here and there and in-between

Tommy Orange. That's the name of the young Indigenous American who authored the novel I'm reading called There, There. I'm only a couple of chapters in, but already I'm engrossed with his artful storytelling of people and place. A native of Oakland, California, where his story unfolds, Orange references a quote by Gertrude Stein in which, on a return trip to her beloved Oakland forty-five years after first having left it, she describes with painful childhood nostalgia that "there is no there there."

Stein lamented that Oakland was no longer a place where a child “could have all anybody could want of joyous sweating, of rain and wind, of hunting, of cows and dogs and horses, of chopping wood, of making hay, of dreaming, of lying in a hollow all warm with the sun shining while the wind was howling.”

In Stein's mind and in reality, the place had changed, as all things inevitably do. But my sense is that modern Oakland's inhabitants, like the ones in Tommy Orange's novel, believe there remains much "there," there, though perhaps of a different kind.

I was reminded of Stein's quote when I read a meme a friend of a friend had posted on social media. The manifesto read:

You came here from there because you didn’t like there, 

and now you want to change here to be like there. 

We are not racist, phobic or anti what-ever-you-are, 

we simply like here the way it is and most of us actually came 

here because it is not like there, wherever there was. 

You are welcome here, but please stop trying to make here like there. 

If you want here to be like there you should not have left there to come here, 

and you are invited to leave here and 

go back there at your earliest convenience.

The little blank box below the meme compelled me to comment. I first noted how ugly, poorly written, racist and xenophobic the manifesto is. I should've added that is it hypocritical. I protested the meme's perceived targeting of Black and Brown immigrants and refugees (Midcoast Maine is home to a growing number of African immigrants, particularly from Somalia). I went on to state that people come here fleeing war, famine, poverty, oppression, violence and genocide, not to seize this nation like its first colonizers did—settlers who sparked a bloody pogrom of its Indigenous. And I condemned the use of the term "what-ever-you-are" (tellingly, not "whoever-you-are") as a bigoted one.

The only constant is change, I said, the places in which we live in perpetual flux. I asserted that immigrants help us see the world through new eyes, challenging our assertions and our view of the status quo and, perhaps, encouraging us to see how we might become better people through love, compassion and charity for others who are different from ourselves. Diversity is strength, I added, variety the spice of life.

Regrettably, rather than engage in discourse, embellish, defend or concede their stance, the person who shared the meme blocked me. Initially I regretted that perhaps I'd been too harsh. 

After posting my comment to the meme, I learned it had been defended as simply a remark to people moving here from nearby states. The argument seemed flimsy at best, duplicitous at worst, so I did an image search of the meme to see what more I could glean. I found American flags posted in the footers of the memes along with warnings such as, No amnesty! Go back to the shithole! Go back to Suckistan! These sentiments confirmed for me the meme's intended target: those who are far from your average Vermonter.

Pondering it further, and looking to Calvin and his disability to inform, I'm reminded of the ways in which some strangers gawk at him. I remember the way I felt—and sometimes still do even after living in Maine eighteen years—like such a foreigner here. It's in the way some folks are watchful and guarded, the way we—as adopted San Franciscans—don't always fit into the literal and figurative landscape which, in certain time and space, can be sober and conservative. I realize that, even if the meme-manifesto were speaking only to people from other states, it's still an unwelcoming, protectionist, hidebound dispatch. It still says, "Stay away!" and "You're not like us!" and "You're not welcome!" and "Go back to where you came from!"—each caution a far cry from the road sign staked in the shoulder of the turnpike upon entering Maine which says to residents and visitors, "Welcome Home."

And as I read and transcribed those postings, I recalled the same hateful rhetoric which spews and echoes from the White House. Those sentiments do not embody the America I love, nor the one I'm proud of. And I realize folks who isolate themselves, who are averse to change and who have qualms with others are fearful of the unfamiliar and unknown. But I'm grateful for this ever-changing nation, and of new neighbors from faraway places. I'm grateful for the here and the there and the in-between.


what to do?

I'm at a loss. Not sure what to do to lessen Calvin's seizures. It's not that they're raging off the charts, at least not for him; relatively speaking they are holding at about the same number that he's had the past several years, which is about five or six grand mals per month plus a smattering of focal ones. But because of them he's missing too much school. Since starting in September, he has been absent for a total of nearly four weeks. So the status quo is not sustainable. I have to change something, but what? I do not know.

I can't decide whether I should increase his CBD oil or remove it for a spell. I don't know whether to replace it with a plant-based pharmaceutical version of it called Epidiolex. I'm not sure whether my latest batch of homemade THCA oil is as effective as the last one, or if I'm giving him too much, too little. I'm loathe to try any other traditional pharmaceuticals since, having already failed ten of them, the chance Calvin will respond to subsequent ones is minute, i.e. less than five percent.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me what to do.

Thankfully, Calvin has been much easier to care for these days. He's been calm, cuddly and compliant—opposite of the way he was when he was drugged up on high doses of three powerful pharmaceuticals which suppressed, though did not stop, his seizures. Nowadays, keeping him home from school in itself is not as much of hardship as it used to be, it's just happening too often and it means I can't get much of anything done—can't read, can't write, can't walk Smellie, can't exercise, can't grocery shop, can't do chores.

Today will be Calvin's first, hopefully full, day of school this week. He's not even halfway through the month and he's already had four grand mals and at least two focal seizures. Something has got to give. I just don't know what that something is.

Photo by Michael Kolster


grief and loss, gratitude and love

As I filled out the lengthy adaptive skills' assessment, it was hard not to tumble into despair, clear that my son, who entered high school this year, cannot perform the simplest tasks that most infants and toddlers can do. When answering in the negative to five consecutive questions regarding various abilities, the instructions prompted me to skip forward to each subsequent section. The survey, which was supposed to take about ninety minutes to complete, took me no more than a quarter hour.

My fifteen-year-old cannot feed himself with a spoon. He can't dress himself, bathe himself, wash his hands, brush his hair. He can't put on his shoes, much less tie them. He can't grasp a marker or crayon to scrawl. He can't catch an object or give me one when asked to. He can't match shapes or colors, can't build blocks, can't speak any words. He can't run, can't play peekaboo, isn't toilet trained, can't open most doors. He can't get into or out of his bed on his own or pull up his duvet when he gets uncovered.

This sweet, handsome child of mine, though loved beyond measure, is a daily reminder of the grief I felt for years, beginning just before his birth when we first learned something was terribly wrong with him, and the loss I've felt ever since. Though he is alive and in ways vibrant, plus cute, loving and affectionate, he will never bring us the kinds of joys we thought parenthood had in store. To add insult to injury, we won't experience the bonus of being grandparents either.

From one perspective, having a child like Calvin represents to me an immeasurable loss, and at times I wince hearing and seeing the myriad of activities in which other kids and their parents regularly delight. But perhaps some of the joys that accompany a child's mastery in sports or academics or art or judgement or even virtue are in ways narcissistic ones and, perhaps, as a friend related after having read my post principles, those kinds of inclinations may not be ones parents are necessarily or ultimately in control of or responsible for.

Having said that, I still grieve the loss of a child who is still alive, in that my child is not healthy or very able to engage in most activities. However, I feel utterly grateful for what Calvin gives me. He still wants to be held like a baby. He sits in our laps and smiles when we lavish him with kisses and tickles. He chirps and coos at night when I reposition and cover him. On most days he greets me with a big grin when I help him get off the bus. He holds my hand in the grocer, making a beeline to the meat-department cases (his preferred place to camp out in the store) and smiles broadly when I hug him and say, "this is your favorite place, isn't it?" and then wipe the drool from his chin.

What's more, I feel abundant gratitude for the things that being Calvin's parent has brought to us—new and interesting friends, knowledge of a broader world, deeper self-reflection, insight, compassion, courage and empathy, profound feelings of despair and happiness (yes, we embrace both), and rare, intense experiences. As a result, I'm thankfully a different person from the one I used to be—I challenge authority instead of bowing to it, I question everything I used to take at face value, I'm more forgiving of myself and others, I'm more forthright and assertive and, I hope, more accepting of others and of what I can't control, and I'm not bothered if, in my advocacy for Calvin, some people don't like me.

And so though Calvin will likely remain much the way he was when he was a toddler, and though knowing that will sometimes get me feeling down, I feel fortunate to have this extraordinary boy as my son. He's one in a million, to be sure. A child to be celebrated and loved.



I don't often write about Smellie—aka Nellie, Smellers, Killer—beyond mentioning that I take her for long walks at the college athletic fields near our home. But I really should gas on about her more than I do. She brings us much needed joy and levity and, like Calvin, loves us unconditionally, something most of us in this world could use more.

Smellie, who doubles as a Muppet, makes us laugh. When she runs, her ears flop up and down like a bird taking flight. She resembles a lion when she stalks certain prey. She loves to be underfoot, insisting on forever positioning her head beneath our hands in order to be pet, and loiters anywhere that bits of food might drop. With her muzzle in our laps, she pokes our arms like a dolphin in attempts to be caressed, and nearly crawls out of her skin when we stop. With huge brown eyes that kind of remind me of my mother's, she gazes at me like a daughter.

Our pooch, a seventy-plus pound eight-year-old, is ridiculously soft, fluffy and adorable. She isn't much interested in other dogs and is indifferent to strangers when sniffing for scraps of food or licking up vomit left by last night's drunken students. She rolls in bird shit, eats deer scat, and pounces in the muddiest puddles. Once, she devoured a baby bird after dislodging it from its nest. Another time she caught a chipmunk, and just once, a squirrel, violently shaking them until their necks snapped, then dropping them to the ground where their lifeless bodies unfurled (sigh).

As for how Calvin and Smellie get along, well, they mostly ignore each other, neither getting from the other exactly what they want. Calvin doesn't feed Smellie save the crumbs that inevitably drop from his place at the table, and he doesn't touch her unless she is sitting next to him in the car. Smellie doesn't give him kisses or want him to pet her. She steers clear of his path rather than get trampled. Each of them would probably prefer our undivided attention as only children.

Mostly, Smellie's a wonderful companion who gets me outside for exercise come rain or come sub-freezing temps, snow and ice and wind when I'd otherwise be hunkering down indoors. When we play hide and seek, she finds me every time. She follows me everywhere I go. She's gentle, loyal, sweet, and attentive. She mostly comes when she's called, and never wanders, even when alone in our unfenced yard.

We love you, Smellie. How lucky we are to have found you when we did. Please stick around a bit longer.


dragon moms

We hear our children shriek and see them seize. We hold them in their suffering, dab lavender on their wrists and feet. We dread and loathe their cries and moans, regret their frequent misery.

We lug their gangly, growing bodies, change their dirty diapers, wipe and salve their seats. As if infants, we watch them in their slumber. We lay our palms against their chests to feel them breathe. We bathe and dry and dress their fragile, flailing frames. Lamentably, we feed them endless medicines. Readily, we stroke and kiss their cheeks.

We cut their food into bite-sized bits and dole it out piece by piece. We feed them by the spoonful though they're toddlers, tweens and teens. We wash their hair, wipe their chins, brush their teeth. We thwart their falls and hold their hands to keep them on their feet. They may be always in our keep.

These kids of ours have made us into Dragon Moms, in great part because they cannot speak. We become their voice, translate their sounds and moods and movements, foresee and understand their wants and needs. On their behalf we challenge, question, crusade, condemn, critique. Protect their vulnerability. Despite our candor, others still neglect our pleas. We are sometimes seen as monsters—feared, maligned, too often misconceived. No doubt to some we're nuisances, hysterics, freaks. We're merely fierce champions of our uncommon offspring. Come walk in our shoes. Please see our rocky path. Please feel our aching feet.

We Dragon Moms—though not our wish—a rare, formidable breed.

Photo by Michael Kolster


on survival

On Saturday, I read an op-ed by a woman who had a third-trimester abortion. So many of the details she shared reminded me of my own pregnancy with Calvin—the fetal MRI, the countless ultrasounds, the wretched diagnosis, the empty spaces where brain matter was supposed to have formed but didn't. Just as the author experienced, a neurologist explained to me and Michael that Calvin would likely face developmental delays, might not crawl, walk or talk. What the doctor failed to mention, however, was that Calvin might be prone to having seizures.

I ruminated on the piece all weekend, even mentioning it to someone close to me. She asked me tenderly if, when I first knew of Calvin's brain abnormality, I ever considered having an abortion. She asked me, had I known of Calvin's troubles earlier in my pregnancy, if I would have had an abortion. She asked me, considering his seizures, insurmountable challenges and suffering, if I ever wished he hadn't survived. 

I did not consider having an abortion when I learned of Calvin's brain anomaly; my pregnancy was thirty-two weeks along. The thought never entered my mind, and no physician broached the topic. Had I known about Calvin's brain malformation earlier in my pregnancy, would I have had an abortion? I can't say for sure. Probably not. There were too many questions left unanswered for this optimist. As for my friend's third question about Calvin's survival, for weeks our boy struggled for his life. We were always pulling for him. He's here today. We love him. He's changed us in myriad ways. The kid has always been a fighter. Perhaps he teaches us about survival.

Having said that, in my very darkest most sleep-deprived hours, I do think about Calvin's mortality, sometimes even longing for deliverance for our child from his suffering, and from our strenuous, limiting, painful situation. I also worry about what will happen to him if he outlives us. Will people love and care for him? Will they keep him safe from harm? Will they be patient? Kind? Attentive? Tender? I think about how much easier life would be without having to take care of him—the constant vigil, the endless dirty diapers, the daily undertakings of a growing child who can do nothing without extraordinary help from others, the sleepless nights, the stress, the worry, the physical and emotional strain so taxing on my person. Then I imagine the enormous void he'd leave in my life, and I wonder, in that case, about my own survival.