There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for the teachers at my kids’ schools. I’ve covered over 60 cereal boxes with red construction paper for Valentine’s Day mailboxes. I’ve spent hours shelving books in the student library. I’ve scoured the internet for classroom party games that meet a narrow field of expectations. I’ve even spent entire days outside to supervise Field Day. OUTSIDE, people, for AN ENTIRE SCHOOL DAY. My devotion runs deep to slather myself in sunblock and sun-protective clothing to be exposed to nature.
This participation has a payoff for my children. There isn’t special treatment with me roaming the halls, but certainly the school staff is aware that my admiration for what they do is real, and they know I support their dedication to educating and influencing my children. It’s important to me that I know each faculty member as best as I can as an individual, and that I give them the chance to know me as well. If we don’t have a connection between us, we can’t possibly team up to provide my kids with a positive school experience. Since I have the time right now to be physically present, I want it to have an impact.
As parents do, I put in effort with the kids while at home to hold up my end of the bargain. I support the classroom rules and encourage respect. I supervise homework, I use the curriculum resources provided, and I’m not shy about sending an email. I may not fully comprehend “new” Math and I may not understand all of the apps and programs my children are assigned to use, but I’m involved, and I can fake enthusiasm better than a college cheerleader during a losing, snowy Homecoming game.
All of us parents want to do right by our kids. We put a tremendous amount of stress on ourselves in the name of giving our children the best “experiences” possible. I recognize that I lost time with them when cancer slowed me down. I couldn’t help with homework or volunteer at their schools when I could barely drag myself out of bed. Family time to read a stack of story books, play board games, or go on vacation was not always a possibility. As my energy slowly returned, my desire to compensate for that missed time cajoled me into volunteer roles with added responsibility. I am driven to compensate for where I was lacking.
That lost time haunts me. To my husband Jason’s credit, the kids do not seem to look back on that time and feel as though they were neglected. I was really the one missing out, but it pushes me and, occasionally, consumes me.
Sometimes cancer and its aftermath have become a crutch for me. Guilt then finds a way to creep in, and I tell myself that I can do more. I push myself harder to give more time or to do better at tasks that I previously would have tried to accomplish with mediocre effort.
Like the shirt above. When Baby #2 was celebrating his 100th day of first grade, I was in a tremendous amount of pain. I was measuring the passing of time by the distance between physical therapy and acupuncture appointments. When he came home with a notice saying that each student needed to create a t-shirt with 100 items on it, I just about cried. I’m not crafty, and my very few Pinterest boards center around recipes I will never try and an ever-growing list of books to read. Such a simple task felt monumental, but I was done with leaving everything to Jason. These were the reasons I was a stay-at-home-mom, right? I should be able to handle this myself, cancer or no cancer. Never mind that pre-cancer this wouldn’t have been my thing, anyway.
I convinced Baby #2 that foam stickers were the way to go, and I made it about a third of the way through affixing them before I was fatigued. For the rest of the stickers, I didn’t bother to remove the backings before applying hot glue. More bonus points for gluing the front and back sides of the shirt together in some places. When I handed it to him, he scowled. When he came home from school on the 100th day, some of the stickers were missing.
“They fell off,” he told me, far from amused.
“Well, I can still see their outline where the backing stayed put,” I told him, “so, technically, there are still 100 shapes on your shirt.”
This time around, for Baby #3, I resolved to do better. He’s the child that has gotten the rawest deal of all from my diagnosis. He was a toddler at that time, a carefree, free-spirited three year old who loved to get lost in his imagination. I was not able to reign him in or to provide primers on the structure that awaited him when he began his scholastic career. His older brother and sister were supported by a school community and a network of families. They also had responsibilities to schoolwork and organized activities. Baby #4 was still an infant and in need of constant care and attention. Who was the easiest child at that time? Baby #3, the one occupied by play for hours, whose schooling only occurred a few times a week with a bonus hour for music class, and who was content to be independent. He didn’t know he needed me, but my heart hurt because I knew that he did.
A few weeks ago, I held his first grade t-shirt notice in my hand as I approached him.
He was sitting at the piano, paying attention to the sheet music in front of him.
“What’s up, Mommy?” he said while striking a chord.
“I want to talk to you about your 100th day of school t-shirt. Maybe you and I can take a trip to the craft store and find some cool things to put on it?”
“Um, nah,” he replied. “Check this out. I think I can play this C position song in G position instead.”
I was impressed that my 6 year-old was transposing a song, but wait. Back to me and my guilt! No foam stickers this time. This kid, constantly lost in the shuffle, he needed better than that.
“You know, we can buy some cool puffy paint and stencils. Or maybe patches?”
He ignored me and continued to play.
I gently cleared my throat. “What do you think? It could be a special project we can work on together.”
He stopped playing, and looked at me. “Mommy, do you hear it? I think I’ve got it.”
I was feeling annoyed. Why wasn’t he paying attention to me?
“Can’t we just get some music stickers and put them on the shirt? Listen, Mommy, I’m doing it!”
Then the guilt, it washed away. I tried to hold on to it, but it ran right through my fingers. I can’t fix the past, but I’m fortunate enough to be here now. He doesn’t need me to move backward; he needs me to be present right here, right now. I must see him now, meet him where he is, and we must move on together from here.
It isn’t about the shirt, and it isn’t about what I could or could not do when he was three. It’s about what I am doing now, right now, standing next to a unique boy who so desperately needs me to see him as he is.
I sat down next to him on the piano bench. “Play it again, Piano Man. Amazon Prime can get those stickers to us in two days.”