Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

writing for parents of the bravest hearts

Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

green writing for parents

hope

Fare thee well, feline

It’s been ten days since we’ve seen our cat, Tiger, although I knew the first morning when I opened the back door and he didn’t show that he was gone for good.

Tiger came to live with us as an outdoor cat. He was one of several kittens that a co-worker’s wife found in a box on the side of the road fifteen years ago. We were living on the farm at the time and had been having trouble keeping cats, as often happens out in the countryside. But Paige was 10 years old and pining for a cat, so we picked the male orange tabby kitten for good luck.

Tiger’s cat-shaming portrait.

Tiger proved to be a survivor. Even as coyotes, owls and other predators exacted their toll on our farm, Tiger knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. When it was time to move into town, I was apprehensive. He’d lived on the farm for more than a decade. I got advice from other cat owners and the veterinarian. On moving day, I was ready with drugs and a crate, but as soon as the moving vans showed up in the driveway, Tiger, ever the survivor, hid out. Two days later, he got hungry enough for the new owner to catch him in the house and call me.

During the transition, he fought against the drugs so it was like having a drunk college student lumbering around the house as we unpacked boxes and filled cupboards and closets and bookshelves. After a week of supervised outdoor time, he started fighting the whole cat-on-a-leash thing. I opened the door and said, “good luck little buddy.” I don’t know what I was worried about. He was a survivor and he knew where he lived. That’s where his food dish is!

Now that he’s gone, I feel the loss, as I knew I would, even though I’ve also known I won’t get any more cats. I’m a dog person. I have been since I was a girl, obsessed with learning all the breeds of dogs and reading stories about dogs and pining for a dog myself.

While our dogs have reminded me of the rewards of loving unconditionally, I have to give props to Tiger, whose utter cat-ness provided insight into life’s more complicated doings and feelings.

He brilliantly established his personal space. Pet him just a stroke or two when he wasn’t feeling it and he bit your hand or arm or leg or foot to let you know. Even when he was willing to sit for a little cuddle time, you still got bit at the end.

He ate ritualistically: every half hour or so, he returned to the bowl to eat several bites. Ergo, we learned to always pause for a moment when we opened the door to let him in (or out) and forever keep kibble in the bowl.

He often joined the dog and I on the first block of a walk. Then he decided either we weren’t worth the effort or going into the wrong territory and he went off on his own.

When Paige went off to college, the cat expressed how distressing the empty nest was by peeing all over the pricey feather bed I bought to deal with a too-hard mattress. I didn’t even try to recover anything. The feather bed got tossed in the trash. I still sleep on that too-hard bed.

Farewell, old friend. We’re glad you came to stay.

Racing alone

Another year of equestrian Special Olympics has come and gone. Sam had an off year this year, I think in part because the regional competition had to be canceled for bad weather. He and his teammates missed some of the momentum needed in competition.

Sam remained a sportsman through the disappointments. I almost thought he wasn’t feeling it – until it was time to head back home. He was sad to leave, saying that we always have fun but the competition wasn’t what he’d hoped for. Then he added that maybe next year he would only do drill.

Sam’s been branching out as a horseman this year. For many years, he only rode English. A few years ago, he added Western events. That opened the door to barrel racing, which is a barrel of fun. This year, he added carriage driving and drill.

Sam picked out the drill music first, which brings its own kind of joy for him. He and Mal, his riding coach and drill partner, did well on their short routine, especially considering how little time they had to practice. Since no one else had a routine with such challenging moves, they were competing against themselves at state Special O. They got gold.

I understood what Sam was saying. He wanted to race alone.

There’s a moving passage in architect Nader Khalili’s memoir, Racing Alone, where he explains his internal transformation, leaving a successful practice as a high-rise architect to develop prototypes for sustainable earth architecture.

Khalili tells the story of watching his son play with his friends. They have a foot race and his son, who is smaller than the other boys, falls behind and loses. Crying, the boy tells his father that he only wants to race alone. Khalili takes his son to a quiet track and watches him, full of joy, run and run.

Our children can be such magical teachers.

Odd couple

Sam traveled last weekend and the house was a little too quiet without him–a complaint he has made to me when I travel without him.

For four years now, we’ve shared a house as a funny mix of roommates/landlord-tenant, although the mother-son thing can still come into play. I don’t go in his apartment without asking, unless I need do something landlord-ish and he’s gone. We shop and try to do some fun things on the weekend, but go our separate ways socially, too. He uses the common spaces of the house like a roommate would, taking care of his own laundry and cooking. He leaves my things and my private spaces alone, which really isn’t something you worry about until you’ve had a roommate who eats your secret stash of Thin Mints and shops your closets.

When the mother-son thing does happen, I try to imagine what I would do for Michael or Paige and try not to do any more than that for Sam, except be a really good explain-i-ologist. He still needs that and always will.

He called home while he was gone this weekend. I didn’t expect the call, but my big fat grin told me how much I missed his company and I told him so. He said he missed me, too.

We’ve made a different kind of family, Sam and I. And I don’t know why, but I’m imagining filling out the census at this time next year and thinking about how we’ll be counted as one of those different kinds of families, and how important it is for all the families who have adult children with autism to get counted.

Years ago, I stumbled over a spot in one of Jill Connor Browne’s Sweet Potato Queen books where she recommends the five kinds of men you simply have to have in your life.

Where am I going with this, you ask? Please bear with me. If I had days to write you a better transition, dear Internet people, I would have. Ok with the bumpy transition, you say, so back to what you were saying about these five types of fellas …. ? 

Well, the shorthand version is every gal needs a sugar daddy, a dance partner, a handyman, a lover and a soulmate. You can’t get all that in one fella, says those Sweet Potato Queens. Maybe you’ll get lucky and marry someone who ticks a lot of those boxes, but you’ll still need to set about lining up the rest of the fellas in your life one way or another.

It’s silly really, but I found it great fun to tease friends about it and a nice way to brag how Mark did pretty well with the last three. After he died, it was hard to tease about it and I can’t remember, honestly, the last time I did.

But when I think about how much Sam has grown, that funny idea creeps back in my head. Sam is definitely a handyman, almost better than Mark at this point with anything electrical or HVAC or plumbing in the house. And he’s a great dance partner; although not for me so much, because, as Dad is fond of saying, hugging family is like touching a hot stove to Sam. But we’ve two-stepped together and I’m sure we will again at the state Special Olympics dance and at Michael’s and Holly’s wedding.

And Sam is a different kind of soulmate, at least to me. I don’t know if I am to him, that’s for him to say. But he has a way of seeing the world that forces me to ask whether I’m being my best self, and in a nonjudgmental yet unyielding way that’s good for my soul.

It’s love and family, after all.

 

Book report

Over the past ten days, I went back to read a book that had been recommended many times but I hadn’t until now: Clara Parks’ The Siege.

Her book is a parent memoir, but in a class by itself. If I had read her book when Sam was first diagnosed, many pages would have been dog-eared and worn for her wisdom. Parks was an English teacher at Williams College and had her master of fine arts degree. In other words, she knew the value of keeping a daily journal, and thinking critically about what was happening in her family, and applying what she knew about language — and how it was different for her daughter, Jessy (Elly in the book’s first edition) than her other, older children.

I was struck by how many experiences we had in common. Both Sam and Jessy proved their intelligence in unusual ways, which required their families to pay attention. They both kept elaborate maps in their head that allowed them to return to a place even if they’d only been there once.

Both Sam and Jessy also had distressing episodes with vomiting.

And I will digress at this moment to say that researchers have been far too slow to try to understand this problem. Many, many parents report their young children with autism have distressing digestive problems. Parks wrote about her daughter’s in 1967; it’s not like researchers can say they were surprised. Parks gave the problem enough ink that the skeptical reader knew her own theory about the mystery was just that. But, as far as I can tell, it wasn’t until Andrew Wakefield’s disgraceful paper in The Lancet that funders and scientists got serious about understanding digestive problems that children with autism have. Besides faking his numbers to gin up the vaccine connection, Wakefield went into that vacuum of knowledge about autism and digestive problems to give his idea that same sticky quality you find in urban legends.

A publisher once told me that he gets pitched a lot of parent memoirs. He doesn’t publish them any more. They don’t sell. That’s sad. It’s not that Parks’ memoir is the be-all-end-all (although I suspect that if I’d read her book as a young mother, I would have been too intimidated to write one of my own.) But I don’t think we’ve even begun to scratch the surface about what parents have observed, and what that might mean for furthering scientific understanding.

For example, Parks’ observations about language were stunning. Speech pathologists likely understand more about language development in children with autism than they did in 1967, but there’s just too much thoughtful description in her book for me to believe that they’ve got it all.

It’s true that it doesn’t have to be a memoir. Maybe there’s another way to capture all those stories and wisdom to make it better for the next generation of parents and children.

 

A year to be more open and connected

Two years ago, after writing a news story about a few of our clever readers and what they learned achieving their New Year’s resolutions, I did mine differently. A year into my own experiment, I had learned so much that I shared it in a column.

That first goal to not buy anything (with reasonable exceptions for food and fixing things) reinforced a simpler, more sustainable life. My next resolution, “Yes, please,” was meant to be this year’s yang to last year’s yin of “no, thank you.”

The idea wasn’t that “yes, please” was permission to give into impulses or rationalized needs, but to push through whatever had been stopping me from trying something new. How else to see the world unless you push through to the other side? I made a list of about a dozen challenges that have been nagging for years; for example, learning to better maintain my bike, sew upholstery, broaden my computer skills, speak conversationally in another language, and make cheese. But if something new crossed my doorstep, like when my friend and brilliant textile artist Carla offered a day of indigo dyeing, I said “yes.” I said yes whenever I could.

Not only is life simpler and more sustainable, but it’s also richer and more fun.

That brought the social media expression of my life into sharp relief. For the coming year, I will co-opt Facebook’s stated mission, to be more open and connected, by quitting Facebook.

The main reason to shut down my account is one that has nagged me for a long time. Facebook’s real mission is nothing like its stated mission. For example, I’ve noticed there are people you cannot reach any other way than through Facebook. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In Texas, we might share a lemonade on the porch and we’re cordial, but we just don’t invite everyone inside. So I would argue that when you can’t reach someone except through Facebook, then you aren’t really connected at all. Facebook is managing your relationships for you through the veneer of being “open” and “connected.”

I set up the Family Room blog as a place to explore ideas related to living with autism. It’s interesting that most readers come here via a Facebook link and will return to Facebook to comment on the topic, rather than connecting below and creating our own community–which, by the way, is not open to exploitation by a third party because I filter and delete all that garbage.

That’s Facebook’s real mission. And, they “move fast and break things.” After I watched Frontline’s two-part special, The Facebook Dilemma, I couldn’t be a part of it anymore. American newspapers are struggling because Facebook (and similar businesses) got the rules changed: they can publish with impunity while newspapers must continue to publish responsibly. It’s expensive to be a responsible company. But it’s worth it because, for one, the truth is an absolute defense. And people don’t die in Myanmar because you got so big moving fast and breaking things that you can’t clean up after yourself anymore.

It took Sam a while to accept my decision. He was worried that my exit would affect his experience. I respect that very much. People with disabilities need help living lives that are more open and connected. He finds community activities through Facebook. Because he can scroll at his own pace, he can absorb and react to more news that people share. He’s not impervious to the third-party nonsense, but he’s not going to show up at a fake rally meant to destabilize the community.

I’ll still be on Twitter because I use the platform for my job and I can’t escape it. And I know my departure from Facebook may affect my coworkers, so I will work to ameliorate that. I hope that readers who want to continue to be part of Family Room will use the green button below to bookmark the blog and come back once a month or so. This blog isn’t going away even though the Facebook teasers will.

My first objective will be to use my words to be more open and connected. Family Room will be one place to make that happen, along with all of the other ways we’ve always had to connect with each other (insert mail-telephone-plus-ruby-slippers icons here!)

My second objective will be that when I have something to share, I will share it with the person I believe would appreciate it most.

My third objective will be actively listening to others in the coming days and weeks. Because the best way to connect is to respond.

Sam taught me that.

Be the Bumper Guard

After my family moved from the Midwest to Colorado, we started a new Christmas tradition. My grandmother, who lived in Rockford, would send a little cash instead of gifts for Christmas. She forbid my parents to use the money to pay bills. It was to have fun, she said.

So, Christmas Day, we’d all go bowling. As we grandkids had kids of our own, we kept on bowling for Christmas. Some years we’d take up as many lanes as a league would.

Those first few years, it was hard to watch the little ones learn to bowl. They would hit pins, but they would also throw a lot of gutter balls. The year the bowling alley offered lanes with bumper guards was its own kind of Christmas. The bumpers didn’t eliminate the gutter balls, but the set-up helped the kids figure out what they were supposed to do. It was nice to sit back and let them have at it. They were set up for success: they got a lot more pins and they learned more quickly how to throw. By the second or third year, my nephew was ready to ditch the bumpers and bowl in a lane with the grown-ups. He bowled great games.

My kids are grown and I’ve stopped parenting, but when Sam needs support now, I try to remember to be a bumper guard, just like I did when the kids were little.

We parents need to stand on the periphery of their lives, far enough back that the kids know they are doing things on their own, but that you’re watching, too. They need that internal message that they shouldn’t worry about hitting a lot of pins, and that they are still going to throw gutters, and sometimes the ball is going to ricochet its way down the lane, but just keep throwing and try to get strong so you can throw it straighter each time. And one day you’ll be ready to go without the bumpers. You will hit some spares and strikes and you’ll throw some gutters. And it will all be ok.

I don’t always remember to be a bumper guard. A few weeks ago, I thought someone had drained Sam’s bank account. Fear turned me into a helicopter parent. Of course, my actions, ostensibly to defend his hard-earned money, upset him. And they created other problems that he needed to solve. When I remembered my role and stepped back, he cleaned up the whole mess himself.

Our culture is changing rapidly. To survive and to thrive, all of our children, not just the ones with autism, need to be resilient. We should not stand over them and help them throw all the balls. That’s not how to make a resilient kid. With each situation, each problem, each opportunity for growth, we need figure out where to install the bumper guards, stand back and let them throw.

 

Butterflies

Sam was spared the agony a lot of us get in the home stretch for a new job: the long wait between a successful interview and the offer. On Friday, one rolled right after the other for him. He had the best smile when he announced over dinner that WinCo hired him to work in the warehouse.

Sam sacked groceries at Albertsons for ten years. He didn’t want to become a checker. Sometimes customers are impatient. “I wouldn’t be fast enough for them,” he said. He didn’t want to stock shelves, either. I shopped late enough on the occasional Friday night to see those guys at work. Sam couldn’t be that raucous.

Nothing came his way after he graduated with an associate’s degree and certificate in computer science and technology five years ago. It was frustrating. Once I asked a manager at Albertsons if there was a way for a loyal employee with an education to move up. She shook her head no. There aren’t corporate offices here, she said.

Then Sam got a call. WinCo was opening a warehouse in Denton. They wanted to try to hire people like Sam. He would have to quit his job at Albertsons; participate in a special, six-week training class; and interview for the job at the end. There was no guarantee he’d have the job when he finished the training. In addition, he would only be paid when he was handling actual store product in the warehouse. Otherwise the rest of the training time would be unpaid. This was a Goodwill Industries program. The training included a lot of class time on “soft skills,” like getting along with co-workers, deciding when (and when not) to disclose your disability, interviewing techniques, and the like.

Sam had been in the work force for a decade. He’d been there and done that. It didn’t seem fair for him to quit a job and go without pay for four weeks. But I know I can be skeptical. It’s an occupational hazard. I kept my mouth shut. He had a chance at a job that would quadruple his take-home pay.

(Some nights he’d come home, relay what they learned that day and I’d muse over how it might be nice for the newsroom to get a “soft skills” refresher from time to time. We often seem barely house-trained–myself included.)

Image from Nova: Journey of the Butterflies

This week was all butterflies. I missed the open house Sunday, but Michael and Paige went with him to see for themselves what he was shooting for. We were prepared to help Sam update his resume. No need, he said, the program folks already got his resume all wrapped up. Did he want to do some mock interviewing? Nope, he said, he’d already practiced and had notecards with sample questions and answers. He’d just look them over each night, thanks.

He was visibly nervous Thursday night. A lot had lead up to that day. He made sure he had all his interview clothes ready to go and packed up work clothes, too. After the interview, he expected to be back out on the floor, in his bay, and he needed to wear a sturdy shirt, jeans and his work boots. I kept checking my phone all day for news, but that’s not his style. He was epically impulsive as a child, but now, he almost delights in waiting to deliver good news.

I don’t know who was smiling bigger on Friday night when he told me. If it were Michael or Paige, there would be lots of hugs and backslapping and arm-squeezing. But that, too, isn’t Sam’s style. I told him I’d like to shake his hand to tell him congratulations and how proud I was of him.

He kept eye contact as he extended his hand and gripped mine. Not too hard, not too soft. Up and down, not too fast and not too slow.

I kid you not, dear Internet people.

It was the first time in my life I’ve ever experienced the perfect handshake.

 

 

Catching

Sam has a certain smile that really sings.

He’s such a deep thinker that we don’t get to see this smile very much. Like the smile-for-the-camera smile most of us have, his face looks posed in photographs, only more so. But when a happy moment comes — like that moment when sunlight makes it through the clouds and trees all the way down to the ground to light a patch of wildflowers — Sam’s smile just sparkles.

He lit up that way yesterday when I showed him the rain barrel I brought home from a workshop. “We’re bringing the farm,” he said.

Well, almost. This is the barrel.

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This was the farm’s.

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We are growing vegetables in beds on the other side of the fence. That 50-gallon barrel should go a long way toward keeping things watered.

I’ll be writing about the rainwater catchment class and the barrel for Monday’s paper.

We have settled into the new place here in town pretty well. We enjoy the many and varied offerings that come with city life. We’ve all got bicycles and ride them around town more and more. But it’s not the same as life on the farm.

We made a very intentional choice to look around at what was missing and bring it in. The rain barrels, and living life closer to the rhythm of the seasons is part of that.

When you see blue-eyed grass covering our front lawn in the spring, you’ll know we finally got it as close as we could.

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See Sam Drive: Tractor Edition

Sam and I re-homed the tractor today, one of many steps away from the farm and toward life in town.

He drove the tractor as I followed him in the pickup, loaded up with nearly all the tractor accoutrements Mark had acquired over the years, down Frenchtown Road for the last time.

Mark taught Sam to drive the tractor when he was a teen. He wanted Sam to learn to drive a car and figured this was a good way to see how he’d manage. Better to mow down a few trees or knick a fence or  two in the relative safety of your Texas-sized front yard in that journey of self-discovery.

Sam, Master of the Tractor/Photo by Mark Wolfe

Sam, Master of the Tractor/Photo by Mark Wolfe

Mark was right. Sam could do it. When he pulled the tractor up under the carport this afternoon and parked it perfectly, Susan exclaimed, “Wow, Sam, you’re a professional!”

Sam wasn’t going to tolerate any tears from me, so I blinked them back behind my sunglasses.

“I made it!” he beamed.