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There’s something about your own kid growing up that makes it feel unique to you, as if no one else has ever had the surreal experience of watching their child — the one they’d rocked to sleep and pushed on a swing — suddenly morph into a tween or a teen or (horror of horrors) an actual adult.

I’m feeling that way with Braedan right now, as we look ahead to his 5th grade promotion ceremony, a mere six weeks away. From this little critter, so eager to walk to his first day of kindergarten . . .

First day

September 2009

. . . to the mature and confident (and sports and tech-obsessed) eleven-year old he’s become.

I am so glad he’s spent this six-year journey of growth and discovery at Fairfax School. I’m one of those parents who doesn’t actually think you should shop around for schools. Might sounds strange coming from a former teacher, in a world where all good parents search through every possible option to pick the very best for each individual child. I had fleeting moments of guilt, in those early days, for not putting more effort or thought into it. But I tend to think, unless something’s seriously wrong, you just attend your local neighborhood public school and take what comes. That’s what most parents did in my day. All the kids on the block, with the exception of a few Catholic families, simply went to their public school.

Now there are state rankings and test scores and data to pour over, tours and interviews and “educational philosophies” to consider. Like so much of modern parenting, picking a school for a five-year old requires an advanced degree. And causes undue stress, because no option out there is ever going to be perfect and yet our kids will still be okay.

In our case, we signed Braedan up for the one we could walk down the street to and that was that. He hasn’t always been thrilled with school, he had one year in particular that was less than stellar. But it helped him grow, it taught him he could be resilient and thrive in any environment. And taken as a whole, especially from this reminiscent vantage point, Braedan’s elementary experience has been wonderful. He’s had teachers he loves who he knows love him back. He’s learned an extraordinary amount (way more than I learned when I was a student in the same building). He’s had the chance to enroll in after-school activities that range from drama and racquetball to cycling and skiing. He’s done things few elementary kids have the opportunity to do, like sing on the stage at Severance Hall or spend three nights in the Cuyahoga Valley with his classmates exploring the great outdoors.

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And his friends. Well, being that he’s a very social creature (understatement), his friends have been the highlight of it all. And he is friends with everybody. Especially this year, with his grade so deeply connected by their role as building leaders and their shared history, I can think of very very few children he wouldn’t call friends.

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I’ve watched him rally his schoolmates around causes he believes in, like Purple for Becca Day or St. Baldrick’s. In kindergarten he was the lone shavee in that building. By second grade, he had a few friends alongside him. This year. . . take a look.

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More than anything else, I’m so happy that he and Austin both attend school in a building and in a district where there is such a high premium on nice. That’s the biggest difference I see between the Heights schools I attended in the 70s and 80s and the Heights schools of today (I guess Heights has changed, after all). I don’t think we were particularly cruel or anything, but we were much more concerned with being cool than with being nice, even by 5th grade. Kindness and tolerance and acceptance are now celebrated and honored from kindergarten through 12th grade. Of course, this isn’t the case for every single child every single day across the board (they are human). But when I hear from parents who’ve moved their kids from local private and parochial schools into Heights schools (and especially into Heights High), one of the things they rave about the most is how nice their children’s peers are.

I’m so proud of Braedan for all he’s accomplished in his first six years of schooling. And I’m so excited for all the incredible opportunities that lie before him as he moves into Roxboro and eventually Heights.

But I still can’t believe that this little LeBraedan is actually growing up . . .

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Because the tagline of my blog does not read, “Krissy Dietrich Gallagher’s blog about life, luck, love, parenting, writing, and, of course, school funding,” life does indeed go on outside of local election cycles. Austin had an abdominal ultrasound at Rainbow yesterday, part of our we’ll-pay-anything-to-have-him-scanned-by-the-one-doctor-who-knows-what-his-crazy-kidney-looks-like and his first of five tests in the coming week. Next Friday, he’ll go to the Clinic for an ECHO, EKG, chest CT and labwork plus a physical with his new oncologist. Unfortunately, I scheduled those appointments long before I knew the boys had that day off school, earning me serious Bad Mommy points. A trip to SkyZone immediately following should keep me in good standing though.

Yesterday’s results came back clear, unchanged since last May, the first hurdle cleared on our path to the title of 3 1/2 years cancer-free. Our radiologist did recommend planning another MRI at some point, but he said there’s no rush and it could be done at the 5-year mark. It’s been a while since we had the absolute certainty of such high quality imaging, back with that unforgettable scan in May 2012. Ultrasound imaging is acceptable but nowhere near as precise as MRI, so we’ll discuss that with our doc next week.

I snapped this picture of Austin yesterday in the waiting room, as I marveled at how much he’s grown since we first carried him into that space in an infant car seat.

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This was the first time he could read the Scrabble tiles outside the waiting room doors, connecting words like head, neck, legs, and toe to Pediatric Radiology (what, no kidney?). And there he sat, reading a book all by himself. His feet still don’t touch the floor, so that may be the next milestone he hits in that all-too-familiar space. And someday, he’ll drive himself down to the hospital and maneuver into a parking spot as a tall, strapping teenager. I’ll accompany him, probably against his will, and he’ll no longer climb into my lap in between procedures, but will be much more concerned with where to access the hospital wi-fi.

And while all of that makes me feel sad, his growing up sure beats any alternative.

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we can revert back to our old roles. Our seamlessly we become who we once were: the patient and the advocate, the comforter and the distractor. It’s as if we never left that old hospital world; it all feels so familiar, so deep in our bones, even in a brand new space.

We awoke super early Friday morning, if you can call 3:45 “morning.”  Driving down the driveway at 4:30am to arrive in pre-op by 5:30 made me ever thankful that we lived so close to our hospital for all those years. (We ended up at Akron solely for insurance reasons — which will change in the new year — and, aside from follow-ups won’t be driving back there again.)

By 7:30, Austin was walking down the hallway hand-in-hand with an operating room nurse, with just one backward glance, but no tears, as he marched off to surgery. A quick hour-and-a-half later, he came to in the post-op room and we were by his side, offering popsicles and comfort. The ENT said his tonsils were enormous, but came out with no problems. And the hand surgeon was very pleased with how his finger repair went, no nerve damage despite many layers of scar tissue. He has a heavy red cast up to his elbow, only there to keep him from using his hand. The doctor wasn’t even sure he was going to give him a cast until he asked me how active Austin is. Once the words “gymnastics” and “cartwheels” passed through my lips, he knew just what to do. (And I’ve seen Austin do three cartwheels already, using the cast as a study foundation.)

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photo(196)Yes, he’s using that cast as a bat

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We spent the afternoon mindlessly rotating between the floor playroom and his bed, trying to make the minutes pass by a little more quickly. A couple of books, wandering aimlessly through the halls, cajoling with sherbert and applesauce. Three good hours followed by the miserable half-hour leading up to the next dose of painkillers, followed by the miserable half-hour it takes to kick in. Hospitals are just plain boring, there’s no way around that. Akron was a lovely place; we went downstairs for a dramatic reading of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and met Ronald McDonald on one of our walks. That evening as we sat on the bed eating dinner, a troupe of carolers in Renaissance costumes came singing down the halls. And a volunteer knocked on the door to read Austin a bedtime story.

So, it was fine, but still, it’s a hospital and I can’t help but feel trapped when I’m there. And they’re all amazingly the same, the colors of the cupboards to store your clothes and the placement of the buttons on the walls, the smell of the rubber couch I slept on and the feel of the sheets that have been washed ten thousand times. Austin did okay throughout the night, well, as expected, I guess. He was up at midnight and 4am needing medicine. But he ate surprisingly well Friday evening, chowing down an enormous l tray of soft foods for dinner. We were released by 10am on Saturday and safe at home an hour later.

He played hard and happily that day and I thought I’d for sure send him to school Tuesday, if not Monday. But yesterday was worse and today he took a three-hour nap in the morning, so we’re laying low. His hand is fine and he’s driven to be independent, managing to snap his jeans and write his name with both his left hand and his casted one. But his throat is very painful and he’s struggling to eat anything at all. Even popsicles hurt going down.

But we truly believe this could be our last overnight in the hospital for many, many years. We called it an Austin tune-up, just getting everything into tip-top shape for years and years ahead of normal, regular childhood. I imagine that the next time he sleeps in a hospital bed, he won’t scoot over halfway through the night and beg for me to slip in beside him. It’s sort of bittersweet, that thought, but as hard as watching my baby grow up may be, I will always take it over the alternative. Always.

I seem to have entered a new phase of parenting for which I feel most unprepared.  Braedan, currently completely engrossed with reading The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, purchased a “Dude Diary” at his school book fair the other day.  It came with a key and everything!

Of course, he worked extra hard to hide said key from Austin, which is sort of ironic since Austin doesn’t know how to read yet.  But it gave us an opportunity to talk about respecting each other’s privacy, which then gave me an opportunity to ponder how much privacy a parent should grant her child.  I casually asked Braedan in conversation if the diary was only for him or if anyone else could ever look at it.  He promptly said only for him to which I replied, “Oh, okay,” like it was no big deal. But I suddenly felt left out — like there were some deep dark secrets he was sharing with the Dude but not with me!

After one short day, he excitedly showed me the pages, which are a series of prompts, like “If you had one superpower, what would it be?” (Braedan’s response was “to make all the kids be nice.”) There was nothing private or personal about any of his entries and he shared them willingly and proudly with me. The whole thing turned out to be a silly teaser of what is yet to come.

But it brings about some important issues of parenting: How much privacy do you grant your children and when does that start?  If your eight-year-old were to tell you not to come into their room or not to look into that third drawer of their desk, how would you react?  What if it’s your twelve-year-old?  When does the dynamic shift from you controlling most, if not all, aspects of their lives to allowing them to make their own decisions and have their own space, both physically and emotionally?

I think sometimes parents use safety concerns as an excuse to overstep those boundaries, always checking up on their kids simply because they’re nosy.  I agree that the world, especially with the Internet, can be a dangerous place for teens, who often don’t have the sense or know-how to navigate potentially dangerous situations.  But I also think we need to let our kids grow up and make mistakes and experiment and figure things out on their own, without our constant interference.

Of course, that’s easy for me to say because Braedan’s not quite there yet and, boy, am I glad.  I’m not ready to give up the reigns or have a dark curtain drawn over his emotional life. I love that he lies next to me in bed each night and tells me everything he’s thinking. But I know the day will come when he doesn’t and I also know that I probably won’t be ready for that no matter when it comes. He will be his own person, with his own ideas and thoughts and feelings and he may only share those things with the Dude and not the mom.  It’s not today, thankfully, but it will come.

How have you handled it?

Give kids the tiniest opportunity for independence and, I swear, they take it and run. My children have been transformed over the past few weeks. They play outside on their own for hours on end, while Mark and I actually get things done around the house (today, it was painting the new bathroom). Yesterday, they rode down the block to the neighbors’ house and played in their yard. Today, they went off to the school playground on their own. Well, not entirely on their own, they did have a friend who is almost ten with them. And I did make Braedan wear a watch and come home after an hour to check in.

But still, they did it. And it is great.

In light of the comments I got after my last post, I’m eager to have a broader conversation about how we allow our kids the freedom to navigate their environments without hovering (or worrying) too much. Especially in today’s world, with twenty-four hour news cycles detailing every awful thing that can happen if you dare look away. I’ll admit, a couple of times I wanted to ride my own bike over to the playground just to make sure they were okay. I mean, Austin’s still only four! But with a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old, I knew he’d be okay and held myself back.

I really think that it is perfectly okay — and even necessary — for our kids to make mistakes and get hurt. And then to figure out what to do about it on their own.

This article from Time magazine in 2009 is fabulous and funny and eye-opening (and the accompanying photo is all of those things).  But I don’t really want to have a conversation about the relative value of helicopter parenting versus free-range parenting, so much as I’d love to hear HOW those of you reading do it.

When it comes to giving children freedom (and responsibility), what has worked for you and what hasn’t? And, for those of you in the grandmother (or father) set, what has changed since the days your kids were young and do you see those changes as good or bad?

Of course, when you’re parenting two and four-year olds, much of this is irrelevant. You’re obviously not going to send your son off to preschool on his own. But for elementary-age kids, it’s the perfect time for them to develop a sense of competence and ownership over their neighborhood and their actions and their own safety and well-being. I was just about to write, “I am so glad I live in a place where my kids can do that,” but I think most of us do and may not know it. (And I think some people would look at where I live and not think that!)

Sooooo, how does it work? What do you allow your kids to do as they get older? And has that been successful? And how is it different from when you were young? (Besides the fact that we all walked to school barefoot through the snow, uphill both ways?)

You’d think we parents would learn after a while that so many of the things we worry about regarding the development of our children seem to eventually just resolve themselves. I remember fretting over the fact that Braedan was the last kid in his playgroup to learn to walk.  This was a wonderful group of moms I’d meet at Heights Parent Center when our first babies were just a few months (and sometimes just a few weeks) old. We started getting together multiple times a week, mostly for ourselves (it was way more about the moms than the kids back when they were still babes in arms), and collectively watched as each child learned to sit up (Braedan last), crawl (Braedan last) and walk (Braedan definitely last). There was nothing wrong with him; he was simply content wherever he was placed — happy to look around or play with whatever toy was within his reach; he truly had no need to move. But right at that moment when I started worrying aloud to Mark (“But, honey, they can all walk. Even the ones who are six weeks younger than him!”), he walked.

Of course.

And so it has gone with each and every stage, and so it continues to go. Austin, whose shyness I was so worried about just a few months ago, has completely opened up. He’s not broadcasting his every move to strangers, but he has ordered his own meal in a restaurant and occasionally says thank you to the moms hosting him for playdates. He started his Pre-K year today, without a moment of hesitation. He let me walk out that door without shedding a tear, a first that’s been a long time coming.

And Braedan is suddenly Mister Independent. I’ve long worried that our generation of parents hovers too much, organizing our child’s every moment, tracking our child’s every move. So I’ve been pushing him since last spring: “Just go, Brady, just ride your bike down the street, just find someone,” when he’s bored. And finally, he’s doing it. Well, not quite riding down the street and befriending strangers (even I might warn against that), but heading off with friends to play at the school playground, without Mom but with little brother in tow.

Last week, I needed to pick up Austin when Braedan was home with a friend and he said, “Aaaaww, do we have to go? Why can’t we just stay here?” I thought about it for all of 30 seconds and said, “Ok, fine. Here’s my cell number, stay right here in your room and play.” I was back within nine minutes and they were — of course — totally fine.  He’s still only seven, but I was babysitting by the beginning of third grade, one small year ahead of where he is now. (I know that sounds crazy, but tell them, Caryl, it’s true.)

Tomorrow he and the neighbor girl will walk to school unattended. That may not seem like a big deal to those of us who walked without parents from kindergarten on, but not many people seem to do it anymore. I think it’s such a good and important way to gain independence. More than just the walking safely — it’s being able to manage yourself enough to make it there on time. I don’t remember any of us ever wearing watches as we walked our three-quarters of a mile four times a day (those were the days when we still went home for lunch), but we were never late. We knew how much we could play along the way and still make it on time. We were in charge.

So I am thrilled with these recent developments. Not that I want my beautiful babies to grow up too fast, but I do want them to be confident enough in themselves and capable enough to do things on their own. I want them to feel that sense of efficacy — that oh-so-important “I can actually do this” feeling of success.

It’s their time.

Thank you for the many, many comments pouring in on this subject.  It is always good to hear from parents who’ve struggled with the same issue, both to borrow your techniques and to hear how dramatically your kids have improved as time’s gone on.  In fact, there are some people I’m stunned to hear were shy as children (i.e., one of Heights High’s shining stars of stage).

I agree that this is a phase and that he will improve as he gets older. And indeed, he already has: his second year at preschool was much more successful than his first. And this definitely seems to be a mommy-problem because he is much more likely to interact with kids and adults when I’m not around. But when I’m an option, it’s all me, all the time, which is perhaps why I find it so frustrating. I almost feel like I’m a bad influence on him because my presence allows him to revert back to his babyish, withdrawn self!

I do need to remember to gently encourage interaction without pushing him too hard. I like the idea of just having him wave at people or look at them when they greet him, even if he doesn’t respond verbally. And I also agree with the observation some of you made that it must be hard for him to speak up when Braedan is so verbose. Braedan befriends anyone, chatting with our waitress or telling our life story (or his version of it — yikes!) to the cashier at the grocery store. He answers for his little brother (“Oh, he’s four and a half,”) before Austin could ever have the chance to open his mouth. I find myself saying to Braedan, “He can talk, honey” and Braedan looks at me like I haven’t been paying attention and says, “Yeah, but he doesn’t like to, Mom. Du-uh.”

And, of course, I have to remember that Austin’s behavior isn’t about me (another of parenthood’s most difficult things: laying aside the Mommy Ego). It’s not about me showing off to the world what a special and bright child I have. It’s about letting him grow up in a way that he feels safe and supported. It’s also about pushing and helping him grow and expand beyond the boundaries he’d choose for himself, but still in a way that he feels safe and supported.

So, we move forward, one day at a time, one word, one friend, one wave at a time.

Another year gone by and all of a sudden I have a rising second grader. I know parents everywhere right now are marveling at the fact that their sons and daughters are graduating from kindergarten and elementary school, from high school and college, shaking their heads and wondering how on earth their babies got so darn old.

Braedan and his buddies at the first grade picnic

Lola’s ready for first and Braedan’s ready for second
(and no, I have no say whatsoever in what he
chooses to wear each day!)

The truest thing I’ve ever heard said about parenting is that the minutes go by slowly but the years go by quickly.  Just ask anyone who’s ever been home with a colicky baby or a fussy toddler. And just ask anyone who’s ever posed for a picture next to their proud graduate.

We have a bird’s nest on our front door. It sits atop a wreath that’s been hanging there since we moved in. The babies have just been born and now the parents are more vigilant than ever, swooping through and nearly attacking anyone who dares to set foot on our front porch.

I know the birds will quickly grow and fly away, allowing us to reclaim our porch. In fact, I stood in the backyard with a father of Braedan’s friend having that very conversation yesterday while we watched our big boys play on the swingset, mere hours after they’d finished their last day of kindergarten.

Now, I know we’re not empty nesters or anything, but it sure does go by fast, those little babies raising their beaks out of the nest waiting to be fed one day and flying off on their own the next. Suddenly, my first baby stands before me a reading, writing, six-year-old. And I know that as quickly as these past six years have gone by, the next six years will go by and then the six years after that.

He has had a great year, made much easier by the calm consistency of his teacher who provided a necessary sanctuary from the chaos that enveloped our lives. Braedan certainly struggled with Austin’s sickness, much more this time than the first, having a kindergartener’s heightened sense of injustice, but his school remained a place of security and comfort throughout it all.

And, my god, the stuff he’s learned! I knew he would learn to read (since “kindergarten is the new first grade”) but I am nonetheless amazed at his ability to pick up almost any book and decode almost any word in it. And his writing–that has been my favorite thing to witness. He brought home his Writer’s Workshop folder last week, complete with a one-page “story” written each Monday that perfectly captures the scope of his year. From raking leaves and trick-or-treating in the fall to skiing with Daddy and Grampy in the winter to shaving his head for his little brother (“That was a fun day!”) to the more recent entries that cover the front and back of a sheet with “And then . . .,” “And then . . .,” “And then . . .”

As much as Austin has wowed us all, time and again, with his ability to just keep rolling with it, so has Braedan. He is a happy, well-adjusted, rising first grader:

I don’t use that word lightly.  I’m not just exaggerating or whining about how long our days and weeks and months have become. No, I really mean it: I can’t clearly see an ending.

This blood pressure issue, while a minor sideshow to the grand drama of Austin’s cancer, is one of those sneaky things that is going to follow him — and us — forever and impact the rest of his life.

He’s had high blood pressure since all this began nearly three years ago.  It’s due to the damage his kidneys have withstood (or not withstood). The real bummer is that hypertension is both a sign of kidney damage and a cause of kidney damage. In order to keep that little partial kidney as happy as possible, we really need his blood pressure in a perfectly normal range all the time. Which never seems to happen.  Now, even with the addition of another medication, it’s still running slightly high. And the manual cuff I have at home is frustratingly difficult to use, so Mark just ordered me my very own (and very expensive) automatic blood pressure machine. How’s that for a nice Mother’s Day present?

And then there’s the near certain failure of that kidney. I am so hoping we can make it at least a few months into the post-treatment period before dialysis. Just to give us a much needed break without the two things overlapping. Of course, I really want it to last the full two years, but that seems less and less likely each day as his numbers creep in the wrong direction, one slipping down that we want to stay up and others jumping up that we want to stay down. He has another GFR on May 17 so we’ll see if it’s managed to hold steady at its new low or if it’s dipped into the this-is-really-happening, time-to-start-dialysis range.

And then there are all the other risks far down the road that will trail us for years to come. Assuming a transplant goes well and this cancer doesn’t return, he still has a high risk of developing a secondary cancer, probably leukemia, from all the radiation and chemotherapy his body’s been subjected to.

I hate the idea that his life might not be normal. That, more than anything else, is what I wish for both my boys. Not super fabulous, not spectacularly extraordinary, just normal.  So he can be a kid and go to school and learn to read and play kickball and ride a bike and have a girlfriend and go to college and live by himself and get a job and see the world and fall in love. So he can be a dad and then a grandpa. But some days I feel doubtful that all those things could ever happen. The thing I fear most is, well, it’s The Thing we all fear most. But the thing I fear second most is that he gets so bogged down by all of this, so burdened by lifelong health problems, that he someday says to us, “Mom, Dad, why did you bother? Why did you work so hard to save my life when now my life sucks?”

I know it seems unlikely. Not our joyful little Austin, who never lets anything get him down, who still runs and leaps and climbs and rides, who manages to squeeze joy and laughter out of each and every day, no matter the horrors he endures . . . our happy little Austin would never say such a thing. But I worry nonetheless. I worry it will be never-ending.

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September 2017
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