Tuesday, October 4, 2011

After the Airport: Reflections, and the Boats of Acceptance

A year ago I wrote Amsterdam International, about 6 months after I had left the airport myself. I was writing with enough emotional distance from my darkest point (a period of daily-tears-during-naptime, and racing-mind-while-lying-in-bed-at-night) to speak somewhat clearly about that rough transitional time, but while the memories were still fresh (and jagged) enough to hopefully do them some justice. I was attempting to say “This is the worst thing that I’ve ever gone through” and “If you hate life right now, don’t worry, you’re not alone” and “Someday, you will suddenly realize that you haven’t cried for a few days, and you will see that you’ve begun to (ever so slowly) crawl your way out”.   

I hoped that it would spread, and reach others who were going through their own dark times. And then I watched, amazed, as it did. A year ago I was awestruck as people (besides my mom) visited the blog, and in a matter of 3 days my daily page loads jumped from 67 to 421 to 892. I felt like I had contributed something, and at a time when I was feeling like I had lost some of my own identity (having left my career to manage therapies and appointments), that gave as much to me as any of my words gave to anyone else.

At the time, I was already grateful to be out of the airport, and I’ve spent a lot of the past year trying to spend more time enjoying the present, and less time thinking. (As it turns out, life is sometimes more fun with less thinking.) There didn’t seem to be much point to trying to envision what our future would be like in Holland, or worrying myself with particulars. I had already accepted that life would be different than the one that I had previously imagined, and I decided that while we would clearly have more struggles, we would also have more celebrations . . .and over the past year, we’ve had some great celebrations. First steps, first words, first bizarre adoration (hello, vulture), first glimpses into how smart and funny our girl is . . . we celebrate a new food with the gleeful smiles that some people reserve for opening presents on Christmas morning.

And I’ve enjoyed this about Holland-the joyful appreciation of minor things. I’ve come to welcome the slow pace of changes . . . by the time we got to walking, there wasn’t a little mom voice in my head lamenting, “Oh . . . my baby is growing up too fast! Slow down!” . . . there was just “Go! You can do it! This is amazing!” Progress has been made, and savored. In the airport, we were in a rush---a rush to fix things, a rush to change things, a rush to somehow alter the course of our unplanned reality-----but outside the airport, in acceptance, there is a peaceful happiness. In acceptance, things are . . . well, things are pretty good.

But I didn’t realize that this past year would teach me an unexpected thing about acceptance. There seem to be stages of acceptance, both as clear and as winding as the stages of grief had been.

Stay with me as I leave behind the airport analogy and switch to a harbor town. (I know, I know---Another analogy?! (eye roll) but it’s the best way I can think of to explain this.) 

The Boats of Acceptance
In this harbor town, the families with “typical” kids live on the land, and the families with “special/different/whatever term you’re cool with” kids live on the water. The families who are new to all-things-special-needs, who struggle to see which world they fit into, who still spend a lot of time in depressionangerdenialbargainingwailingpain . . . they sit on the beach. Not quite on land, but not ready to brave the water. And when they’re ready, they get to acceptance. And then they get their boat, to join those already in the water.

As best as I can figure, acceptance starts as a canoe. It’s tipsy, easy to capsize---but you’re so happy to be free from the limbo of the beach and enjoying the water that you don’t care. You paddle around thinking “This is working! I’m on a boat! I’m happy! This water isn’t so bad! “ But every so often you hear people playing on the shore and turn too quickly to see them----or you gaze too long at some kids playing in a soccer game close to the shore and you forget to row----and your boat wobbles and shakes and takes in a bit of water and you think that maybe you need to take a rest on the beach again. Just for a little while. 

It’s hard to learn to live on a boat.

It takes some time, but you become a champion rower. You can navigate turns, go superfast or smooth and slow, and the shore hardly distracts you anymore. You think to yourself “There are great things out here on the water. Those land people miss magical moments at sea.” You’re ready to drop your anchor and claim the water as your home.

So, you get a houseboat.

The houseboat of acceptance is strong and sturdy, built to last through the stinging winds and soaking hurricanes that you’re smart enough to expect in the years to come. And the best things about having a houseboat, docked securely at the pier, are the neighbors. You visit their boats and they visit yours, and you talk about the best places to buy rope and other boating things. So many people you might not have met on land, happy to help with ship repairs and barnacle scrubbings. You all have friends on land, but something is different among the camaraderie of people who live on the water---there’s a lot about boat living that the land folks just can’t fully understand. Life on the houseboat is good, you watch the tides come in and out and feel secure and proud . . . until you have to venture to land.

Going to land . . . well, it sometimes sucks.

You’re invited to a birthday party, or decide to take your kid to go visit the new museum, or whatever. You have high hopes. You’re ready to visit with old friends, to catch up. It only takes a few minutes to start noticing all the stuff that’s happened on land since you’ve been gone (they have flat screen tvs now? computers are wireless? what the hell is Twitter?) and suddenly all of the progress that you’ve made on the boat, the stories you were so ready to tell---they all seem very small. So small that you fearfully suspect the land people might put on too-big-smiles and too-cheerful-voices when they say “A new generator? That must be so fantastic!”

You may not be ready to be so close to land just yet.

But you want to shift from land to water, gliding from one to the other, at home on both, like the tides. The houseboat of acceptance, well, it may be home (temporarily? for a few years? forever?) but you watch the waves crash on the shore, stirring up the sand, and it makes you think. The water kicks up the sand and plays with the shells, lingers a bit, and then purposefully moves back out again. Maybe you could, too. Maybe you could join the land folks, move among them, and then return to the water . . . without the weight of misunderstanding/pity/envy/grief?

This is where a year has brought me. The houseboat is easy, the land is still sometimes hard (although there are easier days and harder ones) . . . and I’m ready to start rolling onto land with the waves (some days). I’m not sure how long it will take me to teach my body to switch from sea legs to land legs, and my visits might be short at first, but I’m going to go slowly. I’ve got a lifetime ahead of me to learn. As it turns out, the final, hardest to obtain, boat of acceptance is starting to reveal itself to me, and I don’t think it’s a boat at all.

I think it’s a surfboard.




Cheryl (in Buffalo) said...

May I link your post to others? You have the most amazing insights :)

Dana said...

Of course, feel free to share it.

Shauna Quintero said...

Beautifully stated - from a fellow house boater.

Siobhan said...

Dana, you have such a way with words. As you know, I am not a house-boater, but I feel like reading your blog gives me insight into another world and in turn makes me a better person. So, thank you.

Anonymous said...

hello. Misty here from "Sophia portervilles blu' Rose" thank you. you write it so well, Some days i feel like i am the Flag Ship in the Harbour, standing so tall and proud ready to give sea worthy advice to any new canoe that floats my way.. throw out a life preserver when needed,no storm will disrupt my safe harbour as long as long as i am here.. this harbour is mine i got it.. n then i go ashore..took out Sophies new chair yesterday to the store.. Was NOT ready for all the stares.. and then the cover ups oh my how sweet she is how old is she so much hair beautiful eyes so big. really? i almost felt like a rabbit being chased . evry way i turned . i honestly did not expect that. so sorry to ramble.. you do write well thank you.

Padgett Mozingo said...

Amsterdam International has meant so much to me this year and this post once again helps validate what I feel while giving me hope. Thanks for sharing your story and your feelings.

Anonymous said...

You write so beautifully, Dana, and make it so clear to those of us on "land" just what you are feeling. I wish you taught 7th grade Language/Lit, as my first born boy HATES writing and could learn a thing or two from you. I tell him all the time to imagine the person that's reading what he's written has NO IDEA what he's talking about. It's his job to paint a picture with words, and you have, BY FAR, succeeded in doing so! Hope someday to see you and meet Maya when we're visiting our moms! Jaclin

Jon and Alyson said...

Great post! As I went this morning to vote (under my hubby's email) I noticed your number 1 now in the vote. Rock on!!

Jo-Anne said...

As usual, beautifully said! =)

Summers Family said...

Thank you for sharing. I know the airport has helped our family cope and express to others how it feels to have a child with special needs(even though they can never fully understand the pains and joys).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I've been following your blog -- my 2.5 year old has autism. I so identify with this post. Yes, the land is the hardest part, by far. In our world of special needs, we do pretty good at this point, but the comparisons remain very hard. Still going back and forth b/t beach, land, and sea -- hope to someday get into a place where I can live fluidly in all three.

Wonder woman, wine and me said...

Amazing reflection, so glad to have stumbled across your blog, you put across the mixed feelings

lovemy3 said...

If you don't mind, I would love to share this post in my blog. I am a house boater too...land can seem so scary sometimes!

Dana said...

Thanks for all of the comments, I love hearing from you guys.

Feel free to share it, lovemy3.

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