Put Through the Mill

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A year ago today, the home of one of my oldest friends, Miller, was filled with mess and confusion. Already sleep-deprived from over a week of waiting for the chaos to begin, Miller watched as her living room was overtaken by a rush of bodily fluids, squirming neediness, and unknown challenges ahead.

Eight weeks later, she sent one of those puppies to live at my house.

It was the culmination of over two years of me trying to add a second dog to my pack horde. I believe in adopting rescue dogs, and the six dogs I’d had in my life up to this point had all been rescues of some kind. During these years, I spent way more time on Petfinder than on Facebook. Seldom did a week go by without me shoving my phone in my husband’s face and shamelessly pleading, “How about THIS one?!?!?”

I cannot say no to a rescue dog. Rich, however, is really, really good at it.

Four times during those years (are you paying attention? Two years! Four lousy times!) Rich agreed that the dog should be ours, and I filled out the adoption paperwork. The first, a floppy little black mutt named Marie, had lots of people clamoring to adopt her, and the rescue organization gave her to someone else. The second, a chocolate lab mix reminiscent of my old dog Ted (the greatest dog ever), turned out to not like little dogs, and since we already had our terrier mix, Scooter, we could not adopt her. I can’t even remember what the third dog was; my poor, tender, doggie-obsessed heart was beginning to harden.

The fourth – the heartbreaker – was a big, black, beautiful mastiff mix who was found roaming the streets of Harrisburg. You know my chocolate lab, Ted, the best dog ever? That’s where he was found: roaming the streets of Harrisburg. That day in 1994, I left work early, took him home, and began looking for his owner. He spent the next 11 years loving my family.

Long story short, we didn’t get the Mastiff mix, either. After a lengthy application process and many, many calls and texts between me and the rescue, I showed up at my appointment time with my husband and children to meet the dog we were all aflutter over…and was informed that they had sent him home with another family a few hours earlier.

I stayed off Petfinder for a while after that.

A few months later, I got a call from my old friend Miller (I say “old friend” both because it’s been almost 25 years and because she has quite a few years on me, and we have the kind of loving, soul-deep, take-no-prisoners relationship that requires me to point that out as often as possible). She was in a whirlwind of excitement (she has a lot of those; it’s one of the reasons I adore her) because she had bred her Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and soon there would be puppies!

Rich didn’t need a lot of convincing. We’d spent time with Miller’s Swissies (as GSMD’s are often called) and loved them. His research into the breed didn’t reveal a single reason to refuse; in fact, it convinced him that a Swissy would be a great family pet who would most likely add joy and love to our family life.

And she has. We named her Millie – after Miller, of course – and she’s now a fixture in our house. A big fixture. When we brought her home as a tiny puppy, the first thing she did was walk right underneath Scooter. Now he fits in her mouth. Last night, she walked underneath the dinner table as we were finishing up and while her head was in my lap, her tail was curled up onto Jillian’s plate at the far corner of the table.

Still growing into her body, she is goofy, awkward, and always in the way. Every morning, the dogs prance and beg for me to put them out, but then as soon as we start walking downstairs to the back yard, Millie stops in the middle of the staircase to stretch. Every. Single. Morning. She sprawls herself diagonally, blocking my way, with her front paws three steps down from her back paws, opening her mouth to yawn loudly, and bringing the whole production to a screeching halt. When she’s done, she prances to the bottom of the staircase, turns, and looks back up at me like, “Woman! What are you waiting for?!?”

She has a hunger for No. 2 pencils that rivals my own for Nutella.

And the socks. Oh, the socks! Worn or clean, big or small, cotton or wool…she cannot resist their siren call. She finds them wherever they are. Sniffs them out from under a child’s bed. Digs for them tangled amongst a throw on the couch. Steals them from a neat stack inside a basket of clean laundry.  They are scrumptious. And once she’s eaten and “processed” them, I get to clean them up from the back yard.

She’s also not-so-quietly trashing our floors. At almost 100 pounds, she and her claws have done quite a job of “antiquing” the hardwoods. The scratches and divots are something of a memory book for our family: “These are the marks from when she saw the rabbit. There are the scratches from when Uncle Buzz came over and she freaked with joy.”

And she leaks. Yes, that kind of leak. Mostly in her sleep, but also when she gets really excited. We’ve had her checked by the vet multiple times, and there’s no infection; it’s just the way she is. (Hormone replacement therapy may be the solution…who’d have thought she’d get there before I do?) I’m often spot-cleaning floors and gnashing my teeth at the destruction she is raining down on our house (yes, literally).

But…

I love her. I adore her. We all do. Her beautiful face, her gorgeous coloring, the way she “talks” to us when she wants something. I delight in listening to her sleep; she breathes so deeply through her long snout and big chest. Her calm, rumbling exhales are the closest I’ll ever get to sleeping beside a lion. Or a T-Rex.

I have a thousand pet names for her, but when she’s in trouble (same as the kids), she is called by her full, given name: Miller. Rich cracks up every time he hears me, having discovered yet another puddle or stolen, chewed-up sock, exclaim, “Dammit, Miller!” To him, it sounds the same as when the original Miller would shoot me with her dish sprayer, soaking me in the middle of her own kitchen, and I’d yell the same thing: “Dammit, Miller!”

(The human Miller has since remarried and changed her last name to something long and Italian-sounding. But to me, she’ll always be Miller. Sorry, new husband.)

Best of all is how Millie loves the kids. The day we first met her, at three weeks old, she stumble-crawled right into Jillian’s lap. She’s owned Jillian’s heart ever since. Even Richie, who was never all that interested in Scooter, is constantly stopping to pet, snuggle, or consult with Millie.

A few weeks ago, Rich bought Richie a coloring book. Because of the fine motor skill challenges that are part of his Autism, Richie has never been big on coloring. But this was a “Day of the Dead” coloring book, filled with dancing, fun-loving skeletons, and Richie thought it was awesome. He took it downstairs to color, and to my absolute surprise and delight, we didn’t see him again for 30 minutes. Richie coloring for that long was absolutely unprecedented, and I couldn’t wait to see the results. When he finally came back upstairs, I asked if he would show me his work. He led me back downstairs, and showed me this:

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I couldn’t help it; I burst out laughing. “Richie,” I asked, “this is what you spent half an hour on?”

“I tried to, Mom,” he replied, “but I got distracted into petting Millie. She’s just SO CUTE!”

Happy Birthday, Millie. Here’s to many more years together! And don’t worry; we can replace the floors.

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Pinball Wizard

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I took my 11-year-old son to the brewery the other night. I know what you’re thinking: Mother of the Year. But I was on carpool duty for his sister’s dance class, and I didn’t want to drive the whole way home just to turn around and return to the studio for pickup. There’s a brewery/pizza place in between, so Richie and I planned to eat dinner there to kill time. Richie was very excited to go.

Why would an 11-year-old child who neither drinks beer nor eats gluten be excited to visit a brewery/pizza place? It’s all about the arcade.

Okay, “arcade” is a stretch…there are actually just a few video machines along the back wall. But my children have fully embraced the low entertainment standards I’ve been modeling for years,  so this “arcade” is good enough for Richie. He loves pinball…even brewery pinball, which isn’t a real machine, just a console that allows the user to choose between several games. It’s digital pinball; there’s a picture of a pinball machine layout, and you push buttons to activate the flippers and keep the ball in play. No flashing lights or clanging bells when the ball hits the bumpers, but again…our standards are not especially high.

My boy has loved video games since he was old enough to hold a joystick. (Not that his generation ever had joysticks.) As a kid with physical problems who really couldn’t play sports in real life, he adored playing baseball or bowling on the Wii, and he was terribly, terribly good at it. And the really cool thing was that once he got really good at playing baseball on the Wii, he improved dramatically at playing baseball in real life. My husband and I theorized that the video game enabled him to practice batting with way fewer variables and a lightweight controller instead of a heavy bat. (Just our theory; we have no actual data to back this up. You want science, go read Bill Nye’s blog. I’m busy raising kids & taking naps over here.)

Richie became really, really good at every video game he played. He mastered Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, became an ace marksman in a target shooting game his Auntie Tanya sent him, and then moved on to master the Xbox. My husband, Rich, and I wondered if there was something about Richie’s Autistic brain that predisposed him to video game greatness. Did the same hyperawareness of his surroundings that distracted him so terribly at school enable him to perceive minute clues as to what was coming up in a game? Was it his steel trap memory? (This kid can tell me what I ordered for breakfast on vacation 3 years ago; it’s not an endearing ability.) Was he simply memorizing the games?

I can’t answer any of those questions with certainty, but I can tell you that Richie was naturally gifted with a lot of…screen time. That is, he has parents who know they should limit how much time he spends playing video games, but who are lousy at enforcing the idea. It started innocently enough: imagine you have a child who could not sit up independently until he was almost two, who didn’t take his first steps until almost three. A child for whom everything was more difficult than it should have been. Whether it was walking or learning to write, Richie always had to work harder and try harder, usually with less success. But watching him play video games was an absolute joy. Even before he got really good at them, he just enjoyed himself so much that it was a pleasure to watch him. And then to see him master something…that was a treat for us, even if the mastered subject was Donkey Kong.

The nail in the coffin was the release of Wii Fit, a video game that involved physical movement and encouraged Richie to move his whole body, get his heart rate up, and practice yoga and balance. It truly helped him improve his body awareness. For hours and hours at a time.

The year Richie was in Kindergarten, I invited one of his classmates over for a playdate. We sent the boys outside while the other mom and I had coffee at my kitchen table. Before long, they came in and asked if they could go downstairs and play Xbox. I said, “of course” simultaneously with the other mom, but then she continued and reminded her son that this would count as his 30 minutes of screen time for the day. 30 minutes? It was all I could do not to stand up on my chair, throw some gang signs, and ask Richie, “Am I the coolest mom in the world or WHAT?!?!?”

My son eats 30 minutes of screen time for breakfast.

The boys disappeared into the basement, and the other mom and I had half an hour of blissful, uninterrupted, adult conversation. Right at the 31-minute mark, her son came tearing up the steps, ran breathlessly up to the kitchen table, and said enthusiastically, “Mom! Richie is SO GOOD at Lego Star Wars!”

Practice makes perfect, my friend. Lots and Lots of practice.

Five years later, Richie is still SO GOOD at Lego Star Wars, and Minecraft, and even Asteroids, which his dad introduced him to recently. But I tend to forget just how good.

So the other night at the brewery, when it was almost time to head back to the dance studio and pick up the girls,  I walked up behind him at the “pinball machine” and gave him the five minute warning.

I sat back down to let him finish playing, started looking at email on my phone, and before I knew it, the five minutes were up. Richie was still bent over the machine. I walked back over and said, “Richie, we have to go.”

“I know, Mom,” he replied, “but I have to use up all my credits.”

I looked at the time; we didn’t really have to leave quite yet (I’m way early for everything). So I told him it was ok to keep playing. I sat back down to wait and went back to reading email. Another 5-10 minutes went by, and I went back over to tell him to wrap it up.

“I know, Mom,” he replied patiently, “but I have to use up all my credits.”

I checked the time again and sat back down. Five minutes later, I walked back to Richie and said, “Hey, Dude, we really have to go.”

“Ok, Mom,” he replied, “I just have to finish putting in my initials.”

“Your what?” I thought I had misheard him, so I walked closer to see what he was doing. I looked over his shoulder to see him entering his initials as THE TOP SCORER OF ALL TIME!

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He also has the #3 slot locked up. And that might be him at #2 as well. Probably not all from this one night.

 

 

Cooking the Books

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Picture this: it’s Saturday morning, and our family of four (six if you include the dogs waiting for something to fall) is gathered around the breakfast table. I’m making “breakfast skillets” for everyone, which means that I’m putting breakfast on the table one person at a time. First is Richie: fried potatoes, pancetta bits, baby spinach, and mushrooms, all scrambled together with two eggs. It makes a huge plate of food. Even though he’s only 11 and small for his size, he’ll eat the whole thing. Like Scooter, Richie is big on the inside.

Jillian is next. Spinach and mushrooms are her favorites, so I sauté them with some potatoes and then scramble in an egg and some Monterey jack cheese.

While waiting for his breakfast, my husband has fired up his laptop and is doing the family books. He’s downloaded a week of transactions from our bank’s website, and is categorizing them one by one: groceries, car expense, pet expense, etc. He likes to do it when I’m around because if there’s something he doesn’t recognize, he can just say, “Hey Amy, what’s AmaranthBakery.com?” and I can tell him that’s where I order the gluten-free flatbreads for Richie’s school lunches. Easy.

As I’m leaning over to put his plate on the table, Rich asks me, “What did you buy at Nordstrom this month?”

“Pajamas for the kids,” I answer.

Richie startles and raises his head from his breakfast. “What kids?!?”

 

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.