Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Dramedy That is My Life

Sitting here in a darkened hotel room, Kenny well drugged and fast asleep near me, I find there is no way at all I can even doze.  It is almost midnight here in Chicago, and I have slept a whopping grand total of four hours in the past forty-eight hours.  My  mind has been on overdrive for weeks now, my heart has been squeezed a little too hard lately, and that is a bad combo for a good night's rest.

Today's surgery went well, though we waited seven hours for him to go into the OR, his anxiety ramping up as he tried to distract himself.  More bone grafting, the removal of two front teeth for a total of three top front teeth that are now missing and will need to be replaced with implants, a couple hours stay in recovery, and we were finally back in our hotel room many hours past when we had anticipated.  He rolled over and turned off the light long ago, and here I sit, alone with my thoughts, trying to sort through so many events and emotions.

I lost my mom a week ago tomorrow.  It somehow feels like years ago...and yet like moments ago as well.  This past year has been, as Dominick said to me over the phone, perhaps the hardest year of my life.  He has been around a looooong time and seen me go through some doozies, long before we had kids as my family struggled mightily with so much, as each of our own children came home and we worked through monumental issues, and as he and I worked at a feverish pace when we first arrived in Colorado to build a business and a new life.  Nothing really compares to this year.  As I measure it all, it reads like a dramedy, that is if I weren't actually living it.  

In the space of 13 months here is the "scorecard" of what has happened, just the big stuff:

1) Mom was moved from temporary rehab to permanent nursing home care
2) Rushed out to CA to pack mom's house up in 3 days, get her finances in order, and make many arrangements to sell her little mobile home.
3) Dominick and I have been to CA six times to visit moms and help as we could.
4)  Kenny had three different surgeries, two of them fairly major, with five multi-day trips total Chicago
5)  Spent months dealing with the State of CA to get mom approved for Medi-Cal
6)  Had to travel to New Mexico to handle banking issues for mom for her Medi-Cal approval, because it was the nearest branch available.
7)  Homeschooled four kids all year
8)  Graduated two kids from high school
9)  Drove back and forth to Colorado Springs (5 hours and an over night trip usually) five times for camps and retreats for the kids (Dominick handled a lot of that)
10)  Spent the entire year developing, constructing, teaching, and building out Buckaroos Slices and Scoops which will open...well...as soon as we can manage
11)  ANd this one I still can't quite believe...spent two weeks in New England with my best friend, Candi, as her mother was on hospice and passed away so she didn't go through that alone, returned home for two weeks, only to oddly find ourselves in the circumstance of...
12) Spending two weeks on the opposite coast to be with my mom as she was unexpectedly put on hospice and passed away from the very same issues that Candi's mom had.  We literally don't have words to describe this unusual and painful coincidence, but we do know God provided the support we needed in each other.
13)  Had a summer long visitor at home in our intern and adopted nephew, Billy, who was a God send in all kinds of unexpected ways
14)  Multiple emotional/brain challenges that made life...well...challenging in ways that simply can not be explained unless you have young adults with FASD and "get it".
15)  I had health problems with a thyroid completely gone haywire and off the charts with meds not working for 5 months or so
16)  Blue Collar Homeschool Facebook Group grew by 2800 members to 6800, requiring hours and hours of time to be the admin and share content, send out over 75 certificates, and other behind the scenes work.

As I lay all of that out on the metaphorical table, it makes it easier for me to see just why I feel so overwhelmed...and that I am not a total wimp.  My emotions are haywire, sort of on the fritz, so to speak, and I find I am walking around enveiled in a translucent,  gauzy haze, trying hard each moment of every day to simply move forward.  There is a flatness to my heart right now, an unfamiliar inability to be fully present in the way I usually move through the world.  Right now, simply making it from one day to the next is about all I can manage.  Summoning joy is growing harder by the month, despite the gratitude I still feel daily for all I have been given, and there have been multiple times when I have told Dominick that I want to run away from my life for a little while.  

It's a season, and any mature adult has been through these tough ones, but somehow that knowledge doesn't make it any easier at all, does it?  We can know the truth of the statement "this too shall pass" while still frantically screaming with fists upraised, "I KNOW that, but WHEN???"  I have had many, many moments when it feels like everything is falling apart, and in some ways, it has indeed fallen apart.

And then, somehow, little pieces are put back together.  No, not the entire puzzle, but right now, just getting the border connected and new "framing" for my life in place would be considered a huge "win".  People offer beautiful, heartfelt words of encouragement, and that helps.  People pray for us and our myriad struggles, and that helps.  People literally show up and offer meals, rides, physical labor, and that helps.  People REALLY show up and hold your hand, those special friends who sit beside the bed as you wait for a loved one's healing or departure, or they message you regularly saying, "I love you, my friend." and through your tears, you smile and hear the "click" of one of those corner pieces connecting to another border piece.  You have a melt down in private, and someone grabs the kleenex for you, makes your next plane reservation, and listens to you by the hours as your voice trembles in grief...or fear...or a combination because your life isn't about one single hard thing, but too many hard things all at once and you don't know WHAT you are feeling and can't compartmentalize it no matter how hard you try.

One thing that being in your fifties does for you is give you a sense of certainty that at some point, it will turn around, nothing lasts forever and our lives are constantly in flux.  You become more pragmatic in your more rational, unemotional moments, and can trust that in time you will be able to breathe more deeply, your shoulders will feel lighter, and laughter will return.  Until then, you muddle through, you keep "adulting", and you do your best to find the simple pleasures in dribs and drabs.

Maybe reflecting on those dribs and drabs here for a moment will help calm my mind and allow me to finally sleep...

My Dribs and Drabs of Joy

1)  Kenny is in little pain tonight, sleeping soundly, meds doing their job.
2)  Continuing to receive emails and messages from the kids, and from Candi's daughter, sharing their hearts with me, letting me know I am loved through it all, and what they have learned from me.  At a time like this, it is a great reminder that we adults model all the time, whether we know it or not.
3)  Dominick is a rock star.  Seriously.  He covers the bases like no other husband I know, and with a smile every.single.day.  At 9:00 pm one night last week he immediately offered to go fly on the 6:00am flight the next morning to Salt Lake City then make the six hour drive home, after I had left it there to fly to mom and couldn't figure out what to do about it in order to get to Chicago and then fly back into Montrose on our original ticket.
4)  A conversation today with a young man Kenny's age at Shriner's who is undergoing his 30th surgery this week, and has had a setback or two but continues to reach out to those young kids around him who were scared and waiting for their own surgery to begin.  
5)  My mom's roommate at the nursing home...a light and someone who loved my mom daily during her last year.
6)  Diet Coke.  Need I say more?
7)  A decent hotel mattress to sleep on tonight, unlike other nights while I have been gone...or not sleep on as the case may prove to be.
8)  The best best friend ever who was scheduled for a vacation and instead came to be with me and mom, which was even harder considering she had literally just done it for her mom two weeks prior.
9)  Monterey, where we went for two days the night my mom passed so I could feel it all as deeply as I needed to, could try to start breathing, try to get my head on straight so I could be in the right frame of mind for Kenny immediately afterward.  The rocky seaside coast we walked alongside soothed me, drew me and my thoughts in, asked little of me but to sit with my grief for just 48 hours and the seagulls called to me, "It's OK, cry out to us!" and God hugged me there as the wind brushed my hair back.
10)  My joy that this year hasn't been even harder, for though it has indeed been emotionally almost crippling, I am still standing, still present, still able to see beyond myself and offer a hug when needed, a smile of appreciation, and though I have lost the first person who ever loved me, I thankfully have more love available to me, proving once again what an infinite source it is, if nurtured and fed.

These are the less-than-noteworthy late night ramblings of a very confused, unsettled, middle-aged woman whose life has converged to create the perfect storm in a single year.  May she find a little peace soon.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Hard Work of Dying is Done

My mom and I eleven years ago.  I have very few photos of her, as she hated having her picture taken.
Two nights ago, I became an orphan.

Even writing that makes me wince, and yet, here I am.  Maybe writing more here will help me move through the fog of complicated emotions that are overwhelming me. 

I received a call two weeks ago that my mom had been admitted to the ER from her nursing home.  A day later I spoke with her doctor, who casually said he thought she might be in the hospital for a couple of days, would be stabilized, and then moved back to the nursing home.  After a short discussion with Dominick, I made the choice to make a quick trip out to California for a couple of days to visit with mom and check in on her.  At 82 years old, her memory was beginning to fail, as was her ability to have real conversations, and after Dominick saw her in June we realized we may not have many more opportunities for me to be with her where she would fully realize who I was, so off I went. 

Arriving in California I picked up my dear friend, Candi, who had been planning on being with us in Colorado for the week, but changed her plans to accompany me while I visited my mom, then we would both head back home afterward.  Walking into mom's hospital room, it was clear something was not right, and a nurse met us and gave us an update.  Within the first five minutes, hospice care was mentioned, and my heart sank.  My mom's condition had changed drastically overnight, and her chronic kidney disease had progressed to the point where dialysis was necessary, and that was something she had made clear she never desired to have, and her nephrologist also stated that in her poor health, it was not recommended and would do little good at this stage.  At that moment, I was so glad I was not alone, and that Candi was with me to help me walk through what was going to be a week and a half of bedside visits and steady decline.  There were no real decisions to be made, there was nothing that could be done, the only action to take was being present.

Mom was always terrified of medical treatments and settings, and so I did my best to reassure her in her confused and panicked stated that she was fine, she was going back to the nursing home to her own bed, and they were just giving her medication to make her feel better.  While in the hospital before hospice becoming involved, mom cried frequently, whether from pain or from fear is not totally clear, but it seemed to reassure her to hear my voice.  Once medication was on board with hospice, she was far more comfortable and relaxed.

Sitting beside her bed at the nursing home, I stared at photos of my family on her wall.  Though she didn't know them well, she was proud of her grandchildren, and I heard from others how she talked all about them.  Daily, we witnessed her features change, as happens when someone is at this stage, and the mom I knew grew ever more distant, eventually looking nothing like herself.  I contemplated her life, and our life together. 

My family of origin was lower middle class, and a pretty broken one in many ways.  The happy family of my childhood changed drastically around my middle school years, and my brother, a mere year and six days younger then me, slipped into drug and eventual alcohol addiction that lasted his entire life, cut short at age 37 as he succumbed to liver failure.  My dad passed away at 58 years old due to a heart condition.  Mom, always an introvert, grew more reclusive in her later years.  We never had any real relationship with any outside relatives, my dad's family was unknown to us in any way, and my mom's brothers were distant and I was around them only a handful of times my entire life.  We were a family who had virtually no community at all, a lack I have felt my entire life.  Mom was a hard woman to get to know, her heart walled off and guarded to the hilt to protect her from some unnamed harm.  She was a good woman, but one who struggled mightily with affection.  Hugs were not offered nor were they comfortable for her, and trying to hold her hand in these last days resulted in her pulling away even while barely responsive.  I respected that, as it was uncomfortable for her, but I ached to offer some sort of tangible physical support.  It was not unfamiliar to me, but in these moments, I wished so much more for her.

Over the years, I became an enigma to my mom, a product of her quite intentional parenting that led me to be someone very different from her...a goal she spoke of often...but also created an end product she didn't quite know what to do with.  When young, she pushed me to be brave, to try new things, to be social, all things she found almost impossible.  She stated often that she wanted me to be the opposite of her, but when she was successful at that, she was faced with a young adult who felt almost foreign.  I am grateful for the ways in which she challenged me to overcome my own introversion, but I was left confused when she then also said multiple times, "I don't know why you would want anyone to know you that well, people just hurt you and you can't trust them."  That she walked through the world with that as her mantra was one of my most painful understandings in life, and her fear of intimate relationship created a distance between her and the world...and those closest to her...that left holes inside all of us that may never quite be filled up.  But I always knew the biggest hole was inside her, and no matter how hard I tried, there was no way I could shovel enough love in to bring it to level ground.

Sometimes the lessons we learn are from seeing something that doesn't work well in the lives of others, and my greatest lesson from my mom was to love with infinite openness, to dive in as deep as possible, and to never, ever withhold affection.  I also discovered how God can heal our open wounds, how inviting God to be present in my life and the life of our family, has literally changed everything.  I have seen first hand how walking in daily gratitude leads from a sense of lack to an inner trust in abundance, something I never learned in my youth.  I learned a great deal from my mom, and I say with all sincerity that I am deeply grateful to have learned it at all, regardless of how the lesson was taught. 

Mom on her 80th Birthday
There were many other lessons she taught me...how to be frugal and wise with money, how to "hear" music differently, how to stand up for myself and that NO ONE was better than I was regardless of their background.  I was taught to be respectful to others, to value education and to develop a love of reading from the time I was four years old.  My mom taught me to stop and think things through before jumping, to project outcomes, and to never feel the need to keep up with the Jones'.  My mom insisted on honesty, and had a work ethic second to none. 

Despite the challenging relationship with my mom, I loved her deeply.  She was the sole person left in this world who shared memories of a family who literally no longer exists, of my earliest years, of my elementary school antics and my middle school angst.  No, the irony does not escape me that, just like each of our five children, I too now have no one I am biologically connected directly to in my life.  Perhaps that is also an important feeling for me to experience, and a way to better understand those I love most.  It hurts.  A lot.  It all hurts.

What hurts the most is the sadness that existed in my family, the loneliness that pervaded and drove each person to a place that was unhealthy in one form or another.  There was a lack of peace and a hollowness for my dad, my brother, and my mom that I will never quite be able to shake or be able to avoid feeling guilty over.  Misplaced guilt, I get that, but sometimes we really are not in control of that, are we?

And then, in the depths of my dark despair, my own husband and children reached out.  Through gentle, tender words beautifully expressed in emails I will cherish forever, each and every one of them hugged me virtually, found words to comfort me, knew exactly what to say to help me begin to heal.  Matthew called me from camp late the night she died, and softly whispered to me as I sobbed, more and more a man with each passing day.  Friends messaged me, reminding me I am not alone in the world and that I matter to them.  Candi was present to keep pulling me toward a center that seemed elusive and kept me from feeling quite as raw as I could have.  And God was there with my mom each and every moment as well, in the ways she needed it, through her caring roommate, through the caretakers who were truly impressive in their work, and maybe...just maybe...through my presence as well.  I pray that is so.

I wish you great peace and love, Mom.  The hard work is over.  I will miss you, and I am who I am because of you.  Give Dad and Ronnie a hug from me.  

Friday, August 02, 2019

Finding My Way Back to Me

Have you ever had a season in life where you were really struggling, and yet couldn't really put into words precisely what the problem was?

The past year and a half or so have been emotionally charged in ways I am not yet certain I fully understand.  Big life events have occurred such as my mom's inability to move through rehab and return home, requiring the emptying and sale of her place.  Attempting to develop and open a businesses from the concept to open doors has been a tough gig and required taking a lot of risks.  Health issues for the entire year with my thyroid completely off kilter have caused hormonally driven lows.  Multiple surgeries with Kenny have been excruciating to walk through side by side with him.  Kids have had some real ups and downs I have elected not to share here but that have been incredibly painful and required lots of my deepest attention.  Life is shifting in new directions all over the place, which doesn't disturb me at all, despite what others might think with kids graduating, etc.  I am not, nor have I ever been, one of those moms who yearn for the younger years or need to cling.  I have been excited about every new stage, and revel in watching them move forward in new directions.

What is the problem then?  What has me so off balance? 

I would describe myself right now as lost.  Not the kind of lost that comes from empty nesting, because we aren't even close.  Not the kind of lost that comes from feeling older and like life is passing me by, because that has yet to feel like an issue for me.  It is not the lost that comes from impending menopause, fraught with hot flashes and anxiety around a changing body, though I am certain that hasn't helped.

Spending the past several months in great introspection, I have come to a couple of conclusions that may or may not be true.  Here are a couple of my thoughts, and I wonder if others in similar circumstances have felt the same...

  • Helping my kids heal, spending years in the role of therapeutic parent, has taken a toll.  You absorb so much pain, and you move on, nary a thought to how doing this episode after episode is chipping away at your soul.  You yearn for wholeness for them, and you might not realize you are losing your own wholeness.  You lose sight of what you are sublimating over time.  You take the "hits" over and over again, thankfully you often see eventual growth and building of emotional "muscle", but at what cost?  I have ignored this, maybe never seen it at all.  But I am feeling it now as a weight that feels almost too heavy to heft over my shoulder.  Maybe it has just all caught up to me, maybe it seems never ending, I don't really know.  But I hurt and emotionally bruise more easily these days, and feel less resilient, less easily able to bounce back after hard days or weeks...or months.
  • Spending countless years in seeking out help, answers, and a future path for our kids has left me little time for working on myself.  And now, I have no sense of who I am.  I lost my way somehow, and need to come back to myself without really knowing what that looks like.

    I am no longer who I was, too much has happened in the past 20 years for me to ever find my way back to who that woman was.  And the version of myself that exists now has just been hanging on for dear life much of the time, trying desperately not to fail those around me, recognizing the true life and death stakes at play.  If I can't return to the old version of me, and have had no time to develop a new version, where does that leave me?  In a kind of limbo that is very hard to describe, and in some ways with as little self-knowledge as a late teen has.  Understandable at 17, not so understandable at almost 53.
  • Unlike many with kids this age, I will always have a life more intertwined than others might with their young adult kids.  Sure, we will graduate them, but at the very least Kenny will always need support in some form, and there is more needed in other directions as well for the unforeseeable future.  We are unlikely to have an empty nest for several more years, if ever.  There is active parenting going on all the time, despite chronological ages.  While many might interpret my current angst to kids graduating, that is not it at all.  How do I live into a new version of "me" as everyone else seems to do at this stage of life, when the old version must remain, at least in part, perhaps forever? 

    And knowing that I need to be fully present much of the time so that others can have a real life, what can I actually live into for myself for this next phase of my life?  I don't have the freedom to just come and go as I please, because others need my presence for a variety of reasons.  In other words, how can I "become" under those circumstances?  I see my friends entering this new season, and it looks so different than mine that it is very hard to relate.
These are not complaints, they are observations and the unvarnished reality.  They are not an indication of depression, but instead an expression of the swirling confusion that is my inner life right now.

I am not unhappy,  I am lost.

What is my true role with Buckaroos?  Where might God help me find meaning and value in my day to day work as homeschooling gradually wanes?  I can't work at a real job, I am still needed far too much and likely never will work at a real job ever again.  Does the perpetual running all day, the guiding, the listening, the encouraging with young adults...does it really matter?  Will I ever find a way to teach again once I am done, something I have found I truly enjoy?  Or will those days be put behind me and become mere fond memories?  Is there more I am being led to do with Blue Collar Homeschool?  Or as we end our homeschool journey in a couple of years will that feel disconnected from me?

I have prayed and prayed patiently and repeatedly for God to show me a way forward, not for my kids, but for me...something I seldom ask.  I need my own personal 2x4, and perhaps I received it recently in the unique, undeniable way that God tends to work in my life.  While it didn't provide concrete answers, it may have offered me a direction of sorts, one I am paying close attention to.

God's 2x4 came in the form of a quote from a book, and a Costco visit.  Trust me, they are connected in an unusual way, so just stick with me for a moment.

For our Blue Collar Homeschool book group (I lead an online discussion) we are reading this book:

Now, this book is a fascinating look at how average is sort of a farce we all buy into, and the comment on the cover was true...it is consistently mind-blowing.  It has nothing to do at all with special needs, and offers a lot of examples and data which some might find mind numbing but I found quite intriguing.  What might this have to do with any Divine 2x4's?  Wait, I am getting to it.  

I was reading and making notations as I was back east a couple of weeks ago, which is a long story and I won't go into it here.  I hadn't quite finished the book, and planned to complete working through it on the flight home.  While there, my best friend Candi and I visited Lancaster, PA and ended up visiting the Costco there briefly.  Throughout my visit, we also had many deep conversations which were about Candi's future, mine, my sense of feeling profoundly lost to myself, and much more.  We both have lives that lend themselves to needing a special place to share, and thankfully we have that in each other, where we can be authentic and hide nothing, and know we are heard and understood.  Such a gift that is!  More's the gift in that there is real time invested in prayer for one another, and this time it felt like an immediate answer was offered.

On the flight back, I open my book back up and begin where I left off.  A few pages in I am back deeply involved in it, and then I read a paragraph that utterly shocked me. I stopped reading, put the book down and just couldn't believe it.  I picked it up, and there it was, in black and white, and I was NOT imagining it.

There on the very page I was reading, was mentioned the Lancaster, Pennsylvania Costco I had visited a mere four days earlier.  As if that were not enough, that paragraph spoke about a young man with special needs hired by that Costco, finding meaning and worth through work in his community.

Throughout the book there was never a specific location mentioned in this way, nor was there ever a special needs person mentioned...until this page that I read...four days after being in that exact location...as I am trying to help start a business for employing others with special needs...a couple of weeks after I had, on a whim, enrolled in an online certification course to become a job coach for those with special needs but not thinking at all that it was perhaps an actual direction or call in my life, but simply thinking practically that if I do this even a little I could learn a bit.

God knows my deepest yearnings to live into a life of purpose, and my great fear that at some point I will look at my life and see I am doing little of any real meaning.  Homeschooling and raising my kids has been an incredible ride, more meaningful than I would have ever thought possible.  I actually hated the idea of homeschooling and had to talk myself into it.  I did so, frankly, because I felt God told me to, and I trusted there was something there for me as well, despite the fact that it was the very last thing I would have ever volunteered to do.  That trust paid off, and I ended up finding I had gifts for teaching I had not anticipated or seen before, I learned a lot about myself, and have thoroughly enjoyed every single moment of it, truly.

In talking my life through with Candi, she has tried to help me begin to view Buckaroos as my next "classroom", rather than feeling like I am peddling backward to begin working as a fast food worker again.  While I was gone, I connected with yet another family in our community whose young adult may need a place to belong, grow and learn.  We now have three possible employees outside our family who are in need of employment where teaching will happen daily, and where support and encouragement will be on great supply.  

It may not be clear exactly how much involvement I have, nor how other pieces of my life are meant to fall into place. I may feel lost for much longer.  But if I am indeed lost, at least I am not alone as I wander.  I have a peace about this part of my life now that I haven't had in a couple of years.  Details are in scant supply, but I have no doubt now that over time I will be let in on the Great Secret of Phase Four of Cindy LaJoy's life.  As long as it feels God guided, I am perfectly fine with letting it all unfold, and now I have that assurance, whether others would feel that way from the experience I had or not.  As Dominick and I talked about my Divine 2x4 we both used the same word...infinitesimal.  The odds of me reading what I read in that window seat were infinitesimal, and I trust it.

As for other things, I realize I need to be kinder to myself, for I have quite regular healing of my soul that needs to occur.  The work I do is far more painful than others would imagine, and it is indeed work...work to keep my heart soft and pliable when it wants to harden like granite.  Work to remain as patient as I can when logic leaves the room and seems like it will never return.  Work to believe when others have lost faith in themselves and God's presence.

A new Cindy is very slowly going to emerge.  She has no clue what she looks like yet, who she really is, or how many unique and uncommon places her life will lead her to.  She may indeed be lost right now, but she is stronger than ever because she has been well-honed by life, she has a great capacity to love and not allow life to cause her to strike out at others because she has seen the impact of that, worked with it and knows how beautiful it can be when walls come down. She also trusts more than ever, sure...doubting once in awhile because she is human...but walking in a faith that is basically steadfast and certain even when it makes absolutely no sense to others, because she has trusted before and every.single.time it has proven to be the wisest course of action, even when it would not have been her first choice.

And maybe she will discover that in the years spent helping others "become", she has found the bread crumbs that will direct her toward her new life, that it was really not all just about the kids, but about her as well.

Hopefully, over time, I will find my way back to me...not the old me who is long gone, but the new me who needs a little encouragement and time to settle in, and has the wisdom to look forward through the windshield and not in the rear view mirror.  

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Joy of Growth

How does one measure growth in a human being?

Oh, it can be so easy to see when there is the perfect combination of opportunity and willing participant.

Our kids have all had such an incredible summer, and it is only half over, but they are maturing in ways that are delightful to witness!  Young men and women are slowly emerging from the teens left behind, and if it is even possible I appreciate who they are more than ever before.

Matt, who is counseling at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp has been in contact little due to his responsibilities and schedule, but when he has we have had wonderful conversations of deepening faith, thoughtful care for me, and sharing how he sees how important his role as counselor is.  He has participated in two different Vacation Bible School leadership opportunities in New Mexico and Colorado Springs, as well as been on site at Rainbow Trail with a cabin full of kiddos who, surprisingly, are clearly charming him and bringing great depth themselves.   He has matured into a far more sensitive and tender man than I ever imagined developing in one with such an analytical tech oriented brain. We will see him today briefly as I pick him up to get him to Grand Junction tomorrow for a flight out as he heads off for his Civil Air Patrol International Exchange trip to The Netherlands, a dream come true for him. 

Josh has been at camp the past two weeks, one as a counselor himself with the littlest ones, and one as a camper.  We pick him up today and he will regale us with tales of his adventures, and as usually happens after camp, I anticipate seeing a person emerge from the final circle whose soul has been touched.  Our commitment to church camp each and every year for our kids no.matter.what has been integral to them becoming who they are, and we are blessed with a fine staff at La Foret who bring a level of depth that makes a huge difference.  Josh has also been maturing in another way this summer, as we see him truly settling into the older teen years. It is hard to describe but some of the angst of the early teens has dissipated, and a new contentment has appeared.  He "feels" more like a man to those around him and he has a stronger sense of self.  He has continued to generously offer his time and energy as needed at Buckaroos to assist his siblings with the physical tasks they have tackled, and has learned some construction in the process.  This sweet, strong, one-of-a-kind young man is so confident (and yet not at all cocky) that he cares not one whit if people see his gentle side, which is so endearing, and has come to a place of feeling safe being all parts of himself.  Josh is not at all just the typical teen overly masculine tough guy.  Interestingly, as adulthood is drawing nearer, he has no solid career aspirations yet, though some firm ideas of qualities in a job he might like or dislike and he knows he wants to be self-employed.  The thing he is most firm about?  "I just want a way to make a good living so I can be a great husband and dad and support my family well.  I want to be self-employed so I can have the freedom like dad did to be there for us."  At 16, to give voice to that heartfelt desire and to let it lead his career choices is far different than many his age, and goes to show that he understands that for him, family will be at the heart of his contentment and will be what grounds him throughout his life.  For a child who struggled so mightily with Reactive Attachment Disorder and who multiple therapists said might never make it, those desires for the rootedness a connected family can offer is a validation in a way nothing else can be that we were successful as parents in helping heal his heart.

Then there is our Buckaroos Crew...Angie, Kenny, Olesya and Billy have stepped up in ways I am not sure we could have envisioned when we began this project, and wow, has it been transformational for each of them!  

There has been so much going on, and so  little time to write as we immerse ourselves in the business development process that I realized I hadn't shared since graduation here!  Never fear, a lot is happening behind the scenes, and though progress has been slower than hoped due, in large part, to waiting for contractors willing to tackle a small job during their busy season, our entrepreneurs are busy handling many tasks all by themselves, and proving to the world what they can do!

Billy and Kenny spending 4 hours laying out our countertop, which was more complicated than one might think due to limited space and angles.  Thank goodness for those advanced math skills which allowed them to
come up with the perfect design.

Let's see if we can catch you all up!  Things are at the stage at our location where it LOOKS like little has happened because it is a bit of a mess, but a LOT is close to coming together.  You know that stage in a big project where you question if it is ever going to gel?  Yeah...that is what it looks like right now but we know we are just a few steps away from a completed project.  Having the kids take the reigns and squeezing as much learning out of this as we can has slowed the progression, but we feel it is worth it, and we will still be opening in under a year from initial "idea on paper", which in our estimation is outstanding consider all that is at play with this.  Additionally, the kids will really be able to stand back and see exactly what THEY have accomplished, with help, and have a strong sense of ownership of this next stage of their lives.  

Now seriously, hasn't this been the ultimate homeschooling project?

The day the oven arrived was a triumphant moment for Kenny, who did all the research, compared specs with the help of Dominick, and ultimately cautiously pulled the trigger on the one we should purchase.  His gifts have been honed in areas of research through all of this, and you will never guess how much he saved us...finding a pizza oven liquidator on Ebay who had a MONSTER double stacked conveyor used oven available at a savings, literally of $40k...yes, you read that correctly, a savings.  The frugal LaJoys strike again! Haha!  If we have passed on any skills, that one we might be most proud of :-)

Kenny anxiously awaited the arrival of his baby, and getting it in the door was no easy feat!  It involved two different types of tow trucks to deliver, drop and lift it in the door.  This crated beauty was awesome!  We had a little help from our friend Steve, who ended up waiting around all day to offer just a few minutes of help.  And, in yet another Divine Coincidence in which we have seen God show up in all kinds of unusual ways around Buckaroos, our tow truck driver was actually a former Dominos Pizza employee who had literally helped in the set up of an oven just like ours at their location a few years ago and had all kinds of helpful hints and encouragement to offer.  What are the odds?!?!?!  I love how God continues to be revealed to us on a daily basis.

Here she comes!!

Oh boy, this is really real now!


Josh, anxiously skeptical as he watches the oven being unloaded.  This thing was enormous and weighed a ton!  It was literally slid off the back of a flat bed tow truck, then later lifted up and in the door with the boom of another truck and chains wrapped around it.  
Ingenuity compliments of Dominick :-) 

Waiting for stage two of the oven delivery.

Along with the physical pieces of pulling all of this together, there have been great opportunities for the development of other skills.  They have presented their business plan to potential investors in a two hour long session, answering questions and sharing their vision:

Billy and Olesya have shown true growth in this area, and I was enormously proud of them as they confidently answered questions, proved they knew their product and plan, and grew a little presentation "muscle".  This comes a little easier to Angie and Kenny, but all along the way, we are seeing where the interdependence factor and reliance on the complimentary strengths and weaknesses is going to make all the difference in the world.

Angie has been working on some unique table tops for our little sitting area, using a wood burner for what is honestly really the first time "for real" on this larger project.  I can't wait to show them to everyone once they are stained and sealed, they turned out beautifully!  We are already planning another side gig for her with custom wood burning! Hahaha!  Only half joking, you know us!

Billy and Kenny also went on their own to an insurance agent after having visited the first one for comparison with me. They got a quote on commercial general liability insurance as well as worker's comp, asked very detailed questions after being given a course in commercial insurance by myself, and purchased a policy.  I even received an email from the agent who was quite impressed and said they had been far more knowledgeable than she had expected for their age and grilled her about the policy coverages!  Another win!  Not too many 20 year olds who have done that before all on their own!

Perhaps our most important presentation was this past week, when we had the honor of presenting our plans to Community Options, the local agency in Montrose who provides services to those in our community who have various disabilities and are in need of job coaching, life skills training, etc.  Thanks to a connection with Mosaic and Rejoicing Spirits, a group in the neighboring town where we attend church and for whom our church provides a special worship service each month, we were introduced at Community Options and to folks with our local Vocational Rehab.  Kenny has volunteered at many worship services and led the service a couple of times, and never knew that effort might lead to such an important connection that opened a door for us!

We walked into a room unprepared to be at a conference table with seven other people (we thought we were meeting with two others).  Kenny led the way, but each of the kids confidently spoke up, sharing what Buckaroos is hoping to do, expressing a desire for partnership, and asking questions to become better educated themselves.  This was an area in which Kenny totally shined, but the work put into developing more professional skills with everyone made a big difference.  At first, you could tell that we were being given a polite hearing but an uncertain reception initially as there was no real sense of what we might be about.  Within about five minutes, you could literally feel the shift in the room as it became very clear we were well prepared, had a vision and a heart for the mission ahead of us, and it was incredibly motivating to all of us to hear the enthusiasm of others in the room, two of whom we had no idea prior that we knew reasonably well, and that we were going to be taken seriously.  Wow!  This was a REAL business meeting and the kids left feeling pumped up, and that what we are hoping to provide in terms of a unique opportunity for employment for others just like them was going to be well received, and was very needed.  We are hopeful this will be a wonderful collaboration, and it certainly served to fuel the coming weeks long hours ahead.

Sitting there listening, witnessing the fruits of not just almost a year of preparation, but years and years of hard, hard work, I was honestly so moved.  No one in the room was fully aware of how very much work has gone into sitting there, how hard the road has been to have someone literally say, "Are you sure you all have disabilities? " because they presented so well.  The tears, the years of repeating instructions, of working our way through reading and writing, of practicing public speaking and correcting English and grammar hourly (Literally still!), the painful moments around the table that many of you have read about as we shared, the agonizing moments of realization of limitations, the sheer number of hours spent treating education as a 9-5 job...the heartache of waiting years for the girls to come home, and the battle to win hearts...to sit there as they saw worth in themselves and handled themselves with grace and maturity as they shared their enthusiasm, and to KNOW they are willing to do whatever it takes to make this a success, that they know what hard work and long hours are and have no crazy illusions...

There are no words.

As I write this, we moved on to the next phase, and I am sitting in a REALLY crappy hotel room in Denver as we decided to combine picking Josh up at camp in Colorado Springs with an equipment buying trip, which also made it more real.

It is hard to believe that less than a year ago we came to this very place with a vague idea to "get our feet wet", and now we are returning with a business name, cool logo, a real plan, a physical space that is close to being completed, a menu, and much more!  A lot has happened in that brief few months, and very different crew returned...including the tall one! Haha!  A couple of days were spent crafting a starter list of smallwares needed, as the menu were reworked and revised.  Billy and Kenny have spent an inordinate amount of time costing out every single item we will sell, and they see quickly how important this sort of background financial work is to ensure success...a step viewed as unnecessary by many budding entrepreneurs who think a great recipe or idea is enough and forge ahead without doing the critical financial analysis pieces.  These two make quite a team and LOVE that sort of detail work! 

While the girls and I began gathering many items, Kenny and Billy were taking larger equipment lists and comparing prices versus an online supplier, and scored a heck of a deal on one particular piece we decided to purchase there, negotiating a $900 discount on a floor model!!  They did so without our knowledge and came back to us to share the good news and get final group approval, feeling pretty darned proud of themselves :-)

"Look mom a PURPLE pizza cutter!  We HAVE to have it, it is a sign from God!"
HAHAHAHA! Ok, that might be stretching it a bit but it was cute :-)

And finally, after 3 1/2 hours of grueling shopping (and in many ways it WAS grueling!), we were ready to check out.

Kenny whipped out that debit card like a pro, and four enormous boxes and one pizza warming cabinet later, we were done!

The skills that have come into play even with just this shopping trip can't be overlooked.  We practiced interaction with several other adults, financing, planning, working through processes in our heads and creating lists, budgeting, evaluating and comparing prices with 2 different sources to get the best deals, and so much more.  Daily I see how real life experiences supported by introductions with more traditional learning make an unbeatable combination for us.  And though this doesn't look like "school", it really is far better and real life learning at the next level...this is their trade school, as someone recently told me...this is their junior college! 

Finally, there is this guy:

After shopping for restaurant supplies, we took Billy for his first ever foray into IKEA, where he found the BILLY bookcase and laughed! Oh, how this young man has completely stolen my heart.  Yes, it is still possible to fall in love with yet another kid, and yes I have just as I love his sister dearly.  He has conquered many challenges himself in his young life, is one of the hardest workers I have ever met, and feels more like our own kid than just about any other we have ever met (Yes Christi...you too sweetie!)  Watching him literally blossom this summer, in a few short weeks, has been a gift to me, and discovering the fantastic brain inside that head has delighted me countless times.  

He is a unique thinker, very different in approach, quick and super bright.  He is also one of the kindest, most compassionate people I have met in a very long time.  Majoring in Economics at USC, I don't know if he had any idea what an entrepreneur orientation he had!  Man, is he made for this!  He THINKS like a marketer and business owner to the core!  You really can't teach that, you know?  My deepest hope is that he walks away from this summer having gained some practical skills, and having learned a lot about himself.

Billy is a long distance runner, and has spent the past week urging Angie on as she tries running for the first time.  Half a mile at a time, cheering her on, going super slow so she can keep up, Billy showed what a great encourager he can be!  He has been super patient with Kenny and yet they are both really equals, but many wouldn't be as gracious over those "Kenny Brain Malfunctions" as Billy has been.  He is generous with every single thing he has, his time, his snacks, his money.  I had no idea when I offered him the internship opportunity in late spring that he would bring such light and humor into our lives, and that I would feel I had adopted another son who I would be very proud to call my own, but he happens to have to great moms already :-)  Guess I will have to settle for auntie!

We have a lot more ahead of us, but soon it will start to feel like we are in the home stretch for opening.  Several weeks of hard work ahead as we hope to open in mid-September.  We have another surgery in the mix for Kenny in August, but then it is full steam ahead toward the finish line!  Hopefully, things will settle down and I will be able to write more frequently to share how we are moving forward.  Sometimes there aren't enough hours in the day, but the growth of other humans takes a lot of time, effort and focus! Haha!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Graduation Day for Kenny and Angela!

Well, we did it!  Kenny and Angela graduated in low key style this past Saturday evening, with a few close friends in attendance.  At their request, we kept the celebration small and intimate, and the event was beautiful, connecting, and authentic.

After a nice meal, we all moved into the living room, where we had a small ceremony, and where I offered a little speech for each of our graduates, and they each spoke as well.

I will openly admit I started crying before saying a word, and worked hard to hold it together throughout...I was pretty unsuccessful on that front.  This wasn't as much about homeschooling as it was about our entire journey together.  Trying to keep it short and sweet, there was so much unspoken that we each understood to be beneath it all.  I will share here in this far-too-long-blog-post the words each of us spoke through tears, for I was not the only one crying.  

But what were those tears about?  Were they shed because school was being left behind?  Because kids were growing up?  Because of fear of the future?

No, not at all!!  Those tears that fell for each of us were tears of victory, of success, of gratitude for reaching a goal that was far harder to attain than most would ever truly understand, for it was never guaranteed and they each started so far behind their peers and had so much working against them.  And we wept  because we love each other so darned much and we made it.  This was a celebration of all that has been accomplished despite incredible odds.

The blog is always in my voice, so I thought it would be nice to allow you to "hear" their voices here for graduation, so here is Kenny's speech:

Only when one can recognize and accept their limits can they master their abilities. 

Of all the great lessons that I have learned from homeschooling, this is the lesson that has impacted me most. Learning and accepting this concept has been the key to my success in homeschooling, and it’s the key for my success in the future. 

We live in a world that sells the idea that we can do anything and that by following our passions everything else falls into place. I prolonged my suffering by holding on to a dream that would never come to fruition. I failed to realize all that I had done and all I still had to offer. 

In AA they say that acknowledging that you are an alcoholic is half the battle. By acknowledging my disabilities I was able to work with them. 

I had forgotten how long it took Mom and I to get answers about what was wrong with my brain. How we bewildered so called experts. Some of them told my Mom that she was expecting too much from me and that I was too slow and impaired to help. While other experts told her that there was nothing really wrong with me. It was frustrating and heart breaking. 

The day I finally got my diagnosis of FASD, was a day of celebration because finally we understood what we were dealing with  

But over time I have come to blame my diagnosis for limiting me, failing to understand that whether I had or not had that diagnosis my life was already limited. 

Some things are not possible no matter how much I wanted them to be. Believing that 2+2 =3 is wrong wether I do or don’t acknowledge it. Buying into my head games and holding on to delusions only serves to hinder me. 

It was by getting that diagnosis that aided my Mom to craft an education that has pushed and grown me in all the right areas.

In the last few months I feel like God has been sending me two by fours about this message. Seeing and reading about people that bought into their own delusions and then going on to live lives of constant disappointment and shame. One example is some of the people with FASD on Facebook that keep blaming the world for their problems. They believe that the world needs to bend to them. 

The Tao talks about how the strongest and most rigid trees are not the ones that hold firm in a storm, but the trees that are able to bend and yield that make it through the storms. Palm trees 

Evolution tells us that it isn’t the smartest or the toughest animal that survives, it’s the animal that adapts the best that survives and thrives. 

By accepting my limits I have been able to hone in my abilities. 

Last year I gave a sermon about the idea of that God is always More and we are too. 

When I accept limits it doesn’t negate that I am still more. No, It’s the opposite. by realizing my capacity in certain areas I am able to explore the more in all the other areas of my life. 

I am so thankful to have had my Mom who has been there every step of the way. She has fought the world so it would recognize my impairments and fought me at times to accept them. She has also fought the world to see all that I have to offer and again fought me at times to get me to see my gifts. Thank you for being my second brain, thank you for accommodating and customizing my education in a way that I was able to maximize it, and thank you for cheer leading me when the burdens of life seemed overwhelming. 

Albert Einstein said that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. A fish excels in water and homeschooling has been my water.  

Below is what I shared with Kenny:

Kenny, I don’t know if you remember a day that stands out so clearly in my mind.  You were 11 years old and crying in the back seat of the car, frustrated, literally hitting your head and calling yourself “stupid”.  We had been through so many specialists, so many tests, so many meetings, and still you couldn’t read.  It was in Kazakhstan while briefly doing a test run of homeschooling while we were there adopting the girls that we first caught a glimmer of the profound learning disabilities you had that could no longer be chalked up to mere English language learning.  Upon our return, we knew we would give homeschooling a try the following year for you.  Demoralized by the end of the year, we found ourselves in that moment, and  it was then that I told you regardless of whatever test results we had, regardless of how everyone else wanted to classify you as borderline mentally retarded, I saw the very intelligent boy underneath it all, and I made you a promise, do you remember it?  I promised that by the end of high school, you would be reading.  How well, I didn’t know, but I just knew there was too much intellect to abandon so quickly, and that it was my job to research and find new strategies, and it was going to be your job to work harder than you ever had in your life.

You know what?  We did it, Kenny!  Day after day, workbook after workbook, phonics program after program (3 different ones!), we threw our heart and soul into helping you succeed.  Matthew, who was already a very good reader by that time, was the most patient, helpful sibling anyone could ever wish for.  Sitting at a table alongside FOUR brand new readers was a reflection of his great, silent compassion, for even as your educator I struggled not to grow impatient!!!! And I know each day for you was a long, slow grind.  But one morning, three years or so later, there you were, reading fluently, almost as if by magic.

But we know it wasn’t magic, don’t we?  It was painful, arduous work and required a faith from both of us that eventually we would see the results of years of sowing seeds.

No one outside your four siblings and I understand what your school years were truly like.  They know the  emotional suffering that pre-dated the confident, logical young man who leads Bible Study, rattles off obscure historical facts, and can analyze P & L’s like a pro.  They were there as witnesses to your enormous growth, they saw your grit first hand, and they know that who you are today almost didn’t happen.  I may have been your guide to a new intellectual world, but it was you who said yes and grabbed me by the hand willingly following wherever I led.  It was you who rewrote papers over and over again, it was you who tolerated (and still do!) my constant correction of speech and thought, it was you who allowed yourself to be molded and shaped.  You did so with a graciousness few of us could ever muster over that great a period of time, and you still do.  You never grew angry with me, you never rebelled, you simply knuckled down and got to work.

How I know we all honor your humble spirit, born of necessity, grown in wisdom as you gained more awareness of your needs and gifts, and what it would take to maximize your future possibilities.

The tenacity you have shown in your educational pursuits, which is far more than many more natural students, will serve you well as you begin your life as an entrepreneur.  Those seeds sown long ago will bear fruit in ways we likely can not imagine at this moment.  You have developed a work ethic second to none, you have honed your logic…something that once was deeply in doubt.  You have learned at an earlier age than most that miracles do happen, that independence is a fools errand and interdependence is the sweet spot where everyone thrives, and that hard isn’t bad, hard is just hard.  

No one does “hard” better than you, Kenny.

As you begin this next stage of your life, you are once again in a new circumstance, one that will test you, teach you, and if you are doing life right, terrify you.  Remember, no one grows from the comfortable seats.  

I know the fears for your future are based in a reality few of us can understand, but you need to know that what we see before us is someone who is a thinker, a dreamer, a prophet, a teacher, and so much more.  Dream big, Kenny.  While no one’s future is limitless, despite what Facebook memes would have us believe, the world is yours to explore, and we all believe in you.  Keep reaching, keep being intellectually curious, keep analyzing and researching and writing.  

You have a beautiful life to live, one filled with as much hope and possibility as everyone else, as long as you choose to look for it.

Congratulations, to the owner of the single most hard fought for high school diploma ever.

After wiping away tears, and taking a deep breath, our next graduate was up, Angie.  Like her mom, she was barely able to speak at first, so moved by finally arriving at this moment.  Speaking in public is incredibly hard for her, in fact, she even struggles and has a quavering voice when delivering an oral report in front of just me and the kids for school!  So this was a big challenge for her to stand up in front of family and friends and share her intimate thoughts...I was enormously proud of her.  Here, from Angie:

Two years ago, almost to the day, my brother Matthew was giving his high school graduation speech and I remember seating inside the Conway school, filled with emotions and being incredibly amazed by what I was hearing. My heart began to race and it hit me, no way can I stand a chance on moving my audience as much as Matt moved me that day. After his graduation, I began to type down notes, working on my speech, trying to somehow evoke the emotions of my listeners as Matt did in me. Despite my hardest efforts of trying to write  my speech years before its due date, I slowly started to erase words, which led to lines, and eventually turned to paragraphs and  I was left with nothing. 
No speech….just a blank page……
And here I am seating, the night before my graduation day,
……… contemplating what to say.
Do I talk about learning English and my constant battle with articles?
Do I talk about how I grew from absolutely hating books to loving them?
Do I write about learning how to forgive a person who never asked for an apology?
Do I write about  learning how to say “I love you” and how to open up yourself to the ones you deeply love?
Do I share how both my sister and I had to be educated on how to live in a family and what it meant to have a family……
All this  was taught to me by my  parents whom I was privileged to have as teachers, too.
Mom, you especially.
My school which was my home wasn’t ordinary,  we didn’t just learn how to add and subtract or how to read and write. We learned that “I don’t know" or “I can’t”  were never the right answers no matter to what question life or anyone has asked us. Everyday we learned that character is what mattered the most. Our success was evaluated by our willingness to rise up despite the disability, the  challenges, and the roadblocks we faced.
When a child learned to open up and break walls and show affection for the  first time in years that was success, when a student worked tirelessly and diligently trying to read but being told he will never be able to do so, and finally the day came and he began to  read at his grade level that was success, when everyone told you it was wrong to follow your heart and calling in life just because you might not afford it and might lose your house and live in a trailer, but you did it anyway, that was success… it was all based on WHO WE ARE not the grades that we have received or the trophies we’ve put on our shelves to collect dust.

So as I continue with the next stage in my life, which Buckaroos will be part of, I must always remember and judge my success not by the amount of customers that walk through Buckaroos’ doors and not by the recognition I may receive, but by my ability to rise above my limitations and setbacks in life. 

Thank you mom and dad for everything!!!!

We had a hard time getting good photos because we were in the moment, and both of us trying not to cry for the camera! Hahaha!

Here are the words I offered Angela upon her graduation:

Angela, the first time I held you was not as a tiny babe, but as a tall 8 year old girl who came purposefully down the steps of the orphanage and walked right into my arms as if you had always belonged there.  That confidence is something you continue to exude, along with that same open-hearted smile that invites everyone in.  

I have never met a child who was so intuitive, so spirited, and so courageous all rolled up into one.  You took the LaJoy name officially when you were eleven years old, but you took my heart many years earlier…and from the pile of letters carefully wrapped and saved, I think the same was true for you with me.  Neither of us could have intuited, however, how our lives would grow so lovingly intertwined.  What we didn’t know at the time, and would have terrified me if I did, is that I would become not only your mom, but your educator, English Language Learner tutor, special needs instructor, and business mentor.  But perhaps what warms my heart the most is that I can look into your 21 year old eyes now, and see not just my daughter, but my dear friend.

Few of us can imagine the leap of faith you and Olesya took.  We try, but we fail miserably.  Like some sort of kamikaze daredevil, you leapt off a very high cliff with no safety net below.  When we pause for a moment to consider it fully, you willingly abandoned all that was familiar with no possibility of return.  Leaving your native Kazakhstan, you lost your language, your culture, your friends, your safety, your foods (and boy was THAT a big one!), and even your education, for it soon became apparent that your supposed 5th grade level was inadequate, at best, and we would have to begin at…well…the beginning.  Initially, you were deeply disturbed to discover we were dropping you back a couple of grades, but surprisingly, though a totally foreign concept, you were not at all uncomfortable with being educated at home.  One brief visit to a public school and you were thrilled to be learning at home, where it felt more similar to the small classes you had in the orphanage.

In time, you began to discover just how much your prior education lacked, as Josh who was five years younger provided you with a baseline for comparison, and it was hard to argue with all you had missed through no fault of your own.  Your acceptance of this decision proved early on your inner wisdom and that when you listen to it, you will be guided well.  Allowing for this sort of emotional and educational setback provided you with the time and opportunity you needed to learn and grow at your own pace, rather then spend your entire childhood playing catch up.  You saw peers struggle in their new families and in school, adoptions fail, and it affirmed for you that the tortoise does indeed win the race.  

One would only need to see how you handled your school work to understand who you are at the core.  You had only been reading 3 years or so when you tackled a 3 inch thick biography about Gandhi, impressing even me with your tenaciousness as you stopped over and over again to ask me the meanings of new words.  Your strong sense of social justice and fairness to all came out on the volleyball court as well, when you stood up to your coach and asked to be taken out of the game so a player who had been unfairly benched all season could have the chance to play.  You embody regularly the quote, “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes,” and that is why it is so obvious to all of us that you will indeed change the lives of those you encounter, and will fight for those who need to be seen in this world.  It is a quality I admire greatly in you.

Though a very good student, you are not defined by academics, but instead your soul is firmly defined by your compassion for others, and your incredible honesty.  As we often joke, you couldn’t tell a lie to save your life.  You don’t even try!  Unlike any other person I have ever met, other than  perhaps Billy, I have never seen someone stand straight and tall, look you in the eye, and boldly tell the truth even if they know that truth will lead to severe consequences.  What a refreshing gift that is to be around!!  But your compassionate heart is what I urge you to follow while using that honesty and unwavering voice to speak the truth.  This unique combination of admirable traits of yours will make you a force to be reckoned with in the world, and it will make you a voice for the voiceless, something this world is in desperate need of.  I told you long ago I saw important things in your future, for only the most courageous can stand up and speak loudly, but only the most compassionate can do so and not remain toughened.

And my dear Ang, if there is one piece of wisdom I can leave you with today, as your mom and your educator, it is to live as Brene Brown suggests, for I believe that for you it will be your greatest challenge,  Go forward with “a strong back, a soft front, and a wild heart.”  Don’t just maintain your heard earned softness, nurture it, protect it, grow it.  That you stand before us today with the ability to love so deeply and openly is a miracle itself.  Trust others until proven otherwise, remember the Spirit presence that has been with you since you first drew breath, and feed your soul daily in ways that cleanse you, calm you, and captivate you.  Your world is big, your spirit is even bigger.  Use your gifts in whatever setting you find yourself in, and you will literally be the light I know you were born to be.

Congratulations, to the child who trusted, and the adult woman whose patience allowed her to earn a truly valid high school diploma.  

These two also proceeded to make the day very special for others as well, having written beautiful notes and sending flowers to two of their additional teachers, and honoring Dominick and I with 4 gift cards to various restaurants for a nice meal out!  I also received a lovely personalized crystal desk clock with their thanks etched in it.  They got gifts for one another as well, with Angie receiving a very special piece of art work from Kenny, crafted by her former art instructor, who rushed it as quickly as she could from what I understand, and it was a portrait of Angie and I!

Raynola Dominguez has taught the girls for 3 or 4 years and has also been a beautiful presence in their lives in terms of her spirit.  Thank you, Raynola, for helping Kenny to give Angie a one of a kind special gift!!

Then, the kids also thoughtfully included Josh, and along with Olesya presented him with the small gift of a Colorado hoodie with a design he had seen and wanted but was unable to afford.  This was to acknowledge his hours and hours of physical labor put in at Buckaroos to help them with the construction phase.  

I love how these kids all love one another so much!  I don't know who was taking more pictures, as Matthew was also snapping away feverishly!  This day was a high point for the entire family.

We are doing so much financially to get Buckaroos open that we had little money for any sort of major graduation gift, which they totally understood and did not expect.  But we did surprise them with the graduation cookies shown above in the first photo, created by Mack Canvas & Cookie.  This amazing little company started in this couple's kitchen less than a year ago and we are following them on Facebook and learning from their social media posts for future reference.  Here is Angie opening up the box and realizing what was inside:

We also gave each of the kids a photo book containing all my favorite photos taken throughout their life.  I was a bad adoptive mommy and never crafted a lifebook for them, so this was it!  They each loved it and enjoyed looking at them, I created them while we were in Chicago for two weeks with Kenny for surgery as it was when I could manage that much time alone to spend hours and hours working on them!  Kenny also got a small computer bag/briefcase and Angie got a new purse which they both loved.  We joked that what they really got for graduation was a pizza oven!! Hahaha!

The evening ended with a post-graduation birthday party for Matt, who turned 20 years old (What?!?!?!  How in the world did he get that old???) on the 12th, and Candi, my best friend, who turns...um...well, her birthday is on the 13th ;-)  We haven't actually had Matt around for his birthday for 5 or 6 years, as it always falls on the week he was at Civil Air Patrol Encampment, and now this year he had to return to his summer job as a camp counselor at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp so he STILL wasn't home for his birthday!  That's ok, he did a little birthday dance with his favorite adopted auntie.

Though lacking a lot of true pomp and circumstance, the graduation was deeply reflective of who we are.  At first, as graduation approached, I was feeling a little melancholy, largely due to what felt like might be lacking...no big gifts, no fancy clothes or meal, no huge party.  You know, sometimes social media can make you feel you are lacking in all kinds of ways.  But then I look at my family, the abiding love and deep friendship we all feel for one another, the adopted extended family who is such an important part of our life, our church who celebrated our kids a couple weeks earlier, and I shook my head in dismay at what I thought briefly was necessary.

We have so much!!!  The love we all share, the respect we offer one another, the precious gift of family that we all almost didn't have...who could ask for more?  Holding each of my beloved grads close for a long hug after awarding them their diplomas, surrounded by everyone else we love so much, I can't think of a single thing that would have made this day any more special.

Happy Graduation Angie and Kenny!  Go take on the world!!!