Friday, May 30, 2014

You've come a long way, baby!

My son won an award today, and I'm so proud of him! It's especially awesome given his history from birth.

As many of you know, Chris was born in crisis at 24 weeks gestation, weighing just 1 pound, 6 ounces. Read his birth story here and more reflections on his 16th birthday here. His neonatologist said he had a 50 percent chance of survival, and if he survived, he'd have a 50 percent chance of major disabilities. His childhood had its challenges--he didn't talk until he was three, and he had motor delays. As a baby and toddler, he also had some serious feeding problems caused by reflux. He had to start wearing glasses at age 3 because of retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disease that preemies get (and that made Stevie Wonder go blind). He didn't even get on the growth charts until he was 3 or 4. The tall kidney doctor wanted to put him on growth hormones, but we resisted. 
When he went off to preschool, he needed some help with social skills, but otherwise he was doing fine. Although it took him longer to learn how to write, he was an early and avid reader. Throughout Chris' childhood, we knew every day how lucky he was--and how lucky we were--that he had not experienced more problems from his prematurity. 

Although he was a strong reader, he began struggling with math in second grade. In third grade, he suffered from a grand mal seizure and was diagnosed with epilepsy (he's since become cured of epilepsy). We knew from a few MRIs that his brain was not typical...most likely because of cerebral edema and low flow to the brain in the NICU. But again, he is luckier than most 24-weekers because he never had a brain bleed.

With his fifth-grade teacher
In fourth grade, he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, and in fifth grade, his teacher saw such a gap between his math and verbal scores that he was put on an individual education plan (IEP) for math and organizational skills. I remember being highly emotional during these meetings and the whole IEP process, because as a preemie mom, I so desperately wanted my child to be "normal." 
It's never easy for a parent to hear that your child needs special help in school but in my case it brought up post-traumatic stress. This was not helped when a former friend made some insensitive comments about Chris. I know she was trying to "help," but she was extremely hurtful.

After the IEP began, he started getting extra help at school and we enrolled him in Kumon math tutoring, which focuses on helping kids master the basics and building on their self-confidence and success. That helped him build a strong math foundation, which sticks to this day. In middle school, we navigated the IEP process and hated the fact that each IEP meeting focused mostly on what Chris needed to work on rather than on what he was doing well (getting good grades, great behavior, etc.). I know that any parent with a child on an IEP can relate. 

It didn't help that he had some truly pathetic middle school teachers--one special ed case manager who was completely hopeless and two awful science teachers. Nevertheless, he managed to enjoy middle school and do well with just a few days spent in a study hall and the ability to take standardized tests in a quiet room for extra support. He also experienced some bullying, because Chris is a friendly, enthusiastic young man...not the characteristics that are considered "cool" in middle school. He got good grades overall, and we always felt that a C in math was good as long as he did his best. While Chris enjoyed middle school, I do not have fond memories of that era, at all...but before he left middle school, he came off the IEP because he was doing so well. He didn't need any extra help to succeed.

When we began to think about high school, we learned about Thomas A. Edison High School, which specializes in teaching kids with learning disabilities--specifically ADD/ADHD and dyslexia. It's very small with just 80 students, and the teacher-student ratio per class is about one to eight. It's expensive and has been a financial sacrifice. (With that said, the school does give out a lot of money in scholarships.) We are staunch supporters of public schools, but we felt that this would be a place where Chris could thrive. We knew he would do fine at a public high school, but we wanted him to do well and give him a great start at adulthood. At first he didn't want to go there because he wanted to stay with his friends. It didn't take him too long to settle in though, and he loves the opportunity to do drama and music at nearby Jesuit. By the end of his freshman year, he wrote this letter about why he wanted to return for his sophomore year

Last fall, he was one of two student speakers at the Edison Breakfast, where he spoke about his experiences at Edison in front of an audience of several hundred people. 

Now he's almost done with his junior year, and today we were invited to an awards assembly where each teacher presented an academic award to the top student in each grade. We also attended last year, when we found out that Chris had been appointed as a peer helper, a group that meets regularly with the counselor to help students who are having social problems. He's also served on student council in the last two years. So we expected that kind of recognition again--both great honors!
Student council recognition
Peer counselor recognition
But imagine our shock when his gifted Algebra 2 teacher, Colin Livesey, announced that Chris was receiving an academic achievement award. This is the kid who went on an IEP for math! Even though the Edison teachers are all extraordinary, we've been astonished by Chris' turnaround in math--because of amazing teachers. Last fall in his student-led conference, Chris' physics teacher commented about his strong math skills and how they help him in physics. (Our kid? :)) 
Talking about Chris' achievements
This year Mr. Livesey has been using a new technique for teaching math, and it seems to work extremely well for Chris. Instead of spending the time in class lecturing and teaching Algebra 2 concepts, he makes a video of himself jotting down the equations and lessons. The students watch the video at home and take notes, and then they spend the class time going over the concepts and discussing them. This approach has been highly effective for Chris, and he's been getting As.

Mr. Livesey is one of the most devoted teachers I've ever seen. He also has the Algebra 2 students come in early for an extra half period a few mornings a week, just so they can thoroughly understand the concepts. He also teaches swing dancing and boat building, and coaches the school's ultimate frisbee team. When the principal spoke about Mr. Livesey today, he said that he has recently cut back to 12-hour days and it's his perpetual goal to get to school earlier than Mr. Livesey--he hasn't succeeded yet.

I only wish that I'd had a math teacher like this when I was in high school. I'm embarassed to admit that I got two Ds in high school--one in Algebra 2 and the other in Physics. I didn't have good study skills and the content didn't come easily to me. I don't think it comes easily to Chris, either (he was born to two English majors!), but he works extremely hard and he has an amazing teacher. 
Receiving his award
From not meeting math benchmarks in grade school to being happy with Cs in middle school, it's been a journey for Chris to get to this point. Algebra 2 is the highest-level math his school offers, so next year he's off to Jesuit High School to take his final high school math class. I am so proud of my little micropreemie!! 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

An open letter to moms of GLBTQ kids

A coworker and friend wrote this letter and posted it on Facebook, and she has given me permission to share it here. Nichole and I worked in the same office for several years, but we didn't talk much until her son Coulter was born prematurely. NICU crises make fast friends! We started getting together for coffee, but sadly for me, she moved to Philadelphia a few years ago to be near family. I miss having her in Portland, but thank goodness for Facebook! She wrote this on her commute this morning, and I love it.

Much of this applies to dads too (Nichole's husband Sean is a stay-at-home dad and household manager like mine, in addition to being a creative genius), but she's writing it from her perspective as a mom.

Nichole and Sean in the NICU
As many of the recent court decisions supporting marriage equality have been in the news, I'm seeing a rise in the number of young people on Facebook, Twitter, equality forums, etc. lamenting that their parents are struggling to accept this paradigm shift. I’ve been thinking so much about how this happens. How do we go from supportive parents to this?
Mommas, remember when they were little and new, and so very helpless? Remember being up every two hours coddling, rocking, feeding, looking into those wee little eyes, and feeling the curled fingers on their tiny hands and we are thinking, "I could not be more in love.

With her son
Remember spending nights administering medicine, rubbing bellies, and soothing nightmares and days kissing boo boos, running after bicycles, and arranging play dates? We send them to camp, pay for them to explore their creative sides, encourage them to understand the natural world, to be question askers and problem solvers. We tell them to stand up for themselves, that they have the right to be anything they want to be...we teach them empathy and compassion. We sit through school plays and hang up art work on the fridge, we quote them to our friends, noting how genius their statements are. We practice for spelling bees and learn algebra again so we can help with homework. We wash their blankies, and buy their favorite foods, and we love them so freaking much that it feels like our hearts might explode. We dream about what they will say when they win their first gold, or graduate from college, or become president. We hope they say, “I’d like to thank my mom…”

 ….and then one day, on a day that might be especially difficult for them, when they have something to tell us that is life changing, we turn our backs. We tell them we are uncomfortable with what they are saying, and therefore, we choose to damage the relationship we have fostered for so many decades. We choose to say things to hurt this child that we have loved, encouraged, supported, and challenged from their first cries. We do this why? Out of fear. Mommas, I hear you. You're afraid and worried about what the future holds for your babies. You're scared the world will be mean to them, point and laugh, wonder who will take care of them when they're old, should they choose not to be parents themselves. You lay awake at night hoping they're safe and happy and running through parenting scenarios in your head to double check if you could've done better. Moms, this isn’t unique to you. We all do this. This is called unconditional love, and it is what we signed up for when we decided to have this baby.

You have spent so much time building them up, protecting and fighting for them. Now is no time to walk away, mommas. Now, is the call for action. Now, you have a choice. Your kid, that kid, who cried in your arms when she wasn’t invited to the cool girl’s 10th birthday party; that kid, whose friends laughed at him when he fell off his bike; the child whose heart was broken when his pet fish died...that kid needs you, now more than ever. Look into your heart and remember how to be that mom. Someone out there, who has never met your child, seen his brilliance, heard him sing, watched him dance, is telling him that he has fewer rights than other kids. Whoa...are you okay with that? You told him to realize who he was, to live a whole life, to battle his demons, and now someone else is taking that from him.
No one is asking you to join PFLAG tomorrow or get a rainbow tattoo on your ankle (although if you want to get organized, visit and I suggest a tattoo on the back for women our age). Take baby steps. Call your kid, go to lunch, talk, ask questions, maybe someday you can meet his boyfriend.

Walking the talk
You’ve done a fantastic job Mom, you raised a kid who is true to who she is. If she is getting married, then you also raised a person that was chosen by another as a soulmate. Wow--what an honor. Someone in this world thinks your kiddo is so freaking amazing that she is devoting her whole life to being her partner. Way to knock it out of the park, momma! Dig deep in your belly, to remember that biological pull that is “mother” and be that person your kid needs right now.

Remember the time you sat on the side of the stage when she was the lead in the play and forgot the words, and you mouthed them to her through cupped hands and you sent signals to her with your eyes that said, “you were born for this…you can do this, I believe in you like no other. I am your momma and no one can hurt you…not on my watch."

Thanks, Nichole, for sharing your profound words of wisdom and love for your children and all children who are struggling to be their true selves.

Remembering Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

My first glimpse of Maya Angelou came as a teenager when I read her searingly raw memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I remember being touched by how honestly she shared her painful childhood story of sexual abuse, silence, and neglect.

In college, I traveled across town in Tacoma, Washington, to a neighboring college (University of Puget Sound) to hear Ms. Angelou speak for the first time. She mesmerized me. Later on, I heard her speak again--this time with Mike--at the University of Portland.

If you'd like to know more about Maya Angelou, I recommend this photo biography: Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration, by Marcia Ann Gillespie, or her several autobiographies. A few years ago I read Letters to My Daughter, in which she shares bite-size wisdom with the daughter she never had. I liked it, but it was not as strong as some of her earlier work. I have only read the first of her autobiographies (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), so I think I need to go back and read them all.

Did you know?
  • She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on her 40th birthday.
  • She didn't speak for almost 5 years, as a child, after she was raped by her mother's boyfriend at the age of 8.
  • Her grandmother raised her, and she had a complicated relationship with her mother.
  • She worked as the first female streetcar conductor in San Francisco before graduating from high school.
  • Three weeks after graduating, she gave birth to her son Clyde at the age of 17.
  • Before becoming a writer, she worked as a fry cook, nightclub dancer and performer, prostitute, opera singer, community activist (for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and journalist in Egypt and Ghana.
  • She studied African dance, had a popular nightclub act, and toured Europe as member of the "Porgy and Bess" production.
  • She wrote seven autobiographies, three essay collections, and several poetry books, in addition to plays, movies, and TV shows.
  • When she recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's inauguration, she was the first poet to speak at the inauguration since Robert Frost spoke at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.
  • She campaigned for Hillary Clinton until Clinton ended her presidential bid, and then she threw her support behind Barack Obama.
  • She didn't earn a university degree (not counting several honorary degrees), but she preferred to be called "Dr. Angelou" in public.
  • She loved to cook and hosted many dinner parties in her home. Hallelujah! The Welcome Table! has 73 recipes and 28 vignettes about food. Another cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart, focused on healthier cooking.
  • She had a daily writing ritual of waking early in the morning and checking into a hotel room without any pictures on the walls. She wrote on legal pads while lying in bed, with a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards, a thesaurus, and a Bible. In the evening, she would edit her 10 to 12 pages of writing. She considered writing to be cathartic and a way to "tell the human truth." The playing cards helped her access her memories.
  • As an actress, she appeared in many plays, films, and TV programs, including "Roots" in 1977. She was the first black woman to have a screenplay produced and the first to direct a major film ("Down in the Delta" in 1998). 
  • She gave around 80 lectures per year into her 80s.
Receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011
All my friends have at least one favorite Maya Angelou quote. I can't possibly choose just one. Her words and life touched so many people.

As a proud, powerful Black woman, raped as a child and raised in poverty, she faced double whammies of racism and discrimination yet rose up to be a phenomenal woman--full of grace, forgiveness, righteous anger and activism, inspiration, and compassion. Such a huge loss.

First we lost Nelson Mandela--Angelou's friend--six months ago, and now her. This morning I listened to this poem she wrote for Mandela, and the tears flowed. I leave you with these excerpts from that poem, adapted slightly:

Her day is done.
Is done.
The news came on the wings of a wind
Reluctant to carry its burden.

The news, expected and still unwelcome
Reached us...and suddenly
Our world became somber.
Our skies were leadened
Her day is done.

She has offered us understanding
We will not withhold forgiveness
Even from those who do not ask
Maya Angelou's day is done
We confess it in tearful voices
Yet we lift our own to say
Thank You.

We will not forget you
We will not dishonor you
We will remember and be glad
That you lived among us
That you taught us
That you loved us

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Tribute to our mom

Today my sister and I shared this tribute to our mom at church. Mission of the Atonement, a progressive community of Lutherans and Catholics, has a tradition of having lay speakers on Mother's Day and Father's Day. Our parents had no idea that we were going to speak, so it was fun to surprise our mom. 

Mom and Dad with all the grandsons
 at their 50th anniversary party,
which she did enjoy in the end!
We can just imagine our mom’s embarrassment, knowing we’re going to talk about her. We helped her plan their 50th anniversary party a few years ago, and it required a great deal of patience.

She doesn’t like being the center of attention and was ambivalent about having a party in her honor. She was concerned people would think she was making a big deal out of being married for 50 years and they would only come out of obligation. We suggested wording for the invitation, “We hope you won’t be able to come.”  Seriously, though, we are happy to embarrass and honor our wonderful mom on this special day.

Mom, like our Nicholas, was the bonus baby. Her sister and brother were teenagers when she was born, so she was cherished by her family. Her mom Rita was a master gardener—quiet and compassionate—and her dad Lloyd was funny, opinionated, and strong willed.

At Oregon City High School, Mom played marimba and drums. It was unusual in the 1950s for a girl to play percussion. She always encouraged our pursuit of music and paid for both lessons and musical instruments without hesitation.

Mom's family seeing them off at the airport
Even though Mom and Dad went to high school together, they got to know each other at PLU when Dad would transport people home for extra money…and Mom needed a ride. Although they went out on one date, when Dad found out Mom had been out with someone else, he thought she was not interested. But then she asked him to a Tolo dance. This story taught us that a good man is worth pursuing. They got married soon after she graduated.

Then they went to Germany to work for a few years and travel throughout Europe. What we didn’t realize until later was that they had planted the desire for travel in both of us. We were 19 and 21 and we flew off to live in China and Japan within one week of each other. As parents, we find it hard to comprehend how difficult this must have been, but they always encouraged us.

Seeing me off at the airport to live in Japan (August 1986)
 (Nadine left for China a week later!)
With my mom
Like both of us, Mom did not come to motherhood easily. Her first pregnancy resulted in miscarriage. Then when she was pregnant with me, she got German measles. As a result, I was born with multiple birth defects, but Mom only saw a beautiful baby. Throughout my childhood, I had surgeries to correct my cleft lip and palate. When I was a toddler, she had to force a speech appliance into my mouth every day, and I would gag and cry. It can’t have been easy for her to see her child go through that.

Two years later, I (Nadine) was born. A few years later, our brother Stephen was born weighing only 5 pounds, and he had to spend several days in the hospital to gain weight. Mom stayed at home while Dad taught and went to graduate school.  As mothers of 3 kids, it’s easy to feel inadequate and overwhelmed. But one phone call to Mom reassures us our kids will be okay and we need to be kind to ourselves. And knowing Mom wasn’t perfect makes us feel better. For example, one day she was making cocoa for Stephen and he kept telling her it was too hot, then too cold, then too hot. He pushed her so far that she decided to pour the cocoa on his head. Our kids love to hear this story.
Family around 1973

Living on one teaching salary meant we didn’t have much money. Dad would take on summer jobs and Mom made do with a small grocery budget. She was an adventurous cook—we had tacos and teriyaki long before our friends had heard of them. We almost always had home-cooked family dinners together, and she taught us how to cook at a young age.

What we lacked in money, we had in love and security.  As parents now, we know that food, shelter, and unconditional love are the three ingredients of a happy childhood. We either made our own clothes or bought them on sale, and our big-ticket gifts like bikes, stereos, or musical instruments were secondhand. We camped on family vacations instead of staying in hotels. We have wonderful childhood memories.

Visiting relatives in Philadelphia, 1981--check out those knee highs!
One of our favorite memories of our time together is the six-week road trip we took across the U.S. We camped and stayed with friends along the way—visiting Mt. Rushmore, the Midwest, Philadelphia, Massachusetts, New York, Washington DC, and the Rockies. It was a grand adventure!

Mom instilled four important lessons in us. First, she taught us that what we do as women matters, and that we should pursue rewarding careers. When we were in middle school, Mom went back to school to get her master’s degree in counseling. That meant we needed to help with the meals and be more independent.

My graduation from PLU in 1986, with a B.A. in English
Our parents made sacrifices to help us attend college, and we went there believing we could be or do anything we wanted. But they never pressured us to pursue a particular career path…even when I changed my major to English!

After Mom got her graduate degree, she went back to work as a mental health therapist at St. Vincent Hospital. What Mom demonstrated to us was that women should seek their own fulfillment and not just live their lives through their children. She set a great example of a work-life balance that we both strive for to this day.

The second important lesson was the importance of community. We were raised in this church, then Atonement Lutheran Church, which had a lot in common with Mission of the Atonement. We learned that the best way to experience God’s love was in fellowship and community. I also remember, long before I took feminist theology in college, asking Mom if God was a he or she. She was so far ahead of her time…she told me that God has no gender, even though all the language in the church told me otherwise. It took me years to finally get that.

The third thing is that relationships matter. We knew our parents needed to spend time together to keep their marriage healthy. Mom also taught us to voice our opinions in our relationships. As some of you know, the Gettel women are a bit more opinionated than our husbands. We blame our mother for this. Just like her, we aren’t shy about sharing our opinions with our husbands.

Mom also spent time with her carefully selected friends. She chose friends who were like her--funny, intelligent, loving, and compassionate. As I look at the close friends all three of us have today, they share those four characteristics. She trained us well to choose our friends wisely.
Celebrating Mother's Day this afternoon--
Mom with all three kids
With my boys on Mother's Day
And finally, Mom taught us the importance of family. Because of this, Marie and I both chose partners who also value family. Mom and Dad demonstrate amazing commitment to their siblings as they age and need more help. They regularly visit our uncle, who has Alzheimer’s, while some have forgotten him.

Mom is always there when we need her…from Christopher’s long NICU stay, Nadine’s bedrest with the twins, to when we’ve been recovering from surgeries, Mom is a steady, loving presence.

She is also an incredible grandma to our six boys. She’s a grandma who plays Monopoly, shows them how to cook, eats popcorn and watches the Blazers, reads books, and showers them with affection. We cannot imagine having a better role model as a mother and grandmother. She is encouraging, supportive, wise, genuine, and loving.

We are both happy with our testosterone-charged families…but we also need our female time. On Friday night we just had our annual Mother’s Day getaway, which all three of us treasure.

With Mom on Friday night, our women's getaway
But after experiencing infertility and pregnancy loss, we know that Mother’s Day is not an easy day for everyone. We hold in our hearts those women who have suffered from infertility, who have lost children, or whose children are sick or in the hospital. We also hold those who have lost their moms or who experience pain and loss of their mothers from dementia or estrangement. We pray for all those who bear pain on this day while we cherish our own mom.

We love you Mom. Thank you for giving us such a great start in life.

And I want to give a special shout-out to my wonderful hubby, who made six quiches for brunch today and held down the fort this weekend so I could spend time with my wonderful mom and sister. He is amazing!
With my honey!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Reflections on Portlandia A to Z

A-to-Z Reflection [2014]

Now that I'm finished with my second year of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, I've learned a few things:

  • I'm conscientious and thorough. When I take on a theme, I want to do the subject justice...which means it takes me time to research the topics and my posts are not very short. I want to make sure I include the important details.
  • It might be wise to write well ahead of time instead of cramming it all into April. At the beginning of the month, I was staying a couple of days ahead...but then towards the end, that fell apart! Wouldn't it be great if I wrote the posts a few months out? It would be so much easier. But I live for deadlines...who am I kidding?
  • I learned all sorts of new things about my city, and there's so much more to explore!
  • After two years of challenging and time-consuming themes (Portlandia from A to Z in 2014 and Oh, the Places You'll Go in 2013), I have decided I need to alternate more complicated themes with simpler ones such as favorite books, favorite songs, or favorite musicians. The last two years have been fun though!
  • When I end up cramming in the writing, I haven't had time to visit other blogs. I am happy to report that I did discover a great new blog, Fuzzy Undertones, by Marci, a fellow Portlander (who now lives in Vancouver). I love finding new blogger friends! 

Hope you enjoyed my Portlandia from A to Z!