Monday, April 29, 2013

The Dangers of Yell-telling

It has taken a very long time, but I am officially facing the fact that I have an embarrassing chronic condition that affects my life and the people around me. 

I have a million stories!
And they are all equally LOUD.
I am too damn loud when I tell a story.

When I was a kid, I used to sit at the dinner table and tell what I believed were hilarious/fascinating stories from my day at school that required much gesturing and flailing around.  My father would wince and calmly say, in a deliberately low voice, “We’re right here.  Can you tone it down?”  Anyone in my Bunko group has witnessed this phenomenon repeatedly, usually when I have accidentally hit someone or spilled wine, although there are a couple other yellers, which doesn’t make me any quieter. 

Any kind of a negative reaction to my tail-wagging loud story-telling triggers my other wretched affliction about which I have regularly blogged or shared directly to your face or on the phone or in the street to a stranger.

I am hopelessly oversensitive.

The combination of the way I like to yell a story and my big fat easily hurt feelings has yielded many unfortunate circumstances.

  1. Shame.  Receiving an “N” for “needs improvement” on all grade school report cards in any category relating to self control, behavior or generally keeping my yap shut. 
  2. Getting shushed.  I have a dear friend who regularly shushes me at parties.  In small groups, if she is sitting near me, she touches my hand or my leg under the table which is code for, “You are interrupting again.  Why are you so loud?  For the love of God, shut up and let someone else talk.”  Once we were drinking wine on my friend Lauri’s deck and I was telling an admittedly inappropriate story.  I was enjoying the crap out of telling the story and hollering the funnier parts.

    SHHHHHH!!!!” my friend hissed at me from across the table, “The whole neighborhood does NOT need to hear about that.”  The funny thing was, I’d mentioned to Lauri about 15 minutes before the shushing that our friend always shushes me.  I glared at Lauri and mentally texted her, “SEE??!!” Lauri made a sympathetic face that did not disguise the fact that she enjoyed the entire exchange.  I sulked like a big baby for the rest of the evening and eventually had to go into the kitchen to cry because I probably had too much wine.  Another friend followed me into the kitchen to witness my humiliation.  The memory of this whole episode gives me a stomachache.  Wine clearly exacerbates both of my conditions.
  3. Panic. I’ve seen certain family members’ faces begin to change when trapped by my stories at a party, eyes darting around for an escape.
  4. Official complaints. Joe and I recently went out with two other couples for a birthday dinner at a fabulous restaurant called Ad-lib Geocafe. Guess what? I was yelling a story again. In my defense, I have no sense of anyone around me when I am yell-telling a story. We were all having a grand old time and unfortunately, the shusher was not there to assist. “Excuse me,” interrupted a grumpy fellow patron, “but my husband and I are trying to have a romantic evening. Could you keep it down?” Yikes. We giggled our apologies and she returned to her seat, TWO tables away, BEHIND me. My voice wasn’t even aimed in her direction. We all agreed that they should have stayed home if silence was key to their romance, but we all knew I’d gotten an N for self control again. How ladylike.
  5. Dismissal. A manager of Giordano’s in Rosemont asked my college roommates and me to leave because they were “closing” even though other patrons hadn’t received their food yet.
  6. Dirty looks. Just the other day, Vicki and I were in Kenosha celebrating our friend Kim’s birthday at the Tilted Kilt. I thought the Tilted Kilt would be entertaining, but I found it disturbing. All that waitress cleavage and bare belly walking and/or jiggling around was sort of creepy and out of place with our club sandwiches and mom selves. Vicki and Kim and I have been friends for more than 30 years and needless to say, I’m never on my best behavior with them. Proceed with the yell-telling! I am often made aware of my volume when someone at another table makes direct eye contact with me. The person looks pointedly at me while experiencing some combination of amusement and/or disgust. This is embarrassing and alerts me to my loudness. “Ugh!” I said to Vicki and Kim in a much lower voice, “I’m getting the stink eye! Switch seats with me.” We switched so there were only backs facing me. I revved back into my story and within a few seconds, someone TURNED COMPLETELY AROUND to see what in the hell was causing such a ruckus. DAMN IT! I switched seats again so that I was facing the back, empty corner of the restaurant.

    I whined about being a constant freak in public while telling stories and my best friends covered me with their warm friendship acceptance blankets. They told me that they loved my stories and didn’t care what anyone else thought. Although Vicki did remind me that I got shushed at her gigantic spin class, even though the fans, bikes and instructor should have been loud enough to drown me out. Reassured by my wonderful friends, I proceeded to imitate the way that I meow at my dog and the crazy way he reacts. Kim sighed and said, “Well, maybe I can see why people are giving you looks. You’re making some REALLY weird faces.” Suddenly I could see myself from the outside in and imagined my reaction if I saw some grown woman contorting her face and loudly meowing at a restaurant. We all threw our heads back and laughed, LOUD.

Oh well.  Go ahead and stare, glare or shush.  Hurt feelings be damned, you know I’m yelling the next story anyway. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Truth about Stephen and Henry

I haven’t written a blog post in forever because I’ve been crazy busy and there hasn’t been anything juicy to complain about.  Maybe I’ve turned a corner?  Instead, I’m inspired to write about some very special boys named Henry.

When my sister in law, Karen, was pregnant with her first baby, I was over the moon.  I freaking love babies.  We had a baby shower at my house, and in an effort to one-up myself, I also offered to take care of the new baby when Karen returned to work.  I’d been fired from my corporate job, I was home drawing full time and my mother was with me almost every day.  I would be great at it!  I am the Cesar Millan of soothing crabby babies at parties.  I happily ignored the alarm on my mother’s face when I announced that we were now a pencil portrait/daycare biz. 
I am not a morning person, but I was excited to hold baby Henry in my arms at 6:30 am when my brother in law, Alan, dropped him off for the first time.  At the end of the day, I made dinner while snuggling my nephew at the same time like an old pro.  When I handed him back, I put dinner on the table and excused myself to go upstairs so I could dramatically throw myself on my bed and sob uncontrollably for five solid minutes.  Over the following weeks I heard the same thing from all my friends… “What in the hell were you thinking?”

My sainted mother holding Henry
while I am weeping somewhere.
I had completely forgotten how hard new babies are.  God bless you if you’ve got one, it’s a nonstop job.  I had a business to run, a messy house to sort of clean, my own kids who needed me.  I had bitten off way more than I could chew.  My mother was a godsend, helping with Henry like he was her own.  I made it a month before Karen looked at me with concern and asked, “How are you?”  I burst into tears when I admitted I couldn’t handle it.  Karen cried with me as we agreed that babies were harder than either of us expected.  I had wanted to show Karen and Alan how much I loved them, to forge a close family bond that I crave so much.  Instead I disrupted things and stressed them out.  They were hesitant at first about my recommendation of our amazing sitter, Raquel, who cared for my boys when I worked out of the home.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief when they fell in love with her, too. 

Babies are hard work, but toddlers can be even more demanding.  And when Henry didn’t reach expected milestones, his attentive, intelligent parents worried and researched and faced the diagnosis they had feared.  Henry is autistic.  Their immediate and constant call to arms for every possible resource and piece of information to help their son has been nothing short of stellar.  No matter how often I tell them how impressed I am, how lucky Henry is, there’s always doubt in their voices.  Is it enough?  Will he go to public school?  Will he be okay?
There is no more room in here.

As if there wasn’t enough on their plates, my highly educated, overworked in-laws unexpectedly added another baby boy to the family almost exactly a year later.  Surprise!!!  Here you go again. Now at 5 and 4 years old, Henry and Mitchell are adorable together and I bet it has helped Henry immensely to have a ready friend, even if Mitchell is usually running the show.

When I was recently asked by a wonderful repeat client to draw a portrait for her son’s high school graduation, she attached a story to the email she sent with his photo, called “The Truth about Stephen Henry.”  As I settled in to read about my new subject, I discovered that Stephen had more in common with my nephew than a name.

Stephen’s mother Maureen chalked up some of his unusual baby behavior to quirkiness.  But other worries she shared with their pediatrician, hoping for guidance.  “Stephen doesn’t want me to rock him to sleep.  He’d rather lie on the floor and rock himself.  He cries uncontrollably when he hears sounds, or when he has to wear certain clothing.  And the babble talk he had before age 2 has disappeared.”  The doctor listened to Stephen's chest and checked his ears and pronounced him healthy.  He told Maureen, “So, he’s independent, so what?  Nothing wrong with that. He doesn’t like to wear clothes?  I don’t like to wear a tie.  Stop comparing him to other children, he’ll catch up.”

But Maureen knew something was wrong.  At a preschool parent-teacher conference, she sat in a preschool chair with her husband, rocked by a wave of denial and relief when they heard the word “autism”.  Relief that someone had taken Stephen’s struggles seriously.  Denial that it had to be something else.  Evaluation after evaluation, they heard the same curse, the same condemnation. 

So they went to work.

They made three decisions early on; to learn as much as they could, to never remain silent, and to lean on other parents of autistic children in support groups.  They read every book, searched every internet site, attended every conference.  They told everyone, “Stephen Henry has autism.  We’re not sure what that means exactly, but we know it is serious and we are telling you now because we know we will need your understanding and support.”  Not a single person ever turned them down, or turned away.  Not family, friends, bosses, or co-workers who helped pick up the slack so they could take Stephen to his twice weekly therapy sessions.

They learned that autism is a developmental disability which inhibits social behavior and affects a child’s language and ability to learn.  There is no known cause and there is no cure.  The rise of autism in California by 200% in the last five years has been described as “alarming”, “explosive” and “epidemic”.  It seems everyone is touched by autism, by children we love and who are loved by people we know.

Maureen and her family stayed positive and refused to be discouraged. Wonderful teachers fought for Stephen every step of the way, while others shook their heads in doubt.  As I read Maureen’s story, I felt triumphant that Stephen is graduating from public high school next month.  I drew his graduation portrait with pride, honored to help celebrate his success. 
I shared Stephen Henry’s story with Karen and Alan, thinking it was so inspirational that they’d be wowed by my awesomeness (which is my admittedly ridiculous hope about every move I make).  Recently, I asked Alan at lunch if I could write about his Henry in my blog about Stephen Henry.  He said it was fine and that people without an autistic child find stories like theirs inspirational. 
“For me,” Alan said quietly, “it’s a glimpse of the very hard road that we have ahead of us.” 

I want to believe it will get easier and easier for Karen and Alan and Henry; he’s made such terrific progress.  Mitchell is more of a handful these days than his easy-going, sweet, big brother.  They work so hard to do all the right things and to give their boys everything they need to thrive.  It’s the not knowing what’s coming next that is the hardest. Life with young kids is an alternating climb through grueling and wonderful terrain in the easiest circumstances.  They post smiling pictures of their happy boys and links to stories about autism that are both hopeful and heart-wrenching, listing feelings of parents with special needs children.  Fear, loneliness, inadequacy.

I am tempted to try and pretend that Max was enough of a stinker as a little kid that I have some idea of what it might be like to face a real parenting challenge.  Those who saw a three year old Max in action might even agree.  But it’s almost embarrassing to have had it so easy when others have such a different, frightening road.  It's not fair.

I hope Karen and Alan and Henry and Mitchell know that we are always here for them, even if I don’t reach out as often as I should.  And while the hard road Stephen Henry travelled may be daunting, I know our Henry will achieve amazing things, too, because he has wonderful parents and professionals fighting for him. 

He’s off to kindergarten this year, if Mitchell can bear to let him go.