Saturday, August 30, 2014

Summer's Last Gasp

“Maha, I will take him down on the trail,” he said with a thick French accent. Just smiling enough for me to see the missing teeth, “you must go Maha, this is something you only do once in your life. Leave him, I will take him.”

I looked past Vincent, our guide, just in time to see Olivia repel off a rope straight down into the 100-foot waterfall. The roar of the rapids was almost deafening. If I closed my eyes, I almost couldn’t hear the cries of Achilles, hanging onto my leg.

We were well into our morning canyoning, deep in the depths of the French Alps. Vincent wasn’t just any guide we had hired -- he was Alpha’s best friend. When I had met my husband 16 years ago, he was living in Argentiere, a tiny town nestled in towering peaks, climbing mountains with Vincent for almost a year.

Pre-marriage Alpha brought me to Argentiere. To test my character, look for my weaknesses and find my strengths. Unbeknownst to me, over a long dinner Vincent quietly accessed my physique, taking note of my self-confidence. And then it was decided: A very aggressive week of peaks to climb before we headed back home to New York.

“Maha,” he always would remind me after, “Do you remember climbing Tacul, you crying the entire way up because you were so scared to come down?” His laugh was big and jolly, as he smoothed his crazy hair down. Tacul was a peak just behind Mount Blanc, the very mountain that claimed six lives while we were on vacation last week. Lean the wrong way on Tacul and there would have been a major problem. Crying felt like the obvious solution.

Besides his love of teasing, there was also a quiet acknowledgement when he brought up Tacul-- we had climbed together and shared something that few have ever done. Those days in the mountains were moments that would sustain me over the years to come. You see raising a large family had slowed our life way down. It was a victory to get to the mailbox in those early days. I’d often think about that week with Vincent and imagine myself squeezing the very most of life. We would send our Christmas cards to Argentiere, care of Vincent Ravenal, in hopes that he wouldn’t forget that we would come back when we could.

This summer, the kids were ready. Jackson our oldest, was capable of tackling some of the Alps bigger peaks. Olivia was strong and fit and Teddy was good enough. It was our last, Charlie, aka my Achilles, that was a problem. There is no place for a five year old in the mountains. But the nature of a big family is to push the lingering weak link forward so the others could go forward as well. I was impatient at first. Wanting to go on aggressive hikes and climbs. We tapered our expectations and managed to hike for hours everyday. When Achilles got tired, Alpha and I shared carrying him. He was keeping up, in his own way.

On our last day, Vincent took us canyoning – where you can explore hidden gorges, rappel, jump and slide down waterfalls. The kids had heard much about Alpha’s friend over the years and were out of their minds that he would guide them on an adventure. Achilles had been okay to deal with the frigid water even though his wetsuit was hanging off of him. As we held onto rock cliffs, clipped onto a line, Achilles held his arms out to Vincent ready and willing to trust him across. It was the next step, a 10-foot jump into a deep pool below a waterfall that put the kid over the edge. It was time to throw in the towel, question the plan, call it what it was: he was five for god sake.

I’ll stop too, I told myself. I had some fun jumping into the pools, sliding on the falls. Parenting is about compromise. For the last 12 years, I have tapered my expectations. I had learned to hang back.

“Maha, I have him,” Vincent told me as he grabbed Achilles by the harness, “it is your time, go!” Before I could think twice, I jumped -- rappelling, deep into the waterfall, the cold water shocking my skin on the back of the neck. Waking me up. As I dangled, lingering 25 feet in the air, I couldn’t help but think that once again, Vincent was giving me a gift. I shouted out with joy and slowly lowered myself into the waterfall before I let it wash me into the pool. Just a moment, that reminded me push forward, choose living, even with

Their Own Path

About two years ago, Alpha went to see an African Shaman on the mesa. As they discussed all aspects of life, my husband confessed that he worried about traveling too much. “I am afraid, that my absence will impact my kids, particularly as they get older,” he said.

The Shaman listened to him carefully and offered advice that has  remained with Alpha (and me) since. “They are on their own path,” he told him. “You have to recognize that your journey is not theirs and vice versa. You cant carry them, they have to travel their path on their own.”

From my experience as a parent, sometimes those words are very obvious and clear and other times I am surprised and shocked when they ring true. For example, when you drop your child off on their first day of school, and leave them to figure it all out, it is a defining moment, one easy to recognize: they have their own life and need to navigate it alone sometimes.

But other times, its far less black and white. Teddy, my third, has always been fearful. Ever since he was a baby. Alpha and I, as parents, thought it was our duty to force a breakthrough: jumping off the Goleta Pier for Junior Guards last summer, for instance, felt like the perfect opportunity. To our dismay, Teddy cried at the railing, clutching the post. Never taking that leap. Never trusting in himself.

We taught him breathing exercises; we yelled at him to calm down, we lectured him in attempt to flip a switch in his mind – one where hed realize how his fears were already limiting him.  All to no avail. 

And now , in evidence that Teddy has his own journey, he did something recently that dumbfounded Alpha and I. We were up North hiking our favorite trail to a lake with a legendary rope swing. This one is not for the faint of heart. The long rope hangs from a pine that is perfectly tilted towards the water. It also happens to sit on a steep hill which means  the thrill seeker  soars a solid twenty feet before having to let go and fall into the water. For years, Teddy has watched his older siblings go. Always leaving the lake deflated, even defeated -- as he never had the courage to have a go.

On this year's hike up, there was no discussion about the swing or the drop to the water.. We only told the new uncle-in-law that he was in for a real treat. We made it to our destination and all trooped up  to the pine. Teddy, first in line, grabbed the rope, leaned back for momentum and pushed off before we could catch our breath. And there he flew, straight up into the blue blue sky before he splashed into the water.

In all my many moments in parenting I was most humbled when he soared. Because, no matter how hard I had tried, I couldnt get him there. Now, he'd done it - on his own, unsolicited. It really hit me: Regardless of what we wish for them, regardless of what we want for them, our kids will make their own way, in their own time. When he emerged from the water with a huge grin, he wasnt looking to us for our approval. He didnt need the applause. Because it was his journey.

Since then, the fear switch has gone off. He swam around the Goleta Pier without a kickboard the other day -- it was so un-Teddy. He even said it was the most fun he has had a guards.

I recognize in myself the need to fix, change and solve. In that moment, watching Teddy splash into the lake, I had to acknowledge my own short-sightedness with that definition of parenting. I am not saying we have no role when raising our kids; we just have a lesser role than we give ourselves credit for. 


All those times Alpha and I pushed Teddy down a path he didnt want to navigate seem a bit comical. He showed us in one swoop, that ultimately he will forge forward. We just need to get out of the way.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Bracing for the Head Gear

The real issue is compliance, the orthodontist looked deep into my eyes for just a second before he quickly shifted to the charts on the table. Hold on a second, I started in the middle of the story. Lets rewind.

It was time for our oldest to get braces. The dentist had examined his teeth and triumphantly stated his bite was nearly perfect. The gap in between the front teeth -- purely cosmetic; the fix would be fairly easy. I drove home in a state of euphoria, explaining to my entire brood about my overbite that took 12 years of intervention to fix. My fourth grade school picture was just one tragic documentation of the torture I was actually wearing my headgear. (In hindsight, I wonder what the hell my mom or the photographer were thinking would it have been so bad to take the socially crippling contraption off just for a few moments to get a nice school portrait?)

The kids marveled at the stories, horrified at the idea of the awkwardness of my headgear and the social stigma that went with it. But this was a new generation, new world: Jackson was going to have it easy. So we ended up in the crowded office, all of them in tow to experience a new cycle in our lives. Monthly vaccine visits to the pediatrician that dominated my previous decade were now to be replaced by the tightening and adjusting of teeth for the next.

The orthodontist immediately impressed us with how trendy he was   he kindly showed us multiple options to reduce his gap. Jackson was eyeing the clear brackets, I asked him which ones he wanted and he shyly pointed at them.

The clear ones are more expensive right? I asked the expert. He nodded.

Yeah, you are so not having those, I laughed, picking the standard silver brackets.

I caught the doctor suppressing a chuckle. Thats kind of funny that he thought he had an option, he smiled and I knew he was silently saying to himself, nice to see a parent making that decision. My first clue that this new generation, new world was very different from my own. (To reiterate, I wasnt even allowed to take my headgear off for a picture, let alone chose my own type of braces)

Then he hit me with  the price. Wow. Multiply that by four and we could probably take down a small cattle farm in Argentina. I thought youd go easy on me, I told him. We were saving all our cash for Teddy, the thumb sucker. Immediately all eyes turned to my third (who broke out into a nervous smile, revealing a ridiculous over bite.)

My man, the orthodontist tried to sound calm, lets get you into the chair and have a look at these chompers.

With that  Jacksons basic charts were taken off the screen and up popped the picture ofa neck gear.

Oh man. New generation, same mechanism for buck teeth. All the euphoria drained from my body as I knew my future involved multiple phases to fix Teddys teeth. He immediately burst into tears, as the others looked on sympathetically. Now, I was really kicking myself, why had I been so over the top about the horror of it all? I never should have gone there.

It is all about compliance, the orthodontist told me. If he can wear this at night, we can be successful IF he complies.

If, did he say? Although I was in shock at the dramatic turn of events, I hadnt lost my mind. Trust me, I have an if: IF Im going to pay thousands of dollars, there would be no IFS. This child WILL wear his neck gear, daytime too IF he's told. When I double-checked the diagnosis with our amazing dentist, the same word came up: compliance.

 Then something clicked: As much as we have evolved, there was something to be said for the grin-and-bear-it generation that I grew up in. 12 years wearing a torture contraption actually taught me about grit, perseverance and results (I have really nice teeth.) Today, the question is whether we even make the hard choice as parents, forcing our kids to comply, which would then result in some real tools for life.

It is a new era of -- not helicopter parents -- but snow plowers, a friend told me as I explained the difference of 20 years. Parents want to smooth the way, and there are a lot of unintended consequences for doing that.

Not on my watch, I told myself as we sat in that orthodontists office. Biting my lip, and looking squarely into my childs tearing eyes, I told him this was something he was going to have to do, just like I had. He smiled warily in our solidarity and hopped off the examine chair as his siblings snickered and teased. Olivia proclaimed she had perfect teeth (well see) and Jackson threatened to tell Teddys whole class about the neck gear if he didnt pay up. And I had to swallow my need to make it all right. Because it just was not going to be for a while.


But you know, that son, with the perfect bite, was three days away from braces when a lacrosse stick managed to hit his beautiful (but very exposed) front tooth, shattering it in half. As he cried, blood spurting everywhere, I realized we never get off easy. We constantly have to prepare for the neck gear, and the unexpected, armed with resilience and grit. Yeah, I think Ill comply.

Friday, June 20, 2014

One Graduation Down, Two To Go...

Right before her daughter Brianna left for college, my good friend told me shed lay down on her bed and imagine she was gone. You see, the room was going to change dramatically once she left. Her brother Pierce was getting older and the girly room with a pink duvet, flowers and heels would be transformed with blue paint, a train set, sneakers and an American flag.

“Id close my eyes, and just feel her leaving me,” she told me, “then tears would just stream down my face.”

Amazingly, a full year has passed. And now its my turn to feel the combination of wonderment and sorrow watching a child growing older -- my son is graduating from 6th grade and can no longer be called a "kid". He will be singing with his class the Beatles version of “My Life” at their ceremony. Distracted and irritable over the crazy ending of the school year, I googled the song on a whim: "No one compares with you, and these memories lose their meaning, when I think of love as something new, though I know, Ill never lose affection, for people and things that went before, I know Ill often stop and think about them. In my life, I love you more…"

The words forced me to stop my frenetic movements at the sink. I had to sit down at the kitchen table to absorb the magnitude that my firstborn was going to middle school -- more than half way to college. And in the moment, in his celebration of growing up, it hits me hard that he is also growing away from me.

“Whoah, Mom!” Jackson said as he walked in from lacrosse practice and caught me staring into space. “Why are you crying? Did Teddy do something?”

The answer is not all that easy. You see, there is not one mom in my life that doesn't want to see their child grow into a capable, amazing young adult, ready and prepared for life. Its just that, well, we get left behind.

“Did you see that sappy Rob Lowe excerpt about sending his kid to college?” another friend asked me. Lowe had written about the tough moment in parenting when he dropped his son off at his dorm. He had to let go and say goodbye. “I know you want me to be that, but it was seriously over-the-top,” she laughed easily.

I have patiently watched this close friend transition into an empty nester. Her last son is graduating from Santa Barbara High. Throughout the year, she has made sure I knew she couldnt wait for him to leave. She called me from a road trip that she and her husband took to Vegas to assure me that the whole empty nesting thing was something theyd celebrate. Id go to her house where a million teenagers were hanging out and shed sarcastically tell me she really was going to miss feeding them all. I marveled at her ability to go completely unfazed by Harrys departure. 

And then the call came.

“I just got through watching his last baseball game,” she said through a shaky voice, “and I am gutted, are you happy?”

In a way, I was. Because instinct tells me that no parent goes unscathed: The empty rooms, the quiet house. The duty to take care of and provide is not turned off like the running water of a facet. It is a gradual process, that Im not sure can be ever mastered.

“I open the door and watch her sleep,” a woman confided to me at Trader Joes -- her daughter just got back from her second year in college. “I cant help myself, I watch for hours. She is gone in a week, back for summer school.”

As we spoke, the kids were all over me, asking for ice cream and snacks for school; Charlie is crying because he cant find Wally. I feel guilty, that I have so many of them – that my home is so full. (In fact, I often wish it was less full.) But when I see the painful steps all those empty nesters are taking, I recognize Im in some seriously glory days.

We mothers are also true survivors. My road tripping Vegas friend has offered to start all over and take Charlie to t-ball next year. “Write one kids sports needs off, the husband and I got it from here,” she said in the same conversation we had about Harry’s last game.

Lets be honest, I have a long way to go. As I watch one leave elementary school, another is entering kindergarten. Empty nesting is a solid 12 years away for me. I’m just saying, my time will come. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy every moment. Minus the t-ball games. Thank heavens someone else has that covered.