“Mom, mom, mom, mom!” The constant chatter of Keeghan, Renee’s overly-verbal 3-year-old filled the Suburban as we traveled down the road to Nashville. For the second time this week, Keeghan lost his green Starbucks straw and from his broken-hearted response we assumed his world had come to a drastic end. “I need my straw! I need it! My green straw!” Silence eventually enveloped the car as he finally succumbed to his weariness and passed out for a nap. Relief flooded both our faces as we jokingly offered our thanks to the Lord for the quiet.
This past week, I traveled to Tennessee to visit my friend, Renee for five days. Renee and I go way back, having met our freshmen year of college when we both resided on the same dorm wing. That same year, when she started dating, Frank, a mutual friend of my brother-in-law’s, my sister’s and mine, we all became one happy non-related family. With hysterical inside jokes that date back to 1997, we have all walked our separate journeys but have maintained one of those friendships that you know no matter how much time passes between your last contact, you will always find a way to get back to that original state of intimacy where encouragement and the sharing of personal struggles is present. Friends like that don’t come around often and the older I become, the more I cherish those individuals with whom I can relax, let down my guard and be my completely honest self.
It has been at least six years since I have seen Frank and Renee as they relocated from California to Tennessee for Frank’s job with the Army. While I am off of work healing from my treatment of cancer, and since I can basically rest anywhere, I took the opportunity to visit their family for a few days. Frank is currently in Afghanistan for his 4th, yes, I said FOURTH tour of duty. He is scheduled to return home for a quick R & R soon and due to the fact that I have not seen them since they have added their 3 youngest children to the mix, I decided to take advantage of the chance to visit without interfering with Frank’s highly anticipated homecoming.
During my short visit, amidst the constant activity of raising her 5 children, one thing was very evident…Renee is as close to a modern-day “Wonder Woman” as I have met. Minus a costume designed of spandex and a bold cape, Renee exudes authority and courage, the likes of which would make She-Ra, The Princess of Power (twin sister of He-Man) immensely proud! In fact, after only the first day of living their schedule, it was quite clear that only the strength of a Mattel super hero could in fact mimic and be successful at the way Renee manages this household. With a structure that would make an admitted Type A personality envious, their days were closely monitored in order to fit all the activities in during the school week.
Just to give you a small preview, the house stirred anywhere between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. Monday through Friday. Breakfast was served quickly as Renee assisted the younger children (Kennedy, age 6; Keeghan and Kellsey, both age 3…Kellsey was adopted from the Ukraine and joined them ten months ago) with dressing and feeding and directed the older two children, Kassidy, age 10 and Kameron, age 8… to double-check that their homework was in their backpacks and they were presentable for the day ahead. Chores were completed swiftly before leaving the house, and they all loaded into the car by 8:00 a.m. The vehicle was packed with car seats for those 6 and under and the oldest, Kassidy helped with getting the kids situated while Renee ensured everyone was safely buckled before leaving the driveway. Onto the “car circle” which is an anomaly all its own, Renee joined a line at the Elementary school where the P.E. coaches directed the endless stream of vehicles during the unloading and loading process of all the students. With extremely strict guidelines, Renee has learned to maneuver the circle with aptitude and the timing of a well oiled machine.
Next stop was school for Kellsey and then on the days he was scheduled, Keeghan also enjoyed attending preschool. Renee is currently homeschooling Kennedy for her Kindergarten year. After the children were deposited to their respective locations, it was off to therapy for Kennedy and sometimes Kellsey, depending on the day.
Both Kennedy and Kellsey have been diagnosed with Down Syndrome and are enrolled in a variety of services, including reading clinic, occupational therapy and speech therapy to encourage their individual growth and development. As I have not been privileged to be around a child with Down Syndrome on a daily basis, I was overcome with pride and a deep love for Renee’s two sweet girls as I witnessed firsthand the way she fights for her children, loves her children and advocates for their needs with tenacity and grace. It was beyond evident to me how well-cared for and adjusted Kennedy and Kellsey are and how intentional Renee is with providing a place for them to learn social skills and including them in all of the family activities. As a social worker, I have been trained in and work closely with families who have adopted children and recognize the daily strength it takes to successfully raise a child who has not always been in your care. There is a major period of transition that occurs in every adoption and to successfully guide a child who is not only adopted but diagnosed with a developmental disability takes a very strong, caring and passionate individual. Renee has worked hard to help transition Kellsey into their lives and it became very apparent to me when I repeatedly saw the sweet smile planted on Kellsey’s face that she is growing as a member of their family and is receiving all the love and care that every child needs and deserves.
In addition to her regular itinerary, Renee drives up to an hour each way to Nashville twice a week in order to take Kennedy for her services, making the entire venture an all day process once she drops off and returns back home with all of the children. Kennedy is also participating in a ballet and tap class once a week. It was so fun to observe her twirling with the other two youngsters in the class (when they weren’t taking turns flopping on the floor while the others marched around the studio), and I remembered with fondness my own hatred of the tights I had to wear as a kid for gymnastics when she tugged and adjusted them around her leotard.
After therapy, it was lunchtime and then back in line for the car circle. I learned quickly that we had to either wait an hour prior to the release of school in order to be in the front of the line, or wait an hour after the kids were released to finally approach the entrance where they must stay patiently for their parents to arrive. Needless to say, the hours spent in the car everyday gave us all the time needed to catch up on the past several years. By the time all of the children were retrieved, it was 4:00 p.m. when we got home each day. Once home, Kassidy and Kameron did their homework while dinner was prepared. During their free time, the kids played with one another, enjoying board games, toys and reading books. Without hesitation, at least one child would hold up arms to sit on my lap and throughout the course of the evening we cuddled and read books. I loved every minute, especially when all of the kids would join me on the couch for a reading marathon. By 8:00 p.m. the dinner dishes were washed, the living room was straightened and everyone was showered, in fresh pj’s and in bed.
This week, I experienced that no matter how well-behaved your children are and how much you love spending time with them, there is nothing like the quiet moments you have to yourself once the house is again still and you can take the time necessary to rejuvenate for the days to come. Renee and I were even blessed when her mom agreed to babysit so we could get in a movie (at a real theater!) Her mom also relocated to be near the family and is quick to offer her assistance when Renee needs an extra hand. It is evident how thankful Renee is to have her mom nearby who is willing to step in and support when necessary. On the drive to the movie, Renee admitted it was the first time she had been to the theater to see a “grown up movie” since her husband deployed this past March. You could almost see the stress exit her body as she sank into the plush seats with her beverage and sour patch gummy worms, and we laughed with abandon as the brainless entertainment took us away from the busy events of the day.
In her free time (wink, wink), Renee maintains a blog online to journal their adventures as a family and to document the ups and downs of the realities of cancer…Kennedy was recently pronounced in remission after a several year battle with Leukemia…the challenges and joys of being a parent (sometimes a single one when Frank is deployed) and helps bring awareness to others about Down Syndrome. She also chronicled their journey through the adoption process of bringing Kellsey home. The last night of my visit, Renee read with sadness, a comment from an individual who questioned her love for Kellsey as the writer basically thought Renee does not mention Kellsey enough in her blogs. Sparing the horrific details of the entire post, I’ll just explain that the person went on to leave a very hurtful statement that was posted publicly on Renee’s blog for all to see. It was so hard for me to sit back and watch as Renee defended herself to this person when all I really wanted to do was jump up in her defense and demand a recall of the post. The truth of the ugly matter is that until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes (which I tried to do this week) you have absolutely no idea what it is like from their perspective. Even though this isn’t a unique thought, it was so clear to me that night that we spend way too much time judging and pointing fingers at others, when in fact we should be focusing more on how to improve our own lives…our own faults. I went to bed that night extremely upset that my friend was hurting and I could do nothing to solve it. But it taught me a valuable lesson as well. There have been way too many times I have made rash judgments on others when I didn’t have the full truth, and more importantly, it really wasn’t any of my business to begin with. I am learning, yet again, how brilliant yet harsh the tongue can be when used incorrectly. I had to stop, evaluate and ask myself how often I judge myself as painfully as I do others…
Thursday night before my Friday afternoon departure, Renee amazed me even more when she agreed to help out a friend who needed someone to watch her two children for a few hours after school. I witnessed firsthand the sisterhood of military wives who step in and support one another while their husbands are deployed, and even though I’ve had the unique chance to live life with the military community on more than one occasion as an adult, it hit me all the more how strong the spouses are who are left behind when their mate goes off to war. These two women, bonded by the same circumstances did what was necessary to make a difficult time just a bit easier. I was reminded that regardless of political beliefs, it’s extremely important for us to support and pray for every soldier represented in our military and off fighting for the everyday freedoms we take for granted, but it’s as equally vital to acknowledge, lift up in prayer and lend a hand of help to those who are still at home.
I am thankful for my time in Tennessee…to have been fortunate enough to be a part of this family, to observe their comings and goings…to remember how small I am and how big this world is around me…I gained an education…a reminder that life really isn’t about me and those days when I’m feeling overwhelmed with my trials and thinking I can take some time to feel sorry for myself, I will recall my days in Tennessee and take a small shot at trying to live up to this very real, present day, Wonder Woman!