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Flashback to Solace in A Balcony Garden and Peace in the Pieces of Me, Update

August 25, 2010

If you are here from Blog Gems, this was supposed to link to a happy one to make you smile. Whoops. Here you go.

Solace in a Balcony Garden: Looking Back to 1994

This piece was written in 2004.

What should have been an exciting, happy time for us, finally together again after two years apart, was instead one of the most difficult, depressing times in my life. My husband was stationed in Germany, and we lived in a picturesque little village on the side of a hill, with a magnificent view that seemed made for us alone. Our son, a beautiful blue-eyed, blond-headed angel, had us sleep-deprived, bewildered, and when not in denial, anxious. At four, he spoke only a few words, wasn’t toilet trained, wouldn’t stay dressed, stayed awake thirty-six hours at a time, and screamed for hours. He was as difficult as he was beautiful. Outings with him were painful, embarrassing, and exhausting affairs, as we never knew what would set him off.

My husband and I coped as best we knew how, but weren’t even treading water. To this fragile situation, we then added his two sons, 10 and 11, when they needed a safe place to live. They both suffered from learning disabilities and behavioral issues we weren’t fully aware of. Within a month of their arrival, I felt completely alone, isolated, and overwhelmed. Many of the destructive coping mechanisms I had worked hard to overcome began creeping back in. My weight went up; I began smoking again. I knew I had to find something, some lifeline to hold onto.
Left home alone with the three boys for long periods because of my husband’s work, I found myself retreating to our large balcony with its view of the valley, the Main River winding lazily past. The balcony was the nicest feature of the apartment, and I knew it had tremendous potential. I had always loved gardening and the endless possibilities that soil, seeds, water, and sun created, and knew I had found a lifeline. I just had to make my husband see the same possibilities and my need, as carrying forty-pound sacks of dirt up eight flights of stairs was not a chore that would fall on my shoulders. My husband, like most men, misses much he should see, but was able to see my desperation, and over a ton of dirt made its way up all those stairs, past the startled stares of our very confused neighbors. After the dirt came dozens of containers and even a wading pool, along with several flats of flowers and seedlings.

Whenever I began to feel overwhelmed by the demands of caring for three developmentally disabled, rambunctious boys, I would withdraw to my balcony garden, where it was slightly quieter, with only the sounds of boats, trains, and cars racing by below. While my little son sat beside me, lost in his own little world, lining up his toys in neat rows and my stepsons were away at school, I planted morning glories, begonias, marigolds and miniature roses and took solace in their beautiful colors and lovely scents. In the wading pool, I planted spinach, cucumbers, and onions. I had several containers with tomato plants, beans, and lettuces. Outside, on this lush, undoubtedly overloaded balcony, I found a measure of peace and some confidence that the work I did, the efforts I made, were worthwhile and effective.

Inside, as spring turned to summer and fall began to peek around the corner, my efforts did not seem to make any difference, and the situation between my stepsons and my little family continued to deteriorate. In June, the younger stepson, who had severe behavioral problems, tried to strangle my son as a roomful of adults in the special-ed classroom watched on in shock. We were fortunate to be present when it happened and were able to pull him away before any physical harm was done, but a piece of me withered. I could not bear to ask my husband to send the boys back to their mother, but also could not understand why they weren’t on a plane the next day.

Things continued to slide inexorably down, despite the help we were getting from the school and the hospital. I found it increasingly difficult to function, and the next month when our oldest managed in a moment of rough play to drop our youngest upside down onto the concrete floor, I withdrew emotionally from my stepsons and my husband. I spent most of my time out on the balcony with my son, never leaving him alone with his brothers. The garden and my son were my lifelines, what I held on to. My garden let me see that I could succeed, and gave me peace. I tended my plants, I hugged my little boy, and I prayed for a solution, as I harvested my tomatoes and cucumbers, as I touched the petals of my marigolds and pansies and found comfort.

In August, as my garden reached its potential and my life reached a crisis point, I was able to see that just as the soil needs replenishing and crops need rotating, that it was not a failure for my stepsons to return to their mother now that her situation had changed. Their time with us, although painful for all, had been beneficial. The school system had worked with us to get accurate testing of all three of our boys, and my stepsons returned to the states with carefully worked out educational plans for the next school year, eager to return to Ohio and their mother and grandmothers.
My garden and the peace it provided continued to be a balm over the next two months as we readied for our own move back to the states. Because of my stepsons’ time with us, our own son began to get the treatment he needed, and the word autism began to enter our vocabulary. Our lives were changing, and I began to see that my efforts mattered, not only in my garden, but also when I invested myself in my son’s life and in my own, I could make a difference; it just took more than a season to see the results.

Peace in the Pieces Of Me, Mother’s Day 2009.

Every couple of months, the boy (who will be 20 this year) brings up one of his plans for the future and I take the bait. He brings up his future plans all the time, his desire to be a dog masseuse, a chef, a janitor, a professional Yugi-Oh duelist, and I blithely go about my business ignoring the unlikelihood of these ever happening as well as his complete obliviousness that these things will not happen. Ah, but, about four times a year or so, I bite and spend the next half-hour to hour trying to explain how and what he would need to do to make any of these a reality. Physically banging my head into a brick wall could not do me more damage than these talks do. They are beyond pointless as none of it reaches him. I start off with assuring him that I love him as he is, that if attending the day program for the disabled is all he ever does, as long as he’s happy, I’m happy. I then transition to pointing out that I believe, though, that he could do more, I don’t know how much more, but more, and that I would be happy to see him achieve his goals. Then, of course, I delineate the ways in which he would need to work to achieve these goals. All of those ways involve effort and a GED, so that’s usually where it stops. The boy can read well enough to get through adult novels (he misses the emotional or abstract parts), do basic math, and write a little. He’s got a proclivity to Tim-the-Toolman-Taylor facts, though, that staggers the imagination. If there’s a way to completely butcher it and miss the point, the boy can and does, and no amount of explaining where he’s wrong will fix it.

So, today on Mother’s Day, he started with the chef thing and kissing girls, how that came in I don’t know, and I bit. And I got nowhere at all, except that this time it ended with him uttering that being a chef would be nice but it wasn’t worth a GED to do it and this life now was easier. I don’t know why I do this to myself, as one of our “conversations” can immediately trigger a migraine that leaves me in the bathroom bent over the commode, wondering why I never learn. If you leave the boy alone, let him drone on about Yugi-Oh, Soul Calibur, his other video games, Gangland, and UFO sightings, as well as his career goals, offer your occasional grunts of acknowledgment, he’s happy and all’s well with the world. Try to point out anything at all counter to what he’s said and you hit a brick wall that will knock you over and depress the hell out of you.  The boy’s fine, at least, at the end of the “conversation” so there’s that positive.  He remains untethered in time, unaware of the riptide he’s made in your day.

Migraine meds swallowed, I’m left to find peace in the pieces of me that these conversations inevitably shatter. Most times, I wade along, untethered in time with the boy, at least with regards to him, my constant, seemingly unchanging child. There, where time does not ripple forward but pools stagnant, algae green unmoving, we can be happy, insulated from the outer world, and he is free to be just the boy, compared to himself only. When those waters ripple, when they become rapids, the pieces of me shatter, and I am no longer untethered.  I learned long ago to find the peace in the pieces of me in my gardens. The older the boy and I get, the longer our journey together, the more the garden means to me. So, today, on Mother’s day, after the inevitably pointless shattering conversation, I retreated to my garden, on this misty day. West Texas gardening is a challenge, especially when what you’re trying for is a lush, English cottage garden. It’s a lot like raising an autistic child or two or three. It takes a lot of work, a lot of time, and it can be heartbreakingly frustrating. But when it works, when the years of work build and the effort finally shows through, the payoff is big and the pieces of me are no longer shattered and I have that moment of bliss; I have peace in the pieces of me.

Flash forward to 2010

Bobby and I, we’re in this for the long haul; he’s my son and I expect that barring some tremendous miracle, he’ll be with his dad and me until we can no longer physically care for him.  We do not consider this a burden. He’s my son and I love him. He’s sweet, he’s happy, and he’s made, with a lot of help from a lot of people, a life that is a good one for him. He gets to take care of cats once a week; he helps with lunch at the center, he helps at home. He’s of service and feels good about the things he can do to help.

He’s also stubborn, resistant, and at times frustrating. Ummm, like his mom and dad are.  Academics, because of his ID, are difficult and frustrating for him, and much of that remains beyond his grasp. Teaching him how to handle his limitations with grace, well, that’s the trick. Teaching him to push past and work hard for what he wants is also just as hard because so much is hard for him and because he has no clock telling him time is passing.

There aren’t easy answers. There’s no certainty. Everything we do is about balancing the competing needs of the family and individual members so that everyone’s autonomy is respected, and everyone’s varying abilities are recognized and accommodated. Sometimes we do it well, and sometimes we don’t. Learning to step back and reevaluate is critical.

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