Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Love Comes First

I was 16 years old, barely on the job a year, when I walked into the back room of the drug store I worked at and stumbled upon a scene that was new for me.  There, my kind and helpful older co-worker, a young man in his mid-twenties, was kissing his boyfriend good bye.  The look of sheer terror on his face when he realized he had been "caught in the act" was to shape my understanding of what it meant to be a homosexual for years to come.  This was in 1983, a mere year after AIDS had been labeled in the media as the "gay disease", and the societal condemnation of anyone suspected of being gay was palpable.  Mike's fear of being "outed" was well founded, and the fact that it was a very young co-worker who had observed a benign kiss had him trembling before me.  Fumbling to find the words to explain what I had just witnessed, he blanched and fell silent.

Standing there in the dimly lit stock room, we both recognized the seriousness of the moment.  This wasn't just about Mike losing his job, it was about the ostracization that would occur should word get out.  It was about the death threats he could no doubt imagine and the epithets that would surely be thrown his way.  His life as he knew it would be over, all because a young girl walked in on a casual kiss goodbye with his longtime committed boyfriend.  Had it been between a man and woman, it wouldn't have even registered on the radar, but this was different, this was "gay on display" during an era when living outwardly as a gay couple was foolhardy and could lead to bodily harm as others attempted to show their own "manhood" by assaulting those who were different and considered a threat.

His partner silent and holding his breath beside him, I reached out and touched Mike's arm as I quietly said, "Don't worry, Mike, it's really OK.  I promise.  There's nothing wrong here." and I slipped back out the door.

We never spoke of it again.  His panic-stricken look was to be etched in my mind forever.

A handful of years later, I was a twenty-something married woman when my mom and I joined a women's bowling league.  The first couple of weeks passed, and teams had yet to be finalized.  Soon we discovered why.  Two women were suspected of being a lesbian couple, and no one wanted to partner with them on a four person team.  Though not living as an out couple, the assumption was made, and therefore they were deemed unworthy of sitting next to on a bench, or standing side by side with on a lane.  Without hesitation, my mom and I offered to partner with them, but for the first
few weeks there was an awful awkward silence as it took these two bright, funny ladies time to feel safe.  Four years later, we were still partnered and though there was the occasional muttered nasty comment from members of other teams, wordlessly all four of us would ignore the maliciousness and balance it with humor, enjoying ourselves thoroughly and letting it roll off our backs.  Over time, our friends opened up more and we learned about their lives and their history together.  Unsurprisingly, there was very little that was different about their lives from our own.

It is much easier to live into your true, authentic self when you feel accepted and understood.  Hiding in plain sight is a soul crushing way to live.

There were others brought into our lives whose sexuality differed from ours, but in every other way they were very much the same.  However, there was always an inequality that Dominick and I would never experience.  We watched helplessly as one friend had his commitment ceremony turned into fodder for our entire community, and whose family reacted with venom and spitefulness, yet we were so impressed with his graciousness and forgiving attitude later on.  I listened as another opened up after a lifetime of living as a straight man as he explained that he had indeed been running from his true self his entire life, and couldn't do it anymore.  I have watched as others have denied themselves an authentic life and have ached with loneliness for years and years, never quite being able to bring themselves to admit openly to loving someone that many say they shouldn't.

My dearest friend is gay, and I love her very much.  She has been deeply wounded through the years as she has attempted to live her life honestly and openly, never trying to garner attention, but simply attempting to live with integrity.  A woman of great depth and substance, she and her partner of twenty years have been through more than most due to their open commitment to one another, and it has honed her faith and strengthened her resolve to always, always be kind.  Yet, there is a steel backbone that was forged through trials I can't imagine.  I did, however, catch a glimpse of her vulnerability when, as we tentatively began to move our friendship beyond the casual to a richer and deeper place, I was gently cautioned by her that others would likely make accusations about me due to her being gay, and I was asked quietly if I was ready for that.  I knew by the uncharacteristic timidity I could hear in her voice that I was really being asked a subtly different, unspoken question.  "Will you, too, turn on me should the going get rough?  Am I worth risk?" and perhaps the biggest one, "Do I dare allow this to be all it can be, or will my heart be broken again?"

My answer?  "You clearly don't know me well enough yet or you'd never ask that, but eventually, you will."

You see, I believe the Spirit brings us encounters to prepare us for what is to come. Initially, we may see no connection whatsoever, but looking back over our shoulder we find ourselves saying, "Ahhhh...I get it now."  Our hearts are transformed ever-so-gradually, our minds are molded by The Grand Sculptor so that, when the moment arrives, we are ready to bring our best selves to a circumstance.  We are more empathetic, more compassionate, more educated, but perhaps most important of all, we are more loving and kind.  The Sculptor has shaved off the rough edges, smoothed the marble that is our soul, and crafted an entirely different version of ourselves to share with the world.  In lieu of mallet and chisel, The Grand Sculptor uses the power of relationship and the witnessing of the callousness of others, both highly effective tools.

Each and every experience builds on itself, knowledge, insight, and awareness grows within us.  Suddenly, there is the moment when you are faced with a new situation, and you realize you are ready, you can handle it, and somehow God did that sculpting work and there is nothing to fear.

Like when your dear son summons the courage to tell you, in a quavering voice, that after months of reflection and prayer, he is certain he is gay.  He looks up at you expectantly, questioningly, fearfully, aching for what he hopes is still there.

That is the moment when, in a millisecond, your responses will be measured more carefully than they have ever been in your life, and you need to react from the place God has worked on the most.  When you wrap him up in your arms, accepting all of who he is with an unwavering love, that is when you fully understand the reason for the journey you have been on.

Unrehearsed but well prepared, chiseled and shaped, that is the moment when Love Wins.

Our sermon this past Sunday spoke to my heart at a time when I really was open to hearing it, and I recognized that my silence means I am complicit in the lack of acceptance we are seeing and hearing around our LGBTQ friends and loved ones.  I haven't necessarily avoided it, I just haven't elected to speak to it specifically and enter into the contentiousness that always accompanies such conversations.  I know there are many whose faith leads them to quite different conclusions than mine, and I respect that, having never had a need to persuade others that my understanding is the correct one.  But I realized as I listened this morning that my voice needs to be added, and that I can do so without disputing what others feel to be true, but that I might be able to shine a light on the pain I have witnessed of those who are pushed out to the margins, who are excluded and "other-ized", and yet who have the same hopes and dreams we all do, and who, in my opinion, also have God's equal and abiding love.  Thankfully, God doesn't separate and divide us the way we humans seem to have a need to do.

I believe that when I love my LGBTQ friends and child, I am doing exactly as Jesus would have me do, and I am living into my faith as wholeheartedly as I can.  I will not be silent, for Mike, Sue and Carol, Kent, Candi, my anonymous closeted ones, and Kenny need me not to just merely accept them, but to stand side by side with them in a world that often seeks to place them in the "Unlovable" category.  If that is where they belong in your opinion, then place me right alongside them.

Don't worry, I'll be in great company.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Life Skills 101

I have been busily planning courses and researching curriculum for next semester, which really begins in a scattered form.  We are so far off the traditional school schedule these days that we just throw in a new course when one is completed.  This next year or two is going to get us somewhat out of the books for some subjects, and out into the world a little more.  While academics will still be strong, we are bringing some other things alongside.

One course that I plan to teach, with Dominick's help in a couple of areas, for two years is Life Skills.  You know, as we think about our kids one day heading off on their own, we have realized there are many non-academic skills we want to make certain we have been taught before they make their own nests someday.  As academics and testing have been pushed into the public school arena, classes such as home economics, shop, family and child development and more are being replaced.  Both Dominick and I took a wonderful Family Life course in high school from the same teacher that was enormously helpful as we looked toward our future.  It made us pause and consider what kind of life we wanted to build together.

We also want the kids to be able to handle their finances well, cook a decent meal, understand enough of a conversation with a car mechanic that they won't get ripped off, and be able to save money by performing minor repairs in their own homes.  All of these skills have helped us manage to have a decent life even on a lower income, and provided us with a sense of self-sufficiency and confidence early on in our married life.

This will also offer us the opportunity for a lot of project based learning, the first of which will be hard wiring the electrical outlets and plugs in the garage and adding in new lights.  I have all kinds of ideas that will make this learning take root, and provide many moments of laughter, too, I am sure, as we work our way through a cookbook and the kids each plan meals, shop for them on a budget, and prepare them.  I am going to recreate an experiential learning project which we did in that high school class where the kids will be "parents" to baby "eggs" for a couple of weeks, and need to meet the needs of their child, take it with them everywhere, make sure they have babysitters they pay, etc.  That one should be a hoot and also informative as they get a tiny sneak peek at how much responsibility goes into having a baby.

We also have a business development project in mind that will be a major effort for the kids, more on that to come in a few months, if it works out.  This will flesh out their Entrepreneurship course this year, which all the kids have learned so much from and really enjoyed.  Ask them about P&L's, assessing the financial health of a business, the value of marketing, and more...they are prepared to answer!

We are going to build things, make things, read things, discuss things, clean things, and more!  So much to learn, so little time.  Oh yea, and along the way we will probably do some Algebra, Earth Science, and tenth grade literature...and a handful of essays just for good measure!

Here are the texts we are going to use over the next two years, that cover everything with the exception of three personal finance texts, including more personal topics and relationships:

The Family Handyman Do-it-Yourself Manual has already been broken out, and a two hour "field trip" to Home Depot with Dominick took place, as electrical wiring was investigated and the garage project laid out.  Dominick said it was so funny, all five kids had their Manuals with them and were looking at electrical switches when an employee walked by, totally puzzled, as they were reading and learning while deciding what parts to purchase.

Angela getting conduit...and now knows what conduit is! 

So much to learn, so little time!!  Life skills, reading, math, science, it is all fun!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Annual Battle of the Garage Was Won!!

For those of you who have followed our blog for any number of years, you might be familiar with our Annual Garage Cleaning Marriage Battle, the only thing Dominick and I ever truly go to war over.  You see, he is a "Hoarder in Training" and I am a "Minimalist Chucker"...meaning chuck everything in a pile and get rid of it! Hahaha!

This year, Dominick and I sat down to have the Pre-Spring Fling conversation, and the idea was brought up that we need another storage shed, and maybe he'd like to build one.  Hmmm...not a bad idea, until I really started thinking about it, and then I put the breaks on that.

"Whoa!!!  Wait a minute!  We already HAVE to sheds AND a garage!  How about we save the money and just do a major clean up and get rid of a lot of stuff?" I asked.  I then added, "I am finding it hard to justify spending money we don't have to build a shed to hold more junk (OK, so I really said "crap") when half the stuff we are storing we haven't touched in years, which indicates to me we don't really need it at all."

He sat there uncharacteristically quiet, and then...and then...and then...
he agreed!!!

:::And the angel choir sang Hallelujah!!!::

Sooo....a couple of weekends ago we tackled it, and we tackled it hard.  Sadly, I don't have the wretched "before" photos to share, as the kids got busy before I could get out there to take a picture.  However, it took us two solid days to empty both sheds and the garage, sort through things, create piles, and re-assign items to new locations.  It was a major "win" in my book, almost 20 years in the making, and I am thrilled!

Here are a couple of "semi-before" pics:

This was not at all as bad as it was at its worst, it was early on in the emptying process...the two sheds were packed with business paperwork for twenty years, old school work that I was keeping in case we are ever checked on, etc.  It was time to trash it all.

Now, admittedly, with a family of 7 and a small supposedly two car garage (One of those that really and truly couldn't easily fit two real sized cars side by side and actually open a car door), we do have additional storage needs versus smaller families.  Winter sledding gear, bikes, larger appliances, no decent pantry inside the house all lead to us needing a tad bit more space.

However, my real "urge to purge" and Dominick's relatively easy agreement really stemmed from the realization that Matt was desperately in need of some real shop space.  As he moves into the next phase of his "tinkering" and learning, he needs to have space other than in his bedroom so he can spread out and work on projects.  He needs tools and space to store them, and his 3D printer is quite loud so if it has to run for several hours, he would like it away from their study area.

We ended up taking two full trailer loads to the dump:

Olesya securing the load

The garage project was a great opportunity for Dominick to see first hand how seriously effected Kenny can be. Though, of course, Dominick has often worked with Kenny, it is in easier and more structured settings, and many times other kids are guiding Kenny and Dominick hasn't realized it.  Kenny's adaptive skills are wonderful, he takes cues easily from others, etc.  But this was a very difficult setting for him to work in, there was chaos in the environment, and clearly chaos in his brain. Unlike the other kids, Kenny can't walk into a situation like that, select an area to start cleaning or emptying, and begin working.  He can't "see" what needs to be done or plan it out in his head.  He is a very eager and super hard worker, but needs to have one on one supervision to be productive, and this was a perfect example for Dominick to see how he struggles more than we often understand.

No kidding, during a two hour period, I stopped counting at 13 times I personally had to re-direct Kenny.  He would start a task and his attention would be drawn away, or he would have no clue what to do if I told him to clean a particular area so I would have to give him step by step instructions, but he would forget so I would need to remind him again, giving directions to him in ever smaller increments.  His auditory processing effects him far more than we realize, and we had to turn off the radio every single time we talked to him, or he would not pick up what we say.

However, it was instructive for Dominick to witness more of what I personally deal with every day with Kenny, and he and I both realized it might be helpful if I got more training in how best to work with Kenny as he matures, and then share that information with Dominick for when Kenny moves more into working at the store with him.  There are things I am used to doing automatically, that Dominick hasn't ever needed to do in working briefly with him in less distracting settings, so we are recognizing  we are moving toward a new phase and we each need to learn more.

Matt breaking down an old shelving unit

He looks reasonably content with the tossing, doesn't he? ;-)

Oh Good Grief!  That dog is such a spoiled little princess!

You never know what you are going to find...a 12 year old Cat in the Hat costume worn by Dominick when Matt and Josh where little!

It takes so little to make me very little...just a little organization and cleaning and I am one thrilled woman!

Cleaned and re-organized shed

Ahhh, I can get to my supplies now

Matt's corner work space beginning to take shape

How long will it last?  Oh Lordy, who knows!  I long ago gave up expecting more than a month or so.  However, for the moment, I feel somehow cleansed.  It is as if Marie Kondo herself visited our home and "KonMari'd" it.  We kept only those items that bring us joy.  Well.  That might be a stretch.  I am sure I get little joy over 4 different sizes of Igloo coolers, but they sure are useful when needed!

Regardless of how long the KonMari magic lasts, I am filled with peace and tranquility as I walk into my now spacious garage.

That is, until next year.  ::sigh::  Stop it, Cindy...feel the joy, feel the joy!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Holding Us So Tenderly

We are a family who has literally been carried in the hearts of so many people.  The love showered upon us continually has been beyond all comprehension.  I'd give anything for  other adoptive families to be supported in such a way.  There is this tiny band of Team LaJoy cheerleaders that has literally made all the difference in the world for us, provided for us both spiritually and emotionally, as well as sometimes even financially.


What did we ever do to deserve to land in the outstretched arms of others?

I will never have the answer to that, but both Dominick and I know, without question, that our family would not be what we are without this ongoing outpouring of love and concrete assistance.  It has transformed us from trying to thriving, over and over again.  How I wish we could one day repay this debt of love!  We try in small ways to pay it forward, but it can never, ever equal all we have been given.

Recently, we had another sweet gesture made.  A dear long time friend (and Josh's church companion) was celebrating her 70th birthday.  Dinner out at a local nicer restaurant was planned, and the guest list included our entire family.  This was the sort of place that was well beyond the price of Little Caesar's Pizza, our usual family "treat" if we want to have a meal out, so it would have put it beyond range for us financially.  What an incredible surprise to be told about the big night, and at the same time have it explained that each of our kids had already been selected as "dates" by others who stepped up so generously to offer to pay for their meal so we could actually all go!  We didn't have a moment's concern due to the thoughtfulness of several others.  I couldn't believe it, and the kids were quite excited to eat at a nicer restaurant they had never been to before.  Here are photos of the kids and their sweet "dates" for the evening!

Josh and Kim

Angela and Pat

Bob, Beth and Olesya

Kenny and George

Matt and Miss Mary (She will always be "Miss" Mary!)

Dominick and Wife #2, Jeannie, who was our faithful employee and friend for so many years at the airport!  This woman literally made every adoption possible by managing the restaurant while we were gone, and being a steadfast presence in our lives.

The birthday girl, Francie, arriving in style with her hubby Mark

George and Kenny deep in conversation, no doubt about politics or theology

Francie with her second boyfriend, Joshie!
These two are adorable at church, and she always teases that she is going to get the two of them kicked out for being disruptive :-)

Francie with her birthday cake maker!

Olesya's birthday cake for Francie, the theme was "throwback" with lollipops as decorations throughout the room, so Olesya made small little lollipops by hand rolling Starburst candies.  The effort others put into helping Olesya shine is making such a difference for her.

These...and more not pictured...are our people.  They love us, they nurture us, they matter deeply to us.  We are all walking through life together, and they are making certain our family succeeds.  Every time I stop to think about it, I am so thankful for the love that surrounds us, for I know deep in our heart we would never make it without them.  My fondest hope is that, over time, we can find ways to repay the tenderness with which we have been held.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Special Kind of Loneliness

She walks to the car, her smile attempting to hide the trembling chin.  Angela had just finished her second afternoon of volunteering at our local nursing home.  Her supervisor came around to my window, and explained that one of their residents who Angela had visited with was nearing death, and she gave me a knowing look.  I thanked her for her time with Angela, then we pulled away.

Quietly, I asked if she was OK, and grabbed her hand to offer comfort for what I knew had to be a very hard moment.  We drove to pick up Olesya, who was just finishing her second shift at the animal shelter, filled with exuberance about her time spent with the very kind staff and enjoying caring for the shelter pups.

Upon arrival at home, Angie walked toward her room, but I grabbed her hand and pulled her past her brothers who were doing dishes, and into my own bedroom.

"We aren't going to blow this off, come snuggle with me."

We crawled into bed and she rested her head on my shoulder, tears allowed to fall.

"What is hurting the most right now?" I ask.

A few moments, then she responded, "It's not about death, I am OK with that." she explained.

"Then what do you think it is?"

No response, but her shaking shoulders told me what I couldn't see.

On a hunch I asked, "Is it the loneliness?"

Oh yea, that was it.  A special kind of loneliness that perhaps only people who have experienced abandonment in institutions can understand, where physical needs are met, but souls are left unattended.  That Angie knew all too well, and it was breaking her heart, though I doubt she could have named it herself.

This volunteer gig is going to stretch her and feed her in unanticipated ways.  Her first few months home I had witnessed several encounters she had with elderly folks, and saw a special tenderness come over her.  Angela has a comfort level with seniors that few have, and I vowed then that when she was old enough, I was going to find a way for her to live into that side of herself a little more.  We have talked about her volunteering for the past year or so, and  I knew I had hit on something that was speaking to her heart when she kept urging me to make the arrangements through the year.  Finally, our schedule cleared enough for timing to make sense.

This is Angela's first true foray out into the world alone.  I had her handle all the paperwork and arrangements herself, encouraged her to make the follow up phone calls and visits, and waited outside in the car while she introduced herself.  That may not seem like a big deal for an almost 18 year old, but our kids are on a totally different timeline, and she was finally really ready to take these first tentative steps on her own.  I was proud of her as I watched her walk confidently into the nursing home that first afternoon, and even more pleased when she came bounding back in two hours later, filled with stories of how she had spent her first two hours as a volunteer.

What I hadn't expected was the enormous impact it would have on her faith.

The very first words she blurted out after that initial volunteer shift were, "Mom, this is the most spiritual place I have ever been in.  God was everywhere, and I was so surprised.  I kept telling myself that I wished you were there to feel it with me.  This is the best thing I will have ever done in my life, thank you so much for suggesting it, I wouldn't have ever thought of it but I really belong here and I can't wait for next week."

She then went on to share about various residents she had spent time with, how she had encountered a Ukrainian woman who also volunteers and she had been thrilled to speak Russian with her.  I heard about her hesitancy to read out loud because of her accent and how she got a kick out of one woman who kept leaning in and touching her arm.

"You are so right, mom, people do need human touch...I could see it in almost everyone there!"  She exclaimed.

This second week was more about the wisdom shared by a dying resident, about the aching loneliness of those who are never, ever visited (the majority, it seems), and about how every moment there matters as Angela brings her smile, her laughter, and her hugs.

Snuggled with my precious daughter whose tears threatened yet again, I asked her if she thought this was going to be too hard.  "Oh no!" she said vehemently, "I totally want to go back.  It is just hard, but that's OK. I can do this, and I love them all already.  I don't know if I will ever get used to why people don't visit their family though, but I want to be there."

This young woman has a strength and sensitivity to her that truly only comes from having suffered.  As I curled up into her, holding her close, I felt a mix of emotions.  I spoke quietly about how she knew what it felt like to be left alone someplace with family who never showed up.  I spoke about how that made her uniquely tuned in to what the residents at the nursing home were feeling, how hard it is to feel trapped in a place with nice enough people, but little freedom to come and go as you please and know one to whom you were special.

How grateful I am that none of our children are still abandoned and alone in the world!!  How humbled I am by the courage each exhibits in their own way, and by the ways in which they so easily see the Spirit at work in their lives.

And how very, very much I love and adore each and every one of them.  

I have a strong sense that this is only the beginning for Angela, that these last two visits very much were about her calling in the world, for either vocation or avocation.  She has many gifts, an unusual awareness of the hearts of others, an ability to "read" the human spirit at a level many never achieve, and an abundance of love to offer.

Watching our kids ever-so-slowly begin to figure themselves out, stretch their wings gradually, and move tentatively into the adult world is exciting.  Loving them through the bumps along the way is a blessing.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Which Road Will He Travel?

At 16 years old and in his junior year in high school, Matthew is beginning to think more concretely about his future.  His mom is trying with all her might to hold her doubts at bay.  Is she pushing hard enough?  Has she homeschooled him well enough that he will be well prepared for the life ahead of him?  Does taking the road less traveled make sense, or will it lead to...the "f" word..."Failure"?

As his peers are anxiously sitting for the SAT's, beginning the Great College Search, and tirelessly working and reworking those essays they will soon submit with applications, Matt's attention is on tinkering, reading, and flying.  

The other day, as we were sprawled on my bed during our literature class, it was clear to me that reading was not going to happen, but that the time was ripe for conversation.  Matt needs space and time to talk, slower to speak and more thoughtful in response than some of our "Chatty Cathys", and our time alone is both precious and paramount for our connection.  I asked him if he had been giving any thought to his post-high school direction, and he said he indeed had.  He admitted it was a little hard to stand by and listen silently as his friends at Civil Air Patrol, many juniors like himself, talked about college and all they are doing in the chase to the finish line of their senior year.  I asked him if that meant he had changed his thinking about attending college, and if so, we needed to immediately shift some gears.

"No, mom, not at all.  I know that is not the way for me, at least not right now.  What is hard is I don't know how to say what I am doing." he replied.  He added, "I would feel so trapped in college."

"Can you explain that?" I asked.

"Mom, I don't want to spend another two years studying everything I have already studied...more history, literature, and science.  The thought just kills me."

Watching him carefully, I said "Then clearly, that is not what you need to be doing.  So...tell me...what calls to your heart?"

Instantly he sat upright and became animated.  "I want to build things, I want to explore every area of computers and maybe even programming.  I want to work on projects, learn networking, and cutting edge drone technology!"  Oh my, he was on fire!!!  He went on to further explain, "I want time to learn everything I can learn.  The hardest part is going to be figuring out exactly what I really do want to eventually do, because it is all so interesting!  I am using all the math I learned with the 3D printer, so I might need to take an additional math course, but maybe not."

"I want to build the drone I dreamed about two years ago, I want to build it from the ground up, design my own plans, print my own parts for it, learn how to add in a GPS system to it, and learn everything the way I did with the 3D printer because I really, really learned because I needed to so I could accomplish what I wanted."

His eyes lit up, his excitement was contagious.  I realized that THIS is what I knew was inside of Matthew LaJoy that day the second week of 5th grade when I walked in with knees knocking and voice quavering and disenrolled him from public school.  THIS is what we have been working so hard to develop in all the kids...a craving to learn more, a desire to jump right in and explore, a work ethic that will allow them to use that intellectual curiosity to its fullest.

We talked about language he could use to describe his post-high school plan, which will include self-directed study and project based learning. Matt wants to obtain certification in a wide variety of computer areas.  He wants to work toward his CompTIA certification as a repair technician, a
networking specialist, a server specialist,  and possible a fourth certification with mobile devices.  He wants to earn the professional certification for AutoCAD.  He wants to perhaps learn some programming.  He wants to achieve the goal of getting his pilot's license.  No single one of these would be an easy route, all of them add up to a pretty ambitious plan, certainly nothing to sneeze at.

How is he going to do it?  His own way, and I trust him.

Yesterday morning at our Morning Meeting we had a long discussion about doing things differently, following your truest self, not letting the cultural expectations pull you off your own course solely to fit in.  Olesya always reinforces for us that we are "Uniquely Developed" as a family, and that reminder is an important one as our kids begin the slow process of moving out into the world.  Looking into the eyes of each of my children, I urged them to be courageous, and emphasized that we would be standing alongside them no matter what path they follow.  Angela was deeply disturbed recently to read something online about how life starts "after high school", and passionately explained why she thought that was demeaning and demoralizing, as if her life in the here and now didn't matter.  We all agreed that whether you are 5 or 15 or 25, all stages of life have great meaning and the essence of who you are needs to be continually fed, not ignored until you have suddenly "arrived", or you might never recognize yourself when you finally do "arrive".

A couple of weeks ago, we had finished our textbook for the year and decided to do a few book studies, so I asked Matt what he'd like to read fully expecting it to be a business biography of some
sort.  I had set aside a book I ordered on Amazon for my own review, The Road to Character by New York Times columnist David Brooks.  Matt saw it and asked me what it was, so I handed it to him to look at  and said I had found the premise interesting and wanted to explore it.  After reading the preview, he looked up at me and said, "How about this one?  I'd really, really like to read it."  I was surprised, but pleased, and agreed to that one along with a couple of other titles we selected for the remainder of the year.  He asked if he could have my copy, and wait for a duplicate for myself.  I said sure, and off he went, and read three chapters by lunch time, returning to me to tell me how it was maybe the best book he had ever read.  Hmmm...

This morning we read more and talked about what had been covered so far.  The depth of conversation we had, the yearning our son has to be a person of integrity, and his willingness to speak so openly about that yearning with me was a blessing I realize so many moms of 16 year olds never experience.  Matt shared that when he was younger he almost never felt much compassion for others and it bothered him a lot, but that as he grew more aware and more mature, he realized the key to relationship was putting himself in the other person's shoes for a bit, because you almost couldn't help but have compassion if you could see things from another's perspective.  When we came to a paragraph about the need to continually want to improve yourself, I was reminded how Matt had often shared quotes of Benjamin Franklin's and his ongoing pursuit of becoming a decent, moral man, and I asked Matt, "So who does this remind you of?  Who do you recall always worked to better their moral character?"

Without hesitation he looked up at me and said, "You."

What???  Me???  Now that was totally unexpected and not at all where my mind was going.  I told him that I had been thinking of Benjamin Franklin, and he said, "Oh yea, him too."

I said I was humbled he saw me in that light, but I thought others did a much better job of building character than I did, and tried to move the conversation back toward Benjamin.

"Wait Mom, no really.  You don't see yourself right sometimes.  You are always trying to improve yourself.  You admit mistakes and apologize, and better yet, try and work on it afterward.  You continually try to act lovingly even when it is hard because others are unkind.  You are always asking more of yourself than of others.  You read a ton and are always educating yourself about new things.  I think having a living example like you and Dad around is a lot better than a dead old guy who lived 200 years ago. "

Then he added, "I really want to try and live a life of character, everything else doesn't matter and is only about my ego.  The older I get, the more important that is to me.  I have the potential to be really self-centered, that is why I really wanted to read this book, to see how others have done it."

Listening to this young man before me, I realized that though he has a lot of experiences yet to have, he has already grown up.  He has a self-awareness of an older, more mature soul, and a heart that strives for excellence.  It matters not what road he travels, he will be exuberant, he will be open-hearted, he will be listening for the Spirit's leading.

Most importantly, he will be a good man, a self-made man, a hard working man.  Any road he takes still leads there, for that is already apparent, and it is all I have ever desired for him.  

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Resurrection Family

The news came dressed in smiles and encouragement, and in the moment, it was stoically received.  After all, it really didn't come as a surprise, we knew it was highly probable that Kenny fell in the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum, so confirmation was a bit of a relief.

So tell me why, when I woke up this blessed Easter morning, the tears threatened at every single moment?  I could barely get through worship this morning, where I had to sing with our little choir without totally falling apart, and as I sit here trying to write the tears rise yet again.

Exhaustion surely is playing a part, as my travel as of late has been intense, but that isn't all.   It is grief I am feeling, pure and simple, with a smattering of self-doubt and a smidgen of sorrow.

Our appointment at the University of Washington went smoothly, and far more quickly than anticipated we had a diagnosis of Static Encephalopathy due to Prenatal Alcohol Exposure.  Kenny and I were both interviewed separately, and he was tested for a handful of other issues.  Prior to our appointment we had each filled out many surveys, and I had sent the full battery of test results, school reports, and MD files we have collected through the years, as well as a couple of pages of my own observations as his educator.

"Mrs. LaJoy, we have never had a parent come in so prepared.  We have relatively little testing to do with Kenny, because you have already had it all done.  It made our job very easy." the social worker explained.  After more background information was obtained, I was asked what my master's was in, always embarrassing for me in those moments when this happens and is assumed, and when I reply that I only have a high school diploma the awkwardness that ensues is uncomfortable.  I was questioned about what a day in the life of Kenny is like, about how I have managed to work so successfully with him academically, about how we have managed to avoid the usual obvious behavioral challenges that most FASD kids exhibit, particularly at this stage of their lives.

It was deeply saddening to learn that our relationship and family life is actually unusual for a child with FASD, that often they see mothers of children who are much younger and whose family lives have fallen apart due to the challenges of living with an FASD kiddo.  Much time was spent discussing Kenny's disposition, how has deficits have impacted the family, how I have managed to remain a positive advocate and have such an obviously loving relationship with him.  It reminded me that though daily life might be harder, the important things are solid.  There was a fair amount of time spent pushing me to think about respite care from time to time, reminding me that this was forever and that there was a need to take good emotional care of myself and our marriage.  Clearly, they have seen far too many burned out families, and they were pressing to make sure we don't become another statistic.

You see, Kenny doesn't fit the norm, not even for the diagnosis....and yet, where his critical deficits are, he fits perfectly.  I was told he was way more self-aware than any FASD kid they have seen, he is maximizing his cognitive abilities, and he is behaviorally more well adjusted.  In fact, his big picture thinking is extraordinary and "college like" in his approach.  In the next breath, he falls in the 8th percentile in a couple of key areas, they added new information about additional sensory and motor issues, and when asked if we were right in our thinking that it might be unrealistic to think he would ever live alone, there was a noticeable silence in the room.  It was stated that though the brain is elastic, and there may be some modest improvement over the next few years as he finished growing, we need to move forward in our thinking from remediation to fully living in "compensatory strategy" mode.  In other words, this is about as good as it will ever get, find work ways to work around the deficits.  

They then went on to tell us he might live with an agreeable roommate, pay a caretaker to be present, live in a group home, etc.  Finding meaningful work might be more of a challenge than usual for kids like him, because his intellect was quite high for the deficits he had, and the kind of work those deficits might allow him to do unsupervised would be mind numbing.  They pointed to some "college like" experience programs where he could learn daily living skills outside the family but are not actual college courses.  They said they wanted to point out how high functioning he was, and how he might be able to do some higher level course work with a well integrated helper in class with him taking his notes and organizing him at our local (totally non-existent) community college.  Kenny asked the astute question, "So I can get some sort of college degree, but then I can't have a helper on my job, so what good does that do me if I can't go to work with the degree because I know things but can't handle the actual job because I can't remember anything or organize?  How does that work?"  Silence again, which of course I don't blame anyone for.  There simply aren't answers.

We left with the promise of a longer written report to follow, and a list of suggestions for working with Kenny, many of which we long ago implemented.  We also left with an actual medical diagnosis, something frustratingly long in coming.  Why is it that I have had to spend years researching into the wee hours for every single issue our kids have faced, then beg for testing rather than the experts at school and in the medical field listening closely all these years and offering possibilities and testing? Why do we parents of special needs kids have to fight the entire way uphill?  It is hard enough to raise kids like this, let alone home educate them when the system can't, but it adds another layer of exhaustion to have to fight all the time.

And you know what is funny?  I still find it odd to consider myself a special needs parent, because I still see my kids as basically all "normal" and filled with potential.  Yes, even Kenny.

Kenny and I left the appointment quietly, and as we sat in the parking lot in the car I turned to him and asked, "Soooo...what are you feeling right now?  What are your thoughts?  Are you ok?  Did you understand everything that was said?"

Wisely, he said, "It was so obvious they were holding back being frank about my future because I was in the room, and they avoided answering my questions about how I can live without help and not kill myself by not setting my house on fire, or whatever."  he laughed, ever my jovial kid.  "I think we knew this all along, and I am so glad you prepared me months ago for this, because today would be much harder.  I have had time to think about it, be sad, and move on a little in my thinking.  The doctors just confirmed what we already knew.  I wish it were different, but thankfully, it wasn't new news and I don't feel sucker punched."

"Good," I said,

"How about you, Mom?  How are you feeling?"

"I'm OK, I wish they had more help they could offer, but as usual, I guess it is up to us to figure this out for your future, and I know with all of our brains, we can do that."

We started the car and abandoned conversation as we drove over to Safeco Field, where  just an hour earlier we had discovered that Kenny's idol, Bernie Sanders, was holding a rally.  Oh, how he uncharacteristically begged me to attend!!  And if we couldn't attend, could we pleeeeeeeease just drive around the stadium and see the other Bernie fans outside and see their signs?  Conceding to get out and walk around a little, I parked and we went over toward the line snaking around the stadium, where Kenny quickly jumped in line and started talking to a young college student in front of him.  2 hours later, we were still in line as I acquiesced and realized I was not in control of this moment.  I had no idea when we arrived at 1:00 pm and I was dressed in my lightweight jacket that 8 hours later we'd still be there, as Bernie didn't speak until 8:00 pm.  My frozen body had taken just about all it could take, but watching Kenny come to life was worth every shivering moment.  

The line to see Bernie at 1:30 pm...we were in the first 300 or 400 versus the 30,000 that eventually arrived.

Later, I explained it at home as one of those Divine Coincidences, a moment when God puts something before you and you can say "Yes" or you can say "No", and for some reason, I was as certain of what I should do as I was the day I walked out of Matt's 5th grade classroom realizing God was telling me I was at a crossroads and could say "yes" to what was obviously needed, homeschooling, or I could say "no" and see what happened, all the while knowing what I was being called to do.  Now, mind you, I totally get that spending 8 hours waiting for a politician might seem like a totally different commitment than deciding to spend the next 10-12 years of my life home educating, but here is what was important...

The Spirit was beautifully moving in, through, and around Kenny and I in that decisive moment.  There was something here for him, and I needed to put it within grasp.

Three hours later, as we were sitting side by side, huddled for warmth and sharing overpriced hot chocolate, Kenny turned to me and said, "Mom, this is maybe the best thing you have ever done for me.  Thank you so much!!!!  I know you really and truly didn't want to do this today, and we have to get up early for our flight and everything, but what I love about our family is we always say 'yes' when everyone else would say 'no'.  You are the best mom ever, and I am so glad we are here just the two of us to experience this together!"  Interesting of him to say that, considering I had not uttered a word about what I was feeling.  

Then came the kicker, the heart lifting reason I realized why we were there.

"You know, Bernie is a symbol for me...he gives me hope.  When he started, everyone laughed and didn't take him seriously with only 3% of the vote.  Now look where he is, he has literally started a revolution.  He has made a difference whether he wins or not, and it didn't matter if everyone thought he couldn't do it.  Being here with 30,000 other people who all see something in him makes me feel like there is hope for me, too.  Like maybe, even though I may only have a 3% chance of having a life that matters, you and Dad and my siblings all believe in me and I will make something of myself in spite of what it looks like I can't do."  With that said, he then jumped up enthusiastically to add his body to the next round of "waves" and chants for "Bernie Sanders has our back,  We don't need no Super PAC!"

We dragged our sorry, tired behinds to the airport at 3:30 am, having returned to the hotel room at around 10:30 and getting about 2 real hours of sleep.  Best danged reason to be exhausted I know of.

On our 5 hour drive home from Denver, we talked concretely about Kenny's future.  

"Tell me, Kenny, what can we do to help you live a life of meaning?  What do you think that might look like for you?  What would you need to feel happy and fulfilled?"

Kenny thought a few minutes and said, "That's a great question, mom!  I think I'd like to be able to go places sometimes on my own somehow.  I am not sure how to make that happen since I really can't drive and don't ever want to anyway.  I'd like to be able to go to a store, and not worry about getting lost, or to be able to have just a little freedom to go buy you a birthday gift without you with me."  We talked through how we could find a way for him to practice a hundred times using the bus system in town, maybe work on creating a mental map of it and then he could go in to work with Dominick and go places on his own as the bus stops right in front of the store.  We figured we would practice more at the mall the next few times we go, and find ways of embedding the basic layout of our town in his head, which we both laughed over knowing it might take a year of work...and then we had better never move!

Then he said, "I want my life to matter a little, I want to do something besides just go to work and come home, I want to help people.  I think that I can learn to do a lot of the work at the store, though it might take a long time to get patterns in my head, but over time I can do a lot of the work there and honestly be a value, but you'll need to teach me and re-teach me and I know how hard that is for you.  But I want more than that.  I want to give back somehow."

Ministry is important to him, and we brainstormed what that might look he might help others through his own personal experiences, get involved in disability or LGBT advocacy and politics, which he has a developing passion for.  We even talked about writing a book together with the voice of the son and the mom sharing our experiences so others might find hope.  We realize God has given him a comfort level speaking in front of others, and that he might use that to share his story with people in pregnancy centers and churches, etc.  

As the miles passed, the conversation shifted ever so subtly from acceptance to new life.  You might say, it was a resurrection of sorts.  Now, we have answers, now we can move from trying to "fix" it, to creating the best possible life for him.  More importantly, we can continue to listen to what God desires for his life.

Walking through the doors of church this morning was hard.  I was too tired, too raw, and didn't want to speak at length with anyone, for I just knew I would fall apart. I couldn't quite understand why, and still can't.  Nothing we learned was really new, so why am I just now feeling so much?   I am sure it felt as if I was being cold and perhaps even a bit rude, but I knew I would need to turn around and leave if I had to talk too much.  However, there at church I found the solace I needed as I guess I am moving through more concrete grief, experiencing relief at knowing I wasn't imagining how damned hard this is, and happy to have received the affirmation offered multiple times by the specialists that we have worked with Kenny in all the right ways, so much so that his handicap is almost hidden from the casual observer.  

God met me this morning, in the loving arms of my pastor, where momentarily I did lose it.  God met me in the music we sang, in the message we heard that was totally apropos about failure not really being failure. God met me in the form of an 80 year old widowed adopted grandpa who earlier in the week realized I would be gone right up until Easter and had decided to buy a turkey and invite us over for dinner tonight so that I wouldn't have to worry about a holiday meal. God met me as I looked around the Sanctuary into the faces of so many who love our family, pray for us, and have even offered financial support that was what helped us get to Washington and a final diagnosis in the first place.  

God met me because that is what God does.  We will wind our way to new life with Kenny, because that is what is offered as we learn the lessons Jesus taught.  We will continue to say "yes" when the Spirit leads, whether it makes any sense at all to others or not, because the LaJoy Family is certainly a Resurrection Family if ever there was one.  Today, I understood that on an entirely different level and give thanks for that.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Dude and Chick Trips

One cause for delay in blogging lately was that both Dominick and I had separate road trips out to California to visit our families, each taking turns remaining behind to mind the store.  The "Dude" and "Chick" Trips were each wonderful in their own right, as male bonding took place over visits to breweries for research, meals where 2 lb hamburgers were served (or so it looked) and donuts were obtained from an old haunt.  In fact, it looks like the entire trip centered around food:


Who knows...




Yes, your sympathies about the cost of feeding them all are appreciated.

There was a little fun and visiting thrown in alongside perpetual eating:

The girls and I didn't have quite the focus on food that the boys did on our trip, instead focusing on friends.  We spent the night in Vegas, where Christi had never been so the girls thought they had to show her the town at night.  We saw the gamut on Fremont Street, as expected, enjoyed an 80's cover band, and laughed as we took pictures of the lights.  

There was, however, a bit of a Food Fest moment for Angela, when all of us were shocked to see her go back SEVEN times to the buffet, as she gorged on crab legs for the first time. 

Driving back to Montrose, we stopped multiple times along the way to take photos of the beautiful Utah scenery at sunset.  It looks magnificent when caught at this time of day, less so at high noon:

Big Ol' Open Sky

We spent a few days at home with Candi and Christi, enjoying spring break before heading off to Denver to put them on their flight back home.  One of the days we went Geocaching in Delta, and just enjoyed lazily taking a 3 mile walk as we searched for caches.  The kids rode bikes, teased each other, walked on bridges, and had fun sleuthing to find the hidden boxes.

Dominick and I both enjoyed having a "third daughter" around for a brief period of time, and though we missed her brother, we were so happy to have Christi with us and look forward to another visit this summer.

Always room for more!

It was nice to have a break from reality and hard work.  Everyone is ready to get back in the groove now and put their noses to the grindstone!