Sunday, December 27, 2009

Home and the Holy Land

Christmas eve, 2007 -- We rush to the sea at sunset and bring a lantern, light a candle "Happy Birthday, Jesus!" At home, standing outside, I listen to the deceiving sound that sounds like rain, the rush of palm fronds in the wind.

Christmas eve, 2009 -- we shush up an icy path to Mass, sing carols and pray loud and happy prayers. The snowy trees out side are dense and quiet.

It's so amazing to see God in all of it.

Prelude to a Letter about a Year

With all my best intentions, Shana Tova! has turned into Happy New Year! speeding through Thanksgiving, Hannukah and Christmas with nary a letter written to our family and friends.
I thought I'd write two letters, one to our friends in Israel, one to our friends at home, but I have been having such a hard time separating our life in this way. Why, with a wonderful home and neighbors and life, do I feel . . . homesick? One answer revealed itself to me at our neighbors' home, at dinner. We two families live in twin houses (the neighborhood is full of these little cape cods) and we always talk about how we live in them, what we would change or not. In the end, John and I talked about not knowing where we'd end up, and they talked about never leaving. "Of course you wouldn't want to leave, " I commented. "You've spent most of your married life here, your two children were born here!" . . . and then it dawned on me. Of our ten years of marriage, half of it has been spent in Israel. Two of our children were born there. Kelbi our beloved dog is Israeli! I struggle to distill what it is I miss into one single thing: our friends? the people? the weather? the culture? salad for breakfast? a good afouk? Ok, it's all of that, but . . it's us . . . So far, geographically speaking, there is nowhere else we -- as a family - - can call home so much. But here we are . . .


If during the course of our move, 2008 became a blur, the clarity gained by 2009 was not pretty. I cannot remember much about the beginning of the year, except being angry. Really, really, poisonously angry. Gabby had been moved (due to much work on my part) in autumn 2008, from one special needs classroom at a distant school, to another in a school nearer us, but it was clear, this wouldn't work either. Gabby's behavior was abysmal. She acted out in every way possible. Unlike her previous years, she had no typically-developing friends, and if it wasn't for one awesome neighbor / classmate, I hate to think what disconnectedness she would have felt.

I had had it. Our principal had long ago said our neighborhood school, Wyngate, would not be appropriate. Now I understood clearly: Wyngate was for high-achieving students and did not want to ruin its test scores. Nor did it care to add to its hard-working staff, more . . . um . . . hard work.


My mountain? The principal at Gabby's school said, according to her observations, "Gabby was unavailable for learning". (Yes, those are her words.) No way could she be included in a regular classroom. She was disruptive, unattentive, completely non-compliant. They did not even know that she knew how to read because she refused to read for her teacher.

My guide? The principal at Gabby's school also said, "If it wasn't for the reports from her former (Israeli) teachers, I could not believe that she has ever been able to handle herself in a classroom." Those reports, painstakingly written, professional in detail, with love oozing out between the lines.

My support? An amazing group of parents here in Montgomery County who have fought for the same for their children. The bonus of this group is their children, many of whom are Gabby's age and are girls. She's got peer friends all over.

I did not hire a lawyer. The law to me was crystal. Evidence? Previous success in an inclusive environment. Proof? Reams of reports and recommendations for inclusion from Montessori Oman, The American School in Muscat, AEIP and, most importantly, AIS Israel.

I did not hire an advocate. Who could believe in Gabby more than I could? I made art out of quotes and reports from teachers at AIS. I printed pictures of Gabby engaging with friends, and performing in Go Fish! I printed out flyers about the law and about the research: "Students with Down Syndrome develop best in an inclusive environment." I called for another mediation at Montgomery County Public Schools. I spread my art pieces--those beautiful and true words of Maala's and Geelit's and Amy's, and pictures of my daughter--on the table. Those teachers from Israel who knew her were present. Gabby was present. When I wasn't speaking, they were.

In the end, the Wyngate pricipal made sure Gabby got the best aide out there, and all the bells and whistles MCPS could offer. Gabby started in April. In less than two weeks,(after nine months of awfulness) Gabby was back on track. She is the poster child for inclusion. She became happier at home. She made friends quickly. The kids in the neighborhood started treating her with new respect. Her speech improved dramatically. She can walk to school. The really cool thing was that her aide had worked at the previous school with another child, but she knew Gabby, so she got to witness the magic transformation. If any of you from AIS are crying that all your work had been lost, it is absolutely the opposite: she carried you with her the whole time, picked right up from the tail-end of kindergarten. And all the while this spring, you were busy going on about your business, completely unaware that I was clinging to your work with her, and those words you had written, like a lifeline, and they pulled me through it all. We carry you with us . . .

*deep breath* It's over.

And just like that it was May . . . Blessed with an unbelievably cheap airfare, Gabby and Kit and I took a trip to California to see the Perlmans and welcome new baby Grady. Grandma and Pop came down to help John with Jack (Jack requires a zookeeper, really). We had the best time ever. The girls are such great travelers. (Watching Gabby take herself through a security checkout -- get the bin, shoes off, coat off, backpack in, walk through the doorway, coat on, shoes on, get my backpack -- is a stunning tribute to learned routine. ) World-traveller Kit asked, "So how many planes are we taking?" and at LAX said, "That's it? That was quick!"

In June we roved up to Deep Creek Lake, a two-hour car ride that took us four. On the Fourth of July we celebrated a real hero's return: our next-door neighbor came back from a year in Bahrain. His twin five-year-olds were ecstatic (but not as much as you can imagine their mom was)! I didn't know just how happy I'd be about the whole thing until I discovered that he is a gourmet cook -- and he likes to share! So while I found myself scrambling to make chicken nuggets for dinner, he would pop over with snacks like melon wrapped in prosciutto. Gee, why hadn't I thought of that? John, of course, is VERY appreciative! And so we were blessed with yet another good friend and neighbor.

Throughout the year I have been trying to gain teaching experience in the hope of getting a job, or at least being worth my salt when one comes along. I took a Dalcroze / Musikinesis workshop, and an Arts Integration workshop at The Lucy School (amazing!), and finished a Yoga for Kids certification in November. With Jack so small, I can't really take on anything full-time, but the Y and Montgomery County Recreation are very interested in the Yoga project, and my friend Geneva is in it with me. The Y preschool is also talking with me about a part-time preschool position. Tune into 2010 to see how that all pans out!

John's big news is his assignment in Iraq which begins next autumn. Right now the Middle East is keeping him busy. Actually, nothing is keeping him as busy as his children are (he's on - -notice the quotes -- "vacation"). And I believe that our children are also as perplexing and cranky and volatile as those parts of the world can be, particularly since they've been out of school unexpectedly due to the snowstorm. John is also busy fixing up just about anything in this house he can get his hands on that needs fixing or updated, which is pretty much everything. We recently added a little sunroom to the back of the house. Of course I love it. I did not agree to it, but it is nice. Oh, and it's leaking . . . This is that house.

Kit is just this beautiful ethereal thing that floats around, helpful, perfect . . . and then she's this loud, obnoxious thing we can't turn the volume down on. She's been living life as a buffet, tasting everything, and is presently taking Irish dance lessons and looking forward to cheerleading in January. She is a voracious little reader, and we can no longer spell in front of her by way of talking in parent-code.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Jack's adorableness is his only defense. He is so very two, and now I worry only about the onset of three (in February). His voice slays me: it is so high, and he is so articulate, with a rich vocabulary. It is fascinating to hear what goes on in a two-year-old's head.

And Kelbi? Still the best dog ever. So much for her Israeli roots, there is nothing she loves more than snow!

And that brings us to Christmas! My mom was here for a week, driving down early so we could spend three days together before the kids got out of school, but the snow closed school, and chaos reigned. The best part of Christmas was Mass with the children-- no, really. I have never been to a better formal celebration of Christ's birth. The girls sang in the Cherub Choir before Mass (Kit is very serious about this!) Venite Adoremus Dominum! Then, the priest invited all the children to sit with him for his sermon. About 60-plus children scrambled up to sit with him at the foot of the altar. He was so patient with them, and listened to them. His actions alone were a beautiful message. Then he "took them all to Bethlehem" to bless the creche.
Many children went back to their parents, about ten remained (including Kit and Gabby). Then Fr. Worch went into the congregation and took an 8-week-old baby, whose father had been killed in Afghanistan earlier in the year. He held this baby as he consecrated the Host, with now many kids crowding around the altar (and few dry ieyes in the congregation, as you can imagine). The baby was a calm cucumber, the kids were well behaved. If God would let me have him for a weekend, I'd hire this guy to watch our three.

We're looking forward to 2010, though for what reasons we're not sure yet. It just seems like the surprises are very interesting around here! We love you and think of you often. Whether you are sitting in snow or sand or traffic on the beltway, have a very blessed New Year!

Chris John Gabby Kit Jack and Kelbi

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Up to Our Dog in Snow!

Can you pick the happiest Fleming? Can you pick the Fleming that refused to go out in it (leaving me stranded inside missing all the fun until about 4 o'clock)?!!!! In any case . . .if you were dreaming of it, here it is . . .SNOW!

Friday, November 27, 2009

2009 Turkey Chase

Our day was full of turkey chase, and not one bit of race. Now for that we are most thankful! Oh . . . how does one chase a turkey? Well, there are a few methods:

We hope your Thanksgivings are full of blessings! We love and miss you all. xxxx

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gabby Fleming's Day Off

Last Tuesday Gabby went in for her surgery: new ear tubes; eyetubes that will increase the size and efficacy of her tearducts; and sinus work. She was in surgery for three hours.

Gab was a champ from the get-go, charming all of her doctors and nurses along they way, ready for her big adventure. We have been blessed almost 100% of her life with very warm medical professionals, and she gives them love back, expecting only the best from each next one she meets. She is a dream patient. And although, well, who wants surgery? in some odd way waiting rooms provide us an opportunity for special one-on-one times to draw and snuggle and just be. (There is something to be learned here, right?) For anesthesia, Gabby put the mask on her own face to show them how Jack does his nebulizer, and then I got to tell her a story -- a little meditation -- to send her off on a bubble-gum scented adventure.

Her ENT says he should charge extra, her left ear was so difficult to manage getting glue out of, much less a tube into, and her eardrum is misshapen, so that is a challenge. The eye doc had a similar problem - really small portals! And only three tearducts instead of four! His job is to lace the tube up through her eyelids and down through her nose to provide proper drainage. I have some sport shoes with knots I should send him. I am truly in awe of these people. Back to the ENT, he shrunk her turbinates in her sinuses so there will be more room there as well.

One week later, Gab is healing nicely, certainly hearing better, and talking more. The surgery was Tuesday and she returned to school on Friday. Amazing.

But that's not the best part of the story. The best part was how missed she was at school. Her aide said by the end of the day (on Tuesday) the adults were all calling her Ferris Bueller, because rumors and concerns of her whereabouts had escalated into myth among the students. MInd you, there are over 600 kids in this school. Poor Kit, I walked her home from school on Wednesday, her backpack full of cards from Gabby's friends and our ears full of two fifth graders who had entirely too much to say about surgery. She just rolled her eyes and trudged on. I got one email from a mom of a boy in her class who needed to know before he went to bed if she was ok. The next day she sent this message:

". . . When I was in the car yesterday with Eric, he told me he missed Gabby. He then told me some children at Wyngate had formed a "Gabby fan club" and that yesterday it became the "we miss Gabby club" and he joined the club. "

The "cards" - - scraps of white paper with markers, obviously not teacher-directed, thank goodness -- are so beautiful, telling how they felt she was so brave, and wishing her well, and that they missed her. Ava signed "Love, your only best friend, Ava." (That child is getting a little territorial these days!) Gabby could read them, too! Over and over, she read them out loud to us. Even Jack's preschool teacher who has kids at Wyngate, not in Gabby's class, said her daughter came home concerned because Gabby was not on the playground on Tuesday - -and did she know why?

Of course, as a parent I am touched, but when I look at this with my outsider's eyes, my teacher eyes, I am most moved to see how these kids regard her - - and I am so proud of them. What truly beautiful souls they are to care for her so purely. We are so blessed by them. Now the challenge is for Gabby to learn how to give it all back, in whatever way she can. In return for the cards, I suggested she make a Thank You card. She took a huge pice of paper and traced the letters of "Thank You " that I had written for her. The rest was on her own. She made a hand turkey (which she has just figured out how to do and can't stop doing. We have turkeys everywhere! ) Among a sea of sticker choices, she chose heart stickers and kid-face stickers, so I know she gets this. She certainly values her friends, anyway. A nurse gave her a stuffed bear in the hospital; she wasn't too excited about it, and left it with me. But when the nurse strapped a big, red id tag on her wrist declaring her allergic to Augmentin, she got downright giddy about that big capital A. To every doctor who checked it she gave a knowing smile, and said "Ava."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Greetings from Cloud #8

This past Saturday, Wyngate Elementary had a sock hop, and true to this community's mode d'emploi, it was sweet, good clean fun. Just the girls and I went. We walked there with the neighbors.The gym was hot and loud. The dj was crowded by a wall of 8-10-year-old girls screaming at that pitch that girls scream at. Young boys were sliding and running around the floor. Kit hooked up (literally) with a few friends right away. They linked their glow-stick necklaces and made a glowing rope, and wound their way in and out of the crowd for about an hour of endless fun. Gabby surveyed all of it pretty quickly, sat on the floor, then headed out the door. She wanted air and the PTA snack table full of goodies. More than that, she wanted to go home.

I chalked it up to the overstimulating environment and wrangled her along as we reentered the gym so I could get my coat. I mean, it was a pretty obnoxious atmosphere (and could not by definition be any other way). Then Ava (Gabby's self-appointed best friend) appeared out of nowhere, grabbed Gabby by both hands and leaned into her face, speaking so clearly and excitedly, ""C'mon Gabby! Let's dance!" . . and off they went.

I learned a lot about Gabby right then. What she minded was not seeing a friend right away. She didn't mind the noise or the heat or the darkness or the swirling disco lights. In fact, she and Ava loved them, and pointed at them and danced and jumped and smiled and got soaked with sweat for over an hour. I was disappointed when Ava told me her mom wasn't there--someone had brought her-- because this is the kind of thing a parent should see: the purity of your child. They danced in a big embrace during the "mother and son" dance (to Louis Armstrong's "It's a Wonderful World," in case I wasn't teary enough already).

Gabby always has been loved and accepted, and has always had friends. I just know, as kids get older and the activities get more complicated and the expectations greater, that pure friendships will be more difficult to come by. We are in a good place right now. The reason we moved her along to second grade was because of the relationships she had built with that group of kids. They get her, they genuinely like her, and they help her to learn how to be a kid in school. But these moments, when there is no pressure, when everyone has a free choice about what they want to do and with whom, can you blame me for experiencing an overwhelming feeling of relief and joy?

At the end of the night when my neighbor and I were herding our cats to leave, and I still had Ava with us, I asked where the adult was that she had come with. Then out of the blue appeared a mom to claim her. She offered a hand to introduce herself, and I said "Hi! I'm Christine, Gabby's Mom," feeling as though if I was wearing the tiara at this prom. She offered her name as well, adding, "I'm Sara's mom."

And then I saw it all.

There was Sarah. And where had Ava been all night?

And how could I ever have seen Gabby on this side of the fence? It is a totally new view that I will have to remember to consider.

(Gabby and Ava, on her left in red.)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Our New Assignment

Baghdad. September 2010. For one year.

We knew it was coming, but you still can't prepare for how it is going to feel when you get that news.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mysteries of Halloween

Scary is . . . Mommy in a witch hat, but . . .

not scary is . . . Jack's preschool phys ed teacher, Ryan, who by the way is as big as a Mack truck and quite imposing out of costume.

How could our simple playground turn into pumpkin patch? Why is Jack the only child in his class with the destructive tendency to roll the pumpkins down the slide?

Why can't Gabby stay with me when we go anywhere, but she can freely walk a mile from and back to school in a Halloween parade? Why can't my daughter look at me for one photo?

Why is it that class parties, a trip to the park, and the YMCA Spooktacular, all in one afternoon, cannot beat a pile of leaves in your own front yard?

Why can't our Daddy be Darth Vader like the neighbors' Daddy?

And, finally, we need to know: can Halloween get any better than this?

Happy Halloween!!