Claiming joy in the present

Before this post is over, I’m going to do some wrestling with a decision that I made for my daughter. But before I get to that, I want to take a second to document and feel good about a few of the little moments that I’ve shared with the kids over the past couple of weeks.

First, a couple of weekends ago I took the kids on a whim to a hot air balloon festival. It was one of those situations where Facebook knows just a little too much about me — it suggested the not-super-local, but not-too-far-away event as something that I might be interested in. I’m often fascinated by the Facebook algorithms, and in this case, I was grateful for them too. The festival was a combination parking lot carnival and hot air balloon launch site, and the kids soaked up every minute of it. My son managed to win not one but TWO giant stuffed dragons (by sinking four out of eight carnival-style basketball shots), the second one of which he begged for the chance to try for so that he could make sure that his sister got to have a giant dragon, too. I bought us all unlimited ride wristbands, which the kids used with gusto . . . and I used to barely survive a single ride in the hanging swings. [FN1: I am clearly not the gymnast that I used to be — all of the spinning and whatnot wrecks havoc on my inner ears. I’m getting dizzy just thinking about it.] We splurged on all sorts of slushees and slurpees and snow cones and ice cream. And the hot air balloons themselves were nothing short of majestic — the combination of their size and vibrant colors was incredible. We got to watch them all launch, one by one, in the early evening . . . and then we got to see them all tied down and aglow after the sun went down. All told, a really, really fun time.

Now, anyone who knows my son can probably imagine that he didn’t start the day enthusiastic about going to the balloon festival. I work very hard to avoid outright bribery, but convincing my son that doing anything except whatever activity he is presently engaged in and/or playing on one of his technological devices is a herculean task. It always involves some amount of whining and/or complaining and/or anxiety and/or panic and/or full blown meltdown. I don’t remember the details about the time before leaving for the festival, but I know it involved some combination of those sorts of behaviors. Ultimately we made it, and once we were there, he loved every minute of it (and wanted to go back the next day). And, so, much to my tender little mama-heart’s surprise and delight, he stopped me as we were walking out, and — TOTALLY UNPROMPTED — just said: “Thanks, Mom. That was epic.”

You guys (!!!) — I am not sure that he has EVER said an unprompted “thank you.” (I’m also not sure that he hasn’t said one…but I know that it caught me so off guard that I have to think it was one of the few and only.) And it took a whole lot of willpower within my tender little mama-heart to avoid saying something like “I TOLD you it would be fun. I wish you would just believe me and that we could do things like this without having to fight about them first. We could have had all the same amount of fun without all of the stress and the drama…” Or whatever. I’m sure I say crap like that more often than I’d like to admit. But, in mid-flabbergast from the unexpected display of gratitude, I just looked at him and smiled, and said something like “You are so welcome, Buddy. I thought it was pretty epic, too.” It really was.

I’ve been trying to identify and recognize more of those “epic” moments, which, I confess, is hard to do. I’ve written a bit about how life can feel like it’s happening so fast that I don’t have time to have “feelings” about it, and it seems that most of what I do find the time to feel (and especially to write about) is all of the exhausting hard stuff. I think part of the point of doing all of the writing that I’m doing is to finally *shout from the rooftops* that things — lots of things — about my life are not quite what they seemed. I am committed to finally being transparent about the very, very real challenges. And at the moment, the very, very real challenge is that the realities of my life and the various ways I’ve dealt with those realities have placed me, at the moment, in what feels like an endlessly brutal journey. It is HARD to find the joy. But I’m trying!

So in addition to acknowledging the joy associated with the balloon festival, I’ve also had a small handful of other such moments that it’d be a shame not to document. Like the moment when one of my daughter’s gymnastics coaches happened to capture a particularly hilarious crash on video, and my daughter just happened to have my mom’s iPad with her to send me a copy, and she was so proud to send me the video because she’d been trying something that required her to summon up lots of courage, and the end result was a little bit scary but mostly funny, and by the time she got around to sending me the video she’d done the skill several more times successfully. The combination of the summoned courage and the hilarious “flying starfish” fall and the fact that I’d gotten a video message in the middle of the day from my first grader…I could just feel her growing up and into her precious (and precocious) personality.

And then there have been the moments like my son’s first track practice — the one where his coaches were so impressed by his work ethic and his focus (!!), and where he was getting praised for his positive behaviors, and where he was finding successes in his ability to run fast over surprisingly long distances, and where he discovered the realities of a runner’s high. (“It feels awful while I’m running, Mom. But it feels so good to be done!”)

And the moments of continuing a summer tradition with my daughter — a full day date that involves getting breakfast at the bakery, stopping by the toy store and book store to find new games to play, taking those games to the coffee shop and playing for hours, getting sushi for lunch, and wrapping it all up with ice cream or milkshakes. We got to do this little sequence for the third straight year last week, and it was as delightful as it always is. I didn’t set out to raise a mini-me, but I’ve done it. (Except she’s way, way, WAY more . . . um . . . outspoken . . . than I will ever be.) So there’s something really extra-special about sharing things like coffee and sushi and board games with someone I love as much as I love her, and who loves those things just as much as I do. I’m claiming the joy, for sure.

And, as I’m writing them down, realizing that there have been so many such moments just in the last few weeks: an impromptu evening swim at the local municipal pool. A successful effort with an online Pokemon-themed writing class for my academically-averse son. Snuggling up with my daughter while she read me a whole chapter from a Nancy Clancy detective story. Having my son enthusiastically plan (and buy a whole flight of ornaments for) his very own dragon-themed Christmas tree. Spontaneously producing a series of sunset silhouette photographs with my daughter on the beach. And so on.

It really is hard to recognize those moments in the moment — but I’m at least going to retroactively recognize them for the precious times that they were. #done.

And so after that nice stroll down joyful memory lane, I want to at least mention the ongoing drama that I’m trying to navigate. The day that my daughter went to camp with my mom’s iPad was, as I mentioned, pretty fun. She proved herself to be a natural text-sender, and getting messages from her throughout the day was way more entertaining than I expected it to be. She came home from camp telling me about various other campers who had iPods, and how it was possible to send messages and do FaceTime on them, and how she really wanted one. I didn’t initially believe her that iPods did anything other than play music (#technologicallyimpaired) — but I did some research, identified a remarkable deal on one, and . . . got it for her.

It has been remarkably fun for her to have it. She loves to take photos and videos and send them to the small list of friends and family she has programmed into her contacts. She and I worked together to create a bitmoji for her, and it honest-to-goodness looks exactly like what I suspect she’ll look like in another ten years or so. She gets a huge kick out of sending endless silly bitmojis and emojis and messages with no punctuation, and the folks she sends them to seem to get a huge kick out of it, too.

The challenge, as you might have guessed, stems from the fact that her dad is among her various friend and family contacts. Because, per the advice of her therapist, I’ve been diligently following my daughter’s lead regarding her interest level in communicating with him . . . and she wants to be able to send him messages. [FN2: It’s been basically a year since he walked himself out of our daily lives, and for about the first 50 weeks of his absence, my daughter acted pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. And then, all of a sudden, she wasn’t ambivalent any more. She missed him TERRIBLY. I’m not sure what, if anything other than the passage of time, changed. But it did.] So — despite all of my misgivings and all of my fears and all of my complicated feelings about it all — I have done everything I know how to do to facilitate all of the communication that she wants to have with him. Because, as I try to remind myself, he will always be her dad. And being not-totally-abandoned by one’s father is, I think, better than being totally abandoned by one’s father. It can be brutal — like taking and sending a photo of the card my daughter made him that said he was the “best dad ever” and whatnot [sigh] — but because it genuinely seems to make her happy to be more connected to him, I bite my tongue and I make it happen.

My ex is not the most reliable when it comes to being accessible by phone — he has, to my knowledge, retained the habit of keeping the phone in do not disturb mode unless and until he wants to get messages and make phone calls. So it did not surprise me that it took my ex almost 24 hours to respond to the first message from my daughter. But, eventually, he responded. And his messages were sappy and sweet and exactly, I assume, what my daughter was hoping they would be. She was able to coordinate a time or two to talk on the phone, and she even managed to catch him spontaneously one of the times that she tried calling herself. When they finally connected, she asked him why he didn’t answer his phone more often, he told her that he keeps it turned off while he’s teaching classes, and she asked him if he would turn it on and try calling her after each of his classes ended. And for reasons that I will never understand, he told her that was a great idea and he assured her he would do that.

And then three days went by, and she never got a call. At one point, she looked at me and said — totally out of the blue, and probably with more confidence than she felt — “You know dad isn’t teaching any classes right now. Because he told me that he would call me at the end of all of his classes. And he hasn’t called.” And, now almost a week later, he still hasn’t called. I think he did send a couple of bitmojis in response to messages that she sent to him. But . . . uggh. I mean, I’m not at ALL surprised about his lack of initiated conversation. He hasn’t been initiating conversation with the kids since he departed a year ago. But watching my daughter want so desperately to connect with him, and watching him be so oblivious to the whole thing, just crushes my little heart. But my daughter carries on, courageous and outspoken and outwardly unfazed by it all, with an abiding love for him that my tender little mama-heart just wants so desperately to protect.

And, well, that’s it. I’m not sure what else to say or think.

It’s just the reality of how things are. My ex is who he is, and I can’t change that. My daughter loves him. He, sometimes, is able to show superficial affection for her. He, most of the time, does not seem to be giving her or her brother a second thought. [FN3: Obviously, I have no idea what he’s actually thinking. I acknowledge the possibility, however implausible, that his absence from his children is something agonizing — or even sometimes a little difficult — for him.] And the best I can do for myself is listen to and trust the kids’ mental health team when they affirm that I should keep facilitating what I’m facilitating, and that I shouldn’t carry his burden for him, and that I should just be prepared for there to be a lifetime ever-changing phases of assorted challenges and disappointments. And while I don’t know if I’m prepared . . . I’ll be here to face it all head-on.


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