Friday, May 12, 2017

Unflashy Graciousness

"Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you.
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn't show your spirit quite as true." - Jackson Browne

This week, as I have been trying to recover from a very painful back injury (bent over to pick up a sock, go figure!), I have worked on a little graduation project for Matthew.  The past year I discovered Mixbook and have so enjoyed putting together a couple of photobooks.  I decided to create a sort of lifebook for Matt, and had to sort through thousands of digital photos.

Oh my.  The memories, the emotions, the journey we have walked.

You know, when you are in the midst of something, you just put your head down and plow through, lifting it once in awhile to offer the Universe a great big bowl full of laughter because you didn't know how damned beautiful life could be, and sometimes so your tears can stream more freely as you maneuver through the field of undetected emotional landmines.

Of course, none of us live with the magnifying glass pointed in the direction of our own lives, peering backward in regular close examination.  Like Dory, we forge ahead and say, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming!".  Sometimes though, it is important to stop and reflect.

But photos only reflect so much, and true character reveals itself subtly, quietly, and with a graciousness that often isn't flashy.

That's Matt.

In fact, that really is all our kids.  I recently had a conversation with my best friend about our kids, and I was concerned that awards and recognition don't seem to matter, they are not a motivator whatsoever and I was puzzled by it because it is almost universal in our family.  It feels "wrong" somehow, that a person would have a great achievement and it doesn't really seem to matter, and I was wondering aloud if I had done something wrong to create that natural response from the kids. We have intentionally de-emphasized competition as a family value, as we feel our faith leads us to think differently, and maybe that is the problem...if it is indeed a problem.  We feel that competing is the last thing God wants from any of us, but rather unity and supporting others ought to be goal. That doesn't mean we don't give our best at all times, but I guess the reason why is different, if that makes sense. 

Last night, I realized what being counter-cultural really means, and that maybe we are at a place where years of teaching that being "uniquely developed" is a positive thing, and that the reward really comes when the journey itself has been fully embraced.

Matt was being celebrated in his local Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Squadron after attaining his final rank of Cadet Colonel.  A couple of weeks ago with a lot of pomp and ceremony, he received his official recognition from Congressman Scott Tipton at a regional black tie affair for CAP.  

Later that week, Matt was featured on the front page of our local paper:

He didn't read the article for two just wasn't of importance to him.  That was sort of what prompted my conversation.  Why didn't any of this matter?  I mean, as the adult Captain of their Squadron emphasized yesterday, this is a "really, really big deal"...Matt is cadet #2102 in the 70 year history of Civil Air Patrol to reach this goal.  Less than 1/2 of 1% of all cadets ever make it this far.  So why did this not at least bring about more of a reaction from him?

Last night, I understood why.  At the Squadron celebration, there were several cadets being honored for their achievements, including a cadet close to Matt's age who was receiving the Billy Mitchell Award, which signifies that a cadet is halfway through the rank advancements.  I recall when Matt hit that point a couple of years ago, we all thought it was quite the accomplishment.  This cadet was recognized fairly quickly, then they moved on to Matt.  

Part of Matt's "cheering squad".

Matt being honored.

Standing there, camera in hand, I watched my son become a man I admire deeply right before my eyes.  Instantly, I "got it", and had to hold back tears.  He stood there, accepting the words of his adult Squadron leader, and then when it was his turn to speak, he immediately said he would like to share a little about the meaning of the accomplishment of the younger cadet who received his Billy Mitchell Award.  He took a few minutes to explain that many people had no idea how extraordinary that accomplishment was, because they had no reference for it, and then went on to explain it was, statistically speaking, similar to achieving the Eagle Scout honor in Boy Scouts, and that it was something to be very proud of and should be highly recognized.  You see, he wanted that hard working cadet's accomplishments not to be overshadowed by his own, and he felt a little like the other young cadet had been "cheated" of his moment in the sun, so he took it upon himself to cast the light in that direction.

Cadet Colonel LaJoy honoring another...

Men...right before your eyes...Matt and his fellow honored Cadet.

Then, like a true leader, he shook hands and stepped away...never saying a word about his own accomplishment, grateful to serve and encourage others to move forward.  

Real men show gratitude.

Later, he gathered everyone to thank his adult Squadron leader and presented him with a thank you card, acknowledging that he didn't achieve it on his own and he has had wonderful role models along the way.  

Recalling words Matt had said after passing his test, when he shared that, "We have several cadets right now who I think can get this far, my job is to see if I can help them get there!", I realized that my son understood something that goes far beyond being meme-worthy and beyond platitude.  There exist in the world many fine quotes about hard work being the truest reward, but few I have ever met really exemplify that.  For Matthew, it is clear that his academic career and his Civil Air Patrol career have been far more about all he has learned on the journey, and the final destination was of little importance other than that it could be a role model for others to show what can actually be achieved.  I recently saw this, and realized it fit Matt very well after what I saw last night:

He is about to end one journey, and begin another.  On Monday, he takes his second certification test for Comp TIA A+, which is an exam to demonstrate competency for PC computer pros for installing, maintaining, customizing and using personal computers.  With this alone, if he passes, he has been told he could gain an entry level computer technician position.  That is not his end goal, but it is a stepping stone to more in depth computer knowledge.  He also has an official start date for his pilot's license, and lessons will begin in July.  

All of this hard work is part of the journey for him, awards are not the reward. 

Mr. Quiet isn't perfect, he is a typical teen in some ways...leaves his clothes on the floor sometimes, stacks 6 or 8 dirty glasses on his desk, and hoards the gallon box of goldfish crackers keeping them from anyone else who might want some. He can be as oblivious as any male on the planet sometimes, tease his sisters, and drag his feet getting up some mornings.  But, he is also courteous, helpful,  wise, kind, and makes a mean chocolate chip cookie (and quiche, as we learned tonight!).

His photos reflect little of the man inside, they offer barely a glimmer of his character and deep goodness, of his quirky way of viewing the world and his quiet contemplative side.

His actions though, speak loudly.  Last night, they spoke volumes.

Friday, April 28, 2017


The past week has been one of important-to-us milestones, the ones you mark that others may not find to be of much consequence, but to us they really, really matter.

For one thing, we are now parents of a nineteen year old!  How did that happen?  Seems that just yesterday she was the feisty almost twelve year old we arrived home with, and now, she is a sophomore in high school who is blossoming into womanhood gently and happily.   Still asserting firmly that she does NOT think of herself as nineteen and wants to continue to have time to feel deeply embedded in her family, Angela has learned how to live in the present moment and squeeze out all the joy she can.  What a beautiful soul we all live with!

It must be boring to see our birthday pics every year, they all feature the family favorite chocolate cake with sprinkles!  We are a boring bunch :-)

Our entire family has been on pins and needles for weeks as Matt's last opportunity to test for his final rank advancement with Civil Air Patrol approached.  Five and a half years of very hard work in content areas such as leadership, aeronautics, physical fitness, and character and the final chance to pass and become a Cadet Colonel was at hand.  The Spaatz test, named after a WWII general, is the highest award a cadet can earn in Civil Air Patrol, and it is quite rare for anyone to get that far.  In fact, fewer than 2300 cadets in the 50 year history of CAP have ever attained it...1/2 of 1% of all cadets.  

Sitting in the room as he tested, I kept hearing sighs and thought to myself, "Oh man, it sounds as if he is struggling.", and I saw his hand shake as he lifted it and held it mid air before finally pressing "Enter" to see his results.  The look of relief on his face moments later as the results were shown on screen was unlike any expression I had ever seen on from him before!  He did it!!   

All of us rejoiced with Matt!  
Soon to be 3 diamonds on that uniform!

Perhaps the most significant milestone for all of us came as we joyfully joined our new church, Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Grand Junction.  This was truly an important moment for our entire family, one that was born of great turmoil, much grief, and a need for rebirth.  Heartache led us to deep listening as we asked God to show us the way to a place where we could all grow in our faith, and feel part of a community that spoke to each of us.  We were astonished when my best friend, Candi, showed up on our doorstep a few days before to surprise us and be present for our special day!  Also in attendance were dear friends, Jane and Steve, whose presence also meant so much to us.  Being loved so deeply by others really matters, and though we left behind many who we also love very much at our old church, we were warmly embraced by our new congregation and we have felt at home since the moment we first walked through the doors.

My heart smiled as I heard Olesya say over lunch afterward that, "I woke up at 6:00 am and couldn't go back to sleep, I was so excited to join the church today!".  Yesterday, we talked about grief and loss, and about the process of claiming others in our lives.  Angela said that Sunday she felt that not only had we joined the church, but that through the warmth and acceptance of others, we had been claimed by our new faith community...a pretty powerful statement to make, and indicative of what we all have felt.  

 Smiles all around :-)
We are home!

 The best friends show up.

 Handsome man in pink, he read the Scriptures this morning for the first time!

 Happiness from ear to ear!

Celebrating milestones...loving friendship.

New chapters in our lives often begin by creeping in, we don't always know it until we look back and can discern with great clarity, "Oh, that was when it all changed."  We are beginning a new chapter in our lives, a new church family, a new graduate soon, a new freshman in high school, and probably many more milestones that are not yet recognized as such.

I love reaching new ones with these special people in our lives, the ones who carry our name and the ones who carry our hearts.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

No One Else's Time Line

She sits on the couch, tears streaming, fingers wound tightly around mine as we get very, very real.  It has been a difficult couple of months, well, difficult is too weak a word to use, but repeating "challenging" over and over again as it pertains to broken brains grows wearisome, and it loses its potency.

The realization has settled in among the entire family that we have another FASD'er among us, a child whose brain was damaged by alcohol use in utero who has very little choice about how she is functioning at the moment.  Independently, every one of her siblings has privately asked the question of me, "Is Olesya ok?" and I have replied, "No, something is really not working right and we all really know what it is, don't we?", only to hear a sad sigh in response, accompanied by a knowing nod.

The only one who didn't really see it for what it really is was Olesya.

Just as it was for Kenny, the 17th year of life has been a killer in many ways.  For Kenny, brain malfunctions were constant, as were total shut downs in a way that are impossible to describe.  In Olesya it has manifested in a further breakdown of logic, as she has said many things over the past several weeks that left us scratching our heads, trying to figure out what in the world she was talking about.  She has started to make statements and then drawn a complete blank and been unable to finish them.  Math skills, which were poor before, are almost non-existent...she couldn't do a simple math problem like 2000 minus 400 without paper and pen, and even then she got the answer incorrect twice.

Worse yet, my sweet daughter who had struggled so much throughout the past 7 years to gain confidence and a sense of self was beginning to regress, and "No, I don't want to try." was becoming a new mantra.  Where a growth mindset had gradually developed, we were now seeing a pulling inward that bothered me far more than any math malfunctions.  Years of work appeared to be suddenly wiped away, and one night I began to do a little math work of my own, and putting two and two together, emotional arithmetic answers were revealed to me, and my gut told me it was time for a serious talk.

Two days after a particularly frustrating shopping trip for a few new blouses for her, during which "No" was resoundingly offered at every possible suggestion made by either Angela or myself, Dominick and I sat down alone with Olesya.  Though we had talked in generalizations with the girls in the past about the likelihood of them being affected by their mom's alcohol use, we had no evidence of it being used while she was pregnant, though definite solid knowledge of use very early in their lives.  Facial features are present for both, more strongly in Olesya, and the sort of "disconnects" we deal with on a daily basis with both of them made it obvious to us that we had more than one FASD child in the family, though not diagnosis-worthy as we already "knew" and they were far more functional than Kenny is.  Angela is the least impacted, but reflects it in frequent memory issues where information is totally lost, even if it has been shared  hundreds of times.  Thankfully, it doesn't happen often.  She too struggles mightily with math, and Algebra is truly beyond her.  She has the occasional disconnected moment, but they are not regularly occurring and her processing speed is rapid.

Olesya, on the other hand, has far fewer memory issues, but the disconnects are a daily occurrence, the immaturity gap (Dysmaturity) is far greater, and critical thinking is hindered on a regular basis.  Her processing speed is far slower, in other words, she has knowledge and can come up with answers, but it is more difficult for her to access the information.  This is often not as noticeable to others because it hides beneath a cloak of introversion, but I know her well enough to tell the difference, and can always see when she is slow to respond because her brain is working harder.

My light bulb moment arrived when I realized that Olesya was hiding from her increase in disabling behavior, she was "stuck" and needed someone to name it, and help her claim it.  I don't care for labels, but I have learned through the years of working with our kids that labels can be incredibly helpful if it offers someone an explanation of "why" things don't work the same for them as others.  I suspected that Olesya was hiding from her "why" right now, and was confused, scared, and lonely in it.

She needed it named clearly, she needed to accept that what we are seeing and experiencing with her is true disability.

We started the conversation, Dominick present but quietly observing and allowing me to lead.  I asked her if she had any thoughts about why the past couple of months had been so hard.  There was a little bristling, a little verbal avoidance but an acknowledgement that things hadn't been going very well.   After a few minutes of dancing around and drawing her out a little, I stated clearly and firmly that I didn't know if she saw it the same way we were seeing it, but that she was experiencing classic signs of an adolescent with FASD, and we wanted her to know we understood she wasn't doing anything in purpose, but that she had a true disability...and I wondered aloud if she realized that.

That was all it took.

Dissolving into tears, we proceeded to be very real, very honest, and very raw.  We talked about the "misfires" she had been having lately, she admitted she had been anxious and nervous because she had discovered on her own that she had left the flame on the stove five different times over the past few weeks, and things weren't making sense in her head at all a lot of the time.  I gently explained that this age was harder for kids like her, and I kept repeating words like "disability", "fetal alcohol", and "handicapped" as I explained that she couldn't fight her brain and none of this was her fault.

"Do you realize you really and truly do have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?", I asked, catching her off guard.

"No, I really didn't even though we talked about it before.  I wasn't as bad as Kenny, so I didn't think I did.  Now that we are talking and because of the past few weeks, I really do think I do." she said, choking back the disappointment and fear.  Coming to acceptance can be a painful, painful road to we have had to walk far too many times with our children.

Olesya then spoke herself and brought up driving, which we had planned on working on this summer.  She explained she was truly scared of it, wasn't sure she would ever be able to be safe because it took her so long to process information and she realized she needed to be able to respond quickly behind the wheel.  Seeing the dismay in her eyes, knowing she understood full well what this might mean for her future if she indeed really couldn't drive, I wanted more than anything to just make it all go away, to fix all that isn't working right.

How many times through the past 20 years have I wanted to carry all the pain for my beloved ones?

I was so proud of Olesya as she also spoke honestly and forthrightly about how our gingerly approached conversations about future thinking and possible career training were scaring her, and she admitted she doesn't feel at all ready to think that way, that she felt more like 13 or 14, not at all like a 17 year old who really should be wanting to think about her future.  "It scares me, mom, and I don't even know what I like, or what I can do, or if I can ever even support myself if my brain is like this."

Reality is hard to contradict.

Dominick and I have talked for awhile about our concerns for Olesya.  While we have no worries about her being a productive employee who works full time, does she have the capacity to work at a job that allows her to earn anything beyond minimum wage?  She has MANY gifts and talents, particularly when it comes to organizing, and she is bright and intelligent.  People don't always get that FASD isn't always IQ, it is the brain's inability to access or use that IQ in a fully functional way.  Her introversion is a big one for her to overcome, and her stuttering is growing a bit worse.  She seems to have poor tongue muscle control and often chokes on her own saliva randomly, which she spoke about in detail as it embarrasses her.  When she is nervous, she stutters a lot and struggles to get thoughts in order, causing her to slip to the background so it isn't noticed.

At this point, we asked Kenny and Angela to join us in conversation, both of whom had been asked prior if they would mind taking part in this particular discussion.  These three beautiful human beings have overcome so much, and have to work so hard every single day just to achieve what comes easily to others.  Kenny actually asked if he could be helpful in talking with Olesya, and he offered to explain how hard it was for him to accept his limitations and begin to start working with me as a team to move forward in his life versus denying it and hiding from it.  The talk I had with him prior to speaking with Olesya was an important one, and helped me focus on the things that might be most helpful.

There we sat, in the afternoon glow, having a conversation no parent should have to have with their 17 and 18 year old kids.  We reinforced that no one had to "grow up" at any pace other than that which was appropriate for each individual, and that FASD often means kids need far longer to mature and gain skills to move out into the world (often not until their late twenties).  We reiterated that not a single child was a "burden" to us, but instead never failed to delight us, to inspire us, and to instill in us a passion for helping them that would never, ever dissipate.  We claimed this home as theirs forever, just as it is for Josh and Matt should it need to be, but reminded them that in time, they would gain more confidence and they would know when (or in some cases, "if") it was time to move on in life.

There was so much love expressed in that moment, from parents to children, from siblings to siblings.  What could have felt hopeless was instead quite the opposite, it was an afternoon filled with authentic concern, safe exposure of fears, and a recognition that no one was alone in this.  Sweetly, each of the three expressed deep worry for me as their main caretaker, as they shared their gratitude for all I do to advocate for them, and for the work I do with them to help them understand and be understood.  It was the perfect opportunity for me to express my own gratitude for them, for how they accept correction from me, for how they work harder than anyone I know to overcome so much, and how we are a team...always, always a team

The truth is, as I explained, none of us caused this, it is not the fault of a single one of us, so we need to never fight against one another and view ourselves as a strong unit who will work against what outside forces caused.  All nodded in agreement.  I also shared how both Matt and Josh are concerned and had shared a lot with me recently about their siblings, and provided me with great insights as well...and that they, too, are on their own journey that at times has been quite difficult, so they "get it" too, even if this particular issue isn't one they struggle with.

We parted after an emotionally exhausting two and a half hours, with no secrets, new understandings, and a lot of fear aired.  Over the next several days, it became immediately apparent that the conversation and been a cathartic experience for Olesya, and her entire demeanor changed.  I asked her a few days later how she was feeling about our conversation, noting that she appeared to be lighter hearted and more herself.  With a smile she said that it had indeed helped, and she felt safer and more secure now, and that she realized she really did have a lot working against her but knew she had plenty of time to grow up and we would all figure things out together.

And that's really the point, isn't it?  That none of us are really alone unless we choose to be, and in our self-imposed isolation our problems are amplified by our inner voices.  Naming something, sharing it, unburdening ourselves of the fears, both real and imagined, is healing and draws us closer to those whose support can breath new life into our lives.

For now, we will take it one day at a time with each and every one of our burgeoning adults.  Some will need us longer than others, all will be there for one another.  We are on no one else's time line but our own.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Year of Lent

Tomorrow is Easter and words wrap round that holiday that take on great significance for people of the Christian faith, language that speaks of redemption, resurrection, and rebirth abounds as we walk the 40 day Lenten journey through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

For our family, this entire past year has felt a bit like the season of Lent.  Leaving a church is devastating, and the gradual awareness that came upon all seven of us was not one we wished for, and in fact was a dawning we had been pushing away for considerably longer.  Our church had been our home in every way for so long, and sometimes it isn't "them" that needs to change, it is "you".

Painful...heartbreaking...aching...doubting...acceptance...surrender...all are words I would use to describe this past year for us.

And yet, Easter always arrives for believers.  For some it is the actual resurrection, for some it is a metaphorical one, but either way, new life is always just around the corner waiting for you to grasp it.

Tomorrow morning, for the first Easter Sunday in 15 years, we will be attending services elsewhere.  As promised to the faithful, God has not wandered away, leaving us broken and alone, but instead has led us to a new land, a new life, a new beginning.

How blessed we are!  How happy we are!  How at home we are!

This "Year of Lent" has been incredibly important for our family.  I was initially fearful that this process would find us distanced from God as we struggled through the unknowns, but instead, it has drawn all of us far closer, and helped us clarify what really and truly matters to us all.  Though the kids all went through a confirmation process last year, it was interesting to see how this experience was their true "Confirmation".  At a critical time in their lives, when many their age walk away from church attendance, they were given full say in what our family's faith future looked like.  You see, they had to choose to remain church goers, they had to think deeply about what aspects of worship and community worked for them, and had to discern where their personal lines were drawn for their theology. 

It was them claiming their faith in an entirely new, and more mature way.

We started moving in one direction, and ended up in an entirely different direction.  We are so thankful for our healing time at the first church we attended, a Disciples of Christ congregation that welcomed us, invited us in, and gave us a place to rest when it was most needed as we came to final conclusions.  They are a lovely strong group and we enjoyed getting to know them.   Ultimately though, it was not to be our church home, as we slowly began to understand more of what we needed and dreamed of.

One bright Sunday morning after the new year, we walked through the door of an ELCA Lutheran church in Grand Junction, an hour away from home.  It was only our second church to visit, and yet something happened there that very first day...Angela looked at me in the car and immediately said, "We found it Mom, didn't we?  This is it." and everyone echoed the sentiment that we all were almost too scared to admit...could we have actually found our place so smoothly?

Yes, we did.   Not out of desperation, but out of Spirit leading.  Every week, we were hit with another 2 x 4 that made it obvious beyond all doubt that we were indeed in the right place, that we had found a place where all seven of us would feel met, challenged, and nurtured in our faith.  

We have attended every Sunday since, and are slowly making new friendships and becoming invested in a new congregation.  The hard part, for me, and I think for many, is that your "story" is not known.  When you have traveled through life for a considerable period of time with others, there is little they don't know, and things don't have to be explained.  Starting over for an introvert like me means learning the stories of others, but more painfully, having to share our story, too.  Ours is a complicated tale, not easily summarized...but then, no one's is, really, is it?

Singing from a new hymnal in a different pew tomorrow as we celebrate the Christian message of new life, I will surely have fond remembrances of Easters past, and perhaps shed a tear or two as I recall those I love who are no longer worshiping by my side.  

A new song is being written, however, in our attendance tomorrow, in the peace we pass, and in the prayers we offer.  This song is the next in our personal faith hymnal, one that doesn't shed the old favorite songs, but instead adds new pages to the collection.  I will turn to new faces with gratitude for the acceptance and warmth we have received, I will turn to the Spirit as I give thanks for new life over and over again, and I will turn to my family and honor the choices we have made that have been as faithful as they could be.

Our "Year of Lent" has thankfully ended, and next Sunday, when we make it official and are received in membership with this congregation, we being a new adventure in Christ and wander no more.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

1, 2, 3 for Josh!

Many families have them, the one child who has no issues, who has no complaints, who does everything well and is mature and likable.  Sometimes, these kids get lost in the shuffle of larger families that include special needs.  I try often to make sure this doesn't happen with Josh, but I always worry that his self-sufficiency and easy going presence means he doesn't have enough opportunities to shine.  Boy, did he quietly make that possible this weekend!

Lacking true athletic prowess but enjoying physical activity, Joshua decided to play basketball again this season.  Much to our surprise, he showed a fair amount of improvement over last year! We all know he will always be one who has less playing time, and quite honestly it is his softer less aggressive nature that kills him on the court.  He realizes this and sees no reason to change, nor do we see a reason to push that since he is happy enough, so he cheerfully attends practices and games, enjoying the camaraderie and the work out, and he keeps his expectations low.  This remarkable quality of his has allowed him to truly enjoy playing this season, and to respond to his teammates with genuine encouragement.  His team was in its end of the season tournament, and was in the championship game Saturday!

Only his second season, Josh had great coaching and definitely improved his passing, dribbling, and placement on the court.  He didn't have many rebounds and perhaps only 4 baskets or so all season, but his improvement was obvious, and next year will bring more opportunity for growth.  How much it says about his character, that he fully intends to play every year, regardless of skill level, and not let that get in the way of learning a sport he enjoys!  VERY proud of this young man for that incredible attitude!!

Surprise!  They received 2nd place medals for the season, and 3rd place ribbons for the tournament.  

But wait...there's more!

Sunday afternoon Josh had a shooting competition for his club, which he thoroughly enjoys and has steadily improved at as well.  He has been awarded patches and a couple of 2nd and 3rd place trophies for team shooting, and is working his way progressively through the program.  Here he is, ready for competition.


He did it!  As he pointed out, this is the first time in his life that he has won first place in anything.  He has participated in several activities through the years including basketball, art, music, volleyball, photography, bowling, and soccer as well as shooting, and finally his steadfast commitment to gradual improvement paid off!

I have tears in my eyes even as I type this, because this son of ours is so special, has such a kind heart, and has humbled himself over and over again as he ventured into new activities where he was definitely not a natural.  He did it for all the right reasons, the ones we tell kids to participate in things for, but often lose sight of.  Josh never did, he has enjoyed everything he has done despite being less than stellar at it.  He has set his ego aside each and every time, been a positive role model for his team, a hard worker and an example of never giving up.  He has learned that delayed gratification actually works, that time dedicated to learning something can pay off...and sometimes it never does in worldly accolades but can still be enjoyed.

Unassuming, he doesn't see his gifts as much as he might.  His giftedness is subtle and general, he has no specific area in which he soars, but has quietly worked at a higher grade level for years with no real thought to it.  He is currently enrolled in College Algebra and is already halfway through the course in five weeks time, and is also doing high school geometry having already completed Algebra 1 and Algebra 2.  I am in a bit of a conundrum as I try to craft his high school plan as he moves on from 8th grade, because as far as Literature, History, US Government, and Math goes, he is already 2-3 years ahead.  He never mentions it, never gives it a thought actually.   

So today, we celebrate Joshua...who is an overcomer in all kinds of ways!!  You are seen, my dearest son, you are beloved, you are honestly an example to me in so many ways and I am proudest of your heart!!

Friday, March 10, 2017

The End is Drawing Near

As winter fades and spring tentatively arrives, there is the soft, gradually increasing cadence of "Pomp and Circumstance" playing as the score to our weeks.

We have a soon-to-be graduate in our midst, and it is a sweet, tender time for us all.

Eight years ago, as Matthew began fifth grade, we made the momentous decision to give homeschooling a try.  I can still feel his hand in mine as we walked with great deliberation through the school hall that day we tentatively removed him from public education.  I tried so hard to present a confident front for him, all the while feeling tremulous inside.  Who did I think I was to assume I could teach him?  How did I think I could ever possibly do this and do it well?  All I really knew was our son, for a variety of reasons, no longer fit this setting and we were at a turning point and could either ignore the obvious, or make a change.

Somehow, we fumbled our way through our first year, adding two new Russian speaking daughters, discovering how learning disabled Kenny truly was though without labels at that time, and if everyone was going to be home for school Josh might as well be, too.  I think I held my breath the first couple of years, uncertainty filled my heart while I was offered the greatest trust by Matt.  He gave me the gift of patience as I re-framed my understanding about education and what it looked like, accepted my trial and error as I gently felt my way through to solid ground,  and  eventually the two of us hit our stride, and we were on our way.

A sweet, caring brother...

                                                                  Who still loves his blankies!

Now we stand side by side once again, looking forward toward a new beginning, yet another re-framing of what post-high school education can look like, and trusting one another as we move into a new phase.  Others may not understand, but it is as if he and I glance in each other's direction, give one another a wink that silently says, "No worries, others may not get it but we do!"

Matthew is a young man for whom true pomp and circumstance hold no real appeal.  Where some of our kids appreciate ceremony and an appropriate moment in the spotlight, Matt has always eschewed such things, tolerating them at best.  We have tossed around several ideas as we have considered what a meaningful "graduation" might look like for him as a homeschooler.

He has elected not to participate in our local Christian homeschool group graduation ceremony for personal reasons that have to do with his strong faith and differing perspective around several issues.  After talking it through, he has decided that he would like to have a small dinner at home with a few friends who have made a difference in his life, and then he will accept the offer to have his diploma publicly conferred in church in Massachusetts when we attend our friends' high school graduation.  Simple, little fanfare, and he will be happy with it.

Electing to once again walk the road less traveled, Matthew is crafting his own post-high school education.  Dominick and I both trust him implicitly, and he has earned that trust many times over by proving his self-motivation and follow through with self-directed learning.

Utilizing several online resources, including IT Pro TV Online Video Technical Training, he will be working toward exploring the ever changing field of Computer Science.  In other words, he is not going to attend college or trade school but is going to cobble together an educational training track that allows him to delve into everything he wants to learn, including programming, web site design, networking, cloud computing, design, and more.  The resources online are infinite, affordable or even free in some cases, and he wants to obtain as many certifications in these areas as he can.  He is also going to look for brief internships, and develop his own ideas into project based learning.  It is his hope that he will be pursuing his pilot's license through Civil Air Patrol, which has eluded him this past academic year due to instructor issues.  He is also interested in drones and the uses that are being explored for them.

It is easy for Dominick and I to feel comfortable with this unusual direction for him that is non-linear to some degree, and totally self-directed.  Working on his own, he has already earned one certification from COMP-TIA, the main certification entity employers look for in general learning for the computer industry.  He has also already taken two full years of AutoCAD and may pursue certification in that as well.  He has already learned a programming language on his own, Python, and is currently writing his own first invoicing program for himself, learning through trial and error.  He is going to look into Geographical Information Systems (GIS) which is surveying using GPS technology.

In our minds, this IS college for Matt, just in a nontraditional form.  He and I have been playing around with language that will help us easily explain his direction and focus to others over the next few years.  We have agreed together on our expectations for the next 3-4 years as he immerses himself in learning full-time and continues to live responsibly at home.  He will be working very part-time at the liquor store (his back issues make it difficult to stand for any length of time), do store accounting work at home for us, and will continue to pick up computer customers here and there as he can, assisting people with their computer and wifi needs in their homes, training them, etc.  He has had a handful of customers this past year.  He also strongly desires to continue volunteering at Sharing Ministries assisting with administrative tasks.  He will be a very busy young man!

It was a dear and precious conversation we had this week, sitting before the laptop screen peering at various colors for his cap and gown.  We kicked around wording for his diploma, giggled over tassels, and then I asked him how it felt to be graduating, if he was feeling ready to enter the world.

"I don't feel any different, actually, as I am going to continue what I have been doing all along, so not a whole lot is going to change except for the fact that now I can spend ALL DAY studying the things that I am most interested in!" he responded excitedly.

I said, "It is going to be so interesting to see what you ultimately end up doing after you try enough to discern your main interest.  I have no idea how this is going to work, but I guess we will figure it out, right?"

With the cutest little conspiratorial grin, he leaned into me and with our eye glasses almost clinking he whispered, "Don't worry mom, I've always been your guinea pig, why change now when it has worked so well?"

Part of me will always, always be grateful for this young man who has pretty much always been this content, eager learner who allowed mom to try and fail multiple times, showing me such genuine grace throughout his entire life.

Matthew is a very bright, centered, self-directed young man.  Graduation means he will be unconstrained by the requirements to graduate high school, and I have absolutely no doubt we are in for an interesting ride next year!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Walking a Fine Line...Together

Writing from our apartment in Chicago, where Kenny is resting comfortably post-op, there has been so much to reflect upon.

It has been quite a week, and he is doing very well.  Shriner's provided the best possible care, and swelling and possible bruising were minimal.  He spent one night in the ICU, then one night in a ward, then went "home" with Candi and I to an apartment here to recover for a few days before we board a plane to head home.  We are so blessed to have help with Candi here, as Kenny truly can not be left alone with where his brain function is right now, and it is enormously helpful to have a second set of eyes and ears through something this intense with someone like Kenny.

Kenny is truly one of the most pure-hearted individuals I have ever encountered, our entire family knows this to be true as do those who know him "in real life", but it was never more apparent than it has been this past few days.  This knowledge fills me with equal parts pride and dread, as that pure heart can bring so much joy to others, but can also be so easily manipulated.  Despite fading in and out of the affects of serious narcotics, he has been so expressive of gratitude to his nurses, so polite, so concerned about causing others any inconvenience.  I can't really explain what it feels like to live with an individual who is this beautiful inside and out.

As I wrote a friend a couple of days ago, this experience with Kenny as a legal adult has offered twofold pain. Watching him go through the temporary misery of a surgery of this sort was hard enough, but there was a deeper and more permanent ache I experienced as I witnessed first hand the sort of lower level functioning that is inherent for Kenny in stressful situations and how that impacts him living as a newly minted legal adult.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is debilitating, yet invisible.  The brain malfunctions in "predictably unpredictable" ways, never responding the same way twice in any given situation.  Throughout his hospitalization, both before and after anesthesia, Kenny was asked to state his full name and birth date, and every single time he struggled to access that information in his own brain, responding almost as if questioning if he was correct.  Stress makes that accessing even more challenging than it normally is.  

There is a fine line to walk as the mother of an adult child with special needs as you deal with others who can't see your child's disability.  Do you step in and answer for him?  Do you allow him to fumble his way through and then correct information?  Do you offer an explanation of why this seemingly bright, capable young man can't follow the simplest of instructions but seems to understand?

I spent a great deal of time trying to assist others and help them see that Kenny thinks he is catching all their information, but when asked to immediately repeat it, he had literally comprehended nothing.  When it comes to medical care instructions, this can be life threatening.  I have thought often this week that having a child with special needs can force an introvert like myself to step out of their comfort zone.  

There is an awkwardness and a learning curve to these sorts of interactions that both Kenny and I are training ourselves how to maneuver around.  He is sensitive to my role and how interjecting myself into conversations or situations can lead others to view me as a meddling, overbearing mother, and I am sensitive to his need to do as much as possible on his own and yet be the support he desperately needs regardless of whether others perceive that need or not.  Several times throughout his hospital stay Kenny spoke up and said, "My mom is my medical advocate." and though that wasn't heard as we had hoped it would be, it was a start on this next leg of the journey he and I are taking together.

Asking others in the room to be quiet and then getting right in Kenny's face so he can focus and take in information from just one voice, "reading" his expressions so that I can tell if he has really absorbed instructions, needs more clarification or to hear something it all over again, and affirming his need in times of stress to revert to a much younger version of himself are all tasks that are part of being the mom of an FASD young adult.  

What this past week has shown me though, is how terribly vulnerable our son is, how truly incapable he is of being able to take care of his own needs, and how he will need someone to walk alongside him the rest of his life.  The problem is that this seems almost paradoxical when one meets Kenny, because he is highly intelligent and that is exactly how he comes across.  There is no "catch all" term one can use that brings instant recognition in others of the variety of ways in which he is disabled...and yet isn't.  Words like "Alzheimer's" or "Autism" are easily recognizable by others and certain behaviors and deficits are immediately understood, but FASD does not have that sort of general recognition, making it harder to explain to others.

I have an 18 year old son who is best entertained with episodes of Sponge Bob and who laughs so heartily at them on an airplane that I have to remind him that he has a seatmate.  He is delightfully charming in his childlike wonder, and deeply thoughtful in his ultimate best "sage mode".  I have an 18 year old son who asks for mashed potatoes and calls them marshmallows because he can't access the right word, who has to be instructed to take a shower and then when in the bathroom turns to me, looks at me quizzically and asks, "Now what did I come in here for?".  I have an 18 year old son who is an adult on paper, yet is a 10 year old one moment, and shares 40 year old wisdom the next.  

And you know what?  I wouldn't trade him for anything in the world.  I am growing in ways I never imagined I would as I parent Kenny, and he is growing in ways we never thought possible with the numerous challenges he has.  Daily our family is in the presence of innocence and are reminded of what goodness really looks like.  Kenny calls all of us to be better versions of ourselves, and to be tuned in to others around us who need to be embraced and loved for exactly who they are.

And we are helping him to become the very best version of himself that he can be.

Sounds like exactly the way God intends for all of us to be with one another.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Steps to Wholeness

It is the night before...the night before Kenny and I leave for Chicago for yet another hard week ahead with another surgery to face.  How I hate this!  Over and over again, our kids have to deal with so much, and though I know it has formed each of them into the beautiful, strong human beings they are, no mom wants to see their children suffer.

Right now, though there is no pain, Angela is yet again dealing with dental issues as a prior root canal is infected and she needs to have it treated for a month with antibiotics then have the root canal redone.  This poor kid has had 3 root canals and crowns, along with I've-stopped-counting cavities.  Poor dental hygiene and malnutrition to a real number on children's teeth.  She never complains, and I don't know too many kids who graciously thank their parents for root canals and crowns while also apologizing for the cost.

Kenny's surgery this week is a doozy, with a surgical palate expansion that will basically detach and split his upper jaw, and then just for fun they are throwing in the extraction of nine teeth, five of which are wisdom teeth, and four toward the front.  The swelling and bruising are expected to be considerable, and yet he is SO happy he doesn't have to face having the extractions at the dental office.  His early years still cause a great amount of anxiety around dental work, and this would be enough to cause anxiety in anyone!  The expansion will be step one toward getting his top and bottom jaws to align, it will also lead to a temporary large gap between his two front teeth until braces close that gap again.  Right now he has a very large, newly installed metal palate expander in the roof of his mouth, making his speech pretty difficult to understand.

Where the red lines are is where Kenny's jaw will be cut.

I am usually pretty steady during emergencies or experiences such as this, but for some reason, this time I am less so and I am not sure why.  He will be fine, and he will be getting the best care possible.  Sometimes I just wish we were on the other side of this, and we still have one more major jaw surgery after this one.  Kenny has had such a challenging life, and has a better attitude than anyone I have ever met.  Constantly he astounds me with how accepting he is of hard truths, of how grateful he is for the life he has, and how diligent he is under really terrible circumstances.  He has spent the past 4 days or so working on school work every single hour until late at night, trying to get work done before he goes so he doesn't have to face as much when he returns.  School is harder for him than for many kids, it takes a lot more effort, he makes a lot more mistakes, and he has to redo work often...and he does so without complaint.  Honestly, I could never continue to have the attitude he has if I walked in his shoes.

The rest of the family will manage without us, each of the kids is taking a day to make dinner, and tons of school work has been assigned.  They'll be fine, but I will really miss them all.  Thankfully, my best friend Candi is flying out to be with us, as Kenny will need constant care and with his FASD and being on drugs I don't dare leave him alone!!  I am incredibly grateful to have that kind of support, as being so far from home often makes these surgeries even harder on mom.  Funny how it doesn't matter whether they are 8 or 18, they are still our babies, just in larger packages.

So, Thursday morning at 6:00 AM we take yet another step toward helping Kenny move toward wholeness.  Every day for each one of our kids, we continue to strive to heal old wounds, both physical and emotional.  Some steps are easier to take, others are painful and very, very hard.  May this step be a little less difficult than we anticipate, and may Kenny heal quickly.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Seven Years of Valentine's

Seven Years.

Oh, how much has changed in seven years!

I knew at this very moment pictured above, upon seeing you two together in person for the first time, that you were our daughters.  I will never, ever forget the force of the emotions that washed over me, the yearning I had to be your mother in a circumstance which appeared hopeless, both financially and legally.  

Thankfully, a true Angel of God stepped in and helped make it possible for you to join our family.  Waiting for years, patiently, your family received photos of you and we saw you mature right before our eyes.  It felt as if time was slipping away from all of us as we dealt with delay after delay.  Looking back, it is easy to understand all the reasons why we all waited as long as we did, and none of us would have it any other way, but it was torture going through it.

Your brothers were as anxious as we were, as pinks suddenly became a part of our life during the long wait.

Three boys needing two girls to join them!

Modeling Hello Kitty and all kinds of pink attire!

We had a girl sized whole in our family's heart, and we all couldn't wait to finally have you home.

Our arrival without warning after five long years of waiting was a total shock, understandably so, but honesty and vulnerability helped us all break through the walls that were quite sturdy, and we found ourselves becoming a family, ever so gently, ever so tenderly.

In the orphanage, final days in uniform.

Our first Christmas as the final version of Team LaJoy, still in Kazakhstan for another month and a half!

Waiting for Dad to return to Kazakhstan while we remained there.

First personal PJ's, finally in mom's arms.
The laughter a sign of things to come!

Fun times visiting while in Kazakhstan.

In seven years you have grown from pre-teens to young women.  We have worked through issues around trauma, neglect, guilt, and much more.  We have ALL learned how to love more fully, forgive more easily, and walk more faithfully.

There is no way to ever really put into words what the past seven years has been like.  There was such peace in my heart to finally have you home, to feel as if our family was finally complete and no one was missing...for a part of my heart was always missing until you were under our roof, safe and loved.

The relationship I have with each of you is better than I ever could have imagined it to be.  I didn't need "daughters", what I needed was each of you and only you.  

Olesya, your constant kindness and gentle spirit extends its love to every person in our family.  With little notes at surprising moments, we each feel cared for and nurtured by you.  

Angela, you possess a sense of awareness few have, and you share your feelings so openly.  You have a soul that fights for the underdog in any situation, and you "see" people others don't, making them feel special and noticed.

The two of you are a formidable pair, forged by your past into strong, capable woman and shaped by your family so the rough edges were smoothed and the safety you felt cultivated your deep, sensitive sides and allowed them to shine.

I have learned so much from you both, and my time as your mother, far too brief in my own opinion, has brought me nothing but absolute joy.  I have discovered a softer side of myself, and it blossoms when I am with you.  I feel freer to explore my more feminine side, something that was missing as the mother of all boys (adored though they may be!).  I have also never had such amazing cheerleaders!!

I have had my heart feel like it would burst as I have watched the five of you interact so beautifully, so lovingly with one another, reflecting a joy of relationship I wish all siblings were lucky enough to experience.  You help one another succeed, you cover for each other's disabilities with such thoughtfulness, and you are there so firmly alongside your parents as well.  No one would ever be able to tell we haven't been together since the first moment of your lives!

Valentine's Day is about love, and not just romantic love but a celebration of love in all it's beautiful forms.  On this day, the anniversary of your homecoming, we celebrate you, two of the greatest loves of our lives.  Olesya and Angela, never will a mom love her children as deeply, cherish them as tenderly, or love them as passionately as I love you.  Few have yearned for them as long as I yearned for you two, knowing without a doubt you were ours.

May you each always know love for the remainder of your lives.  May you walk in the knowledge that you were desperately desired and eagerly prayed for, and joyfully embraced in the loving arms of your entire family and you will never, ever be alone again as long as there is a breath in any of the five of us.

Keep that joy!

Live playfully!

Love fully!

You are loved...

Oh, so loved!

Here we were, knowing we were missing you two, needing you to round us out.

And here we were...finally a complete family.

You are all so beautiful to Valentines.

And my very first Valentine ;-)

Thank you for choosing to bring your love to our family.  You have changed us for the better in so many ways.

Much love,