Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Spoiled American

Never before have I felt as spoiled as I do now, sitting in my father-in-law's house on Sherkin Island off the coast of West Cork. This small island (population: 100) is a short ferry ride from Baltimore (the original Baltimore, in Ireland) but is a completely different galaxy to Villanova, Pennsylvania.

To be fair, island living is simply different than mainland living. There are no garbage trucks to collect waste. There's no gas station, no Home Depot, no store at all as a matter of fact, unless you count the few necessitites like milk and bread sold out of the pub. So of course certain allowances must be made. But Matty's father takes it to a whole other level.

Take the trash (please!). There's a plate for the birds and a plate for the compost. Paper goes into one bin to be recycled; plastic is washed out carefully and placed in another bin. I've been coming here for 10 years and it's only this visit that I can actually remember what to do with everything; in the past I would simply hand my plate and/or trash to Matty to dispose of.

Matty's father is a recycler, through and through, and not just in the commercial sense. Last night he literally took Declan's Hanukkah present out of his hands so her could carefully remove the wrapping paper to save for another gift. Declan was too flabbergasted to protest. (Granda knew better than to try this with Ronan. He might have lost a finger.)

Everything in the house is turned off and unplugged when not in use. Matt Sr. doesn't even use the dryer, though it's been plugged in for our benefit (his clothes are laid out to freeze, er, dry on the bushes). Hot water doesn't actually come out of any of the faucets; there's a special box heating system for the shower. The oven is tiny and the fridge resembles the one from my dorm room in college.

Don't even get me started on the heat (or lack thereof). I can't tell you how many times we've been visiting some family member for a few hours, shivering in our flimsy American clothes, when our host will suddenly catch herself and say, "Oh, should I turn on the heat?" Turn it on? It's the end of December! Of course you should turn it on!

Worst of all, there's no such thing as Tivo here. Every time I turn on the TV Declan asks me to start the show at the beginning, and whenever there are commercials the boys point and stare as if the box is about to explode.

Okay, that's not really the worst of it. But it does make me realize how spoiled the boys, and I, have become.

Don't get me wrong. I don't actually have a lot of techie toys at home--our DVD player cost about $30, our television is shockingly thick-screened, and I have an Ipod shuffle only because Amy bought me one on the occasion of Molly's birth. But our lives do revolve around the technology we use: we're on and off the computer at home all day, keeping up on news both pressing and frivolous, trying to work, etc. Here the Internet connection is shockinly slow, so surfing the Web becomes more like a rough dog paddle. And at night, there's nothing I like at home more than collapsing into bed and watching the previous night's The Daily Show. Without commercials.

I'd like to say that being here will make me a more careful consumer, will make me appreciate all the luxuries I take for granted in my day to day life. But I'm sure I'll be blithely dumping unsorted trash before I've been home a week. And though Matty swears he'll never complain again about Andy keeping the heat so low in the house, I'm sure we'll start inching it up once Andy heads to NYC for the week.

The truth is, I am a spoiled American. At least for most of the year. For two weeks, I can be a careful-living islander.

But just for two weeks.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Independence Day

I always thought the reasons I enjoy communal living so much were due to the more positive aspects of my character: namely, my flexibility, calmness and generosity.

Now, having spent last week with Keri, Matty and crew in Ireland and Andy in New York City (where he now lives during the week), I'm beginning to suspect my affinity for our living arrangement has much more to do with what I've recently accepted as a staggering degree of helplessness.

Case in point: the heat stopped working. I thought the heat was only working poorly, which isn't that uncommon with a furnace that for all I know may be as old as our house, which was built in 1924. But when Andy came home from NYC on Thursday night, he confirmed that, although the pilot light was on, the water was at room temperature.


Me (huddled in front of the fireplace, from which I had refused to move all day): Should I call Oliver [our heating/cooling company] to come out for an emergency call?

Andy: Nah, I'll figure it out.

It took Andy two expeditions to the basement to discover that a circuit had blown, and with one flick of the finger we were back in business.

It never would have occurred to me to check the circuits. If, say, the Apocalypse had come before Andy came home and suddenly there was no Andy and no Oliver and it was up to me to fix the heating - well, all of us would have spent the winter huddled in front of the fireplace. Which - given the incredibly minor degree of difficulty involved in this particular repair - is pretty depressing.

Second case in point: our neighbor left us a voice mail a couple of days ago, informing us that he and his family were heading out of town for the holidays, but he had connected the snowplow attachment to his pickup truck and left the keys inside, since snow was in the forecast (we live at the top of a big hill, with a quarter-mile driveway that actually belongs to the neighbors, and they typically maintain it). I believe Andy and Matty both know how to work the snowplow, but I've only driven our little tractor snowplow, and feel supremely anxious at the prospect that our ability to leave our house next week might depend on my ability to figure it out on my own.

Our friend Polk said, "There's probably just a lever to move it up and down. You can do it."

Which I've come to understand is a very male attitude. My thoughts were, "What if I damage it? What if I scrape up the driveway? What if I wait until there's too much snow and crash the truck? And so on and so forth.

I've always considered myself an independent person. I've lived alone, and I enjoyed living alone, but that was when I was in graduate school and only had to maintain a little one-bedroom apartment. Now, I look around my house - at the wireless network, the entertainment system, the heating system, the hot water heater, the plumbing, all of it - and all I think is, I couldn't fix that.

Which brings me back to why I like living communally - chances are, the more people around, the more likely it is that one of them will know how to fix whatever happens to break.

But, since it's unlikely the kids will set up such enormous households for themselves when they get older, I feel I should be more proactive - especially with the girls. Whenever Andy or Matty sets to tinker with some failing system, I should just follow them. Maybe then all the females in our household might end up more like my friend Lauren, who knows how to fix lots of things, especially technological things. And I know it will be more of an effort for me to learn, because I have no natural interest in technology, whereas she always has, but I suspect it will be worth it in the end. Because I can't stand the image of myself as Scarlett O'Hara, fluttering my hands and waiting for some man to save me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old...

Our houseguests are gone. Mostly. We had to kick them out of their room when Jonah came home and a few dozen relatives descended for Thanksgiving. Now they just come here to eat and do laundry, since their house has habitable bedrooms but no working kitchen or laundry. It was great having Patrick, Rhea, Jazzy, and Sophia here, and not just because Patrick did the dishes and Rhea made kimchee fried rice for us.

As expected, Jazzy and Erika spent all their time together, in the room they shared at home and in the class they shared at school. What I wasn't expecting was that Declan and Sophia would become such fast friends. The two of them were thick as thieves, disappearing for hours on end to play elaborate games of make-believe or stare at picture books in Declan's room.

Unfortunately, Declan spent so much time with Sophia, he never had time for Hilary. Though Hilary didn't seem to mind--she seems to most enjoy playing or reading by herself in her room--I was sad that the two cousins weren't spending more time together. Now that Sophia is ensconced in her own room a few blocks away (where, I should add, she woke up the first night wailing that she was, "so lonely!"), Declan and Hilary are back to being best buds. This past weekend Matty took Declan and Hilary to the Please Touch Museum, and last week we took Hilary with us to the zoo.

It's been interesting to see the path of Declan and Hilary's relationship, and I'm happy to see we've just about come full circle. When we first moved here almost 3 years ago (gulp!), 18-month-old Declan and almost-3-year-old Hilary were inseparable. But after a while, they fought more than they laughed, and soon they rarely played together at all. Now that they're 4 and 5, they seem to have found their rhythm. Of course they still fight, like any brother and sister. But now it's the exception rather than the rule.

Next year, Hilary will go on to elementary school and Declan will stay at preschool, and I wonder how their relationship will continue to change. Will the two grades that will separate them drive them further apart? Or will they see so little of each other during the school day they'll seek each others company at home at night?

I can't wait to find out.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Holding Down The Fort

In case I needed another reason to be happy Keri and Matty live with us, Andy resigned last week from the job he held for the past 17 years to join the wildly successful venture his two best friends are running . . . in New York City.

Which means that, from Monday to Thursday, he'll be staying in New York.

You might think this means I'll cherish the adult company Keri and Matty provide even more, as well as their cooking, driving, cleaning, and conflict resolution skills - all of which means I'm not captaining this chaotic vessel on my own. And that's true. But what I'm really so very glad about, more than anything else, is that they're here at night.

People generally perceive me as a pretty laid back person. And I really don't worry much about things like, where I'll sleep the 10 extra people coming in for Thanksgiving, or whether my house is spotless when guests arrive, or whether the pressure in my tires is low. But I have been known to worry about completely improbable scenarios, such as how I would get all my kids out in the event of a fire. Or what I would do if a homicidal maniac broke into the house.

A historically-minded person once told me that the layout of my house - in which many of the bedrooms are connected by interior doors - became popular after the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, so parents could lock the hallway doors to their children's rooms and still be able to move between rooms to check on them.

Thanks a lot, whoever that was. Now there's something else to lie awake at night thinking about.

But I don't lie awake at night. Because with Keri and Matty here, I feel safe. If there were a fire, I wouldn't have to get all the kids out myself. And if there were an intruder, he'd have to fight off all three of us (with all our mad skillz).

So, Andy, if you're concerned about how I'll get on while you're gone, don't worry. I'll miss you, but we'll be fine.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Two weeks later, I can finally write about Thanksgiving weekend without feeling exhausted. Our first visitors arrived the Tuesday prior and left the Monday following. In between, eight of our cousins passed through the house, and one night 13 kids sat down to dinner (pizza, of course; I'm not crazy enough to actually cook dinner for 13 children). It was a wonderfully hectic weekend filled with family and friends, ending on Sunday with a bris hosted for our friend Lauren, who welcomed Henry Eliot to her family.

I was a bit worried about how Declan would fare over the weekend. All the visiting cousins were older--between 8 and 11 years of age--and, save one, female. As I've written before, Declan keeps one foot with the younger kids and one foot with the older ones. I had no doubt that with all the big cousins around, Declan would prefer to hang with the older crowd; but would they want to hang out with him?

I needn't have worried. Though 8-year-old Justin, the lone male cousin over the age of 4, didn't always get on well with all the girls, Declan proved to be a popular kid. I guess I underestimated the cute factor. Girls love cute little kids. Both Declan and Ronan fell in love with their cousins, especially Megan and Brooke, who live in Ohio. We're hoping we can make a trip out there in the spring so the kids can see each other again.

The whole weekend made me realize how lucky we are to have all the kids living together. I wish Megan and Brooke lived closer, so Declan and Ronan could spend more time with them, and so I could get to know them as well as I have gotten to know Jonah, Erika, Hilary, Aaron, and Gretchen. The thought of Ronan and Aaron only seeing each other a few times a year, instead of being the constant companions they are now, makes me sad.

As warm and fuzzy as I felt about seeing all the kids together, I'm sure it was nothing compared to how my great aunt Rose felt. Aunt Rose lost Uncle Bob, her husband of more than 70 years, last June, and this was her first visit up North since then. She couldn't stop telling us how happy she was, how she would remember this weekend forever.

I'll remember it too, because I'm sure it won't be long until Declan tires of being an adorable playmate and decides it would be more fun to tie Brooke's bra to the balcony railing or steal Megan's diary and post excerpts on the Internet.

Hopefully, the adorable playmate thing will work for a few more years.

Thanksgiving: The Menu

So what do you feed 30 people for Thanksgiving dinner? Here's what we served:

Smoked Turkey (above, perched in Patrick's Big Green Egg)
Roast Turkey
Grilled Leg of Lamb
Chestnut Stuffing
Mashed Potatoes
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Brussels Sprouts with Turkey Bacon
Glazed Carrots

And for dessert...
Gingerbread Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
Bourbon Pecan Pie
Maple Walnut Baklava
Pumpkin Pie
Aunt Rose's Mandel Bread
Barbara's Brownies and Peanut Butter Cookies
Andy's Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Jonah's Home!!!!

After ten months and fourteen days, we finally brought Jonah back from Kennedy Krieger yesterday.

We admitted a child who was plagued by constant chemical surges in his brain that made him agitated, aggressive and sad. When he was discharged, Jonah's disruptive behaviors in academic settings had decreased by 99.7%. His rates had dropped so low that his psychiatrist determined there was no need to try adding a new medication, as was the plan the last time I posted an update.

As you can imagine, it was a very emotional day. Not quite as emotional as the day we dropped him off, but pretty close. I cried, Jonah's aides cried. We videotaped fond messages from everyone on his team and snapped pictures of him being hugged by his speech pathologist, his behavior therapists, his psychologist, and his aides.

It's hard sometimes to figure out what Jonah's thinking, but I'd say he was pretty happy. He wasn't thrilled that we had moved his room while he was gone, but once we showed him all the markers in his cabinet, he adjusted fairly quickly. Today, he started his new school, and we started re-adjusting to life with Jonah. And it will take some adjusting, even though we're all, down to the two-year-olds, absolutely thrilled to have him back. This morning, for example, was pretty frenetic. You wouldn't think getting eight kids up and ready for the day would be that much more work than seven, but it is. Especially when you have to make sure that eighth kid eats his medicine-infused peanut butter sandwich and doesn't take advantage of his new freedom to fall back into old habits, like writing on the walls.

But, if there's one thing I've learned as the parents of a child with a disability, you can adjust to anything. I adjusted when my beautiful baby grew into a toddler, then a boy, who would come after me every day in a blind, unreachable rage: biting, punching, scratching, grabbing, then five minutes later crawl into my lap for a hug as if nothing had ever happened. I adjusted when he stopped eating anything but pretzels and peanut butter and had to spend a month as an outpatient at CHOP's feeding clinic, where I watched therapists force feed him, after which I was taught to force feed him myself. I adjusted when my nine-year-old son went to live in a hospital two hours away, and now I get to adjust to having him back. I think, now, there is nothing that could happen to me that would simply stop me in my tracks.

And I don't mean to suggest there's anything special about me. I think, for the most part, people cope. Period. That's why it always bugs me when some well-meaning acquaintance says something like, "I don't know how you do it. I could never handle it." I think most parents in my position feel similarly: none of us thought we could do it, but we did it. We do it. And if you had to do it, you would too. I'll never forget something Andy said once, about seven years ago. Jonah hadn't been diagnosed yet, but the writing was on the wall, and one day while we were riding in the car, Andy said, "It would be okay if we had a special needs child." This was Andy talking, super over-achieving Andy, who had already decided that all our kids (3 out of 5 of which hadn't even been born yet) were going to go to Penn and become investment bankers. But what he was really saying was, "I love Jonah. Nothing can change that."

But, hopefully, all that bad adjusting is behind us, and we can look forward to more good adjusting: adjusting to a child who's finally thriving in school, who can carry on a conversation, who plays with his siblings. Jonah's teachers had always said that once his behaviors were resolved, there was no ceiling on what he can accomplish. Now, after a seven-year-struggle, we're so excited to find out how high he can go.