the ground. The cat bounded out of my arms and chased it around the room. Sold! I took him home that day.

Rahul named him Sport, and I always thought that was such a fitting name because he was such a good sport. I have never seen another mouse in my home since the day he arrived. He got along with Baby Fish Mouth and was never any trouble. I spent a few nights up with him when he first arrived, training him to sleep at night rather than bounding around the house. And after those first few nights of cuddling with him and coaxing him to snuggle with me we developed a close bond and he would find his way to my bed every night to snuggle up in an elbow or knee crevice. He was very independent and never needed too much from us. He scratched up some furniture and hissed at Rahul about once a day, but he brought us a lot of joy and comfort.

Then this past Spring he got sick. At first I thought he had a virus or food poisoning because he couldn’t hold any food down and he would hide in corners of closets. Once when I found him in my bedroom closet, he turned his face to the light and it was covered in mucus. His eyes and nose had been running and he had vomit on his chin. My heart just broke. When I took him to the vet he too thought it was a virus, so gave him some treatments and he seemed to get better. But soon enough he was sick again. More vet visits revealed kidney disease, but the treatments that should have alleviated his symptoms never really worked. Over the months that he was ill, Sport and I grew even closer. He became more still, more affectionate, more responsive to my voice and my attention. I spent the summer grieving with several friends through very difficult circumstances. The death of a parent, the death of a child, surgery, a custody battle. There were several days when every client I saw would cry over a loss or a struggle. My toilet broke. My stove broke. My father collapsed and had heart problems that led to him receive a pacemaker. And all the while my cat was fading away. I sunk into depression and the drone of pain that lay beneath all the other pains emanated  from not being able to heal my cat. He lost weight until he was half his normal size. He would alternately become ravenously hungry then lose his appetite. By the end of the summer my vet concluded that he had intestinal cancer. I knew by that point that he was going to die, so it wasn’t a shock. We changed tactics with treatment and just flooded his body with aggressive medicines in an attempt to improve his quality of life for whatever time he had left. I learned to administer subcutaneous fluids and liquid medicines. My days became timed around all the treatments he needed, and he improved. I knew it was temporary, but I was so grateful that his last few weeks were comfortable.

I came home on the afternoon of my birthday and when I saw Sport I knew he was at the end. He hadn’t eaten in a few days and had begun to lose the ability to walk. He was curled up on a bed I had made him at the back of my closet and wasn’t very responsive. So I made myself a bed next to him and snuggled in for a few hours. When I reached my hand over to pet his head, he turned over and rested his head on my hand and reached out his paw to rest on my arm. He knew I was going to be with him on this journey. Later that night I picked him up and put him on my bed and lay next to him, keeping vigil through the night as he faded away.  He moved around a little throughout the night and in the morning he was still breathing so I lay face to face with him for a while. Then with the last of his strength, he flipped himself over so his whole body, from the tip of his head to the end of his tail was pressed up against me. My tears fell on his head while I whispered my goodbyes to him and soon he was gone.

I have thought of that bird who visited our apartment as I grieve for the loss of my dear Sport because I am realizing that I have had many strange and profound encounters with animals over the past few years. A praying mantis landed on my head in a hotel and allowed me to release it back into the wild. A baby skunk was waiting for me outside my door recently with a yogurt container stuck on his head that he allowed me remove (without spraying me) so he could go back to his home. And Sport allowed me to accompany him on his transition out of this world. It was one of the most profound things I have ever experienced. Animals are incredible beings. Many religions see animals at embodiments of their gods, spiritual guides, sacred. I have regarded my pets as angels, entering my life to comfort me, teach me and accompany me. I see the animals around me as reminders to tune into the world around me. Not to rush past God’s creation, but to see it, hear it, experience it fully. With openness of heart comes enormous joy, but also profound pain. It is easier to live with a closed heart, in numb observation of the world around us, but it is not better.

Thank you, kitty, for teaching me this. You were such a good Sport.

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Something has shifted in me.

When I get angry or sad I become incredibly focused. I don’t see the world around me anymore, just the narrow path ahead of me. My mind swirls around and around plotting solution after solution for my problem. After Tuesday’s election my mind hasn’t stopped swirling. So much has been lost.

Some are saying, “Get over it! Your candidate lost, stop whining and move on.” I say, “Listen to me. See me. This is not about sour grapes. This is about my future, about my son’s future.”

Others say, “God is in control.” I say, “Yes, He is. Always. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be hard times. That doesn’t mean that He is happy at my loss.”

I was about to start a new business. I have been planning this business for 12 years. It is now a bad investment. I have lost that.

I have had health insurance through Obamacare for myself and my son. We will lose that. I am self-employed with a business I have proudly built from the ground up, but is not the type of business valued by the people now overseeing our economy. So my health care costs will go back to $1,500 per month. Obamacare costs me $400 per month. It is far from perfect, but it was life-changing for me. We will not be able to afford health insurance. I have a chronic illness.

My son is brown. He is an immigrant. He is going to college in 3 years. We live in a very diverse neighborhood in a diverse city. He has not had to face racism. I will now only be considering colleges in diverse urban areas.

My friends are gay. And brown. And black. And immigrants. My heart is breaking for them and the insult that it is when you say “Make America Great Again.” “Make like it was when the only place those people had in it was under our feet and underground.”

I don’t need you to tell me to pull myself up by my bootstraps, because I already am. That is what I do. I don’t need you to quote bumper stickers to me. Give me some space and let me focus. Listen to me, if you want to, as I work out my issues. Debate with me if you disagree. Pray with me that I can lead my family safely into the future, and that my friends and loved ones will be seen and heard and elevated.

All I really want is to be like Jesus. And I know I don’t need health insurance or a new business to do that. I will follow Him no matter who leads our country and I am more than willing to walk through the valley of the shadow of death as I follow my Lord. But I’m disappointed and more than that, I’m disheartened. And what has shifted in me is that I want to share that with you.

Life of the Party

December 15, 2014

Today my friend Lorraine was laid to rest. Gone way too soon, she leaves behind 2 young children and a loving husband, as well as lots of heartbroken family and friends. She will not be forgotten–mostly because she is truly unforgettable! The life of every party, especially the ones thrown by her!

We first became friends about 20 years ago and some of my favorite memories of her revolve around adventures we masterminded together. Truly our greatest was a trip to my parents’ summer cottage on Lake Ontario (now their home) to celebrate the Forth of July. I remember excitedly concocting the plan together, breathlessly dividing the responsibilities. Lorraine volunteered to rent the car. I would invite some more friends and square it with my parents.

A few days before the trip Lorraine confessed to me that she hadn’t gotten around to renting the car. And since it was almost July 4th, there were none to be had. But just when we thought we’d have to cancel, she found a place to rent one and we were set.

There were 6 of us going on this whirlwind road trip and we were leaving after an evening church service from midtown Manhattan. We all brought our overnight bags and Lorraine brought the car. And, oh, what a car it was. It looked like it rolled off the line is 1978 and might have been driven by Starksy and Hutch. But it had enormous bucket seats so if fit all 6 of us and our stuff, so we were set.

Lorraine

The driving would take about 8 hours and we were leaving pretty late at night, so we switched drivers throughout the journey. My leg was the early morning shift. I would need to drive through Rochester, NY during morning rush hour. As we were approaching the city a car pulled up next to me and the driver honked at me, pointed to my car and kept going. Everyone else in the car was asleep, so I woke up my friend Kara (yes, the same one from my famous turkey episode) and had her look out the window at the car.  Neither of us could see anything wrong, so we assumed the guy was honking at us because we were a crazy car full of women!  A few minutes later there was a loud bang, the car shifted and we saw smoke emanating from the vicinity of the back tire.  I pulled over through 4 lanes of busy traffic as gracefully as I could and screamed at everyone to get out of the car before it exploded.  When we stumbled out and looked at the car, we realized the entire back tire was missing. It had exploded and disintegrated.

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I ran off to find a pay phone to call my parents and the girls searched the car for a safe tire. I reached my mom and she said she would contact my dad (already en route to work) and have him come help us. And the search for the spare tire not only revealed that there was no spare tire. It also uncovered a receipt for “one used tire” in the glove compartment. Hmm. I wonder which one that was.

While we were waiting for my dad, a state trooper stopped by to make sure we were ok and after hearing our story he wrote his name and badge number on our car rental receipt in case we needed proof that the tire exploded. Then my dad arrived, assessed the situation, went out and bought us a new tire, put the new tire on the car, took us all out to breakfast, then sent us on our way. (That Buzz!)

We were feeling pretty giddy by this point and since Kara had brought a cassette player (of course the radio in the car didn’t work) and a tape of West Side Story, we were having fun singing (screaming) along. Too much fun. Lights and sirens startled us out of our reverie and I realized I was going about a thousand miles an hour.

So, don’t judge me, but I pulled over wrong. I was in the left lane, so I pulled over to the left shoulder. And as the cop sauntered over to my driver’s side I’m sure he realized he had scored  big time. He looked us all over (very multicultural group in a very Huggy Bear car) then zeroed in on me. “How long have you been driving?” he asked.  “Well, we started last night at about 11pm from New York, so I guess about 7 or 8 hours…” “No“! he interrupted.  “In your LIFE! How many years have you been driving?!?” I didn’t know where he was going with this, so I began to babble. “Uhh…well I got my license when I was 16, but I moved to NYC when I was 17, so that’s a year.  Then I’ve been in the city for 6 years now and I rarely drive, mostly just when I–” “BECAUSE YOU PULLED OVER TO THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD!” Whoops.

Anyway, we gave him our rental agreement and my license and when he saw the state trouper’s name and badge number he flipped out again.  So we had to tell him the whole story and I’m sure he thought we were all idiots, but I think by that point he had given up on the idea that we were involved in any type of criminal activity. Except speeding.  And pulling over wrong.

We got to my parents’ house and had a blast. The car proved even more fun when we discovered that it had a trick alarm that would erupt at any time of the night or day for no reason at all. We sure made a name for ourselves in my parents’ small town!

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Lorraine is still famous in my family for her incredible joie de vivre and enthusiasm for everything. She had to stop at EVERY garage sale…

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And take a picture with EVERYTHING…

Lorraine 3

 

Lorraine was an incredibly special person. She taught me how to make a table look pretty for a party and how to dress like a grown up. She lit up every room she entered.  She supported  her friends fiercely and loved very deeply. And although she never wanted to be the center of attention, she was always the life of the party.

Lorraine 1

 

(If you’d like to donate to a fund for Lorraine’s children, click here: WESTERVELT CHILDREN’S FUND)

After Rahul had been home with me for several months I settled into a new job that allowed me to be closer to home and have a shorter workday.  I had already become accustomed to spending my every waking moment caring for his especially intense needs as he adjusted to life with me and began to heal from past trauma.  One night, my friend Tamika come to our apartment.  I knew life wasn’t going so well for her right then, but I was so engrossed in Rahul’s very exigent needs, that I hardly noticed what was going on with any of my friends.  I was thrilled that Tamika had come by, but we ended up spending our entire evening helping Rahul through a particularly harrowing crisis.  As Tamika left that night I thanked her from the bottom of my heart for caring for my child so lovingly and spending a night giving help when I knew she needed it just as much.  I watched her walk down the hall and felt a sinking feeling that I should be doing more to help her, but I didn’t know how.

A few days later I had a very unique and cherished opportunity to spend 2 hours by myself.  Rahul was asked to join an after school ESL program and I knew he would try it out at least once.  For even one session it would be worthwhile to get him some extra help and I’d get have a few hours to breathe.

I came home from work that day and sat down at my desk, staring at the huge pile of bills and papers I had been barely tending to.  My goal during these next 2 hours was going to be to get through to the bottom of the stack!  I opened my computer and before beginning my serious tasks I went to Facebook.  I really hated Facebook, because each time I scrolled through friends’ happy status updates about how their lives were so much easier and less oppressive than mine I wanted to throw the computer across the room! Facebook just made me feel bitter.  I spent several months ignoring it completely, but I had a friend I’d been trying to track down for years who had just found me on Facebook and I was thrilled to reconnect with her.  We were writing messages back and forth to one another, so I was in the habit at the time of checking into Facebook every day.

This particular day I looked for a message from my friend and finding none, scrolled down through my news feed.  A few messages down I saw Tamika’s status, which read, Goodbye.  My heart stopped.  What time had she written it? Hours ago!  Frantically, I scrolled down to the comments her other friends had written.  Did they know what she meant? No. There were several comments like, I didn’t know you were heading out of town! Where are you going? 

I knew what she meant.  Goodbye.  Forever.

Several years earlier I had been the first person Tamika had called when she woke up after an unsuccessful suicide attempt.  She was such a dear friend to me and I was terrified and heartbroken that she was so sad and lost.  She went into treatment and worked very hard at healing.  And she had been doing really well, until her mom passed away.

I had learned of her mom’s passing one summer night when I called Tamika to tell her about a show I had just seen.  After talking for a while, I asked her where she was.  On a plane, she said.  My mom died.  I was stunned.  After talking for a while I decided to try to get a flight down to Louisiana the next day, so I could support her.  But as soon as I woke up the next morning I got the life-changing news that my son had been found and I was going to be Rahul’s mom!  That news started me on a race to get a thesis paper’s worth of paperwork triple-notarized and sent to India so I wouldn’t lose him.  I sent flowers to Tamika instead.

As I stared at the word Goodbye on Facebook that fateful day I felt I might be the only person who knew what was happening.  I immediately called her and got her voice mail.  “Call me”, I said.  “I just read your Facebook message.”  I clicked on Tamika’s homepage and learned I wasn’t the only one who knew.  A friend of hers from Louisiana had written this message: HELP!!!!!!!!!!! TAMIKA HAS TAKEN PILLS AND IS TRYING TO KILL HERSELF AND I DON’T KNOW HER ADDRESS!!!!!!!!!!

I know her address!  A few weeks earlier I had ordered a few Christmas cards to send out and after addressing them to various family members I had one left.  I asked Rahul whom we should send it to and we decided on Tamika.  It would be her first Christmas without her mom and I thought it would cheer her up.  She had just moved, so I called her and got her new address.

As I started to write back to her Facebook friend, my phone rang.  It was Tamika.  Thank God she is alive.  I answered and although she was alive, she was not well.  She was slurring her words and not making any sense.  While I listened I picked up my other phone and dialed 911.  I was grateful to have a second phone — I had only bought it one day earlier.  I was able to keep her talking while I gave the 911 operator her address.  When she heard that I was sending help, she hung up on me.

My hands were shaking as I finished writing back to her Louisiana friend to say that I had Tamika’s address and had called the police.

My phone rang again and this time it was the police.  They were at Tamika’s door and she wasn’t answering so they were going to leave.  “NO!” I shouted!  I dialed Tamika again and she picked up.  Go open your door! I said to her.  “She’s there!” I said to the police on my other ear.  “I’m talking to her right now.”  A moment later I heard Tamika’s roommate (who had been sleeping and was awakened by the banging on the door) answer the door.  I heard the police questioning her and they rushed her into an ambulance.  I hung up both phones and took a deep breath.

I thought for a second and realized there was one more thing I could do.  I knew Tamika’s therapist, Tina.  That’s because she had been my therapist first and I had recommended her to Tamika.   In all the years I had known Tina she never once picked up the phone when I called her office.  That day when I dialed her number, she picked up the phone.  “Renee! So great to hear from you!  How are things going with your son!”  “Tina, Tamika is on her way to the hospital.  She took a bunch of pills this morning.  Do you know her psychiatrist? Could you find out what medication she is on?”  “Oh my God.” She said.  “Yes, I do know him and I will call him right now.  Thanks for letting me know.”

Ask I hung up with Tina my phone rang again and this time it was Tamika’s friend from Louisiana.  She was so relieved to get my message and she explained how she had called the NYPD earlier in the day, but because she didn’t know where Tamika lived they couldn’t do anything.  And then she had to pick up her son from kindergarten and had just had to leave that desperate message on Tamika’s Facebook page praying someone would see it.  I realized it was time for me to go pick up my son from school also.  But before I left I got one more call.  Tina called back to say she had gotten in touch with Tamika’s psychiatrist, they had tracked down which hospital she was admitted to and talked to the ER doctors at the hospital.  They had caught her in time and she would recover.  Hallelujah!  There was now nothing else I could do, so I went to pick up Rahul.

To make a long story short, Tamika received wonderful care and worked very hard to heal.  She is a new person today,  solid and happy.   I’m going to her wedding in May!

When I think back to all the stars that aligned that day. The timing of that one afterschool class Rahul took—literally the only 2 hours I had to myself for months.  The online reunion with the friend who gave me a reason to check my Facebook page.  The extra phone I had just bought.  The address I had just procured from Tamika.  The therapist I knew personally who answered the phone.  God put me in the right place at the right time, with the right tools and the right knowledge, to help to save my friend.

Serendipity.  Provident serendipity.

(And I don’t hate Facebook anymore.)

 

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Me and Tamika:)

*By the way, in case you are wondering, Tamika gave me her blessing to tell our story.

 

Recently, my son took his second snowboarding lesson.  My whole family went to a local ski resort for a day and my brother in law, niece and nephew went skiing, Rahul took his lesson, and my sister, parents and I “lounged” at the lodge. (In actuality, we fought off pushy ski families and attempted, unsuccessfully, to connect to the “free wifi” so we could get a little work done.)  When the day was nearly finished, Rahul’s class ended and he was allowed to try out his new skills on one of the hills.  The skiers in my family were anxious to join him and somehow, in the hustle and bustle of getting them all together in the same place, Rahul and my nephew darted off to the chairlift that led to the highest peak on the mountain.  Yes, my 13 year old “exactly 2 lessons” son and my 10 year old “competent skier, but not allowed to ski without his dad” nephew were on their way to the top of the mountain and there was nothing any of us could do about it.

My sister and I ran out into the snow towards the chairlift and they were gone. Up the mountain. No cell phone, no adult to guide them. On their own. We stood there staring up at this humungous mountain and realized there was absolutely nothing we could do but stand at the base of the mountain and wait for them to come down.

I’m not an anxious person. I don’t restrict Rahul much and I like for him to try new things and take risks. I’m more of a Free Range Parent than a Helicopter Mom. But I stood there absolutely frozen in panic, consumed by fear. We watched tiny specks move their way down the mountain, imagining every one of them to be our sons. We looked for anyone who seemed to be stuck or in distress, realizing there was nothing we could do about it even if it were our child. I watched the line of trees on either side of the trail, scanning for any person who came too close to them, praying constantly that God would bring my son down the mountain in one piece. We stood there shaking with cold and stiff with fear for what seemed like hours, until finally, my nephew emerged around the corner at the base. He was safe and in one piece and skied right over to us, unaware that our hearts had nearly stopped beating with terror for his safety. “Where is Rahul?” I asked. My nephew had lost him halfway down, but said he was managing OK when he last saw him. My sister sent him inside and, bless her heart, she stayed there with me, huddling together, waiting for Rahul. My brother-in-law, bless his heart, sped over to the final lift of the day on his skis, hoping to find Rahul on the way down and guide him to safety.

As the minutes dragged by I began to realize that what we were doing–waiting at the base of the mountain–was a metaphorical representation of what we all do as parents every day.  We send them up a mountain (or they dash up there all on their own) and then we wait for them at the base. I thought about how my job as Rahul’s mom is to prepare him the best I can for whatever challenges the mountain brings him. And it is also in my hands to wait for him as patiently and confidently as I can. I am meant to rejoice in his victories–the new skills and lessons he learns, and to support him when he falls.

I thought about powerlessness. About the mothers who wait for their sons and daughters when they disappear.  About my dear friend whose teenage son is recovering in a nearby burn unit from a horrible accident at school.  About Avonte Oquendo’s mom and Leiby Kletsky’s mom –2 NYC moms who didn’t receive their sons back alive.  I thought about a friend of mine who had recently told me about an entire weekend she and her husband spent tracking down lost photos of their daughter so she could have a special birthday celebration in school only to have the birthday girl stay home that day so as to stay out of the spotlight.  She said, “That’s so much of what parenting is, isn’t it?  Learning to let go of the plans you have for your children and embrace and support theirs.”

After an eternity, we learned that Rahul was safely in the lodge with my family.  He had taken a bit of a detour at the bottom of the mountain so he never passed us by.  He was triumphant at his victory (“I flipped over a bunch of times, but I only fell and couldn’t get up once!”).  It took me a few hours before I could calm down enough to share his triumph.

We’re going back to the mountain next weekend.  And Rahul will try the smaller hills.  And I will be waiting for him at the bottom.

 

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and had compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”  Luke 15:20

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Rahul and his friend at the base of the mountain.

Thank You Santa

January 3, 2014

Dear Santa,

I want to thank you for allowing me to “be” you for the last 5 years.  You know how much my son needed to believe in magic, and you provided that for him.  I really wrestled with whether I should introduce him to you or not.  He was 8 years old his first Christmas with me, and–as you know–by that age I had lost my childhood belief in you.  I wondered whether it was morally right to introduce a figure such as yourself to a child who had already lost so much.  I didn’t want him to feel abandoned when he lost you.  He has always been so savvy, so street-smart, so lacking in imagination, I wondered whether he would even be able to grasp who you were.  And so I decided I would let him lead me.  I told him a little bit about you, then I let his schoolmates and his tv shows tell him the rest.  I figured if he needed you he would grasp on to you.

And grasp on he did!  One of my favorite memories will always be Rahul’s reaction to the mounds of presents you left under the tree that first Christmas morning.  He knew who you were, but he hadn’t really believed you would visit him.  He thought he was too bad.  Too insignificant.  He hadn’t made a Christmas list and didn’t know what to do with the toy catalogue I had handed him.  (You may remember that my sister and I would devour the Sears Catalogue every December, pouring over it for hours, circling things we fancied and adding them to our list…)  Once when I read to him at bedtime I finished with a poem about a little girl wishing on a star for her Christmas wish–a horse.  I asked Rahul whether there was anything in particular he would wish for as a Christmas present.  He didn’t even understand my question.  After much explanation and prodding he squeaked out, “A remote controlled car?”   I smiled to myself, because the very car he wanted was at that moment hiding in my closet:)

That first Christmas Eve I snuck around hearing Mission Impossible music in my head while he slept 6 feet away from the Christmas tree.  And in the morning as he climbed down from his loft bed he could barely comprehend what he was seeing!  Presents! Tons of them, all for him!  His first comment was, “I must have been a very good boy!”  That is what it meant to him: validation.  You taught him that he was good.

And over the years, despite his classmates and friends outgrowing their belief in you, Rahul stood firm.  The child with no imagination and very little faith in anything, believed wholeheartedly in you.  He loved your letters most of all.  He held them as some of his most prized possessions, asking me throughout the year to pull them out so he could re-read them.    Knowing that you were proud of him gave him strength and helped him to be proud of himself.

I knew it was going to be tough for him to hear the full truth about you, but I was prepared when he finally asked for the whole truth this year.  Initially, the news was devastating to him.  Despite being 13 years old, Rahul was a True Believer.  He looked at me in complete shock and shut down, except to ask me for your most recent letter to him.  He spent the night crying on that letter, his tears doing their best to wash away your words.  All the next day he wrestled with disappointment, anger, embarrassment.  He kept saying that you were a lie.  That I had lied to him about you.  And I insisted that I had not lied.  That you were real, just not what he thought you were.  I explained to him how as a parent I had the amazing opportunity to play the role of Santa.  To become you.  I explained how a myth and a lie are very different things.  One is told in love, the other in malice.  And after hours and hours of talking through his feelings, I finally read him the “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” letter.  And that did it.  That encompassed everything I was trying to explain to him and it made sense to him.  After 24 hours of declaring that we would not celebrate Christmas this year, he finally smiled and said, “OK.  Christmas is back on.”

And it was different this year for him.  Less magical.  Its always difficult that first year.  Its hard for us until we learn to become you, to bring magic to others and receive a different type of magic in return.  Please help us all to embody you as we believe in one another and celebrate their victories.

In the meantime, thank you for giving Rahul something no one else could: belief in himself.

 

Your friend,

Renee

 

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Hide and Seek

May 5, 2013

Today before church began I watched in fascination as Rahul performed an ancient, healing ritual with a little boy in our congregation. It’s called Hide and Seek. This little boy is 1/3 Rahul’s age and size and was over the moon to run all over the auditorium chasing him, counting to 20 and peeking under chairs to find my gigantic pre-teen curled up in a ball or stretched out on the floor under the seats. He would take turns hiding, too, as Rahul pretended not to be able to find him and called his name until he would pop out of hiding, exploding in giggles. I was supposed to be rehearsing some music, but I was barely able to to contain my tears or wrench my eyes away from the game.

Rahul has been with me for 5 years now. And when he first came, he was frightened and angry and independent. He was not used to being hugged or held, so in order to get him acclimated to loving touch, I had to invent games where he could enjoy human contact without sensory overload. I used to grab him by one hand and one foot and gently swing him around in circles (he would giggle uncontrollably), or hold him under his arms from behind and swing his legs back and forth like a bell (while saying “ding-dong, ding-dong”). But by far, his favorite “gotcha” game was Hide and Seek. I would always be the “Seeker” and he would always hide. I would count to 20 and go off in search of him and he would always make it back “home”, where I would snatch him up and swing him around and tickle him, and he would laugh so hard he would fall over. We would literally play that game for hours.

You don’t have to be much of an armchair psychologist to see the deeper meaning behind the game. Over and over we would play out the act of Rahul being lost and me finding him. Over time, he began to indoctrinate anyone who meant something to him into this game. I remember our friends, The Thompsons, coming over in Rahul’s early days, and all 6 of us playing Hide and Seek in my one-bedroom apartment over and over. And once, when my dear friend Libby and her then-fiancé Bruce came to watch Rahul for the day, they reported that they had played some version of Hide and Seek the entire day. At one point Libby couldn’t find Rahul until she opened my closet and looked up–he had crawled up the walls, Spiderman-style, and was hovering over her head. One of my favorite memories is hearing my Dad count loudly to 20 over and over again, in full view of all my nosey neighbors in our front yard as he and my Mom played marathon sessions of Hide and Seek with Rahul.

It’s been a year or so since I remember him playing Hide and Seek, so that’s why I was surprised to see him playing it this morning. What struck me most today was that I could see he wasn’t playing it for his own therapy anymore. My ginormous man-child doesn’t need games anymore to get a hug. He just says, “Give me some sugar” with his arms outstretched and he’s got a big bear-hug from me. He asks for foot rubs, or head rubs almost every night. He snuggles with the dog, carries little friends on his shoulders, curls up with me on the couch to watch tv. No, today he was patiently allowing another child to enter his sacred ritual. Sharing his gift. Coming full circle.

Buzz

January 14, 2013

Today is my Dad’s birthday.  There are millions of things I love about him!  Here are a few:

When I was about 5 years old my best friend Kyle told me about a monster that had appeared in his room from under his bed one night. He said as he lay in bed a big hand had reached up from under the bed and grabbed him!  I suggested that maybe it had only been a dream, but he insisted it was the absolute truth and scared me out of my wits.  That night when I went to bed I told my Dad how scared I was that there was a monster under my bed that was going to reach up and grab me. He soothed me and told me Kyle had just had a nightmare.  Once I was calm he turned out the lights and left the room.  A few moments later I heard my Mom scolding my Dad from the hallway, “Buuuuuzzz??” At the same time I saw a huge hand reaching toward me from under my bed!  I screamed, but instantly I knew it was my Father who had crawled back into my room and under my bed to reach his hand up to scare me!  Now, another child might have been scarred for life.  But I honestly don’t think I lost a moment’s sleep over being scared again in my life–ever.

When my first love went off to college I was still in high school.  After coming home from delivering him to the start of his sophomore year, I was heartbroken and trying to hold it together through dinner.  We used to have rather formal dinners at our house.  Dining room, candles, wine, interesting music, etc.  At one point I excused myself and went out to the kitchen under the pretense of getting something.  Instead, I stood in the corner and quietly sobbed with my face in my hands.  A moment later I felt big, strong arms surrounding me–my dad had sensed that I was upset and had followed me from the table to give me a hug.  I love that I didn’t have to speak my troubles or make a scene, he just knew what I needed in that moment.

When I was preparing to adopt Rahul my Dad announced he wanted to come with me to India and I was thrilled!  It was a pretty emotional experience (to say the least) and there is no one who steadies me like him.  Besides that, Rahul instantly fell in love with him.

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Need I say more?

Happy Birthday Buzz!

Purple Sky

January 12, 2013

The other night I was having trouble sleeping.  Now, normally, I sleep very soundly.  My life only accords me a few hours to sleep, so I try to make the most of it!  But I swear I’m starting “the change”, because the other night I felt like it was 90 degrees in my room and I just couldn’t cool off.  So I rolled around, changed my clothes, kicked the cat off the bed.  Nothing worked.  And as I lay there trying to cool down and fall back asleep I began to fret.  I’m not normally a worrier, but there’s something about lying alone in the dark to get one feeling anxious about all of life’s troubles.  My mind searched around for something else to think about, but I couldn’t seem to let go of troubling lines of thought.

How am I going to pay my bills?  Is my dog going to feel better? (He’s been sick.)  How am I going to send Rahul to college?  What will I do when my parents get too old to care for themselves?  Who will care for me when I’m old? 

You know the progression of anxiety.

Then a strange thought popped in my head: purple.  I saw in my mind the most vivid purple.  It was so gorgeous that I forgot about my questions for a moment.  It was an abstract thought, but it was an arresting color and I contemplated whether I had ever seen it in nature, or just material things.  I thought about the sky and and the beautiful, startling colors contained in it at times and I puzzled over whether I had ever seen that purple in the sky before.  I was sure I hadn’t.  And as I drifted back off to sleep I longed to see that purple in the sky…

A short while later my alarm was gonging and it was time to get up.  I rolled out of bed and took my dog outside for his walk.  My brain was foggy and sluggish as I led him east along our street.  He stopped to sniff something and I turned my head to stretch.  And the western sky was completely purple.  I immediately remembered my earlier thoughts and was stunned.  It was exactly the color I had pictured in my head and it wasn’t just a sliver of purple, it was the entire sky!  I stood frozen on the sidewalk staring into the sky.  And before my eyes it changed to grey.  As the sun was rising the colors were refracting differently and the purple was gone.

He made it purple for me! I thought.  God put color in the sky at the exact moment I was going to see it to show me He would take care of all the answers to my anxious questions.  To show me He loved me and He saw me. 

I know it sounds arrogant–God colored the entire sky purple just for me!!–but I do believe it.  I think He does it for all of us, all the time, whether we notice it or acknowledge or recognize it.  David wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1-2)

I’m just one, tiny insignificant person and I am mostly invisible to the people around me.  But to know that my Maker sees me is what I need to get through today.

Rahul Walking

October 1, 2012

I wrote and published this piece several years ago, but its one of my favorites so I thought it bore repeating…

As I stepped out into the cold April night I was aware that my son was not wearing any shoes.  When he turned back and saw me following him, he took off running down the poorly lit street.  My heart had already been pounding, now it felt like there was enough electricity pumping through my veins to launch a rocket.  I don’t know how this is going to end, I kept thinking.  I had only moved into this neighborhood two months earlier and did not know all the shadows and driveways and if Rahul ran off the street I would never be able to find him.  I caught up to him quickly and he slumped his shoulders when he realized I was going to follow him wherever he went tonight.  Tears streamed down his cheeks, but he stared straight ahead, determined to out-walk me, if nothing else.  Neighbors passed by us, but didn’t notice that he had no shoes on, or that he was breaking down.  I whistled a tune so he would think I was calm and in control.  When we reached the first intersection he started to dart across the street, not understanding the traffic lights or the “don’t walk” signal.  I grabbed him and pointed to the oncoming traffic to show him that I didn’t want to stop him from walking, just from getting hit by a car.  He pulled out of my grip, enraged that I was trying to hold him back, and charged ahead as cars drove toward him.  I jumped between him and the cars and held my hands up to stop them as we crossed the street together.  I prayed that they would see me and stop.  I hadn’t stopped praying since his tantrum had begun.

Rahul had only just come home with me from India a week or so earlier.  He was angry and irritated and uncomfortable most of the time since we had met, and a few times he had erupted in such rage that he would try to run away from me.  He would start by putting his shoes on, the ones he had worn home from the orphanage, then he would carefully remove anything I had given him—a watch, a shirt—and try to leave my NYC apartment.  He was trying to run back to India.  Back to his house—his orphanage.  Away from me.  I stopped him the first few times.  A few days earlier he had gotten so angry at my stopping him from leaving that he lashed out at me to the point where I feared I couldn’t control him.  He was small for his age, but he was still a 7-year-old boy, and a strong one at that.  I have never claimed to be very strong myself, physically at least.  He spent several hours kicking, scratching, screaming and biting me, until finally he passed out on the floor in a heap.  I fell into a heap myself that day, in tears, scared by what I had taken on.  Unsure how to handle his emotion.  But after that incident I decided that the next time he tried to leave I wouldn’t stop him, I would just go with him.  I would be his shadow as he discovered that India is too far away to walk to.  So that night, when he started walking out the door, I stood aside and let him go.  As he struggled with the locks he got so angry that he threw his shoes across the floor.  I looked in his eyes and said, Wow, you are angry!  Then I unlocked the door and opened it.

Once we made it safely across the intersection I could see Rahul’s eyes scanning the edges of the street lighted area for somewhere to dash to.  We walked another two blocks, then turned north.  We were no longer walking on the sidewalk or the road, but balancing on a small curb.  I prayed that there was no broken glass to cut his feet.  And I prayed that this night would end well.  We walked a few more blocks and Rahul turned right, crossing an overpass over the Henry Hudson Parkway.  Where is he going? I thought. Then he made one more turn, down the entrance ramp.  My heart raced as I realized his plan was to walk onto the highway.  Did he think it led back to India?  My brain was spinning as I followed alongside him.  I knew if he made it to the bottom of the ramp I would have to physically restrain him and I wasn’t sure I could do it.  My God, what would that look like to people driving by?   Then, just as we reached the bottom, he stopped and turned around.   I took a deep breath.  Did this mean he was done?  As we reached the top of the ramp and turned back over the overpass, without looking at me, he whispered, “House.”  It was one of the few English words he knew and at that moment it was the most beautiful word I had ever heard.  I said, “OK.”  I could see that he didn’t know how to get home and his little body was shivering.  I said, “ Can I carry you?”  I wasn’t sure I could carry him very far, but I couldn’t let him walk anymore.  He stopped dead in his tracks and lifted up his arms.  I drew him up into my arms and tried to help him mold around my body.  Having not been held much in his life, he was awkward in this position, with his neck stiff and his limbs just hanging limp.  I placed my lips to his ear and said, “Rahul, I love you.  I am not going to hurt you.” It was the first time I had told him that I loved him, and until this moment, I wasn’t even sure that I did.

The rest of that night was happy and there have been so many happy times since then.  That night I began to trust my maternal instinct, which has guided me more surely than any advice or instruction.  That wasn’t the last time Rahul ran away from me and it certainly wasn’t the worst night we have shared since he has been home with me the past two and a half years.  But that night was the beginning of our very special relationship.

Rahul circa April 2008 in his favorite outfit!