I met Nick his senior year in college at Alaska Pacific University, a school I randomly chose for graduate school because my roommate Kim had the view-book in an old file from an Alaska vacation with a past boyfriend, and I liked the pictures of students kayaking across the page, learning from the world around them, from the mighty Pacific to the nameless creeks, with mountains as an ever-present backdrop.
So I applied, got accepted, and left New England for Alaska.
I first saw those blue eyes of Nick’s when I walked into a second-floor classroom for a meeting about Expedition Leadership, a September block class that involved a week of planning for a three week trek across the Alaska Range, south west of Denali.
The advisor assigned to me, who introduced himself as Dave, taught the class and encouraged me to skip Intro to Wilderness Skills and join the more advanced expedition course. I thought this was based on my previous three-day trip on the Nepali Coast and ten days doing the Hundred Mile Wilderness of the Appalachian Trail, but I later learned he solicited Kim and I as his own private social experiment, throwing two older women in with the ten young men signed up to spend 21 days in the wilderness, finding our way across the land with only maps, compasses, and the sweat of our brows.
A Survivor of sorts only live.
During that first planning meeting, Dave asked, "Is anyone in here a vegetarian?"
I reluctantly raised my hand, thinking I'd be the only one and feeling bad for complicating the food packing, when I noticed the boy with the blues eyes, the one who was reading a newspaper when I first walked in but looked up long enough for my breath to halt, raise his hand too.
Too young, I thought.
Somewhere into the first week of our expedition, days into our trail-less hike along riverbeds and over mountain passes, through snow to my knees and thickets of Alders and Devil’s Club, after countless moments of eye contact with Nick and hours of walking side by side asking each other questions, I spent a morning strolling along with our professor and leader Dave, and he asked, "How long have you and Kim been together?"
I laughed and responded, "We're not."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I just assumed--"
And I can see why he made this assumption. Kim and I moved from our apartment in Maine to Alaska in my green Subaru Impreza. She didn't shave her legs and I wore my hair above my ears. And we were the type of friends who could finish each others sentences and read each other's eyes without talking.
But since he assumed Kim and I were dating, he missed the fact that Nick and I leaned towards breaking one of his trip rules: No relationships can start during an expedition.
While Dave imagined me a lesbian, he failed to notice me falling in love with my male walking companion.
There is something about living out of a backpack that strips people of pretensions and allows you to see someone's soul far quicker than months of awkward first and third and seventh dates. I liked the man I saw before me, patient, hardworking, helpful, kind, with eyes that made my heart stutter-step when they caught mine.
I learned, like me, he came from educator parents, he wanted to live simply, surrounded by the outdoors, and do what he could to make the world a better place.
But I wasn't confident he liked me back until Cody Pass, a morning climb through newly fallen snow, on a day when Nick woke up not feeling well and I felt my strongest, leading the whole crew post-holing up the side of the mountain, with forty pounds on my back-- Nick caught up to me halfway up and we walked side by side to the top instead of using each others footprints, and when we reached the summit, Nick held my arm and smiled at me in a way that showed we shared more than good conversations. A smile that said: Yes, I like you too.
We took our first picture together on the top of Cody Pass and to this day it is still one of my favorites:
We tried to hide our feelings over the rest of the trip--sneaking kisses when noone was watching or holding hands in our four-person tent late at night, just staring at each other, not daring to move--in part because we were on this journey with others and also because when I met Nick he had fallen out of love with the woman he still lived with back in Anchorage.
By the second week of our expedition, when avalanches turned us back from our intended route and we finally had a day of sunshine to dry out from the wet September snow, our gear sprawled across the river bed like a yard sale, all of us stretching out our sore bodies in the sun, I looked over at Nicholas Aaron Jordan and knew that, though I'd known him for less than a month, I lay next to the man I wanted to marry.
When the van came to pick us up on our 15th day, I cried, not out of relief to return to civilization but because I didn't want the magic of the trip to end. I wanted to keep walking, with everything I needed on my back, and the man with the kind blue eyes by my side.
I worried that when we returned to campus Nick would return to his girlfriend and forget about me when faced with the complex task of unweaving intertwined lives.
Late that same night, as I unpacked my gear in the graduate housing I shared, I heard a knock on the kitchen door. I opened it to see Nick leaning against the frame, a six-pack in his hand. "I did it," he said with a sheepish grin, "Do you want to go for a ride?”
The following weekend Nick asked me to hike Lost Lake with him and his friend Tonio, a 15 mile tundra trail, five miles up, five across, five down. The rain started on the way up so we chose to run the upper section and down, past the misty mountain lakes, hidden from the road far below. In awe of the scenery and my hiking companion, I remember watching Nick weave along the trail, agile and strong, and thinking: How is it possible that this beautiful man loves me too?
In the parking lot, 15 miles later, as we waited for Tonio to hitchhike back to our car, Nick and I shivered in the pouring rain, exhausted but playing a balance game to stay warm, standing toe to toe, arms up, palms out, and trying to see who steps first when we clapped each others hands.
Neither one of us won more often than the other.
And so here I am, almost 15 years later, sitting on our front porch on a warm June morning, writing about how we met, the day after returning from a night of camping together to celebrate the 12-year anniversary of our Alaskan wedding, (not to be confused with the Cape Cod one a month later), where we kayaked to a beach to say our vows, with a backdrop of red rocks and the ever-present mountains overlooking Katchemak Bay.
We camped in Hatcher’s Pass, just the two of us, and hiked and ran between 20 and 25 miles to start training for a run we will do together in August on the Lost Lake trail, returning for the first time to those misty lakes of new love.
We spent the night sitting side by side in our camp chairs, watching the sun move across the mountains, a glass of red wine in our free hand, our other fingers intertwined, listening to the sound of the Little Su making its way to the ocean, the endless flow of water moving over rocks.
It was just what we needed.
"It wasn't me it was a monster," Elias says, and I'd laugh if I wasn't so angry at my boy who just finished chasing Olive and me around the house grabbing, hitting and screaming: "I want to hurt you!"
"I didn't just do that, Olive did."
And sure, maybe Olive's actions originally triggered his frustration, but blaming his tantrums on her, as if she controlled his swinging arms and voice change, makes me want to disown him. Walk out that back door with Olive and not come back till the monster within him disappears for good.
At one point during his tirade I stand between Elias and Olive but he reaches around me with his long arms and gets ahold of her dress in his death grip. "Stop, " I say.
She's screaming and he's crying in his guttural voice: "No you stop!"
"Let go." I say, trying to keep my voice calm but firm, knowing if I yell it only sets him off more.
"No you let go!" With his free arm Elias swings back and whacks me in the chest with an open hand.
I push him away, he loses his balance and falls back. "Mom! You don't push me! Never! You never push me!"
And I think how did I become the mother who pushes her eleven-year-old son to the ground? How did I end up with a kid hell-bent to hurt whoever stands in his way? A child who later, when he emerges from his brainstem and his voice returns to the softer octave I love, shows no remorse for his actions.
"I didn't just do that."
"Elias, you hit me and grabbed your sister."
"No, I didn't."
And so I walk outside with Olive, not to runaway but to put space between my feelings and his, my anger and sadness, a grief stew that boils over now and again, and his denial and inability to make amends.
Elias puts his shoes on and follows us out the back door. "Mom, should we open the greenhouse?"
Done. Just like that. Episodic amnesia.
Elias walks up to me and holds onto my arm and I pull it away as if touched by a thorn bush, not ready to let go of the madness from moments before, to move on as if nothing happened. I take Olive's hand and walk away from my son. Again.
"Mom, I didn't like it when Elias grabbed my dress. It hurt my back."
"I know Babe, I dont like it when he acts like that either."
"But he's better now."
"Yeah, he's better," I say, more for her that from a place that views Elias in a positive light.
She looks back at her big brother who stands by the greenhouse, eyes down, "Elias, do you want to climb with me?"
And just like that they are off to the Mountain Ash tree and the roof of the playhouse, as if the day has just begun, and I am left standing on the ground with my anchors of anger, my eyes ready to unload rivers of regret for this life that is now mine.
A few years ago, a mother of an older child with autism asked me: "Does he try to beat you up a lot?"
"No," I easily answered, surprised by the image of a child attacking his Mom.
"Oh, you're lucky, my son use to leave bruises on me all the time."
And now I cling to those two words-- use to-- in the hope that this is a phase that will pass, because if I've learned anything from Elias's rage it's that it unearths an equal fire within me. One I never knew existed in my previous life of pacifism and violence prevention work, when I never imagined the fleeting feeling of wanting to deck your own child.
And I know there is a very fine line between anger and a parent who loses control and hurts their children, a line I never want to cross but can no longer so easily judge the parents that do, who in a moment of weakness respond to their kids actions with violence of their own.
We are all fallible humans struggling to make our way in this complex world of beauty and pain. And sometimes, we really just have to move on, to walk to the side yard with our children and engage in pleasant conversation with a neighbor walking by, to discuss the change in the weather, the prospect of sun after a cold wet spell, to pull grass from the garden as we chat over the rose bushes, to connect, even briefly, even on the surface, with someone else.
"I hope I'm not bothering you," she says as Olive and her four-year-old daughter look for worms.
"No, you're saving me," I smile, and when Elias grabs my arm this time, I don't pull it away.
We pull into the driveway after an afternoon thrift store "treasure hunt".
I needed to get the kids out of the house after every game turned into a wrestling match, with Olive screaming and Elias denying, fighting over Olive's play trailer and whose turn it was to do tricks on the mat, with my only solution thus far putting them in separate rooms on ipads and going outside to plant the new sturdy vines Kathy gave me but feeling guilty that both kids sat plugged into screens.
Oh the joys of parenthood.
We want to find a wheelbarrow for Seward so before buying a new one I thought I'd check Bishop's Attic, a local thrift store nearby that supports families in need. I told the kids we could also look for treasures.
"What kind of treasure?" Olive asked.
"Something we're not looking for but when we see it we know we want to bring it home."
"Does it shout buy me, buy me?" Elias asks, clapping his hands to the beat of the word buy.
"Maybe, but here's the thing, only Mom knows if its a real treasure. You both may see lots of things you want, but wanting it doesn't make it a treasure."
As soon as we pull into an accessible spot in front of Bishop's I can see no wheelbarrow awaits outside and wonder how my treasure hunt idea will work with both kids inside a cramped store filled with random stuff. Both pulling me in different directions so I can't truly search the way I love to in stores like this where you never know what recycled jewell exists inside.
We walk in anyways and head to the back of the store where a wheelbarrow could possibly be alongside bike helmets, golf clubs, and vacuums.
Olive holds her dirty old baby doll in one hand and with the other points to a fake rose and says, "Mom, look a treasure!"
"Nope, not a treasure."
No wheelbarrow emerges in the back so I check the kitchen corner for a tea kettle, another Seward desire.
"Oh Mom, here's a treasure." Olive holds a mug with a picture of the snowman from Frozen. The worst possible treasure choice an over-marketed ball of frozen ice.
"This?' A pink plastic cup with some cartoon character and a curly straw.
Olive sighs. "How do you know what a treasure is?"
"It has to be beautiful, or practical, or unique."
"What does practical mean?"
"Something we can use. Something helpful."
Elias grabs an overly used penguin pillow, "This just screams buy me Elias! Buy me!"
"No, Bud, sorry."
"That penguin pillow is screaming buy me, buy me. That penguin pillow--"
"Heard you, and we don't need a giant penguin pillow."
"This Mom? This is beautiful." Olive points to a purple and blue metallic throw pillow.
"Yeah but not a treasure."
Elias reaches towards a crowded shelf and grabs the nearest wicker basket, "This is a treasure."
Oh boy, this is going so well.
I try to avoid the toy corner but Olive spots it anyways and says, "Mom look!" And here we repeat the Is-this-a-treasure-no-its-not dialogue with Olive looking carefully and picking items of interest and Elias just grabbing what he can reach and repeating the same darned questions.
I direct the kids to the opposite side of the store and there in the furniture section I find something, but before I reach it Olive points and says, "Mom look!"
"I see it."
A small wooden chair, with a side desk, like I had as a kid and that my parents still keep in the "grandkid room" on the Cape. One I read in and later played school in and sat my animals in and here before us is a handmade minuture version of a familiar relic from my childhood. And Olive chose it too. Of course.
"Its so cute and my dolls can sit on it. Is this a treasure Mom?"
"You know, I saw it too and was just thinking that it might be a treasure."
"It is? A treasure?! " She smiles up at me, "Can we buy it?"
"Maybe." I pick it up and turn it around in my hands. "Because its different and well-made and yes, it is cute. Or beautiful. I'll just hold it for now and then we'll decide."
"No, I want to hold it." She reaches up and I give her the wooden desk chair. She places her bay in the seat and holds it upright.
When Olive uses the bathroom I hold the chair for her but she takes her baby doll with her into the stall, "I dont need help Mom.'
"Ok." Elias and I peek at women's skirts while we wait. On her way back towards us Olive says, "Mom," and picks something up from the ground but I am distracted by Elias heading towards a shelf of vases, worried he will start grabbing glass, asking about treasure, and knocking the whole damn shelf down.
We do a few more laps on our treasure hunt but ultimately head to the cash register with only Olive's new baby chair, no treasure for Elias, or me, and luckily, it played this way as Elias needs next to nothing but Olive would be in full-pout mode if she walked out as the empty-handed one. I pay the four dollars and fifty cents for the desk chair and the woman behind the counter says, "Oh thats cute. Is it a plant stand?"
"No," Olive pipes up, "Its a desk for my dolls."
"Oh, of course," she smiles.
On the way home, Elias asks, "Are we going to get stuck in 5:00 traffic?"
"I think we'll beat it, " I say, and sure enough we cruise into our neighborhood at 5:01, a well planned trip, which brings me to where I started: Pulling into our driveway after a quick afternoon treasure hunt.
"OK, unbuckle," I tell the kids, happy to be home in time to greet Nick when he returns from work.
When Olive climbs out the door, she holds a hand-sized bright blue bear. A bear i've never seen before. A bear she must have just taken from the store.
"Olive! Did you just take that bear?" Of course she did.
"But it didn't have a tag--"
"I dont care, Olive, thats' stealing and that is wrong."
"But it was on the ground and I tried to tell you--"
"You didn't show it to me. You didn't ask me about it. You hid it from me and the woman who sold us the chair. Olive that's sneaky and just plain wrong." I glare at her with all that I have which includes the former shoplifter in me that knows the shame of getting caught by someone I respected to and chose never to steal anything again. "This is big trouble, Olive."
"Maybe the bear came with the chair," Elias says from his seat still in the car.
My eyes remain on y daughter who is too much like me. "Back in the car Olive. We have to drive back to the store and you need to apologize to the woman and tell her you took that bear."
"Maybe it came with the chair," Elias repeat.
"Olive, I am not happy and your Dad and I will talk about your consequences."
"Maybe the blue bear came with the chair."
"Elias, it didn't come with the chair your sister stole the bear."
During the drive back, Olive sits stoic, watching my eyes in the rearview mirror as I rant about trouble and stealing and police and traffic and the pain in the ass of driving back to Bishop's Attic for a god-damned 50-cent bear.
"Elias you have done nothing wrong, so I want you to stay in the car with Tonsina."
And of course there are a handful of people in the two lines from the counter when I walk into the store with Olive's reluctant hand in mine. I catch the eyes of an elder, second in line from the same woman who sold us the chair, and ask, "Can my daughter say something to the lady before you go?"
"Yes, of course."
"Thank you." I hand Olive the blue bear and when its time I tell her with my eyes.
She places her hands on the counter and says in a quiet voice, tears welling but not falling yet: "I'm sorry I accidentally took this bear without paying."
"Oh honey, did you take that bear by accident? Its OK sweetie, thanks for returning it."
Way. Too. Easy.
This fall Olive came home from preschool with toys stuffed in her backpack that we made her return with an apology to her teacher who just told her to ask to borrow something next time.
"She didn't take the bear by accident."
"I found it and tried to tell my Mom--"
"Olive you hid the bear and stole it."
The cashier catches my eyes and when I look up from my five-year-old daughter I see we have the attention of the second, clerk as well as the seven folks waiting to purchase items, and from the looks on their faces, they wait with me, wondering what will happen next.
The cashier nods at me, leans closer to Olive, her hardened face with its lines and shadows next to Olive's soft smooth cheeks, "Nothing in this store is free." Olive doesn't blink as their eyes meet. "And do you know where the money goes?"
Olive shakes her head.
"To people who don't have homes or food. And so if you take things from us, we'll have less money to help others. You always have to pay for everything. But thank you for being honest and coming back to return the bear." The woman looks up at me again. "We good?"
I nod and the onlookers smile and nod too.
The woman I cut in line puts her hand on my arm, "I had to do the same thing with my daughter once."
I smile and say, "I didn't see it till we got in our driveway and knew we had to come back."
As we walk towards the door, back to Elias who waits patiently in the car with our dog Tonz, the other clerk says, "Thank you!"
"You'll have good juju now, Sweetie!" the first cashier says.
On the drive home I ask Olive, "Do you have a home?"
She nods, still pensive.
"Do you have food?"
She nods again.
On the corner of 15th and Gambell we wait at a light next to a weathered man with a cardboard sign that says: Please help. God Bless.
I look in the rearview mirror and see Olive watching this man who could be anyone, a father, brother, a son, and I don't say another word.
We stand at the counter at Middle Way Cafe to purchase a gluten-free chocolate bananna muffin for Elias and a regular blueberry muffin for Olive. I order a mango smoothie and Olive tells the cashier: "My mom and brother can't have gluten, but I can. I'm a gluten!"
"Mom, can we play that we're a family and you pretend to be my Mom?"
I pull grass and Chickweed from one of my flower beds and Olive asks, "Can I help you Mom?"
"Sure." I show her a patch of Chickweed and tell her she can pull out this plant wherever she finds it.
"Ok," she says. "I like pulling weed. Mom, where's more weed? I need more weed, Mommy!"
To keep Olive occupied during a meeting at the bank I give her my phone, fifty plus pictures later, here are a few I saved:
Happy Friday all!
Past Midnight and still the light of dusk. No flashlights needed in June in Alaska. Light, light, and more light. Enough to fill every pore and more. Light for hearts shriveled by life's colder days, light for the dark corners of the mind that feel unworthy of revelation, light to ease the Winter Blues.
Alaska, the land of extremes, the manic state with mountains rising up from the sea and seasons that stand in opposition, ying and yang, vivid color verse black and white, temperatures that fluctuate over 100 degrees.
Looking out at my yard, at all the various shades of green, as my resilient perennials rise once again, like viridian phoenixes refusing to bow to snow and ice, its hard not to feel hopeful. So many flowers on the edge of awakening: Iris, Wild Geranium, Golden Globe, Columbine, Rose, Lillies, Peonies, Bleeding Heart, no longer hibernating underground.
Wasn't the whole world just white and gray?
I often repeat the line, this too shall pass, to my students who come to my office desperate over friendships turned cold. I say it to myself when I struggle to stay sane amidst meltdowns, conflict, and schedules that leave little space for me to just sit and write.
This too shall pass.
Words to cling to when the world spins too fast.
Now it is summer, and the days last longer.
No school. No work.
Time to dig in the dirt and watch the flowers grow.
Our front Lilac tree burst forth with shades of lavender this week, our first purple Iris opened, the Forget Me Nots returned, and I feel so thankful that they just keep coming back, like old friends, no fuss required, familiar and at ease.
The days will keep stretching till Summer Solstice, when they begin their inevitable retreat back in time. I love this time of year, the beginning of June, with all of summer's promise ahead.
Seize the day is another line I often say to my students in its various forms. Stay present. Live in the moment. Words easier to repeat than to practice.
I can chant Carpe Diem for days, but the Daffodils in my backyard stand upright, pedals proud, strong, for now, whether I remember to notice them or not.
"Why does she need those?" Elias asks as we head out the back door for a morning of errands, Olive holding Elias's old blue canes.
"She doesn't. She just loves you that much."
Olive swings both canes forward, plants them ahead of her and jumps to catch up. She does this through the parking lot to Geneva Woods Pharmacy where we pick up Elias's incontinent supplies.
"Nice crown, " the man behind the counter tells Olive, who is dressed in a red polka-dotted dress, sneakers, and a handmade sticker-adorned pink paper crown.
She smiles and gives him a look that says: I know it got it going on.
As I leave the pharmacy, I notice that the sun still shines in West Anchorage, away from the mountains where clouds carrying a weeks worth of upcoming rain have begun to gather taking over the blue sky that graced our lives this past week. Not ready to give up the sunshine yet, I decide to postpone the grocery store and head to Westchester Lagoon to play by the water.
"Why did we turn this way?" Elias asks, my backseat GPS who knows the city streets better than I do though I've driven them for almost 15 years and he will never drive them on his own.
"I dont know the car just turned this way."
"What are we doing?" he laughs.
Olive laughs and repeats, "What are we doing?"
"I have no idea, the cars just driving us somewhere."
Elias claps his hands and kicks his feet, his body unable to contain his excitement. My boy loves adventures and could spend hours driving around to new places.
"This is very adventury!" Olive says and instead of correcting her grammar I repeat her words.
"It is adventury."
Both kids smile big when they recognize Westchester, with its newer playground, bike trails, and duck-filled lagoon--and they both grab their canes to join the crowd of children already playing.
I remember when the curious stares of others that followed Elias around public places made my heart skip, and its not that I'm immune to the attention now, its just that I've moved on to worry about other issues like will he knock over a small child or grab onto the wrong person's arm and announce, "I need a change."
Elias walking with canes dropped to the bottom of my worry list, so it doesn't hit me until all the heads turn that seeing two children enter the playground with adaptive equipment, one who uses canes like mini pole-vaults, may be a bit odd.
(Just an elaborate plot to use an accessible parking pass: Here kids, use these, shh, pretend.)
Elias and Olive ditch their canes by the side of the play equipment and I stand near another Mom of two young boys. "Of course, whatever brother does you have to do too," she says to both me and her toddler who waddles after big brother.
"I hear ya, my daughter chose to come to the park with an old pair of her brother's canes."
"Oh, she doesn't need them?"
"No," I smile.
"I thought she was moving awfully well with them."
"Yeah, no she's perfectly able."
Elias, on the other hand, is about to step on a three-year-old's hands on the web climber so I stand nearer to him, coaching him along. Olive takes off on her own and I easily release her to this world of striving to see how far you can go, knowing she'll navigate with ease.
"Look how high I am!" Elias says to me and to every parent nearby, repeating the statement till its acknowledged.
Meanwhile, the almost stepped on three-year-old and another buddy keep tagging Elias's ankle and moving away from him. "Got you!" they say.
I worry about Elias trying to tag them back and grabbing them with his muscled walking hands but he doesn't even acknowledge the kids as if they are bland moths fluttering near his legs, harmless and not worthy of attention.
"Look how high I am!" Elias repeats, proud of his perch above my head.
"Yes, you are high." I honor his words, his position, his pride.
When he finally decides to come down, I help guide his feet to the rope and one of the youngsters says to Elias: "You be the monster and chase us."
I dont know whether to be offended that they want him to be the monster or happy that they want him to play and I realize that this place of limbo between disparate feelings is the place I most often call home.
Elias doesn't respond and sometimes in situations like this I wish I were him, oblivious to the social webbing that both stitches us together and pulls us apart.
"Dont you want to play with us?"
"No." Elias doesn't look at the boy.
Elias surprises me by actually answering, "Because I'm doing my own thing."
He crawls out from under the climbing web and heads toward the big platform swing where Olive has joined another family.
I stand in the sunshine, facing the dark sky of the East, and think about how far we have come.
"Has it gotten easier with Elias?" a neighbor recently asked.
"Yes and no," I replied. "The worries or challenges change as he grows."
I no longer long for him to run with the other kids, equipment free. His canes no longer seem like neon lights broadcasting difference, shouting: Notice me! They seem more like extensions of his arms, mere tools to increase his mobility.
No big deal.
So when little sister wants to use a pair, what begins as a backyard thing morphs into errands and a playground with two kids with canes and what I stress about is not people's reactions to us, but Elias's reactions to others.
And yet on this day, we make it through the various slides, climbers, and swings with only one inappropriate body contact.
(Elias leaned against another boy and would not stop despite the kids protests, causing Olive and the boy to leave Elias alone on the big platform swing, a natural consequence far better than a lecture from Mom. Prior to Elias shoving his head and back into the friendly boy the kid's Dad had been pushing the three kids as they all laughed and said, "Higher, higher!" Just typical natural play until the fun stopping abruptly when Elias sought touch in the wrong way.)
Both kids leave the playground with ease when I notice a Boys and Girls Club van pull up and decide its time for a new location. No public refusals or tantrums. Just two kids with canes listening to their mother.
Before leaving the lagoon we take turns throwing a stick in the water for Tonsina, both kids dropping one cane in the grass so they have an arm free to throw, Elias his right, Olive left, me in the middle trying not to get wet.
Olive discovers a little trail through the tall grass at the water's edge and says, "Elias, do you want to go on this trail with me?"
"Mom, do you want to come too?"
"You go, I'll watch from here."
Elias surprises me again by saying, "Ok."
And I watch as Olive, using canes like her big brother, leads him away from me, on an adventure of their own, away from the darkening clouds, towards the water and the West where the sky remains bright blue, like Elias's impenetrable eyes.
9) Sometimes you're an ass.
I dont call you this, I call you my Ornery One or Mr. Negative, but really, asshole would work just fine.
This morning, you choked your sister over a found matchbox car at Cuzuncle David's; and when I said you owed Olive a major apology, you replied, "No I don't."
You stared at the ground and showed zero remorse over grabbing Olive around the neck with your man-hands because she rolled a small yellow car across the table-- a car you wanted.
My parents tell me when I turned eleven they hardly recognized me, their big-brother-hand-me-down-wearing, knees-scraped, Broadway singing, dress-up, feisty girl turned awkward pre-teen. Suddenly sullen and wearing eye shadow that matched my shirt. Slamming doors and crying at will.
If your sister wants to eat outside you say, "Let's eat inside."
"I don't want you to sit next to me," you tell Olive, all the time, even after you play store with her for an hour, laughing when she makes up silly words, loving the creative energy she brings to your logical world.
You stand in her way when she wants to walk in the front door and push against her when she beats you to the sink to wash hands.
You grab Olive by the hair when she tries to help you. You tell her, "No" when she asks you to play.
I remember my older brother at age eleven, calling me to his room to play, bombarding me with pillows when I eagerly joined.
He called me Crusty.
"What are you going to do Christy, cry?" is all Andrew had to say and my lower lip would protrude as my eyes welled.
I have to remind myself about the mayhem that emerges at eleven, so I don't always blame your disabilities for the monster that is sometimes you.
10. Self-conscious you are not.
You stand in the trailer with your pajama bottoms around your ankles unable to find a pull-up in your packing bag and accept help from your naked younger sister who easily locates one.
You remain free from the tendency to "compare and despair". You are not insecure or embarrassed by your differences and call all your classmates: My friends.
You bombard us with thousands of detail specific questions about everything from house numbers to airplane seats but never ask the more soul squeezing one: "Why me?"
You still enjoy shows like Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and Sid the Science Kid. The only videogames you play are Wii golf and bowling. You know nothing of Hollywood characters, pop bands, or games like "Truth or Dare" and "I Never".
In some ways you are still so young, especially compared to your street-smart peers, kids who watch R-rated movies and play X-rated video games, kids who ask each other "out" and divide into warring cliques at school ready to take their conflicts out on the playground or Instagram or Facebook or whispers behind backs.
You stand alone-- thinking about chairlifts, elevators and trams, machines that magically move people higher...
...far above the pettiness of social cliques and divisions based on assumptions that shatter when lifted.
While others compete with each other for social status, you focus on the process of rising up.
11. Elias: You are the son I didn't expect. My teacher. My worry that keeps me up at night. My ache. My hero. My boy who break my heart apart and rebuilds it stronger.
My first born.
My daughter's big brother, Olive's tormentor and idol-- her larger form both to become and to define herself against.
You are the hands that mold me, the knife that slices me apart, and the language I will never master.
The mirage in the distance, the sun that hides behind impenatrable clouds.
The breath I no longer hold.
You are Elias, and I love you just so.
5) You run after me on the soccer field, surrounded by able-bodied boys, Samoan, Alaska Native, African American, Hispanic, Hmong, many with challenges greater than yours, hidden behind the closed doors of the trailer park Northeast of school.
You stand out almost as much for your blue eyes and blonde hair as you do for your canes that graze the field every few steps to keep you upright.
"Where's the ball?"
Your limited vision makes it hard to follow the game, especially in the May sunshine, but you run with the pack anyways, a smile wide as your namesake, Mt. Saint Elias.
When the ball hits your canes or lands by your feet, the boys who fearlessly slide-tackle, kick, grab, head, push, and collide, pause.
You plant your canes, swing your right foot, and connect with that nebulous orb, sending it a few feet down the pitch.
"Nice kick Elias," one of the 6th graders says, before he runs off to chase the turmoltuos mass of young boy bodies, in motion, once again.
You smile and follow along.
6) "What a sweet boy," the substitute T.A. says when I introduce myself to her as counselor and Elias's mom.
"He's so cute," I often hear.
Or: "I love him."
You know how to charm older women. At eleven you still want to hold hands. You tell people they are nice, that they are good teachers, or that you like them. You give hugs with all that you have, head against, arms around.
New this year, you also want to hug a few of your female classmates, especially the nice pretty ones. You sit too class to them in library. Tackle them in gym. Lean against them in class. They treat you like a younger cousin, awkward, but harmless.
Not a threat.
You recently stroked a girl's arm, and when she told you she didn't like it, you answered: "But I do."
I wonder, when will you learn this isn't OK? That you can't just throw your bony body into softer ones and claim, "I don't know why I did that."
7) Your mind is a map, holding street names, numbers, and facts. You miss social cues but can direct traffic around our neighborhood, giving precise directions to lost souls.
You love HGTV, shows with names like Flip or Flop, Love It or List It and House Hunters--your vocabulary includes terms such as: popcorn ceilings, granite countertops, list price, and kitchen island.
(This fall, you walked into a teacher and colleague's kitchen and said, "Don't you think that refridgerator is dated?")
When someone comes to our house for the first time, you point out not just the kitchen and your bedroom but our furnace and washing machines.
You could be a tour guide, an architect, a greeter, a map maker, you could design your own home or live with us till we pass.
8) When you fall, and boy, do you fall, if unhurt, you usually laugh and say things like:
"That hole just up and grabbed me."
"Well, that was unexpected."
"I just got rocked." (Or hosed, floored, walled, doored, treed...)
"I didn't do that, the chair did."
If hurt, you swing your hand to maim whoever responds, and don't answer when asked, "Are you OK?"
You amass bruises and scrapes that mark your body like resilience tattoos, that don't wash of in the bathtub, where you still let me, your Mama, wash your hair.
"Lie back," I say as I help you bend your legs and move your growing body down till your head reaches the side of the tub. I scoop water onto your hair, thick like your Dad's and the same dirty blonde as mine when I was a younger girl.
I cup the warm water with both hands, release it slowly onto your forehead, careful to direct the water away from your glacial eyes.
I wonder if this is how it will always be, you laying down, with me on my knees.