Sunday, September 30, 2007

It Was A Dark and Rainy Night

Under a torrential downpour at 2:30 this morning Claudia and I sat in our van, watching our fourteen-year-old daughter being frisked by a police officer outside the home of one of her friends. We had been awakened an hour earlier by our nineteen-year-old son who rapped on our bedroom door and said, "I think [she] has the car." Claudia was the first to stumble groggily from sleep to investigate. Sure enough, our car was gone and she and her friend who was staying overnight with her were gone into the night.

Claudia texted Salinda who assured us that things were just fine. "The police have already pulled us over and said all we needed was a licensed driver." Claudia reported the news to me, and I could hardly believe what I heard. In the continuing conversation, our daughter unraveled the yarn of her escapade. Yes, she had taken the car from our house. Yes, she knew that she had no permission to do so. (She is only fourteen, never had driver's ed, nor to our knowledge has ever been behind the wheel of a car). She had received a call from one of her friends whose friend was in desparate need, so she simply had to take the vehicle to help them out.

I have learned from past experience that it is best if I keep an emotional distance from our daughter. For me to become too engaged will only result in false accusations of some kind of physical abuse, so I purposely have chosen to stay clear of her for the past couple of years. And no, in case you're thinking it, it is not a lack of paternal attention or affection that is causing her to act the way she does. So Claudia braved the situation, told me the plan (she would pick up our daughter at the friend's house and we'd sort it all out a little later). Claudia was especially considerate since it is very early Sunday morning, and the most important day of my work week begins at 8:00 AM and doesn't really quiet down until at least noon. As I blog these words it is with the recognition that I will preach two different sermons in two different worship services and be expected to greet by name nearly 300 people this morning ... all on only 3.5 hours of sleep.

Of course by this time even though Claudia was taking the primary responsibility, I couldn't sleep, so I wandered around the house, had some water to drink and waited for the call to update me. Eventually Claudia and I connected. The car was at the friend's house, and Claudia was returning home to bring me over so that I could drive it back.

I won't belabor the details, but the summation is this: by the time she and I returned, Salinda was not there, the car was not there, but we met a police officer who attempted to locate our daughter. She was not in the trailer house in question, so after a wait we decided to head home. Seconds after pulling away from the home, our daughter and her friend appeared, walking, drenched from the sporadic rain showers. We pulled up to Salinda and asked her to get in the van so we could be done with it all. She refused to do so, sullenly walking into the friend's house.

We were able to quickly connect with the police officer who had been there seconds earlier, and while he was speaking with us, our daughter stomped out of the friend's house and got into our van. As the officer walked back to open the door she locked it in his face. This, of course, disturbed our law enforcement friend, so that by the time I unlocked the door he had taken Salinda with force (gently, however) into the lawn to speak with her. She was rude, disrespectful and refused to cooperate, so he marched her to his car, frisked her and assisted her into the backseat.

"Looks like this might require a trip to [the juvenile delinquency center]," he said. I smiled to myself, because we had spent the previous thirty minutes explaining to him that she was in a state of mind that would not be cooperative, nor would her attitude be ameliorated by the presence of law enforcement. In those few minutes he had with her, he seemed to understand what we had been trying to explain earlier.

We met him at the police station minutes later, where there ensued a considerable delay due to jurisdictional issues. The community in which we live is divided by a river which separates county lines. This means that the officers (eventually three of them showed up to sort it out) had to decide which county had authorization to proceed. As it turns out because our car was stolen from two locations at separate times, there may be charges brought in both counties.

As the hours ticked away into minutes I began to realize that my Sunday morning was going to start a lot earlier than I had hoped. I am a morning person by habit, and on Sundays I am usually awaken between 6:00 and 6:30. But today's "work" began at 1:30 AM. We were not able to leave the police station until nearly 6:15, just an hour ago as I blog these words.

I am ambivalent about the situation. Our daughter has been trying for some time, with increasing intensity, to find herself in this situation. She has made intentional for months now her desire to be taken to JDC because she hates living with us, we are awful parents, and she wants out. She has parroted words she heard from her older birth brother and older brother for years, so it's really kind of old news for me by now. I am disappointed that she is choosing this path. She is too bright and has too much going for her, but the draw of the dark side is so strong for her. In some twisted way she is earning a badge of honor amongst her questionable peer group because now she can say with them, "Oh, yeah, I've been to [JDC], too."

I recognize once again in humility that there is a limit to what parents can do. We can provide nurture, support, a stable home environment, some of the niceties of life, boundaries and consequences, but ulitmately each child chooses what he or she will do and become. I have not given up hope that she can and may move in a new direction, but right now it's hard for me to see that. She will always have a home, always have parents who love her, but she will have to decide how she's going to live her life. There is only so much we can on that front.

It was a dark and rainy night. I only wish it had been a little longer.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

They're Almost Always Home

We have ten children. Seven of those children currently are at home. One is a college senior. A second is "on his own" at eighteen years of age, in much trouble with the law. A third is seventeen, unable to live in our home due to his behavior. With our seven children who are at home the four most demanding children never seem to leave. They are almost always home.

Our healthiest and most "normal" children can often be found at a friend's house or in an extracurricular activity of some sort, or simply finding safe, innocuous ways to spend their time. The ordinary children are the ones who need the least continuous parental involvement in their lives, which is a paradox, because they are probably the ones who are most likely to restore the emotional reserves of tired, irritated parents.

The most challenging children are the ones who really have few friends. They never receive an invitation to spend the night at someone else's house. They are not able to participate in extracurricular kinds of activities because of the level of supervision required. Their idea of a good day is to spend much of their time within a few yards of a parent, asking for something to do, seeking ways to earn some money or simply repeating an obsessive mantra of verbiage.

As a well-educated, mature adult I have learned to have a lot of patience over the years. When I need some space to myself I can say, "I really need to have some time to focus here," which my children understands means to leave the area or at least to remain in quietness. There were times when the kids were younger when I would simply spread my arms and say, "In ten seconds I am going to whirl myself around, and anyone too close to me is going to feel my hands. You need to move now." I haven't done that for a while now; perhaps it would still work?

But even after all these years of experience and practice in being patient and accommodating to my children's special needs, their constant chaotic presence is wearing. This is not a situation that causes me to love them less, nor does it cause me to question their value or their worth. It is simply exhausting to always have the preocccupation of wondering whom I will trip over this time when I turn too quickly in the kitchen and catch someone unaware.

It's another of those cunundrums which face parents of special needs children: the ones you need to have a break from are never gone, and the ones you might enjoy for a period of time are never there.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Unresolved

If you've followed Claudia's and my blogs over the past few months you know that one of the unresolved issues in our lives concerns our eighteen-year-old son, Mike, who is facing a number of legal offenses, at least one of which (perhaps more) is a felony. His court date was scheduled for Monday of this week, and both Claudia and I chose not to be a part of that hearing. It turns out that sentencing has been postponed (once again) as the court considers the recommendations of the pretrial sentencing report. The details of that report have not been made available to us, and Mike has not shared them with us (he has not been in recent contact with us), so we are once again in an unresolved situation.

It's a strange thing when you have a kid living in the same town you live in, with whom you have little or not contact and the only "connection" is by viewing court motions on line. I never thought it would be quite like this ten years ago when he became part of our family's life.

When Worlds Collide

It has been a challenging week in our family on many levels. Both Claudia's and my professional lives are moving at rapid paces, and the demands of school work, church and extracurricular activities have created a family of tired, crabby, frusrated, anxious people.

Because of my vocational territory, it is very difficult to separate my (and our) personal life from my professional life. When I "leave the office" it's hard to leave because so much of the meaningful fabric of our family life in our faith is wrapped up in what I do professionally. Over the years I think we've navigated that territory pretty well, and while it may not be perfect we have at least come to peace with the challenges it presents.

But the worlds collide occasionally. Like this morning when I received an email from a parent whose son is one of the 45 confirmands I teach every Wednesday night. Her email was factual and appropriate, explaining to me an incident that occurred the night before which involved our fifteen-year-old son and her son (both of whom are in the same confirmation class). Evidently our son repeatedly threw rocks at her son, resulting in an injury to his eye. She described him as being in considerable pain and the ensuing doctor's appointments have required both her and her husband to take time off work in order to facilitate the appointments. His eye has not been damaged, but he has experienced discomfort and they have had worry and loss of work to contend with.

Because their pastor's son decided it would be OK to continually (even after requests to stop) hurl rocks in the direction of their son. It is frustrating to me when worlds collide. My pastoral world and my family world often work together just fine, but in moments like this I become angry. Children should not have to worry when they come to church that they are going to be assaulted by anyone, and certainly not by one of the pastor's kids. It minimizes my credibility and jeopardizes others.

What it means for our son, of course, is that he will have to serve some "in church" suspension, which basically means that when he is at church he will have to be under mine or Claudia's supervision all the time. I would think that might be embarrassing for someone who is soon to be sixteen, but I'm not sure. If it doesn't embarrass him to throw rocks at other kids, I'm not sure it will embarrass him to be supervised, either. And, of course, the point is not to embarrass him but to gain enough of his attention so that he can realize what he did is inappropriate and choose not to do it again.

On days like this, when worlds collide, I feel a bit cynical about a positive outcome. It has hapened so many times in so many ways with so little change that I want to scream and scream and scream.

But you know what? I've tried that. It doesn't work either.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Remember, It Could Be Your Kid

This morning our kids had a "late start" for school (for those unfamiliar with the term it means that once a month students arrive two hours late while teachers are involved in an in-service of some kind), so I thought I would surprise everyone by purchasing bagels at our favorite bagel place in town. Actually, other than what the grocery stores try to sell as a "bagel," it's the only bagel place in town. I arrived shortly after 7:00 AM.

There were several employees behind the counter, only one other person before me, so I anticipated a speedy purchase so that I could get back home before Claudia needed to leave for an out-of-town trip. After the customary greeting I told the person at the register that I wanted a bagel bunch (which in their parlance means 18 bagels). She gazed at me vacantly, which I assumed to be the nonverbal indicator that I should proceed to tell her which bagels I wanted. So I selected my eighteen bagels, which included at least six different kinds, pausing to ask how many left I had to choose. Not making eye contact with me, she said, "I have the three plain bagels and the three blueberry. What else did you want?" As if I remembered by that point in time, I once again repeated what I thought to have been my order.

She plunked the digital display several more times and asked if I wanted cream cheese. I told her "yes," and identiifed the kinds I wanted to purchase. Since it was the day for me to redeem my "buy ten dozen and get one dozen free" card, I presented that to her. With a befuddled look on her face she evoked the assistance of another nearby employee, who laboriously instructed through the process. "He'll get a better deal if you ring it up as a 'bagel pack' because that comes with two cream cheeses," the one assisting my neophyte cashier instructed. "That's fine," I interrupted, "but I do want eighteen bagels."

"Oh, you don't want the bagel pack?"

"No, I want eighteen bagels, two cream cheeses, and the discount for the twelve free I'm supposed to get. As long as it's eighteen bagles and two cream cheeses, I don't care how you process it."

More dull silence as the duo attempted to figure out my plight. Finally the amount was registered, I paid the price and waited for an interminable time as she took three bagels, one by one, and sliced them in the automatic slicer. After placing the three sliced bagels in the box, she said, "Now what else did you want?" So I had, for the third time, to tell her which bagels I wanted. We proceeded at a snail's pace as she tonged the remaining fifteen bagels one at a time into the slicer.

Finally setting my box of bagels on the counter (with a separate bag for the everything bagels), she said, "There you are." Picking up the bag, I said, "Are my cream cheeses in the bag?" "Yep," she said assuringly.

Not convinced (I have bought too many bagels and cream cheeses over the years to know by the heft), as I walking out the door I looked in the bag to find three lone everything bagels. No cream cheese anything. Turning around and proceeding back to the counter, I said in a brusque tone I do not normally use, "There are no cream cheeses in this bag."

"Oh, really. I thought she [whomever the ubiquitous "she" was I'll never know, unless she was speaking in the third person about herself] put those in there."

"Nope, they're not there."

Turning from me to the refrigerated area she grabbed the cream cheeses, tossed them in a bag with some knives and napkins and apologized.

"That's OK," I said outwardly, while inwardly I was repeating to myself, "Remember, it could be your kid, Bart, behind the counter."

The whole interaction took more than fifteen minutes, which continued to grate on my nerves as my wife called the cell phone within one minute of my pulling into our driveway. I had been gone so long she wondered if everything was OK, and she was needing to leave within five minutes time herself. In an interaction which was limited in length but intense in its volume I lashed out at my spouse for the infractions of a delayed bagel cashier.

Stomping into the house, I opened the bag of cream cheeses to find not the two larger containers I was accustomed to seeing from past purchases, but an array of individual size items that will serve the bill, but made me feel even a little more inconvenienced.

Some days I have to say to myself over and over: "Remember, Bart, it could be your kid, so be nice."

Monday, September 17, 2007

Because I Don't Want To

My life has been lived with a sensitivity to responsibility. I learned responsibility in the home of my mother, where the lived ethos was "if you start it, you will finish it" (I was in band, which I was in from the time I was in fifth grade until I graduated as a senior, though not always that willing, because of that rule). My vocation as a pastor is one that demands a great deal of responsible action, as well. (For example, and these are just a couple of examples from the myriad details that comprise my vocation life: I know that every Sunday morning -- except for vacations -- that I will be in worship most of the morning, and I know that I need to be ready at a minute's notice for an emergency call in cases of death or other tragedy, and that when someone expects me to be there to officiate at a wedding, I cannot back out). So, I am really quite a responsible human being, and not always because I want to be. I have had to learn to be.

This orientation is in such contrast to the expectations a number of my children have about theirs and others' lives. I become frustrated sometimes with the selfish preoccupation they have in seeing that theirs is the only "world" that matters. I know, I know. Really I do. I understand that teenagers are simply that way, and I understand all the development theories about this stage of life. I know mentally that this is the case. But it is still hard for me to live it. Perhaps it's because I resent the relative freedom they have. They are young enough that they can make and change friends three times a month if they want to (and our fourteen-year-old daughter does that pretty well). They can decide whether or not they want to have a part-time job (even if that means they have less money to spend as they wish). They are in a place where they have more freedom than I do, in many ways, but they don't recognize that.

After all, parents can't simply decide they are tired of their job. Or that they want to suddenly change their circle of friends. Or that they don't want to pay the utility bills for the month. You know what I'm talking about.

So, it is difficult for me today not to attend the sentencing hearing of our eighteen-year-old son Mike who will face the State of Minnesota and hear what the consequences are for his past year of illegal activities. Sadly, it appears that his activity level has not decreased, but only become less obvious, as we continue to receive at our address legal paperwork addressing new illegalities.

He called Claudia last night to find out the date and time of his court appearance (even though he hasn't called us in three weeks, he did remember to call home to find out when he's supposed to be in court), and she mentioned to him that she doubted either she or I would be there today. He seemed a bit confused by that, but here's the reason why. Both Claudia and I have talked about this, and we don't want to be in a position to hear him lie, nor do we want to be asked to verify anything that would place us in a difficult situation either. If Mike were still a juvenile, we would certainly be there with him (as we have for years prior to this).

The fact is that Mike has followed nearly none of the terms he was given when he was placed on probation. He is supposd to have resided at our home (which at first he would not, and then when he wanted to discovered that we were unwilling to let his illegal activities into our home). He has not refrained from using substances. He has not refrained from further illegal activity. He has not been in regular contact with his probation officer. He has not found a job. He has not begun to pay back his thousands of dollars of restitution. I'm not sure, exactly, if he has followed any of the criteria. I simply don't want to be there to hear him lie or to feel like I have somehow been responsible for his criminal activity.

So, today, I will be doing something that feels irresponsible. Today I will not attend his sentencing. And I will say to myself what he has said to me numerous times over the years. "I'm not going to do it because I don't want to."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Fine Head of Hair

I have a most interesting vocational life. In an era of specialists, I am one of the few generalists left. As the sole pastor of a growing, 500+ member congregation, I have numerous responsibilities and opportunities. Since I do 90% (only vacation Sundays off) of the preaching and worship leadership in what are now two very different worship services, teach 45 confirmation students each Wednesday night during the school year, counsel those facing challenges in life, provide administrative oversight to numerous committees and direct supervision of four part-time employees, I work a very full day. I prefer to be in the office by 7:00 AM so that I can be home by mid-afternoon, see the kids after school, prepare our evening meal and then (if necessary) be back for two or three evening meetings a week. It's not a life for everyone, but it is my life and I generally enjoy it. One of the things our Bishop says upon reflection of her thirty or more years in ministry is that with the exception of six hours a week, she has been fulfilled in her calling every day. My twenty years in church-related work confirm the truth of her observation.

One of the things I realized a long time about being a pastor is that the work is never ever done. There is always one more worship service to plan, one more committee person to make a connection with, one more continuing education seminar to attend, one more employee-related situation to resolve, one more letter to write, one more e-mail to answer. And one more person who would welcome your visit.

Today I had the opportunity to visit with an elderly parishioner who is unable to be a regular attender in worship anymore. She is in her 80s, lives in an assisted care facility, and has been a member of our congregation for many years. It was a delightful visit. I always find that as time-consuming as these pastoral visits are, they are valuable, possibly more so for me than for the person I have visited.

We talked about her life and her interests. I heard about some of her interests more than once (her short-term memory is not quite as good as her long-term memory, a common malady of those in their golden years). Several times she mentioned to me that after high school she went to "hair dressing school" (as she called it) and then went into business for herself for many years. I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when I noticed her on several occasions looking carefully at my head.

It's a strange thing, but here in Minnesota where our culture has been so influenced by northern European immigration over the years, we are generally a rather aloof bunch. We don't feel comfortable standing to close to others, we don't get too intrusive into people's lives, and we shy away from being too close.

As I was bringing our conversation to a close, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, "You know, you have a fine head of hair. I can tell that you're not going to have to worry about going bald. It is always so sad to see a man who loses his hair, but I don't think you're in the category, now, are you?"

I had to smile to myself and feel that our conversation had been important enough to her that she felt comfortable commenting on my hair. This is certainly not a typically Minnesotan thing to do on a first visit, but it indicates that the time I spent with Irene today was well invested.

The Benefit of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

When you live with children who have diagnosed special needs, you learn to look at things differently. I can assure you it's a completely different matter to sit in a college (or other) classroom, as I have, to learn about various pyschological disorders, than it is to live with someone who has one (or more). More than a few of our ten children have diagnosed disorders, so there are times when it becomes burdensome to live with the chaos this brings to our family life.

Our youngest son has been an interesting child to watch grow up. He is now eleven, and he has been with us (except for a few months) since the time he was nine months of age. From the early moments of his presence with us we knew Dominyk was a unique child. When he was learning to walk he would run as fast as he could, colliding into a wall without any awareness that he was supposed to feel pain. He would grunt, pick himself up and run in a new direction, until he would fall head over heels once again. And again. It has always been difficult to explain to those who do not know him (or us) why he is constantly bruised. Once, however, they witness him in action it makes more sense.

Through the years his activity level has moderated (due both to maturity and to medication) somewhat, while the characteristics of his OCD have become more pronounced. Typically he will become fixated on a phrase or a concept and find it impossible to think of much else. It is the reason why he continues to have almost continually bruises and scabs on his arms and legs. He begins to itch a mosquito bite, for example, and cannot quit until he has an ugly reminder in the form of damaged skin. A year or so ago it was a loose tooth in its very early stages of detaching. He became so committed to getting the tooth out that he found a way to wind fish line around the tooth in question to the point where we had to take him to a dentist to have the tooth (and the fish line) extracted.

For the past few weeks, however, his obsession has been pop, as in soda pop. All he can think about is drinking pop, and he begs and pleads for soda every few minutes. We purchase very little pop these days (for health and other reasons), especially because if it is in the house he will not stop until all of it is completely consumed. We have developed a plan that helps both Dominyk and us. If he has a successful day at school and completes his homework he may have one sugar-free pop.

I have extended the privilege slightly so that if he walks with me I will often buy him a sugar-free drink after our time together. For the past week or more he has been my committed walking partner, which is nice for me. Although I typically like to walk a little longer than he (I prefer to walk 3-4 miles at a time, while he does better with 2 miles), I figure it's good exercise for both of us and our dog, and one sugar-free soda isn't going to permanently damage him.

There are some benefits to parenting a child with OCD, and I guess this is one them: a committed walking partner.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Reality Check

I learned a long time ago that it is next to impossible to divorce my "professional" life from my personal life. The truth of the matter is that if I am not an authentic person as a pastor, no one should ever consider me a "professional." My faith life, my family life and my work life are all so tightly woven together that they form the totality of who I am. I would hasten to add that being "professional" is important to me, as well, so I do not, for example, disclose confidentialities, and I pursue continuing education and all the rest. I'm simply saying that when someone sees me in my vocational work place, I hope they see the same person they would see when I am home or when I am relaxing or enjoying the life God has given me. Authenticity is my first concern.

So, it would not surprise you today that I experienced a personal reality check while engaging in a professional responsibility. One of our octogenarians has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he asked if I would accompany him today for his admission to an area nursing home. He has three children, one across the county, one who lives in the state south of us and a third who lives in the metro area (still a couple of hours away). His son will be with him tomorrow to discuss details, but I had the privilege of accompanying my elderly friend today as he begins his journey into the nursing home experience.

My friend is a gentle, kind man who has spent his life serving others. I learned today that he earned a Bachelor of Science in the late 1940s but his working life was largely "blue collar." He spent the last years of his working life as a United States mail carrier and in his retirement has been active in the church in caring for others. He is really a delightful guy.

And he is dying of terminal cancer.

I was reminded of the solemnity of his diagnosis today as I sat with him and the nursing home social worker. He reviewed a barrage of paperwork and answered questions regarding his upcoming care experience and his preferences. From questions about financial arrangements (did you realize that it costs nearly $4,000 a month to reside in a nursing home facility?) to minute details about life functioning ("Do you often stay up past 9:00 PM? Do you awaken during the night to use the bathroom? Would you characterize your bowel movements as irregular?") I bore mute witness to the beginning of a man's final days.

The most sobering questions were those regarding health directives: to be resuscitated if a heart attack occurs? to be intubated? to receive IV treatment if dehydrated? to receive comfort care or full medical attention?

I should clarify that these were sobering questions for me to witness, but that my good-natured friend answered them with candor, grace and dignity. "Nah," he said, "I've lived [80+] years, and I've had a good life. When the time comes let the old cat die," a knowing smile upon his face. "Who knows? I may recover and graduate from hospice care." And then, after a pause, "but I doubt it."

These are holy moments in the life of any person, even for a pastor like myself who has for more than twenty years walked through difficult valleys with many people. I have listened to numerous life accounts, witnessed lingering and painful deaths, rejoiced when an enfeebled, physically spent individual is able to transition into the arms of God. But each time is unique and special. There are no "standard" deaths, there is no routine, each of these dear people contributes another layer of meaning and understanding to my life.

And so, while I am professionally a capable caregiver and spiritual guide, personally I am always humbled by the role God has given me in the lives of others. The reality check I received today is the reminder, again, that I am also mortal. The day will come when I will be sitting in a small room with a care professional deciding how my remaining weeks or months of life will be lived. One day I will be old, and the minor aches and pains I complain about now as a 43-year-old man will no longer be a prime concern. I will, instead, be deciding how to say goodbye to my children and wondering whether I have given them a legacy broad enough to justify my years as their father.

I only hope I can face my mortality with the same degree of honesty, grace and dignity that I have witnessed today.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

Yesterday was the second day in a row that we have had to deal with one of our youngest children (the first to arrive, in fact) with the issues of stealing and lying. The day before yesterday involved the theft of his older brother's wallet and the perpetual series of lies that go with such a theft.

Yesterday's infractions involved his theft of more than $20 from our bedroom, his departure from a friend's house and his arriving late enough that he "had" to miss football practice. He arrived home as I was driving Ricardo to football practice and managed to limp only when he saw my car approaching. His story was quite amusing if it were not such a bold-faced lie. On his way home up the very steep hill from his friend's house (it is, in fact a very steep grade of about a half mile) he happened to step on the tail of a squirrel, which turned around and bit him so hard on the ankle that he could barely walk. He could certainly not go to football practice after such an animal encounter.

If I had not been so irritated about the thievery I could probably have handled the lie a little better than I did. As it was I gave him a verbal lashing and pointed out how ludicrous his account was. "In your whole life, Tony, have you ever been close enough to touch a squirrel?" He shook his head to disagree with the statement but would not relent on the details of his story.

Later last night I asked Claudia, "How long do you think it will be that we have to live with the chaos of willfully disobedient children in our lives?" Her response, which I have since forgotten, did not lead me to believe things will change anytime soon.

This morning, then, when I opened up an email you can imagine my surprised when I read this immortal quote from the philosopher Friedrich Nietszche (in Beyond Good and Evil, 1886):

The essential thing 'in heaven and in earth' is, apparently (to repeat it once more), that there should be long OBEDIENCE in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living; for instance, virtue, art, music, dancing, reason, spirituality -- anything whatever that is transfiguring, refined, foolish, or divine.
Funny. The only thing I remember about Nietszche from my college philospohy classes twenty years ago is his hypotheses about the will to power. I didn't remember how helpful his words might be to frustrated parents.

His words remind me again today that the most significant obedience required for my children has more to do with my willingness to do the right thing (a rough understanding of "obedience") than with theirs. For an adoptive parent of kids with tough issues, it has more to do with my commitment to always be their father, no matter what, than it does with their ability or willingness to make the right choices for their lives.

This long obedience in the same direction is my issue, not my children's. In spite of all they have and may do in the future, they need to know that I am not going anywhere, that I will always be a presence in their life (whether they like it or not), that I will always confront their antisocial actions or words, and that I am their permanent father. Perhaps they will one day be able to learn from my example of persistence and commitment and become the adults the world will require them to be.

It's kind a back-to-basics learning day for me. I cannot make my children do anything. I can only decide how I am going to live and trust that they will see in my life something of value that they too will one day emulate.




Monday, September 03, 2007

Not Very Traditional, But We Make It Work

My wife has blogged today about how very different our family's life is from the "stereotypical" family in the United States. I say "stereotypically" in a guarded fashion, because I suspect there is much more diversity in today's USA families than we any of us recognize. And it's not even adoption I'm talking about at this point (although that piece does make our family somewhat unusual from those on the block in which we live in our fairly typical midwestern medium-size city).

I'm talking more about roles and responsibilities in the household. In our family I am the nurturer; my wife is the boundary-keeper. When one of our children feels the need (deserved or not) for sympathy or understanding or mercy they turn to me immediately. I used to think that was quite a noble place to hold in the family structure, but I recognize what a difficult place it can be for all of us when dad is the perceived "softy." It means that I have to be constantly aware of what boundaries I am being asked to breach and how my response might upset the stability in the home. I try to check in with Claudia to make sure what communication has taken place before the entreaty comes my way, but it becomes tiring (for both of us, I am sure). And I suppose I will always resent the perception on the part of some of my children that I am weak because I am compassionate.

I am also the person who balances the checkbook, pays the bills and is most anxious when it comes to our financial affairs. (I suppose that this may be more "stereotypical" for the "husband" to care for this task). I suppose the traditional rationale for the male figure handling this task is that he was the one to be the major (or sole) breadwinner and consequently he should be the one to "decide" how the money is spent. In our family it is not the male who is the major breadwinner (unless you take into account the "whole benefit package" which includes a housing allowance, insurance and pension coverage), so that explanation doesn't fly for us. It is simply that I am the more detail oriented and perhaps, in this way at least, the more controlling.

I am the chief grocery shopper and cook, which may still be a bit nontraditional for the rest of our neighbors. For today's picnic with friends, I am the one who plans, prepares and serves the food items our family contributes to the picnic. My wife is the one who organizes the other details (issues the invitations, decides who is riding with whom to the event and the like), and I am quite content caring for what I enjoy doing most. It's funny, I suppose, that in our family it's dad that the kids ask about cooking questions or food preparation. I can explain the difference between a paring knife and a serrated knife, the distinction between an heirloom tomato and a hydroponic imposter. I know which store has the best price on milk this week, and I know when the Oscar Mayer bacon is on sale. Truth be told, I am most happy when shopping for and preparing meals for the family. I think it probably hearkens back to the days I spent my beloved grandmother, learning more than I ever thought I was learning, about the value of familiy togetherness surrounded by tasty items to eat. I recently inherited some of her utilitarian serving bowls (circa 1970), which nearly every day I use to serve my family, and which every time makes me remember my dear grandmother, as I utter a prayer of gratitude to God for having known her in my life.

My wife is the one who handles the sports, medical, education and church schedules. She is the one who invites friends to our home (I am the one who prepares the meal). When the guests arrive I am the one finishing up in the kitchen as she welcomes them to our living room to chat until we are ready to pray and eat together. She is the one who keeps track of how much money eat child has earned, how much money our college-aged sons have "saved" with us and who will be taking lunches to school this year and who won't. That she handles all these tasks makes me all the happier that I can focus on the cooking and (some of the) cleaning tasks in the house.

Because the nature of my vocational life affords me few opportunities for closure (there is always one more person who needs a pastoral visit, one more wedding or funeral to plan, one more sermon to preach, one more book to read, one more meeting to lead or attend), there is little I enjoy more than laundry. Tonight I am sitting in a bedroom with clean curtains, clean bedding, a vacuumed floor and a progressively less cluttered (can't claim success quite yet) space that is directly attributable to my "labor day" ventures.

It's a funny world to many, but I am glad to not be stuck in a relationship where all the "traditional" male roles would apply. When the kids are looking for comfort, I love knowing that is usually me they seek, and when they need to have expectations clarified it is their mother they consult. I find great joy when my family sits down to eat a meal I have prepared, and even greater joy when it is their mother who knows the family's schedule.

We are not very traditional, but we make it work, and I can't help but believe that it's good for our children -- all ten of them -- to live in a home where being a unique and fulfilled human matters more than being "male" or "female."

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Pizza and Low IQ

I have to admit that of the range of issues our children possess, I have the greatest difficulty with those whose IQs are low. I would rather deal with an intelligent, oppositional child any day than someone whose functioning level is considered "low" to "moderate." Over the years I have spent many hours with our conduct disordered and oppositional defiant children, and while that is never an easy road, for some reason it is easier for me. I was reminded of that last night as we joined family friends last night at a local pizza establishment.

My wife, neither shy nor demure, spotted the sign announcing a "future" for those wishing to apply for employment at said pizza place. She specifically targeted our nineteen-year-old, unemployed (but going to college) son and our fifteen-year-old son as needing to find a "future," and made it clear to them that they needed to complete applications before leaving last night. The older son groused about it considerably, about how he would never work at a pizza place, that we couldn't make him apply and that even if he got a job he wouldn't show up for work. And on and on it went. The other son got the application, filled it out, scribbled out several mistakes and then asked me how it looked. So I told him, "It doesn't look that good, Jimmy. You didn't take much time in filling it out, you have incomplete information and it doesn't look like you care. People don't want to hire people whose applications look like that." A dazed look on his face precursed his words, "Oh, OK. I'm going to turn it in now." I could only mentally shrug, because I knew that there was nothing more I could do. He would not be willing to complete a new application with better care, and I've known him long enough now to realize there's nothing more at this point I can do. The older son also filled out his application and turned it in, so at least they were compliant in the end.

As we riding back home (it was just the two of them and I together in the car), the younger asked, "Dad, how come no one ever calls me back after I fill out an application?" "We've already covered that, Jimmy," I said, "you have to do a better job in completing the application so that they want to call you back." "Oh. Well, they're dumb." To which the older of the two chimed, "Yeah, I can't believe how retarded they are."

It was all I could do not to laugh. What I wanted to say was, "I don't think it's the people at Godfather's who are retarded," but I have, after all, been well trained over the years to treat people with mental handicaps with respect. Yep, it was pizza and low IQ night for our family last night.