More Than One

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A year ago, we had one dog: Scooter. He’s a brindle-coated, 20-pound terrier/poodle rescue. A big dog in a little body. I’ve often (kind of) joked that he is our old dog, Mr. Bear, reincarnated. But that’s a story for another time.

Life with Scooter was easy. After years of having large, hairy dogs in the house, dealing with the little bit of shedding from his tiny body was a piece of cake. I could bathe him in 10 minutes and his coat would pretty much towel-dry. He was a great walker, and we both got a decent amount of exercise from a fast-paced three miles every day.

But I really, really wanted a second dog. Partly because leaving well enough alone has never been my strong suit. And partly because with dogs, as with children, the real fun begins when there’s more than one.

Sixteen years ago, my husband and I had been back from our honeymoon for only a few days when I used my lunch break to visit the Seattle Humane Society and found Little Bear, a Newfoundland/Gordon Setter mix puppy who had been adopted, named, and returned to the shelter after just a few weeks. We brought him home two days later.

We shortened his name to Mr. Bear; as he approached 120 pounds, the irony of “Little Bear” seemed a bit heavy-handed. Also, my parents already owned a female dog named Bear, so to simplify things, they became Mr. & Mrs (although they lived on opposite coasts). Mr. Bear was short on brains but loooooong on personality. On every walk, he had to find something to carry along: a pinecone, a rock,  a ten-foot-long pine branch that stuck out into traffic. We called him the Re-Arranger (a la Lone Ranger) because he was constantly moving our shoes around the house. (He never chewed them, he just wanted them somewhere else.) He ran away every chance he got. He stole my mom’s purse.

Rich and I got a second dog two years later. Here’s how it happened: I floated the idea of another dog. Rich said no. I brought it up again. He said one dog was enough. I steered us to visit the Humane Society on several Saturday afternoons, but every time we left, I was in tears and he was unimpressed.

Looking back, I see what I was doing. We had decided to start a family, but nothing was happening. Six or seven months had gone by and I still wasn’t pregnant. And to me, there is no consolation prize better than a new dog. (Also, Mr. Bear was very lonely; he would frequently dump out his bowl of kibble and use the pieces to spell out “need buddy.” But only when Rich wasn’t around.)

Finally, a few months later, I discovered that I was pregnant. Almost immediately, however, things went sideways. I began to miscarry. After a few days, when the pain continued to worsen, an ER doctor diagnosed an ectopic pregnancy. Not only was the pregnancy not viable, but I’d need a surgery to safely end it. Surgery over, I returned home to recuperate but failed to do so. Further complications (infection, pneumonia, and an ileus) landed me back in the hospital for several more days.

I was traumatized. I was exhausted. I was childless. And I was low.

The next few months were miserable. To give my body time to heal, the doctors insisted I not get pregnant for at least three months. And since these months were October, November, and December, I endured that specific sadness reserved for women suffering from infertility at Christmastime.

And there was no puppy under the tree.

By February, I was taking my temperature every morning as soon as I woke up. I’d read a book about natural family planning, and as long as my temperature didn’t drop, there was a chance I was pregnant. The long months of waiting were over, and I was desperately hoping that this month would be the month. But one Friday morning, my temperature fell  half a degree. I was not pregnant. Again.

Infertility affects men and women differently. It’s really hard for men, even the best ones (like my husband), to understand just how fundamentally devastated a woman feels. At the time, I was consumed with my own grief. Now, I can imagine how lost Rich felt, how powerless in the face of his wife’s heartbreak. So he did something that was in his control.

He got me a dog. Well, “got me” isn’t really accurate.  He did better: he took me back to Seattle Humane, and let me pick one out for myself. The first dog we met was a lab mix puppy. There’s nothing not to love about a lab mix puppy. Then they brought in the 3-year-old collie/shepherd mix who had been surrendered because her family moved and their new landlord didn’t allow dogs. Her name was Destiny, and she needed to be rescued. Just like me.

Her coloring was similar to Mr. Bear’s, but she had none of his beauty. Next to him, she was short, squat, and scraggly. But she came right to where I was sitting and put her head gently into my lap. Done. I could tell Rich preferred the lab puppy, but this dog needed me. Lots of people want to adopt puppies. An adult dog is harder to rehome. Powerless in the face of infertility, here was something I could do to put a little “fairness” back in my world. I wanted the underdog.

We changed her name to Dusty. I just couldn’t – wouldn’t – stand at the dog park trilling out “Destiny!” like a Rockefeller with a toy poodle, only to have this fluffy oaf of a dog come blundering up. And since the two names sounded so similar, Destiny/Dusty was none the wiser.

The joy came as Bear and Dusty got to know each other. He dwarfed her, but she was the boss. She was indifferent to all the toys we bought them, with the exception of whichever one Mr. Bear was most interested in. That one she’d steal, and then lie down with her front paws on top of it. He would pace and moan and play bow, begging to have the toy back, but she’d just look at him indifferently and ignore his pleas. Once, we rearranged our furniture, and the couch ended up parallel to a wall but about 3 feet away from it. Dusty quickly began moving all Bear’s toys back there so he “couldn’t” get them. Mr. Bear was tall and skinny; he easily could have walked back there and reclaimed them. But in his mind, Mr. Bear was wider than he was tall, and he thought he wouldn’t fit. So Dusty would lie back there with his toys and he would cry helplessly while watching her. It was hilarious to us. We were charmed. We laughed and assured him he would fit, but he never believed us.

They entertained us with their wrestling. They loved to walk and hike together. They were our surrogate children for the three years it took us to have a baby. Two babies, actually. Twins: a boy and a girl. Just like the dogs.

While our twins grew up, Bear and Dusty grew old. We lost them, one at a time, to spine problems and old age. When we met Scooter at a local rescue, Rich suggested that maybe a dog with some poodle in him might aggravate his allergies less than Dusty had. So we brought him home.

He was supposed to be a family pet, but Scooter quickly proved himself to be a one-man dog. One woman, actually. Me. He was mine, and mine alone. And that, too, is a story for another time.

 

Dressing Up

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We’re headed to the high school tonight to watch their spring musical, “The Little Mermaid.” Richie walked in the door after school, and even before setting his backpack down or taking off his coat, he sought me out to talk through the evening’s agenda. Are we going out to dinner before the play?  Where? What time are we leaving? Is Gram coming along? What time will we get to the high school? What time will the play be over?

People with Autism like routine and predictability (full disclosure…so do I). I understand that since tonight’s activity is out of the ordinary, he wants to talk about our plans so he knows what to expect. The older Richie gets, the better he does with unexpected situations. In fact, he sometimes thrives with new experiences. He truly enjoys travel, he loves visiting people’s homes, and he was over the moon when my husband took him to a new town to visit an arcade filled with classic video games. But ask him to do his afternoon chores in the morning, and his incredulous protests reach frequencies only Scooter and Millie can hear.

Richie asked me a few more questions about tonight’s plans, then headed to the mud room to hang up his coat and backpack. He came back to me, looked down at the clothes he had worn to school, and asked, “Do I have to change my clothes for tonight?”

“Well, yes,” I said, “I think you should wear something nicer than a sweatshirt.”

“Ugh!” Richie answered, “Do I have to wear a tuxedo?!?”

 

 

A Bump in the Night

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My twins have been opposites their whole lives. She likes soup; he likes sandwiches. She likes hot showers; he prefers lukewarm. And even though their sleep habits are also opposite (Richie’s an early riser who falls asleep within minutes of getting into bed; Jillian’s a night owl who would read until the wee hours), they insisted on sharing a bedroom until they were ten years old.

Part of what made the room sharing so fun was the bunk beds: Jillian up top, Richie down below. And the arrangement worked for my husband and I, too, because if Jillian kept her reading light on too late, Richie would tell her to turn it off. And of course, if she didn’t, he would come tell us. The rules must be followed!

At age five, the kids’ bedtime was 8:15, but it was a pretty common occurrence for Jillian to wander back out of their bedroom after 9:00 PM. She would ask to use the bathroom, describe a scary noise she heard, or insist that she ABSOLUTELY HAD BEEN asleep, but the television/dogs barking/changing barometric pressure woke her up.

One night around 9:30, she made her second post-bedtime appearance in the living room (her first trip out had been for a drink of water). Seeing her reappear, I kept my nose in my book and gave her only about 10% of my attention; refusing to engage in conversation was my way of not rewarding her for getting out of bed.

“Mom, I really was asleep this time, but I heard kind of a bamming noise,” she said.

“Um-hmm.”

“Mom, it was kind of loud and it scared me.”

“Well, Jillian, it was probably just a car door slamming outside, or one of your books falling off the bed. Please go back to bed.” (Note how beautifully my No Talking plan is working here.)

“Well, I really was asleep but then I heard that noise and I thought I was dreaming,” she continued. “But I wasn’t dreaming; it was a real noise. Then I thought it might be a monster, but you always say there are no monsters. So I was scared but I kept trying to figure out what that noise was.”

“Ok, Jillian,” I told her in my most bored-sounding monotone, “go back to bed now.”

“Well, I counted all my animals and they were all still up in the bed with me. So it wasn’t them. Plus, they are too light to make much noise if they fall down. And it was a LOUD NOISE, Mom! And all my library books were still with me, too. So it wasn’t them.”

She paused, so I told her again, “Go back to bed, Jillian.”

“Well, then I looked down and Richie wasn’t in his bed.”

“WHAT?!? Richie fell out of bed?!?”

“Yes, that’s what I told you! He made kind of a bamming noise.”

How Not To: Start a Conversation

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“I would like to watch someone in our family fall off a tall building.”

“Excuse me?”

“I would like to watch someone in our family fall off a tall building. And then when they got really close to the ground, I would swoop in and save them.”

“Like Superman?”

“Yes, like Superman.”

Shoe Shopping

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I took Richie shoe shopping yesterday.  This is always a guilt-laden activity for me, because it’s always precipitated by me suddenly remembering, weeks or months too late, that he has feet. And that they grow. And that shoes don’t.

(Confession: I can get so caught up in the “keeping my children alive” thing that I forget they have needs beyond food, shelter, and Minecraft.)

Yesterday Richie walked through the kitchen, and it occurred to me that it had been a long time since he’d  had new sneakers. I bent over to feel the front of his shoe, to feel how much “room to grow” he still had.  But I never even touched his shoe, because as soon as I looked, I could see that the front of his shoes were deformed.  As in, the child had been wearing too-small sneakers for so long that his big toes had built some nice little condos out the front.  I straightened up and muttered the four words most appropriate for moments like this: Mother of the Year.

Part of Richie’s Autism is that he can’t feel his own body the way the rest of us do. He rarely tells us that he is hungry or thirsty; it’s like he just doesn’t recognize what these feel like. He eats regular meals – big ones – but I can only remember one time in his almost 12 years when he came to me and asked for food. Feeling cold is difficult for him, too; the school he used to attend let him go outside to recess once in 30-degree, wet weather without his coat. I happened to be in the classroom when he came inside, and although he was tremendously pale with a red nose and ears and could barely move his fingers, it never occurred to him that he was extremely cold.

Looking back at his infancy, I realize that the earliest indication of Richie’s lack of body awareness happened before he was even a year old. His twin sister, Jillian, was extremely fussy and was touching her right ear repeatedly. We made a Saturday morning emergency appointment with our pediatrician and walked in with both babies in their car seats. The doctor examined Jillian and determined that she did not have an ear infection. Seeing Richie sitting peacefully in his car seat, the doctor decided to check his ears as well (I have no idea why).  Turned out it was the quiet baby giving no indication of pain who had a raging ear infection.

You might think that the mother of a child like this would be able to keep such information in the front of her mind.  Not me. Mother of the Year.

Off to the shoe store we went. A salesgirl measured Richie’s feet and brought us a few pairs of sneakers in his size.  As she sat down to open the boxes, she casually mentioned that now that his feet were a size 4, he no longer had the option of shoes with Velcro closures.

She might as well have told us that he’d have to wear his underpants on his head. He sucked in his breath and put his hands over his ears. I stayed outwardly calm but was just as panicked on the inside.

My dear, one-in-a-million son, the one who charms me daily and touches my soul with the things he says, takes FOREVER to get his shoes on.  His shoes with the quick Velcro closures! 

Fine motor tasks are difficult for him. I’ve heard Autism advocates say that to empathize, I should try putting my shoes on while wearing oven mitts. And when I imagine doing that, it makes me want to slow down and be the most patient mother in the universe each time we leave the house. However…I am me, Type A and impatient, and we need to be at baseball practice in 20 minutes!

Richie and I both took a deep breath and resigned ourselves to lace-up sneakers. He tried on two pairs (tied by the sales girl), running around the store in each one.  He is really into The Flash right now, so each time he stopped, he would turn, flatten his hands & fingers, bend his elbows to 90-degree angles, cock one arm behind him, and then flash forward across the store. Except that his running is not exceptionally graceful.  Still, cutest Flash ever.

He chose the black sneakers, and the salesgirl took them to the counter to ring us up. I looked at Richie’s face and saw immediately that he was still thinking about the whole “no Velcro” crisis.

“Richie,” I asked, “are you worried about learning to tie your shoes?”

“Yes….it’s going to take me a long time.” He looked thoughtful for a minute, and I could see the wheels turning in his head.  I realize now that he was imagining an ideal world where they make Velcro-closure shoes in every size, so no man, woman, or child needs to feel stress. Where even his Mom could wear the Velcro shoes he loves so much.

“I know you can do it, Richie,” I said.  “You’ll practice and you’ll learn to tie your shoes.  It’s part of growing up. You’re getting bigger, they don’t make shoes with Velcro in your size, and it’s time to get sneakers with laces.”

He glanced down at my tidily-laced sneakers, then back up at my face. “Is that what happened to you?”

 

P.S. I later found some “hook and loop” (Velcro) closure shoes in Richie’s size on Zappos.com.  But I’m holding off for now.  I really do believe he can do this. And it’s time.

Richie Has a Way with Words, #201

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Yesterday we boarded a plane to fly home.  Richie was next to the window, Jillian had the middle seat, and I was on the aisle.  As we were settling in & buckling up, I heard him breathing strangely. The noises he was making were so subtle that no one around us could have possibly realized anything was wrong, but I could tell he was distressed.

“Richie,” I asked, “are you okay?”

He paused for a beat and then said very, very calmly and evenly, “Yes.  I just go crazy sometimes.”

Vacation by Numbers

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As we wrap up our spring break in St. Pete Beach, Florida & head for the airport, a summary:

  1. New #1 favorite airport code of the Berry family: St. Pete-Clearwater International: it’s PIE!
  2. Hours we were in Florida before Richie declared that he would be moving here when he’s an adult: 0.
  3. Local restaurants recommended to us by our dear friends who used to live in the area: 3.
  4. Of those restaurants, the number we visited: 3.
  5. Of those visits, the number of times we tormented those friends by texting/posting while dining al fresco at their favorite warm-weather eateries while they were stuck up north in the cold: 3.
  6. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being very sure and 10 being not sure at all, how confident we are that we still have those friends: 5.
  7. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being smart and 10 being not smart at all, how Richie judges our friends’ intelligence based on their decision to move from Florida to Pennsylvania: 10.
  8. Sunburns: 0.  Yippee!!
  9. Times I mocked Rich and Jillian while they discussed the pain from their Pina Colada brain-freezes so virulently you’d have thought they were two baby bunnies being waterboarded: 1.
  10. Virgin Pina Coladas consumed by Jillian: 5.
  11. Virgin Pina Coladas consumed by Rich: 0.
  12. Times Richie asked us, while on the beach, what time it was: 742,851.
  13. Number of family members in agreement that we didn’t need to know the time while on vacation, so we would always answer “1:30” when someone asked for the time: 3.
  14. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being not bothered at all and 10 being incredibly pissed off, how annoyed Richie was by this policy: 7.
  15. Dolphin sightings from the beach: 3.
  16. Squeals of delight at seeing dolphins: 3. (From Rich or Richie: 0.)
  17. Times I offered to take another family’s picture so even the mom could be in it: 3.
  18. Moms who took me up on that offer: 3.
  19. Number of U.S. families now able to boast that their Christmas card picture was taken by the palest middle-aged Pennsylvania mom on St. Pete Beach: 1.
  20. Times I ordered a vodka tonic with 2 limes: 3.
  21. Received a vodka tonic with 2 limes: 0.
  22. Received a vodka tonic with 1  lime: 3.
  23. Added the lime from my first vodka tonic to my second vodka tonic in order to pretend that someone thought I deserved 2 limes: 1.
  24. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being a little and 10 being a lot, how much our family needed this vacation: 10.
  25. On the same scale, how grateful I am to my brother & his family for staying at our house and caring for our dogs: 10.
  26.  Loads of laundry I’ll be doing tomorrow: at least 6.
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In training for Spring Break 2026.  Don’t tell Gram.

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This kid is consistent.  The chaise lounge has always been his favorite outdoor play toy.

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Herbie the sea chicken.  He liked us so much that he would find us every time we walked on the beach.

Hilariously Inappropriate

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Today at the beach, Richie and I held hands and started walking into the water to play in the waves.  He asked me something, but between the noise of the waves and the wind in my ears, I couldn’t hear him.  I asked him to repeat himself.

“Will your *@#stss* be okay in the waves?”  I didn’t catch that one word, so I asked him to repeat it again.

“Will your *$#@sses be okay?”

Still not sure I heard him, I asked, “What? My glasses?” It would be like Richie to worry about the sunglasses I was wearing, that maybe they would fall off in the water or even just get some sand or water on them.

This time he spoke loud and clear: “Will your breasts be okay in the waves?”

Stimming at the Beach

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There are few sights more joyous, few things more all-encompassingly buoyant, than watching my son Richie at the beach.  This child, who works so hard everyday to “act normal” so he can fit in with his classmates, lets himself relax – and we let him relax – and the result is a display of wonder and elation like no other.

One of the things Autistic people like Richie battle daily is sensory overstimulation. When we eat out, I hear the shrieks of the baby at the next table as annoying; to Richie they are frighteningly shrill.  Fluorescent lights are, to the neurotypical (non-Autistic) person, well…lights.  But for Richie and others like him, the same lights flicker, distract, and annoy incessantly.  The list goes on and on, and I won’t pretend to know them all.

For many Autistic people, one way to cope with these overwhelming feelings and sensations is to engage in self-stimulatory behavior, or stimming.  For my Richie, this includes flapping his hands, spinning his body, contracting his muscles, and doing what our family calls “chattering:” releasing a verbal burst of words & sounds. In our everyday life, we discourage these behaviors.  If Richie wants to chatter or flap or spin, has to wait until he is at home in his room.  We have this rule because we believe it is in Richie’s best interest, both now and as an adult.  He has a lot to offer the world, but some people won’t be able to see past the flapping.  These behaviors also make him vulnerable to being mocked or bullied by classmates.  So the rule exists.  Some behaviors (like nose picking and others I’d rather not name) just belong in private.

And my hat is off to him; Richie works hard every day to keep these behaviors under control.  So if he comes home after a day of “holding it together” at school and needs to go in his room to flap and spin to decompress, more power to him.

There is something about the beach that brings out his stimming behaviors in spades.  And the difference is striking: whereas at home, the stimming seems to be a coping mechanism, at the beach, it seems to be a joy-filled celebration of all the stimulation that in other circumstances would be difficult to process: the pull of the waves, the push of the wind, the suck of the sand, the chill of the water.  He takes it all in, and his face is luminous.  His eyes twinkle.  His smile grows to bursting.  If Autism makes life harder for Richie 99% of the time, then this is the 1% to treasure.

So the rule is suspended.  Here under the big blue sky, we smile at each other and enjoy Richie enjoying himself.  He flaps, he chatters, he jumps, he paces.  On and on for hours.  And it is beautiful.

Adult Supervision Required

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We’re in Florida this week for Spring Break.  We spent yesterday on the beach, so today we’re setting up camp by the pool.  My kids love hotel pools, mostly because they are so often paired with the holy grail of relaxation for the elementary-school set: a hot tub.

My kids have both had a passion for hot tubs since an early age.  A few years ago, when my parents moved to a retirement community, Richie thought the most impressive thing about the whole place (other than the fact that there’s an elevator and a restaurant where you can get French fries any time you want) was the huge hot tub that sits right beside the indoor pool.

Twice a week, the pool hosts a family swim, and if our schedule allows AND Gram’s beyond-hectic-social-calendar-and-doctor-appointment-schedule does too, we go.  But much to Richie’s horror, the first time we walked in, he read the rules posted on the wall and learned that children under the age of 12 are not allowed in the hot tub.

Now you might ask, “What 8-year-old boy walks into a pool and reads the rules first thing?”  Only my Richie (and lots of other Autistic kids who find comfort and safety in rules and routines).  His love of rules is both endearing and maddening, depending on the day.

We hadn’t been to a family swim in over a year when one day, out of the blue, Richie said to me, “Four more months and I can get in the hot tub!”  This was such a non sequitur  that I had to ask him what he was talking about.  He reminded me of the rules at Gram’s hot tub, and the fact that he’d turn 12 in just four months.  The kid does not forget anything.

Back to today, in Florida, at the hotel pool.  We chose lounge chairs a few rows back from the pool but right beside the hot tub.  After I sunscreened both Richie and Jillian to within an inch of their lives, the kids walked towards the hot tub and I got comfortable in my chair.  I’d barely taken two breaths when Richie was back at my side, beckoning to me with his hand.  Once again, he’d read the rules.  “Come on, Mom,” he said, “I need some adult supervision.”

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Happy at last (while supervised)