Monday, March 25, 2013

A mile in my shoes

When I close my eyes to go to sleep, all I can see is my baby, trapped in freezing cold mud up to his chest, scared, and crying. And I wonder what he was thinking.

He’s fine now. Back to normal a day later, definitely a little more clingy and snuggly than usual. But he can’t tell me what he is thinking or feeling, because he is autistic and mostly non-verbal. I can’t know what scars are in his head or his heart, but I can imagine, and it leaves me feeling like the wind has been knocked out of me.

Kaden is 9 years old. He’s a determined little dude, and he always has been. When he wants to do something, he will figure out a way to do it. And on Saturday, I guess he wanted to take a trip into the wetlands behind our house.

I had just arrived in New York City by train to spend the night with some college girlfriends when I got the call from my kids’ babysitter. Kaden was missing. They’d been playing in our fenced-in backyard, and our sitter had run inside to check on my older son and use the restroom. She was inside for about 2 minutes. When she returned, Kaden was gone.

Kaden plays in the backyard by himself all the time. It is completely fenced in, with three different exit gates that are usually kept locked. Every now and again, he has managed to escape out of one of the front gates, but he’s never gone far and we’ve found him quickly. He usually just wants to play in the front yard. Sometimes he will even come back into the house through another door.

I will also mention here that he has escaped out the front door and the garage before, usually when we are in the bathroom. He is quick and he is sneaky when he wants to do something that he knows he shouldn’t do. And as I said before, he is determined. But he has never tried to escape out the back gate towards the woods or into the wetlands.

We trust our sitter implicitly. She is a young adult woman who has worked with us for years and accompanied us on vacations. She loves our boys fiercely and is very protective of them. She is attentive, caring, and understands the challenges of caring for an autistic child. My boys love her, and she is amazingly patient and calm.

So when she called me in New York, I didn’t panic at first. I told her to check the house carefully, including closets, as well as the immediate surrounding areas in our neighborhood. I reassured her that he never goes far.

At first, I didn’t think about the back gate. I forgot the landscapers had cleared the area behind the fence earlier in the week. I forgot that I had never checked to see if that gate was locked after the landscapers left. Kaden has never shown any interest in going into those woods behind our house.

When she didn’t find him immediately, panic started to set in. I instructed her to call 911. I felt helpless, sitting 2 hours away, unable to search, unable to do anything but pray and cry and wait with one of my girlfriends, who did her best to keep me calm.

My husband Chris headed home from work to join the police in their search. He is the one who heard Kaden’s yells first, who found his shoes in the mud, who alerted the officers to my baby’s location. He was in touch with me constantly, keeping me posted on what was happening with the rescue. He was the one who sent me the photo of Kaden sitting in the bathtub, covered in mud. He was the one who tried to keep me as calm as possible, not telling me just how scary it was, not sharing the details of the real peril of the situation. Not telling me at first that Kaden was naked when they found him, despite being fully clothed and in a coat when he was in the back yard.

Chris told me to stay put in New York. He told me there was nothing I could do, that Kaden was fine. They took him by ambulance to the ER, where he was treated for mild hypothermia. His temperature rose quickly and he was released without much medical intervention. Chris kept me updated with frequent calls, texts, and photos, telling me each time to stay where I was. So I did, though with some hesitation.

I kick myself now for not coming home right away. Not that I could have done anything, or that my return would have changed the outcome in any way. But it would have made me feel better, maybe? Would I feel less overcome with guilt and worry and sadness today if I’d immediately hopped on the next train home? I can’t say now.

But this is a feel-good story with a happy ending, so the media is all over it. We had news vans camped out in front of our house all day yesterday. We chose not to speak to reporters immediately, but to first talk to the police and discuss with them how to best publicly express our extreme gratitude for their quick response and heroic efforts.

But in this high tech age, news gets out quickly and everyone has an opinion. In the past 24 hours I’ve read comments from strangers who have called for us to be investigated for negligence and called us “dumbass parents”. One of our neighbors released our child’s name to the press without our permission.

I would ask that anyone who would like to criticize first take a few moments to understand what it is like to parent or care for an autistic child, a child who cannot express his needs, wants, or emotions the way a typical 9 year old can. I would ask that you spend the day with my son, who looks like a typical 9-year old, but functions more like a preschooler and requires near-constant vigilance. I ask that you understand that my son has managed to get past almost every safety measure we’ve employed, and often waits until we are in the bathroom to attempt to escape. I ask you to consider that we are all human, and every one of us makes mistakes, despite our best efforts to be good parents.

If you would first walk a mile in my shoes, you may then criticize all you want. I may not hear you. I’m going to be thanking God, my son’s guardian angels, my husband, and the police and emergency responders for bringing my son home safely to us. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Five years ago

I couldn't run around the block. It was five years ago that I first tried to run, and failed - sort of. I failed to run as far I thought I could run or as fast as I thought I could run. But what I didn't know was that day when I laced up my sneakers and started jogging up the street, I was starting a whole new chapter in my life.

It was 2008. I was less than 9 months out from losing both parents to cancer in less than a year's time. Our youngest son had just been diagnosed with autism and seizures at 4 years old. We were already dealing with our 7 year-old son's developmental delay, which also placed him on the autism spectrum. I had quit my nursing job and was attending grad school full-time. I'd gained almost 20 pounds and felt like my skin was too tight for my body.

In early February, one of my professors challenged our class to train for and run the Broad Street Run, a 10-mile race through Philadelphia held in early May every year. She was a busy mom like me and had run the race the year before. This sparked my interest, if she could do it, maybe I could too? I needed to get into shape and thought that maybe this would be a fun challenge. I recruited my cousin Cheryl to run the race with me, and she was crazy enough to agree, though she wasn't a runner either.

I'm not sure why I thought I could run, let alone run for 10 miles straight. I'd done yoga regularly for years, but I'd never really stuck with any kind of regular exercise as an adult. I had bad knees, very little motivation, and even less spare time. And my mom always told me that adult women shouldn't run because it would "jiggle their women parts too much."

But I did it. Every day I'd run a little further. I was too afraid to run on the road outside the confines of my neighborhood, so I went to the local track and ran laps. It wasn't fun, but something kept me coming back for more.

As I ran through the cold, rain, and wind, I thought. I worked through some of the grief I was feeling over losing my parents and my sons' diagnoses. I remember doing my first 8 mile run. I wanted to stop after 2 miles - it was hot by then, and 8 miles on a track is extremely boring. I knew I had a paper to write for school once I got home, and I really didn't want to write that paper, so I just kept going round and round the track until I hit the 8-mile mark. I'd written half the paper in my head by that point.

One day on my way home from school, I saw someone running and I was jealous that I was stuck in the car and not running. At that point, I knew I was hooked. This was my addiction. I subscribed to a running magazine and got fitted for shoes at a real running store.

I ran my first race, 10 miles side by side with Cheryl in May of 2008. We ran the whole way - not fast, not with perfect form - but we finished in under 2 hours and we were ecstatic. A week later I heard about a brand new women's half-marathon in Disney World, and I called Cheryl and convinced her that we needed to sign up. We had a new goal ahead of us - the 2009 Princess Half-Marathon. Having a new race goal kept me running and I'd learned that running kept me sane.

In 2012, after two years of encouragement from my husband, I joined the Mullica Hill Women's Tri Club. I joined hesitantly, mostly looking for new training and running opportunities, but swearing that I would never do a triathlon. By the end of the club's orientation night, I was making a plan to train for swimming and biking.

Somewhere along this journey I became a runner and a triathlete. I've found new training buddies and forged friendships. I've gotten faster and stronger and braver. Last summer, I conquered swimming in both a lake and the ocean - a paralyzing fear of mine.

If you'd told me five years ago today that in February of 2013 I'd be training for my 5th Princess Half-Marathon, my 44th road race, I'd have asked if you'd hit your head. If you told me I would run 3 full marathons and compete in 2 triathlons, I would have laughed in your face. Five years ago I was not a runner, I was not an athlete, and I would never, ever choose to swim in a lake or ocean for more than a minute.

But running is a big part of of who I am now. It is my time to think and process and grieve and plan. Marathons and triathlons are an important part of my life. My kids know that Mommy is happier after she gets a good run in, and my husband graciously plans trips and vacations around races.

That first "failed" run in February of 2008 was the start of something big, and I'm so happy that I didn't just give up, go home, and eat ice cream.

There is a song from the animated Disney movie "Hercules" that sums up how I feel about running, triathlons, and the MHWTC. I get chills and a little misty every time I hear the words.

"I have often dreamed
Of a far off place
Where a great warm welcome
Will be waiting for me
Where the crowds will cheer
When they see my face
And a voice keeps saying
This is where I'm meant to be

I will find my way
I can go the distance
I'll be there someday
If I can be strong
I know every mile
Will be worth my while
I would go most anywhere
To feel like I belong"

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Looking back, looking ahead

2013. Yup, we are almost a full month into the new year and I'm finally sitting down to write my first blog of the year. This is a big year for me. I will celebrate my 40th birthday in May. I'll become the mother of a teenager in November. I'm looking forward to a fabulous week-long trip to Disney World in February with my family to run my 5th Princess Half Marathon.

Last year I set some simple goals. I wanted to run a race every month. I aimed to beat at least one of my personal best race times. I wanted to worry less about little nagging things like cleaning my house and focus more on the simple pleasures in my life, like spending time snuggling with my sons or talking with my husband. I wanted to spend less time feeling guilty about what I wasn't doing and more time feeling joy and being thankful for my many blessings.

2012 turned out to be a pretty good year. On the fitness front, I ran 20 races in 12 months. I ran personal best times in every distance I raced, except one. I joined the Mullica Hill Women's Triathlon Club. Much to my surprise, I completed two triathlons and fell in love with the sport. I started the year with the worst race experience I've ever had and finished with one of my most enjoyable races. I ran three races side by side with one of my best friends. I was blessed to watch my cousin (my original running buddy) find her stride again after devastating loss, and go on to beat her own personal best in the half-marathon. I made new friends and found new training buddies who pushed me to be better. My older son ran three 5Ks with me, and wants to continue running.

Ignoring chores and turning off guilt proved much more difficult, but I think I did spend more time enjoying my family and less time stressing over dust-bunnies and messy drawers. In September I had wrist surgery that was much more complicated than the surgeon originally thought, and I ended up being out of work for ten weeks. I struggled with the guilt of knowing how much strain my co-workers were under with my absence, but I enjoyed every extra moment I was able to spend with my husband and kids.

I do felt like I took more time to celebrate the everyday joys of life this year and count my blessings, but this will always be a work-in-progress. It is far too easy to get weighed down with life's burdens and stressors. I sometimes feel that every time we conquer one challenge with our kids, a new one emerges. I know this is a standard part of parenthood, but it sometimes seems magnified when dealing with an autistic child.

In 2013, my personal goals are similar. I want to enjoy as much time with loved ones as possible, count my blessings, feel less guilt, find more joy, and stress less about things I just cannot control. I want to shut my computer, put down my phone, and enjoy a conversation or a good book or a quiet moment.

I'm planning on competing in my first Olympic-distance triathlon this summer and improving my overall time in the sprint triathlon. Other than that, my fitness goals for 2013 are less specific than last year. I'd like to run a half-marathon in under 2 hours and a full-marathon in under 5 hours, but more important, I want to fully enjoy every race that I run.

Here's to 2013! More joy, less guilt.