Sunday, August 26, 2012

Careless with the Truth

Kevin’s grandmother had a saying he invokes from time to time.  (He says it with the same Southern lilt that she must have had.) 

“Now, don’t go getting careless with the truth.”

It was an admonition to a lying child, or a gentle chiding when someone said, “I’m fine” (and clearly wasn’t). 

Kevin’s been saying it a lot more, of late. 

Oh not to me.  I am a terrible liar.   

I feel a compulsion to be honest, even when it’s in no one’s best interest for me to do so.  Most of the time this involves blurting out an opinion, thought or feeling, rather than keeping it to myself, or offering up a polite, innocuous comment.  Like the time I told the high school valedictorian that I thought his speech was pretentious.  Okay, maybe I did, but did I really have to tell him?  I still cringe at the thought.  Kevin calls it my “will to truth.”  That’s generous.  I think I simply lack a filter.

I have long been wary of lies.  From what I observe, once one lies, the lie takes root and grows all up all around the liar, like kudzu; the initial lie requiring more and more lies to obscure the truth, until the liar is hopelessly entangled in his lies, and ultimately caught. 

But some people around here aren’t merely careless with the truth.  In fact, they are very very good at manipulating it. 

Coming back from our trip to DC, Sophie announced that she was hungry.  This was no surprise to me, as it was already an hour past her bedtime and all she had for dinner was half a bag of pistachios. I had no food in the house, so we made a pit stop at the local grocery store to pick up a few essentials.  This was after a long day at the zoo (with my broken foot, before I knew it was broken), and I wanted nothing more than to go home and lay down.  As I grabbed a carton of milk off the shelf, Sophie complained that she had a stomachache and had to go to the bathroom.  Silently, I cursed the pistachio nuts. 

"Just hang in there a little longer, kid."  I told her.  "How bad do you have to go?"

"Just a little bad.  Not a lot bad,” she told me.  So I limped to the check out, got everything in the car, and headed home.

A minute into the car ride home Sophie tells me, "Mommy, I just peed in my panties."

I looked at her in the mirror, "You're kidding, right?"

"No mommy, I really did.  My underwear is wet and so is the seat."  

Now I was picturing having to give her a bath, feed her, and spend the rest of the evening cleaning the car seat.  I lost it.  

"Sophie, you couldn't hold it just three more minutes?"

"I couldn't mommy!  I really had to go!" She insisted.  

"Soph, if you had to go that bad, you should have said so in the store."

"I didn't have to go that badly then."  I felt guilty for not taking her when she asked, so, to assuage my guilt I continued to rant and lecture her about holding it and not waiting until the last minute.  

We pulled into the driveway. I got out of the car, and leaned into the back to survey the damage.  

Sophie grinned at me, "I was just joking on you, Mommy."

That was the first lie.

The second was more harmless, but equally convincing.  We were in Wegman’s having dinner of supermarket sushi.  Sophie ran to get a spoon to dig into her rice.  The spoons at Wegman’s are individually wrapped.  Sophie came back with a naked spoon.

“I found one without its wrapper!” she announced smiling, as she plunged it into her brown rice.

Kevin and I cried out in union, “No, don’t use that!” 

Sophie looked at us slyly.

“I was just joking on you guys.  I took the wrapper off and threw it away.”

Oh she’s good.  She’s real good. 

The thing about it is, she’s not lying about how many cookies she’s had or whether she broke something.  She’s fibbing for the fun of it.  To get us going. 

Part of me admires her ability to dupe me.  She’s a true actress.  But another part of me wonders, why does she get so much pleasure for teasing me in this way?  And if she’s this good now, just think how convincing she’ll be when she’s sixteen:

“We’re just going to be at Leah’s house.”

“I already ate.”

“Of course, I use condoms mom, I’m not stupid.”

“We’re just friends.  He’s like thirty or something.  He could be my dad.”

All the time looking at me with those round blue eyes, not a muscle twitching, a reassuring smile on her lips. 

I’m catastrophizing.  More likely, lying is simply a new skill.  A sudden realization that one can manipulate the truth, without a care.  The horizon of her cognitive ability expanding, freeing her from always having to report things exactly as they have happened, and allowing her to invent other possibilities.  Perhaps she is realizing that one can play with truth.  It can be stretched; it can be spun. 

This awareness will shine a new light on her imagination:  It is the advent of tall tales.  The beginning of fiction. 

Perhaps it’s not so much a carelessness with the truth as a carefreeness. 

Doesn’t mean that I won’t still call her on it. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

One Week of Love

The trunk smelled of must and seven years of camp.  All of my old costumes were balled up, in plastic bags, preserved the way I had left them, after the last time I had been to Camp Fatima, ten years ago. 

Camp.  One week of a couple hundred people donating their time, their talents, to give fifty very special children the week of their lives.  To give parents who never get a break a week of respite.  One week to be silly.  To wear costumes and sing at the top of your lungs so that you are hoarse by day three.  One week of love. 

They were all there.  Everyone I have ever been at camp.   Princess Leia.  Veruca Salt.  Snow White.  There were impossibly tight dresses, I remembered with embarrassment.  And the pink gown with rosebuds all over it.  The one I found at “Macys”—what we call the racks of old prom dresses at the entrance to the Rec Hall—because it fit me perfectly.  The one I wore to every formal dance, and still smells like it. 

I took out my wigs, my Grinch slippers, my poodle skirt, rediscovering as I unpacked. I came to a bag that read Bridesmaid’s Dress.  I took it out.  It was too small for me to have ever worn it.  Even back when I wore dresses too small to be worn.  It was white—lace on top, tulle on the bottom, with pink rose petals sewn along the hem. 

Another “Macys” find.  It was a whim.  A dream.  It was the dress I would one day give to my daughter to wear to camp. 

I have been waiting for this day to come.  I have watched children grow up at camp, coming with their dedicated parents, year after year.  They have a certain sensitivity, a capacity for empathy that is beautiful to observe.  That I want Sophie to have. 

Later that evening, when Sophie first stepped into the house.  I told her I had a surprise waiting for her.  “It’s on the couch.  Go look.”  Sophie ran to the living room and I heard her gasp.  “It’s beautiful!”  She held the dress up to her body, and placed the matching crown of tulle on her head.  “Oh I love it!” she exclaimed. 

“It’s for camp,” I told her.

“When are we going?” she was bouncing, excitedly. 

“Soon.  Soon.”  Camp was still a couple days away.  Sophie and I were joining my friend Pam and her two boys.  I was to be the “stay-at-home mom,” minding the children as part of the Family Program, while Pam went off to work on the Resource Staff. 

Resource is a demanding job at camp.  It’s a team of experienced volunteers who have expertise in dealing with the unique needs of campers--managing behaviors, adapting activities.   They support the counselors 24/7.  

The Family Program was designed to allow veteran volunteers to come back to camp, without having to leave their families behind.  I had primarily served on the Activities Staff in years past, which provides the entertainment for the campers— daily installments of a week-long play, thematic activities, dances, carnivals, and lots and lots of singing.  In other words, I used to be in the thick of it.  The Family Program operates more on the periphery, quietly making it possible for others to be there. 

I talked to the director before we headed up for the week.  “The hardest thing for the little ones to get,” she told me, “is that the campers always come first. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been standing in line…if a camper comes along, they have to wait.” 

This was going to be interesting. 

When I told Sophie that this was the deal, that the campers always came first, she was a bit confused.  She didn’t understand what differentiated her from the campers.  “We’re going there to work,” I told her, “to help the campers have the best week ever.”  I didn’t want to explain to her that it was a camp for disabled children.  I didn’t want that to be the lens through which she saw the other kids.

“Can we make a sign for our cabin, Mommy?”

“What kind of sign?”

“I want you to write on it, ‘Campers First.’” 

“Of course.” 

When we got to camp, we did just that in Arts and Crafts.  I wrote the words and Sophie glammed it up with streaks of glitter glue.  We hung the sign in the common room of our cabin where the children played and the adults would sit, comatose in the evenings. 

Sophie became fast friends with a fellow 5-year-old family programmer, with whom she invented a game called “Princess to Princess,” the rules of which were ever changing and seemed to entail spending a lot of time in my bunk. Sophie seemed a bit disappointed the next day, when the campers arrived.  As if they had invaded a private world she had created. 

But she didn’t seem to notice there was anything different them. Not right away anyhow.   Older children did.  In the first hour that the campers arrived, we were hanging out in the rec hall—an all purpose room filled with sports equipment and wheelchairs that the kids were using to give each other rides.  A camper-counselor pair showed up and passed a basketball back and forth.  I said hello to the camper and introduced myself.  Then, I encouraged the kids to come up and say hello.  After saying a quick hi, one of my little charges turned to me and said to me, “What’s his disability?”  We were still standing in front of the camper, so I led him quietly away.  I didn’t want to shame him, but I wanted him to understand why what he asked could be hurtful to the camper. 

“I understand that you’re just curious, and I’m happy to answer your questions,” I began, “but asking that question in front of the camper could hurt his feelings.  No one wants someone to walk up to him and ask about what he can’t do.”  Then I struggled with an explanation that would be age-appropriate.  “He has something called Down Syndrome.  He was born with it and it affects his brain so that he thinks and acts like a younger boy.”  Before I could finish my sentence, he was already walking away from me.  I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed or done. 

"Campers First" was somewhat more difficult in practice than it was in theory.  On a day that a petting zoo came to camp, Sophie had been standing on line with other kids from the Family Program for a turn to ride a horse.  A camper came up, and I told everyone to let him go to the head of the line.  Sophie grumbled for a second, but she conceded. 

I didn’t get any more questions for a day or so.  Then, one evening, Sophia and I sat across from a severely autistic boy.  He was refusing to eat, humming to himself, and flapping his arms.  His counselor was young and looked frustrated.  I offered to get his camper something different to eat.  We tried a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he slapped it away.  Sophie looked on, uncertain.  I offered to get a resource staff member, since I didn’t know the camper.  The counselor gave me a grateful look, and I found Pam. 

They decided the camper might be over-stimulated and led him to another table.  Sophie waited until he disappeared before she asked, “Mommy, why was he acting like that?”  It was a fair question.  One, for which, I didn’t have an answer.  I told her that his brain worked differently than hers.  She didn’t ask for more of an explanation, but I wasn’t satisfied with my response.  I was annoyed with myself for not having thought this through.  How could I explain autism to Sophie that didn’t cast him as lesser or other?  How do you explain a disorder to a four-year-old? 

Another night, at dinner, Sophia was fascinated with another teenager with autism.  “Mommy!  He’s doing naughty things!” She told me gleefully.  “He just spit!”  She seemed to be less interested in his disorder than in his bad behavior, so I simply said.  “Well he shouldn’t be spitting.”

I knew she was wondering why he was getting away with it, so I quickly added, “I really like your table manners, Soph.  You are sitting and eating very nicely.”  This was only half true.  She was picking at her dinner and popping up every two minutes, but at least she wasn’t spitting.

As the week wore on, Sophia found one camper she connected with—Callie*—who came to the Circle Time I ran each morning.  Callie was about 7 or 8 years old, she walked around in princess dresses and she liked to do the motions to all the songs. 

In other words, they had a lot in common.  Sophie seemed to be oblivious to the fact that Callie had Down Syndrome, or that she spoke little.  Sophie was happy to do the talking for both of them.  On the last day, Sophie and Callie sat by the flag pole, crooking their fingers into the shape of Little Bunny Foo Foo as others milled about singing, or flapping or suddenly shouting out. 

It was exactly as I had envisioned. 

*Names were changed to protect the confidentiality of the campers.  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Long Weekend

The first week after I broke my foot (before I knew I broke it), I was on crutches, unable to bear any weight.  This was unfortunate, as we were taking a brief family vacation to DC.  Kevin was attending the International AIDS Conference, and Sophie and I were invited along for a long weekend.  We had plans to hit the Mall and the National Zoo and the hotel pool. 

Sophie wanted to see Obama, but he couldn’t fit us in.

We had originally intended to see the zoo on the way there, with Kevin.  But we got a late start, hit a ton of traffic, and then it began to rain as we neared the outskirts of town, so we scrapped the idea and headed straight to the hotel.  On the way back home, I took Sophia to the zoo alone.  

I used my crutches to hobble to the information center, where I requested a wheel chair, knowing I would not be able to cover 163 acres of urban park, the crutches boring into my armpits. 

As I pulled out in the wheel chair, I quickly discovered that the National Zoo is built on an incline. Sophie and I were at the very bottom.  The nadir.  We made a valiant effort to tackle the hill, Sophie pushed from behind, while I tried to wheel.  But my hands were already raw from several days of sightseeing on crutches, the chair was of poor quality and favored the right, and Sophia is four, after all.  

We kept crashing into the curb.  Or garbage cans.  I was trying very hard not to get frustrated with Sophie (for being four and not being able to push me in a wheelchair up a steep incline in 95-degree heat), who was really doing her very best to help me.  

A lovely woman and her son saw us struggling and offered to push us to the top.  (I don’t know what I was thinking, that we would get up there and I would coast downhill, catching cursory glances of the animals as I passed?)  I was just grateful for the help, and took it.  Her son, who ambled along side us, had suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was very young, she explained.  He had lost all functioning and, initially was only able to move his hand.  After years of therapy and persistence he had regained much of his ability, “but we spent years using these things.  A lot of people helped us along the way.”

She went on to tell me that she was an FBI agent who tracks down pedophiles.  “I’m really out of shape,” she joked, “pedophiles don’t run.”  She proceeded to tell me all sorts of interesting facts about pedophiles.  They are rarely strangers.  Typically, she said, they are coaches, teachers, tutors—people who have honed a skill that gives them access to children.  “Beware of anyone who offers you free lessons, because they say your kid shows a particular talent they want to cultivate.”  She explained that it the victims usually have exhausted parents who are grateful for the assistance and flattered by the promise the abuser sees in their child. 

Sophia climbed on my lap and she wheeled us to Panda Pavilion, but there were no pandas to be seen.  It was too hot for most of the animals to be out and about. 
Sweating and panting a little, the FBI agent pushed me top, dropping us off at the information center.  I thanked her profusely as she handed me her card, “just in case you ever run into a pedophile.” 

God forbid. 

At this point, it was clear that, if Sophie and I were to see any animals, I’d have to find a better way.  At the information center I learned I could rent a motorized scooter.   I reserved the only one left in the entire zoo, only to discover it was back down at the bottom of the hill.  Fortunately, there was a shuttle that would take us there.

Once on the scooter, Sophia and I zipped around the park and saw every animal there was to see.  We covered more ground than would have been humanly possible on foot. 

Turns out, there is no award for being hardcore. 

We left a little after four and hit terrible rush hour traffic around the loop.  I wanted to drive straight through, but just outside of NJ Sophie needed to use the rest room.  We pulled into a truck stop.  Inside, Sophie eyed the ice cream and rows of candy bars.  She begged me, “Can we get a snack?”  I challenged her to find the healthiest food in the truck stop.  We decided it was a pack of pistachio nuts and bottle of water.  As I pulled the pack off the shelf, I felt a pair of eyes on me.  A tall man, next to the rack, stood smiling at me.  When I made eye contact with him, he laughed outright, at what, I did not know.  I smiled back and ushered Sophie to the front of the store.  He stayed put, but his laughter followed me.

At the register, I paid for our nuts.  An older, graying man in a baseball cap was leaning into the counter.  Just standing there.  Sophie was dancing and singing a rambling made-up song.  His eyes followed her movements, and he remarked how beautiful my daughter was.  Again, I felt a slight dis-ease.  Then he told me I should teach her American songs.  Songs about the flag.  His voice grew louder, “In fact, you should buy her a flag, so that she knows she’s an American.” I thanked him for his advice, grabbed Sophie and the nuts and hobbled back to the car. 

“Get in the car.”  I told Sophie.  “Quickly.  I want to get out of here.”

“Why?” she asked.

Yes, why?  There wasn’t any real danger around me.  Or was there?  Was I primed for fear of these two men by my earlier conversation, or was my intuition tingling.  And what do I tell Sophie?

I thought of my own bed that was waiting for me.  How good it would feel to finally put Sophie to sleep and lie down.  How much I was ready for this day to end.  “Because.” I told her, “There’s no place like home.”