Friday, July 17, 2015

This is me at age nine: a letter from the past

Since my mom passed away last September and my dad is living in an apartment, our family farmhouse has been left unused, and we're in the process of emptying it and dealing with the property.

My youngest brother, Errol, was at the house last week and brought back some old letters, school report cards, and other things belonging to me -- things I hadn't laid eyes on in many years.

Rather than just giving me this particular item, he made a point of drawing my attention to it with considerable fanfare and reading it out loud for special effect.  It's a letter I wrote to my mom in 1974; she was in the P.E.I. Hospital having just given birth to Errol the day before. I was just a couple of months short of my tenth birthday.  Here's the letter, in its entirety (I've added a couple of square-bracketed bits for clarification):


February 25th

Dear Mom,

I have plenty of news for you!

First of all, we had the meanings test today.  I made 100% in it.  I studied it very well.

I saw Natalie [my cousin] yesterday. She asked me if I had a sister, and I told her I had a brother. She pretended she was mad.

I think the name is real nice. Lincoln [older brother] likes [the name] Errol. Of course George is after Grandpa MacLean.

He’s an awful big baby – 10 pounds and three ounces.  I can’t wait to see him.

I hope you don’t think I’m unhappy because it’s a boy! I, truly, couldn’t be happier!  I’ll have fun with him too. Now I’ll be middle! I’m like Deb Corney – she has 4 brothers, too, and no sisters.

Some other kids got 100% too, in reader. J.T., V.B., R.A., R.N., K.M., and I all did.  See you Friday.
                                                                                                                                Love from,


We got a good laugh out of this letter. I had absolutely no memory of writing it, but this is what I think now about the person who penned those words:

I was quite the little scholar. Errol made a point of mocking the fact that, the day after my mom had given birth, I wrote her a letter beginning and ending with information about my academic achievements. But hey: those university degrees don't get themselves.

I was quite the writer, too. The whole thing was in very neat cursive, not a misspelling or grammatical error in sight. I particularly like the "I, truly, couldn't be happier" part -- though Errol says adding "truly" and putting it between commas like that is a sure sign that I was lying. 

My love of language is evident in my mention of a "meanings test" (presumably that was a test of definitions of words) and getting 100% in "reader."

It's been suggested to me that it probably wasn't necessary for me to explain to my mom why she and Dad had chosen a particular second name for my brother.  Or to use the words "of course." I guess I thought it was my job not only to receive the information, but to interpret it.

My childish faith in our national institutions, such as the postal system, is shown in the fact that I wrote a letter to the hospital on a Monday, knowing my mom would be getting home already on the Friday. (I don't know why I didn't just send the letter with Dad, since he must have visited my mom sometime during those four days.)

What would I say to my nine-year-old self today? 

Keep reading and writing.

It's great to get 100%, but you won't always excel at everything; just do your best and try to enjoy it.

Don't use too many commas.

Put X's and O's at the end of your letters whenever appropriate.

Never lose sight of the important things in life, like family, love, and relationships. In fact, maybe that's what the phrase "meanings test" really refers to.

Love from, 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Summertime, and the reading is awesome: July "Quick Lit"

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for "Quick Lit" to share what I've been reading this past month:  specifically, an excellent novel and two great pieces of nonfiction.

The Light Between Oceans
by M.L. Stedman 

Modern Mrs. Darcy herself is reviewing this novel this month. Like her, I felt like everyone else had read this. Now having read it myself, I think, why did I wait so long? But it was worth waiting for.  Lighthouse-keeper Tom and his wife Isabel live on a remote island where Tom can escape the memories of his time on the Western Front. After Isabel endures two miscarriages and a stillbirth, she considers it a miracle when a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a living baby in it. Although Tom knows he should immediately report the incident, Isabel begs him not to, and they keep the baby and raise her. But two idyllic years later, when they return to the mainland, they must face the consequences: the baby and the dead man have left behind a grieving family.

This book has a page-turner plot and raises some important and difficult moral questions. It is also beautifully written. I loved this passage describing Tom's first time viewing the sea from the lighthouse:

For the first time he took in the scale of the view.  Hundreds of feet above sea level, he was mesmerized by the drop to the ocean crashing against the cliffs directly below. The water sloshed like white paint, milky-thick, the foam occasionally scraped off long enough to reveal a deep blue undercoat.  At the other end of the island a row of immense boulders created a break against the surf and left the water inside it as calm as a bath. He had the impression he was hanging from the sky, not rising from the earth. Very slowly, he turned a full circle, taking in the nothingness of it all.  It seemed his lungs could never be large enough to breathe in this much air, his eyes could never see this much space, nor could he hear the full extent of the rolling, roaring ocean. For the briefest moment, he had no edges.
I'd highly recommend this gripping, thought-provoking novel.  It would be great for a book-club discussion.


Amazing Grace:  William Wilberforce 
and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery 
by Eric Metaxas

An engaging biography of the English politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce. I knew few details beforehand about Wilberforce's life story, so it was fascinating to read of his life-changing conversion, his unflagging determination to abolish slavery and the slave trade, and his efforts at cultural reform and improvement of the lot of the poor.

Metaxas is an appealing writer who conveys historical detail in an accessible way and with a sense of humour that I particularly appreciated. For instance, when discussing a certain loose-living politician named Fox, Metaxas throws in several references to Fox "weaseling" out of his commitments, being a "mole" for the opposition, etc.  I could imagine him rubbing his hands together gleefully as the puns flowed onto the page. It's obvious that he loves both his subject and the process of writing about him. 

Read this book, get to know William Wilberforce, one of the most influential men of all time -- and be inspired.


Being Mortal:  Medicine 
and What Matters in the End 
by Atul Gawande

 This engrossing book explores how and why end-of-life decisions are made by the elderly, those with terminal illness, and their families. Gawande argues that our highly medicalized society, in its determination to treat illness and prolong life, often ignores the fears, wishes, and priorities that dying people have both for today and for their final days. For example, safety -- which is a valid consideration -- often becomes the primary criterion in deciding where the frail elderly should live; yet safety without some level of freedom, independence, and purpose can be more like imprisonment than real living. Using interesting case studies (including that of his own father, who developed cancer while in his seventies), Gawande discusses the process of aging, the history of nursing home care and assisted living, and the role of hospice and palliative care.  This book makes some excellent points about  the desire we all have to live meaningfully and well to the end of our days. 


Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think?  And what have you been reading?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Do it for Jesus ... except ... (guest post for Ellen Stumbo)

Today I'm honoured to be a guest at Ellen Stumbo's blog, Hope and Encouragement for the Special Needs Parent.
She's featuring a post from my archives today as part of her summer series by writers focusing on disability, adoption, and parenting.  

You can read my post HERE.  

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Life (with Jonathan)

School ended on June 25, and Extend-a-Family day camp started today.  After ten days at home, Jonathan was  happy to head off to camp, and we were happy to see him go.  Still, those ten days in the interim actually went very well, for the most part. 

We pushed his boundaries a little more than usual by taking him on several social outings. Last weekend we were invited to a BBQ at the home of a couple from church where we'd never visited before. We brought along a few of Jonathan's favourite jigsaw puzzles, and he spent much of his time sitting at a table on the deck, working on his puzzles. He enjoyed himself, and so did we.

Then on Canada Day we went to a 25th-anniversary BBQ for our friends Gary and Corina. There were lots of people there (most of them strangers), and Jonathan was nervous at first. But then he spied a basketball net at the end of their cul-de-sac, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Because of the safe place to play and the nice collection of balls and people to play with, we didn't need to take out the puzzles and books we'd brought along. Jonathan did take a short break to eat some supper (after all, there were chips, potato salad, and raw onions on the table:  these are some of his favourite foods, and hey, a kid's gotta get his veggies!), but otherwise he spent the entire three and a half hours on the court, throwing balls, interacting with other kids and adults, and looking over at us now and then with a big smile on his face.

When successful outings like this happen, we realize that some of the problems we had with Jonathan in the past are vastly better than they used to be. He can still get anxious when we go into a brand-new situation, but he seems to adapt faster and can understand better when things are explained to him. He's less fixated on doing specific preferred things: he still loves going to Rideau School or Centennial School to play with the "yellow-blue-red"(see photo), but he's a bit more flexible if that doesn't happen to work out on a given day. Instead, he's usually fine with just playing basketball in the driveway, going for a walk, or even coming along with Richard or me to do an errand.

 These improvements are encouraging to see, because lately it's really hitting home that for me, "life" really means "life with Jonathan."  I see boys much younger than him biking down the street on their own. I see three of his girl classmates (and he sees them too, judging from the way he smiles and blinks in that flirty way of his) walking along the sidewalk. But he can't do those things. He can't go to the park or the library or just for a walk by himself. He can't play basketball unsupervised in the driveway because if the ball rolls out onto the street he will follow it without looking for traffic. He can't stay home alone if I need to run a quick errand (and at least at this point, it's too much responsibility for Allison to look after him on her own). So when Jonathan's not at school or camp, "life" pretty much consistently involves being with him, and for the foreseeable future that's not going to change. That might seem like an overwhelming prospect if all our challenges with him were steadily getting worse, but that that's not the case.

I can't deny that some things are still hard. Even at nearly 13, he still hasn't mastered toileting yet. He has his ongoing obsessions: for the past year he's been fixated on closing cupboards and doors, and he even slammed the downstairs bathroom door so hard that the cover over the light fixture fell off and broke in half. He gets stuck in what his EA calls a "feedback loop" and asks the same question a hundred times an hour, expecting the "right" answer to be delivered with equal enthusiasm each time or he'll whine, growl, or yell.  It's exhausting.  And did I mention he makes so many annoying noises?

But he is still fun to have around. Last night when Grandma was over for a visit, Jonathan decided to prove he is a normal 12-year-old boy by burping loudly and blowing what we call "arm farts" on the back of his arm, and then laughing hysterically.  (See "annoying noises" above -- but it was funny.)

At church yesterday he spied Jeffrey coming in to the sanctuary. Jeffrey is a young man with special needs who is a bit difficult to deal with -- but when Jonathan saw him, his face lit up and he said "Backpack" (because Jeffrey was wearing one).  He kept staring at him and saying "Hi! Hi!", waving to try to get Jeffrey's attention. Instead of seeing a person who might be uncomfortable to be around, Jonathan saw someone he felt connected with.

Richard took Jonathan with him yesterday to pick up our takeout food for supper, and Jonathan got so excited when he heard Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off" on the radio at the takeout place. Rich said he was glad there was no one else in the restaurant ... but to be honest, I was a bit sorry I hadn't been there to see it.

These things that make me feel hopeful.  They make me think, Life (with Jonathan) is OK.   It's not easy, but I think I can do this a while longer.

I'm linking this post to the  
today (hosted by Jolene Philo).

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Father's Day memory

This Father's Day, I wanted to pay tribute to my dad with a poem I wrote a few years ago.

It recounts a memory from my childhood -- one that is actually related to Christmastime, so it's a little out of season.  But it's relevant because it acknowledges the kind of person my dad was and is: always helping and doing things for other people, without complaint. When you're a kid, it's so easy to take for granted the things your parents do; when you're older, those acts of sacrifice and service take on greater significance.

Happy Father's Day, Dad, and thanks for everything. I love you.

Christmas Concert

My dad walks down the lane in the dark 
– just a flashlight, snow knee-deep –
to brush off the truck and start it up.
Then it’s back to the barn to hitch the horse,
put bales of straw on the sleigh bottom,
and cover them with a horse-blanket.
My mom, my brothers, and I all climb on
for the short,unsteady ride
to the end of the lane,
listening to the stars shivering overhead
and the horse’s whooshing breaths.
We huddle into the warm truck
while my dad takes the horse
back to the barn, unhitches it, and walks
to the road once more
to drive us to the church.
After the concert, he does it again.
Patience is my dad’s red, scratchy face.
Goodness is the marks in the snow
from the horse’s hooves, the sleigh runners,
and my dad’s rubber boots.
Trust is a December night
– breathless cold, snow sparkling like jewels –
hardly needing to know
someone makes the wonder