Monday, August 4, 2014

To Evan, On Your 6th Birthday


Evan,

We spent the day today in Daytona, at Aunt Kate's new house with the brand new pool that was just ready this afternoon.  In the morning we went to Daytona Lagoon and got wristbands to play for as long as we wanted: laser tag, rock climbing, go karts and a thing called "Island Hopper" which made everyone's tummies feel funny. Then we came home and opened presents and busted the pinata and ate cake and ice cream and swam in the brand new pool.  Tonight, when I tucked you in, I asked you what your favorite thing was and you said "I don't have a favorite thing.  Everything was the best thing ever."

Everything was the best thing ever.  This sums up your personality perfectly: you are such a happy boy, so in love with life and with people, so willing to face your fears (you're deathly afraid of heights, so the rock climbing wall was a challenge), such a Leo.  You started kindergarten this year, one of the youngest kids at a big, brand new school, without your best friends, and you learned what you needed to learn and got stickers in dance class and made friends with all of the 4th and 5th grade girls, which is not only adorable but a brilliant survival tactic.  You still play soccer and though you hate to lose, you're starting to understand teamwork. You love to collect tiny things and to play Minecraft, and you talk constantly.  You are tiny in stature, but have a gigantic personality.

I thought a lot this week about the time leading up to when you were born, the anticipation and the imaginings.  Everyone told me that raising a boy would bring much less anxiety than raising a girl.  I accepted this as truth, because it made sense: girls are notoriously susceptible to relational aggression, body image issues, etc., and the mother-daughter relationship is always fraught.  And you were such a calm, easy baby, and have become such a kind, gregarious child, that it would be easy for me to continue to believe this.  But instead, I've come to notice your nuances of character, the things that surprise me, and pierce the narrative I've constructed.

You love to dance.  You have the physique, light and muscular, and you are never as engaged and attentive as when you're dancing.  And yet, you're opposed to taking ballet because "ballet is for girls."  We can and will negotiate that treacherous and complicated territory, but there's a bigger picture here: boys can't do what girls do, at least not without some serious consideration and most likely, some real consequences. This has been a hard and scary lesson for me, because I want to protect you.  Because you are an incredibly sensitive child, easily wounded and deeply compassionate, but savvy enough to hide it from nearly everyone.  Because the world--at least our little world--does not yet make room for sensitive boys who love My Little Pony and Ninja Turtles and ballet dancing.  At least not without a fight.

And so I worry.  Perhaps excessively.  Okay, definitely excessively, but I try hard not to let it effect my behavior and choices.  Right now, and for the last several months, you have a small red mark on your cheek, right under your right eye (a broken capillary, the scourge of the fair-skinned), and your peers often comment on it: "What'd you do to your eye?" "What's wrong with your cheek?"  "What's that thing on your face?"  And Dr. M said it was nothing to worry about, but gave me the name of a pediatric dermatologist who could zap it off with a laser (awesome).  I was planning to make the appointment when we got back from Florida, but the other night when I was putting you to bed you said "Mama, would you still think I'm cute if I didn't have my red spot?" and I thought that maybe I had misjudged the whole thing.

Because you are strong and confident and fiery; you are both self-conscious and rebellious.  You're all Leo, full of contradictions.  You won't look me in the eye when I talk seriously to you, but you'll crawl into my bed in the middle of the night, plagued by a nasty cold, and spend the wee hours with me learning butterfly and eskimo kisses. You're still small enough for me to pick you up and hold you, but a few weeks ago, on the Holy Cross levee, I unwittingly sat in an ant pile and you discovered it and pulled me away and for the rest of the weekend were acutely attentive, worried and protective and proud.  You love to kick-fight with your boy buddies at school but are sweet with your sisters, and can't wait to trade Squinkies with your girlfriends at summer camp.  And I know I can't protect you--I can only love you, and teach you how to navigate a world that isn't always so.

But Evan, let me tell you now, while it's still okay to do so: I love you, with every inch of my being, with every speck of my soul.  You are beautiful and funny and loving and I just cannot believe that we've been given this gift.  I try not to spoil you with my love, but I hope you will forgive me if you read this years in the future and decide that I've done just that.  Because I just couldn't help it, and because I hope the world will someday do the same.

All my love, always--

Mama











Tuesday, September 24, 2013

To Sydney, On Your 8th Birthday


My sweet girl,

You are eight years old today.  This morning you corrected me when I told you that I couldn't believe you were eight; you said "I'm not quite eight yet, Mom, because I was born at night."  Fair enough.  But you are intellectually generous and so you paused and looked at me and said, "Well, I guess for all intents and purposes, I am eight."  And then we laughed, together, as we often do when you use big words and fancy phrases.

You have grown so much this year.  You're taller and leaner, so strong and physical; you play soccer at recess every day (though you're growing frustrated because none of your female classmates will play with you), and you're in your last season of U-8.  You're mad at me for not moving you up to U-10 this season.  This summer, you flew to Florida by yourself and went to surf camp with Ethan, and you were catching waves by the second day.  You went to horseback riding camp and were such a natural that they assigned you to your own horse, Buttercup, and made you camper of the week.  You are athletic and brave and constantly in motion.  I'm sorry I fuss at you so much for all the couch gymnastics.

You've grown to love mysteries, especially the Encyclopedia Brown series.  You're a voracious reader.  You and your friend Josie have decided that you want to open a "spa and relaxation center" on the Mississippi River, so when you get together you practice by setting up a massage and guided imagery studio in her bedroom. You like to sing and often conduct entire conversations with me in libretto. Your patience with Evan has grown immensely, and in turn he's began to allow you to nurture him a bit; the rest of that energy is spent on your hamster (Milkshake) and your baby dolls.  I hope you always love your baby dolls.

But your biggest change this year has been internal.  Over the last year, you've developed a calm assuredness, a self-possession that is markedly different from the in-your-face confidence you've always exhibited.  You speak to adults, now, not just in response to their questions or comments, but spontaneously--you ask them questions, you offer details about yourself and your life, you express your thoughts and opinions.  It's hard to explain how extraordinary this is to witness; it's like the unfolding of your true self, the person who is discerning and inquisitive and thoughtful, who is truly interested in always going deeper, who loves people immensely and isn't afraid to demonstrate it.

I've written stuff before about your generosity and the intense love you have for the people in your life, but it always takes me by surprise.  One of your old teachers from Abeona House is moving to Houston, and when I told you this you cried and cried and cried.  Later that day, you came to me and asked if we could go to the craft store to get supplies for a "special project" you wanted to make.  And so you spent the days leading up to Ms. Aliza's going-away party painting and decorating a small wooden box, which you brought to the party, instructing guests to write love notes on the small pieces of glittery cardstock you'd prepared, and you had them sign the inside with a special marker.  What an beautiful gift you made for your teacher, despite your own sadness.  You are the most beautiful gift I could ever imagine.

You've developed a rich inner life; sometimes you prefer to be alone, to work on art projects or read or play with your stuffed animals or do "science" experiments (I've learned that it's better if I don't ask).  I was worried about this for a minute, as you've always liked a lot of one-on-one attention, but I understand now that this goes hand-in-hand with your self-assuredness.  It's the enrichment of that inner life that's enabled you to connect more deeply with others.  It's also served you well in your academic pursuits.  At a recent conference, your teacher told us that you asked to create a "quiet space" for yourself in class, so that you can focus more fully on your work.  Just amazing.

Sydney, you are powerful, courageous, brilliant, creative, hilarious, and empathic.  You are fully engaged with the world--head, heart, and hands--and the people around you can feel that.  Thank you for choosing me, for being my sweet girl, for loving me and teaching me how to be a better person.  I love watching you grow up.


All my love, always--

Mom




Sunday, August 4, 2013

To Evan, On Your 5th Birthday

My sweet boy,

Last night, as we lay in your bottom bunk after reading stories, you made up a game wherein you moved your arms into various poses and my task was to mimic the pose as quickly as possible.  True to form, your poses quickly became silly, exaggerated, goofy, and when we were both good and giggly you stopped, put your palms on my cheeks, put your little nose right up against mine and whispered "How about we just stay like this, Mama?  I like just being close to you."

I hear parents talk all the time about how they don't want their kids to grow up; how they wish they could stop time; how quickly kids grow up and then the sweet moments are gone forever, lost in the ether of memory and nostalgia.  I've never really felt that way.  I've enjoyed every bit of your young life, and am excited to think about who you'll be five, ten, twenty years from now.  But I must admit, moments like those make me almost desperate to freeze time, to hit pause, to take and stretch them out as wide and far and long as I possibly can.

Because you are an absolutely amazing child.  You are affectionate and snuggly; you love to hug and kiss and cuddle and wrestle, and you like to offer backrubs, which feel like a tiny bird prancing across my shoulders (you're also very gentle).  You're very silly and have a keen and sometimes offbeat sense of humor.  A few months ago, Sydney was on a knock-knock joke kick; in the car one day on the drive home from school, you chimed in from the backseat: "Knock knock." Who's there? we answered.  "Camel." Camel who? "That camel is an asshole."

Yes, you also have a bit of a potty mouth.  Not sure where you get that.  And no, there was not a camel in sight.


You started playing soccer last year, and even though you are small in stature, you're quick and have incredible control.  If you get the ball at your feet, you're taking it all the way to the goal.  You are fiercely competitive (again, not sure where you get that) and if you don't score as many goals as you think you should, you often become inconsolable.  We're working on this, but my hunch is that you have the heart and mind of an athlete, and will learn to cope with the wins and losses.


Your favorite things are your friend James, pizza, visiting family in Florida, your sister, Legos, ninjas, donuts,
superheroes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, dancing, and board games.  You don't like swimming, or grapes, or wearing pants, or the song "Eleanor Rigby," because it fills your head with sad thoughts about all the lonely people.  You like to problem-solve, to help, and that song is about resignation and helpless observation, which you abhor, even at this young age.

You recently acquired a Roborovski (dwarf) hamster and you named her Sugar Cookie (Sugar for short).  Your middle name is Manning but you want to change it to "Cool Dude." All of your stuffed animals are named Evan.

Next week is your last week at Abeona House.  You really love your school and your teachers and friends--you're particularly disappointed that you're leaving just as the brand new playground is being constructed--and it's difficult to imagine you at another place, but I think you'll handle this new experience the way you've handled others: with curiosity and confidence and a sweet vulnerability. In just a couple of weeks you'll be off to kindergarten, a big boy at Big School, toting your newly-acquired Angry Birds backpack that is absolutely gigantic on your tiny shoulders.  I'm going to try really hard not to be that mom on your first day.  I am going to try.


I remember with such clarity the evening you were born.  You were so calm, seemed so confident and relaxed from the very beginning.  I remember the first night, when the nurse came and offered to take you for a couple of hours so that I could sleep, and though I let her, I didn't want to.  I didn't need to; it felt so right to have you here with us.  And every moment since then has been filled with joy, and laughter, and dance parties and booty shaking and giggles and yes, sometimes tears and shouting but even those moments are precious.  You are precious.  I will never know what I did to deserve you.

How about we just stay like this, Evan?  I like just being close to you.

Happy Birthday, sweet boy. You are so loved.

Always and forever,

Mama







Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Be Kind

Early Sunday morning, I left my grandmother's house for the last time; it was the house where I spent a large portion of my childhood, wandering the hot, quiet residential sidewalks, swimming in the YMCA pool, chasing grasshoppers in the backyard. The house has been sold and we went there to say goodbye. I rose before dawn that morning for a last run on the neighborhood trail, and choked back tears as I packed the car.  Just before turning onto the highway, I realized I didn't have any cash for the toll roads, so I made a u-turn in search of an ATM.  Stopping at a red light, I noticed a bank to my right; as I was in the left lane, I flipped on the turn signal and gestured to the woman in the car next to me--gave her the universal signal for "I have found myself in the wrong lane.  May I turn in front of you when the light changes?"

Her reaction astonished me.  Instead of waving me on, or simply ignoring my request, she went into a wild, exaggerated pantomime of acquiescence: throwing her arms out in front of her, sweeping them around.  Then she rolled down and her window and shouted "You fucking idiot!  Just go on ahead, don't mind the rest of us."  And all the while my children watched from the backseat, confused and horrified.

I was already on the verge of disrepair, struggling to contain the emotional upheaval of the week's goodbyes, and her behavior pierced me.  In response to my children's queries, I simply responded "She's probably having a bad day."

But the thing is, no matter how bad my day is, I don't do things like that.  It never occurs to me to act with cruelty and derision, especially to a total stranger.  And the whole encounter got me thinking about the origins of cruelty, and how incredibly easy it is to pass down to our children.

A few weeks before, sitting at another red light somewhere in Uptown, I spotted a man running on the streetcar line; he was dressed absurdly, and his gait was wild, and I chuckled to myself.  Sydney--who I have come to believe is constantly watching my every move--asked what I was laughing at and without thinking, I told her.  And then I caught her expression in the rear view mirror: it was one of absolute confusion, and I felt instantly ashamed.  She had no idea why that was funny. Because she doesn't laugh at people, except when they are trying to be funny.

At her school, they have a thing called "Project Pride," which is basically a socio-emotional curriculum that emphasizes kindness, respect, and responsibility.  The best thing about this, and what distinguishes it from traditional anti-bullying campaigns, is that it's woven into the fabric of the entire environment--it's not a separate class or lecture or module.  It's not something the guidance counselor comes in once a week to talk about; it's something the teachers model, and incorporate into science and literacy and math lessons.  The "first rule of Lusher" is to "Be Kind," and I'll be damned if it doesn't work.  These kids are kind, and the ones who slip up are reminded by their peers--not their teachers--about the first and all-important rule.  It's the thing I love most about the school, and a framework I've started using at home with both my kids.

But how important it is to model the behavior.  Because our kids are watching us, constantly, they see how we treat strangers and friends and family and people who hurt us.  They notice if we're shitty to the server who screws up our order, when we quickly roll up the windows upon spotting a homeless man on the street corner, they overhear when we gossip about someone on the phone.  And when we laugh at someone who is trying to be healthy. 

I don't ever want either of my kids to be that woman at the stoplight on Princeton Avenue.  I want them to react with kindness, always, not because they are insecure or unable to assert themselves, but because they understand the power they have to wound others, and the responsibility that comes with being a person in the world.  A couple of weeks ago, Evan's school had a "silly socks" day, and after much debate I suggested he wear 2 different soccer socks, pulled up to his knees, and he agreed.  Walking out the door, he stopped and took them off and reminded me that his best friend J. wears knee high socks to school every day, and "I don't want him to feel silly." And Sunday morning, before we left the house on Summerfield Road, as I sat on the bed with Evan in the room I stayed in as a child, Sydney came in and sat down with us and I explained that it used to be my room and she leaned against me and said "It's okay to be sad, Mommy.  It's okay with me if you cry."

I think we're on the right track.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Summerfield Road

In a couple of weeks, my grandmother's house will be sold, for cash, to a faceless and hopefully kind and responsible family.  I'm taking my kids to Florida next week for one last visit, and to help my sister pack for their move to the beach.  It's a good and happy ending: Kate graduated as a nurse anesthetist and landed a great job in Port Orange.  Tons of reasons to celebrate, for sure.

And yet, I am swamped in sadness.   As I grow older, the endings are piling up, and will inevitably continue to do so, but this has been my home for my entire 37 years.  My mother's family moved there from Chicago in the early 70s, when my grandfather got a job in Central Florida; my mother quit college to follow her two younger, developmentally disabled brothers there.  She soon met my father, had me, and not soon after, my grandfather died in the garage of a massive heart attack.  A few years later, I spent the night there while Kate was being born; I remember that night so vividly, the anticipation and excitement, my uncles clamoring for news of the new baby.  My grandmother's toast with strawberry jam, the sound of my parents' car pulling away en route to the hospital.  My grandmother died there in 2004, and I brought Sydney home there in 2005, 2 days after she was born, during our Katrina evacuation. I remember one night, 2 or 3 weeks after her birth, sitting awake and alone with my restless baby, in my grandmother's old recliner, talking to her, beseeching her, feeling her presence so acutely.  Like she was sitting there with me, chatting away the lonely midnight hours.

Being musically inclined, I tend to associate memories with sounds--and Florida sounds have a unique timbre.  The sound of screen doors whistling and slamming in the breeze; the crickets congregating at night; splashes and shouts from the neighbor's pool; the eerie silence of a hot summer morning.  I can still hear my grandmother's voice--she always sat in her recliner directly opposite the door to the living room and would call out my name when I walked in (always without knocking).  My Uncle Jimmy's sweet mumbles, Uncle Jack's catcalls.  The sound of the door shutting behind me.

I've been told to remember that it's just a house, that "home is where the heart is."  But what if your heart resides in a physical place?  What if that place--not just the house itself, but the neighborhood, the running trail, the high school, the entire landscape--is so deeply embedded in your memory and in your person that you can't imagine it belonging to someone else?  What then?


Monday, March 11, 2013

Castles

Growing up, I always laughed at my mother's annual birthday litany. Every year, on the morning of the last day of November, she would recite the details of the day of my birth; as the years go on she does so almost apologetically, though we both know I'd be disappointed if she didn't.  And of course, as these things tend to go, I've started the same tradition with my kids--though I feel a bit more justified in telling and re-telling Sydney's extraordinary story.

Ya'll know she was born 3 weeks after Katrina, right?  We'd fled to Houston, 38 weeks pregnant, and settled in there for the long haul, with doctors and delivery unit tours and multiple Target runs (we'd left everything in New Orleans, except the car seat).  When Hurricane Rita came to Houston, I was 3 days overdue, and we had to flee again--I remember looking back through the rear window and seeing the long line of gridlocked traffic behind us as we moved towards Arkansas.  It took us 3 days to get to my mom's house in Orlando, arriving late on that Friday night; Sydney was born the very next day.  When Hurricane Wilma tore through Fort Lauderdale, 6 weeks later, and destroyed the building where Cade's company had set up a temporary office, we packed up and moved back to our quiet, ruined city. The Red Cross truck brought me lunch every day, and the National Guardsmen stationed at the end of our block helped out with all sorts of post-Katrina dilemmas.  It was a sad and scary time, but also a relief: it looked like our city would survive, perhaps even thrive.

Look at those cheeks.
January came and it was time for me to return to work.  Problem was, the childcare sector in New Orleans had taken a huge hit; about 15% of the centers in operation before Katrina had survived the storm (some had flooded, others had to close due to lack of income).  It felt like an impossible situation--how can you live, work, and raise a family in the city you love, when said city has no childcare? I could have chosen not to work, but as a social worker felt compelled to do so, given the enormous psychosocial tasks that lie ahead.  Employing a nanny was neither cost-effective or aligned with what we wanted for our daughter--we wanted a community, wanted her in the company of other Katrina babies.  Also, selfishly, I was hungry for company and community.

Luckily, I'd stumbled upon a group of parents who, in November 2005, had come together with the crazy idea of opening their own childcare center.  I remember being a little mystified by the endeavor; how do you just...create something like that?  Where do you even start?  But they had--they had permits and licenses and a little cottage on Oak Street, and a Board of Directors and bylaws and even an Executive Director.  It was the real deal.

It took a few months of ramp-building and teacher-hiring and painting and collecting second-hand toys and furniture, but a little less than a year after the storm, Abeona House opened.  Here's a picture of Sydney from the opening day.


On the first anniversary, we had a "birthday" party and unveiled our fancy new sign:

There was also ice cream.

Just after our second anniversary, I joined the Board of Directors.  I was immediately surprised by the challenges that remained, and impressed by the creativity and resourcefulness of the community.  It was obvious, early on, that we'd have to get bigger if we wanted to survive--but expansion still seemed like a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, Sydney thrived, and Evan was born (those 2 events are not connected, trust me).

Taken seconds before he spewed in her face.
Abeona House thrived, too.  We had Mardi Gras and Halloween parades, art shows and concerts in the backyard.  Sydney graduated and moved on to Big School, I witnessed her self-possession and compassion in that new environment, and I knew it was in large part because of her time at Abeona House.  (How do I know this?  Because I help out a lot with teacher interviews, after they've gone through 2 rounds of in-class observations, and the vast majority of them tell me, unprompted, how kind and confident and imaginative the kids are.  I call that empirical evidence.)

Syd and Ms. Alli
2 years ago this April, I took the reins as Board Chair, with some trepidation but also with resolve. In that first meeting we all agreed that it was time to expand, and made that our 2-year goal.  7 months later, we moved into a new building across town, where we doubled in size, hired a chef and added a farm-to-table food program, and set about the business of becoming what we had always been poised to be: a model of early childhood education in New Orleans.

Emmy, our Founding Director (look at her! Isn't she awesome?!)

Totally awesome.

and Aliza, the Center Director (here she is with Sydney at the "old Abeona")

Also awesome.
have spent the last several years creating a program that is thoughtful rather than reactive, that emphasizes mutual respect among teachers, children, and families, and that strives to make children both visible and responsible.  So much of the success of this work is dependent upon the teachers, and though I know I'm biased, I truly believe we have the best group of teachers on the planet.  They love our children, they spend hours developing projects and documenting--they are rock stars.

Here is Evan's teacher, Ms. Jaime, and the letter she wrote for his documentation binder after she first started at Abeona House:
Dear Evan,
Since I'm the new preschool teacher, it has taken a while for the classroom to become comfortable with me; it's tough for me too.  I know it's hard for you to fully trust me as your teacher and caretaker.  I understand it takes a while to build a bond and I want you to know that I love you, and I care so much about you.  I want you to know that you can talk to me about anything and everything!  I want you to know you can find comfort in my arms when you feel sad or really happy.  You are so unique and special.  I think you are very sweet and caring to your friends.  You are such a funny boy with a silly personality! I see you coming around; I can't wait until you are ready for me to fully be a part of your life.

Love, 
Ms. Jaime

Can you read that without getting a little weepy?  Didn't think so.

Ms. Nicole was Sydney's teacher at the Old Abeona, and though she doesn't teach in Evan's classroom, she does come to his soccer games.
Evan loves Ms. Cole
These teachers work tirelessly and with exceptional dedication, because they love our kids and they believe in Abeona House.  I love them.  Don't you love them?

On top of the stellar pedagogy and exceptional teaching staff, Abeona House is committed to improving the quality of early childhood education throughout the New Orleans community.  This isn't some silly mission-statement jargon that we have to come up with for a brochure; this is the real deal.  So what does that mean?  It means our Director has spearheaded the formation of a Shared Services Alliance that will help strengthen business development for childcare centers in the GNO region. It means our center has undertaken the formidable task of earning stars under the state's Quality Rating System, which requires teachers to earn credentials in early childhood education (this in turn means books and coursework, as well as tax credits for teachers and families).  It means that our food program, which emphasizes fresh, healthful, locally-grown meals (think black bean empanadas with homemade yogurt cheese and chickpea and sweet potato gumbo--yes, the kids eat this stuff!) is garnering attention from other centers, and we're working towards sharing resources and knowledge with them.  It means that we're dedicated to improving the quality of life for teachers, children, and families throughout our region, not just in theory, but in practice.

Last year we created the Ira Herman Scholarship Fund, which provides tuition assistance to families in need of support.  Remember Aliza? We love her. The fund is named after her father, who was a huge supporter of our school and who passed away last year.  This fund is supported entirely through fundraising events, like the upcoming Reggio Run, where parents, teachers, and alums collect pledges to run, jog, or walk the Crescent City Classic 10k (on March 30th this year).  Last year we raised $13,000 for the school--this year we hope to raise $15,000.  

2010 Reggio Run
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Henry David Thoreau: "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them."  7 years ago, we built a castle on the remains of a ruined city, and I'm happy to say our foundation is growing stronger and stronger.  We've created a fantastic program that is changing the face of early childhood education here in NOLA, and I could not be any prouder of what we've accomplished.  My tenure on the Board is up next month, and Evan will graduate in May (sniff), but I have no doubt that our family will be connected to Abeona House for many years to come.  At the risk of sounding grandiose (what the hell, why not), I truly believe that this is how healthy communities are built: through citizen engagement, creativity, and dedication, one project, one family at a time.

If you love our family, if I've sold you on this place and what we do, please consider sponsoring my run on March 30th.  If you're so inclined, you can do so through the website (www.abeonahouse.org) or, if you're still paying for stamps, by mailing a check to the Center (3401 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA 70119).  It's tax-deductible.  It's for the children. And I'll love you forever.

Your Friend,

Chrissie

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fiercely

5 years ago, on Valentine's Day, my Uncle Jimmy died.  He wasn't old, or sick; he choked on a sandwich in the bathroom of the sheltered workshop where he spent his weekdays.  His life started out difficult and ended sadly, but these days, on February 14th, when I think of him and his legacy, I'm reminded of the absolute power of pure and simple love.

Both of my mother's brothers were born with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that mostly affects males (since the mutation is carried on the X chromosome, females can be carriers but have a "normal" X to make up for it). My Uncle Jack is older, and less severely impacted: he can write simple words, and operate basic appliances, and groom himself and cook (he's also obsessed with show tunes, but that's another story).  Jimmy was born small, and as an infant had difficulty latching and sucking, so my mother--who was 11 years older--spent the first several months of his life spoon-feeding him sips of milk until his tiny muscles got the hang of sustenance.  From there, their bond was indestructible; they adored each other.  In the 1960s, before all the nifty advances in genetic research and testing, when people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were called "retarded" and relegated to sub-human status, there was little room in polite suburban Chicago society for a family like theirs--yet my mom's stories of childhood are like anyone else's, filled with sibling rivalries and escapades.  But Jimmy was the baby of the family, my mother his protector, so when my grandfather's job took them to Central Florida, my mother left college and followed them to the Sunshine State.

Jimmy had a lopsided smile and a habit of close-talking; he'd get right up in your face and ask you questions in his incongruously soft voice (he grew to be a very large man).  His questions usually centered around whether or not you'd drive him to the store for a "beer," a tradition that started when my father, during visits to my grandparents' house, would inevitably make a run to the 7-Eleven, taking Jimmy along with him.  Jimmy didn't drink alcohol, but long after my parents were divorced, my Dad would stop by and take him for a ride to the store for a soda.

Jimmy called me "Snork," because that was the sound he heard me make when I was a baby.  He loved to bowl, and was of such powerful stature that everyone in his general radius would reflexively recoil when he sauntered up to the lane with his bowling ball.  He was a man's man, he loved tools and could often be seen walking around the house in his toolbelt.  He was in the garage workshop when my grandfather died there, instantaneously, of a massive heart attack; Jimmy was never really the same after that.

My uncles lived with my grandmother until she died in 2004, at which point they went to live in a group home.  They worked during the week at a sheltered workshop--which sounds awful and sweat-shoppy, but was actually a hugely rewarding experience for them, for a long time--and one day, Jimmy went into the bathroom to eat his lunch (he had a tendency to be secretive around food) and they found him, a while later, unconscious on the floor.  He was taken to the ICU, where my mother lay next to him until they discontinued life support.

I flew home for his funeral, 4 months pregnant with Evan, and I was terrified.  I was afraid of how my Uncle Jack would deal, how my mom would handle the loss.  I was not prepared for what happened at the church, the standing room only, the absolute flood of people who came out to pay tribute to his life.  My Dad was a pallbearer, and I saw him cry for the second time in my life.  Fr. Robert, a long-term family friend and Franciscan priest, came from out of town to stand at the altar, though it wasn't his church.  People from Jimmy's workshop, his bowling league, old friends of ours from St. Mary Magdalen, tons of people I didn't know clogged the aisles and the back of the church. And outside, in the parking lot, I met a young man who was sobbing; when I introduced myself he threw his arms around me and said "I just loved him so much." I found out later that he was the manager of the group home where Jimmy had lived.

At the funeral, my mom gave the eulogy.  At one point she told the audience that as a child I told her I loved being with my uncles, because they were always happy to see me.  And they were; the summers and holidays and weekends I spent with them were filled with love and acceptance and fun.  I miss his crooked smile, I miss taking him for a beer.  I miss watching him sidle up next to my mom, seeing her cradle his head in the crook of her neck, witnessing that perfect bond, that pure affection.

We're all a little cynical these days about this holiday, but I'm reminded of how important it is to love someone fiercely, to love them wholly, to do it because it's important, and it's beautiful, and in the end, it's all there is.