Lexi’s New Bed

There are two things you need to know before reading on: First, Lexi functions at about a 1 1/2 year old level. While she’s strong willed and smart enough to outfox all of us, she isn’t one to express complex feelings. Second, Lexi has had the same bed for most of her life.

When you have a kid with special needs, certain modifications have to be made. Cupboards and refrigerators will need to be kept locked, lest they help themselves to all the granola bars, followed by all the leftover casserole, regardless of when you last cleaned the floor. Stairways need gates and doorknobs need advanced opening mechanisms. The risk of “adventure” is a 24 hour consideration, so sleeping arrangements have to be modified, too.

For Lexi, this has meant a giant, adult sized crib. It may sound diminutive or perhaps insulting to put a teenager in a crib, but it’s for her own safety. Fortunately, Lexi has always loved her bed/crib, seeing it as a place of solitude and safety. After a day of school and evening roaming around the house, she would regularly climb up and ask us to close the sidewall, keeping her free to snuggle a stuffed animal or watch youtube in the cocoon-like surrounding of her bed. Think of it as a happy little efficiency apartment in New York City.

Lexi’s 16th Birthday – waking up to balloons

Since B Ritt has been on the case, we’ve been looking for an alternative bed option for Lexi. While it was easy for her to hop up into her bed, getting out in the morning was always super-stressful for her. Too often, I would end up lifting her out (part of the reason I go to the gym). Most of her caregivers, including the petite B Ritt (and most other caregivers, for instance, Nana), are in no position to do lift Lexi. The other issue with her NYC Apartment Bed was the fact that most group homes don’t allow these kinds of beds. While she’s not moving out now, we anticipate that day will soon come (more on that later).

So… she (Brittany) went to work. We (she) finally figured out a way for Lexi to have a big girl bed while still protected from her drive to get out of bed in the middle of the night and and make a mess or, say, grab some granola bars and leave the house under cover of night. A few nights ago, Lexi graduated to a big girl bed:

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

While that’s exciting for Lexi (and us), something very strange happened in this transition. A few days ago, we posted Lexi’s old bed online. A family immediately came over and snagged it for their child who breaks out of every other bed situation. As they took it apart (a herculean effort) and brought pieces out to their truck, Lexi got melancholy. She wanted to go into her room and sit on the last piece to be moved, as if to take a moment to say goodbye. It never crossed my mind that she’d care that much. I mean, it’s not like Lexi has a strong sense of room layout or some kind of zen desire for certain pieces of furniture. Her style is localized chaos.

I have to admit, I believe I vastly underestimated her understanding, her emotional capacity, and ultimately, her humanity.

After the last piece was taken out, Lexi got sad. Like… very sad. It struck me: she’s had that bed since she moved out of her baby crib almost 15 years ago. It’s been set up in 6 different rooms in 3 different houses. New surroundings, new schools, people, life changing and changing again. Through it all, her bed has been her sanctuary. As she cried, I cried too. I know it probably sounds ridiculous, but I felt for my daughter. She spent 1/3 of her life in that thing, and suddenly it was gone.

Lexi’s snazzy new bed works perfectly and has done nothing but make things easier for her. That’s a win, and I’m glad we did it. I’m also glad that another family will have use of her old place for a while. It should serve them well.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to pardon an old dad for being proud of his daughter, slightly nostalgic, and aware of the depth of Lexi’s capacity. I have a new appreciation and sense of dignity for my growing baby girl.

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Zac to the Future

When Zac plays me a demo of one of his basement studio productions, the musical influence is obvious: The songwriting is very Ben Folds, the production is very Phil Spector, and the arrangement is very Queen. The overall vibe has a very heavy Brian Wilson/Beach Boys feel. He’s an old musical soul. As I write this, he’s sitting across the way from me, listening to an instrumental track he recorded earlier this week. I imagine he’s working out lyrics in his head, but I’m not sure exactly what’s running through that headphone-hugged head of his. Hold on — let me ask him and I’ll tell you.

Turns out he was listening to Paul McCartney — “Bluebird” (a Wings song). He’s partial to McCartney’s Wings phase. “But yeah, I have a few lyrics I’m working on…” he stares into the middle distance for a moment, then the headphones go back on. As is often the case, he’s looking at nothing and hearing everything. I’m curious about what he’ll come up with next. He said something about a Christmas album, and I can only hope he’s going to do a cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.”

I suppose I should be careful about what I write about Zac. After all, everything you put on the internet is out there forever. But I want to tell you at least a little bit about him. He’s a fascinating kid. All my kids are, and for various reasons, but Zac is like nobody else I know. They say that if everyone is special, no one is special, but I disagree: everyone is special. Ol’ Fred Rogers sang it to me when I was a kid, and maybe you too.

One thing I really appreciate about Zac is his confidence. At the wee age of 13, he has his life pretty much set. His insight and wit are spot on. He knows he doesn’t want to have kids, since a touring musician can’t be a good dad. Yet he’s good with kids, even though as a younger child, he didn’t like babies. Watching him with his 5 year old brother, I’m always impressed by his ability to meet Cam where he’s at and have fun at a mutual level. If you ask Zac, he’ll be too busy touring the country to raise a family. I have to admire his wisdom in seeing it that way.

When I was 13, I knew God was calling me into ministry. I was confident in that, even though I took a slight detour in my senior year of high school, when I signed on to become an electrical apprentice. As I was putting pen to contract paper, everything inside me said “this isn’t right.” That level of confidence that comes from a sense of calling is a gift. Zac knows what he wants to do and, as if pen to paper in his own mind, he has already signed up to be a musician.

He said something that scared me a few weeks ago: “What do you think would happen if I became a pastor? I’m not saying I’ll become one, but it seems interesting.” I told him it’s a high calling, and he’d better be REAL sure about it. My earnestness in conveying the joy and difficulties of ministry was certainly sincere on my part. Time will tell if it solidifies. I’d be proud to have a son in ministry, though I never want him to feel pressure from me. Plumbers make more money and don’t work on Sundays unless they want to. Of course, both plumbers and pastors deal with people’s crap in a discrete manner. Both make the world a better place. Both are ministry.

Such a funny kid, too. He’s got a subtle sense of humor that comes out like a dry monologue, causing some of his jokes to make people wonder if he’s kidding. I’m partly to blame for that. Hopefully Britt will help him be more mainstream in his construction and delivery. She definitely helps in Zac learning how to keep his room clean, style his hair, clip his nails, and wear clothes that match. All deficits on my part, though I can certainly teach him to quantize, compress, and mix down audio. Kids need both parents.

I love being a dad. Zac’s a good son. My life is better because of him, and I believe the world will benefit from his Zac-ness, too. He promises to let me tour with him when he’s out on the road. Might even have me as his opening act, which will be a conglomeration of old youth group songs and Coldplay hits.

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Family Issue Communication

I believe there are two primary ways for a family to handle difficult situations:

  1. Ignore them
  2. Talk about them

I also believe that most families tend to ignore difficult situations. How about yours? Perhaps it’s a combo: we talk about the spaghetti incident but *never* about the time Cousin Vinny went to court.

Fear and love are both powerful motivators. Fear is the typical motivator when it comes to ignoring family issues. Shame, discomfort, and aversion to pain keeps things underground and, therefore, out of the way.

We all have that room in our basement where all our junk goes — some of it is legit, like the fake Christmas tree or children’s noodle art projects. Other items, like Grandma’s old razor, are stored out of obligation and in the dark. After all, nobody wants to think about that. Or clean it.

Family issues can be ugly. Ugly stuff goes downstairs in the room the general public doesn’t see. Nobody sees, nobody knows. Yes, the family knows, but it’s out of sight and therefore out of mind. When it does get talked about because we accidentally bumped into it while checking the furnace filter, things get awkward and painful. I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid of pain. Pain=fear=motivated to keep it quiet and not talk about it.

Our family has challenging issues. I won’t go into detail, since the specifics don’t matter, but I bet you could quickly relate to what we deal with. The dislike for awkwardness and pain keeps us away from dealing with it. But we’re a team who knows better than to avoid it.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” says 1 John 4:18. Practically speaking, it means that we intentionally difficult conversations that are naturally awkward. Awkward, but worth it, for the sake of love. Things don’t get better unless we talk. We don’t talk unless we’re ready to deal with the pain. BUT — once we remind each other that we communicate out of love and not fear, the air gets cleared. Love becomes the motivator. Christ remains at the center, and his light pierces the darkness.

I saw a quote from Trevor Hudson that resonated with what we’re talking about. He wrote “There is no lasting peace without effort.” Couldn’t agree more. We always have a choice of which path to take. The path to peace — where we lovingly work through issues — is thorny at first, but leads to health. I won’t tell you where the other one leads, because you already know. Yes, Grandma’s razor.

I knew we hit a milestone as a family team when one of us (besides me) said “families can either ignore this stuff or have difficult conversations and get better, so let’s get better.”

Bingo — the Lord being our helper.

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Guardianship

You’re likely aware of how child custody works. A set of parents get divorced. A judge wades through information from both parents who try to make the case that they should have the kids. Sometimes parents share custody, sometimes one parent gets full custody, and sometimes the kids end up with grandparents because their people can’t work it out (life). Kids bounce back and forth every weekend, Mom gets Thanksgiving and Dad Christmas Eve. Two bedrooms (or a bedroom and a futon), extra parents, and lots of time in the car.

Of course, this circus of childcare ends when the kid turns 18.

But…

what happens if the kid has severe special needs and will always be a “kid”?

Take Lexi, for example. Lexi turned 18 this Sumer. Suddenly she could vote. buy a lottery ticket, donate blood, and drink (in Canada). Of course, she did none of these things (that I know of) because Lexi is, functionally speaking, about 1 1/2 years old.

Now…

what happens when a kid turns 18 and needs their parents to make a doctor’s appointment? Set up a bank account? Get a prescription changed? Bad news: they can’t. “I need to speak with Alexis” is followed by a long conversation about how she’s non verbal. The only thing she’ll say on a phone call or in a Zoom meeting is “HI”, followed by a request for the participant to sing Wheels on the Bus. Turns out a few Social Workers didn’t get that particular musical training in their undergrad years.

As of July, Lexi became a legal adult who can’t tell you what state she lives in or how a bill becomes a law. I admit I’m unclear on the bill/law thing, too, but I’m pretty sure this is Michigan.

I called her pediatrician’s office to change an appointment. I couldn’t: she’s not a child anymore. Can you believe it? Even the people who have known her for 10 years and know she can’t have a conversation still have to enforce a law that says I have no business in her medical files now that she’s grownup.

Of course, I can’t set her up at a new doctor because, again, she’s 18.

“Can Lexi talk to me on the phone?” the Social Security agent asked me.

“HI!” she shouted, before returning to playing her Casio keyboard, because Lexi couldn’t care less about socialized anything. Even she knows it’s not fiscally sustainable.

What do you do when a special needs child becomes a legal adult? And what if you need to protect her from her biological parent? I can tell you: you find a brilliant and talented wife who doesn’t give up, a “stepmom” for Lexi (if you will) who joins me in the uphill battle of establishing guardianship.

Today the Judge approved me for full guardianship for Lexi. Woo hoo. Brittany has co-guardianship. After months of collecting data, getting files, seeing specialists, working with lawyers ($$) and scheduling appointments, we have Lexi safe and sound and in good hands. During today’s hearing, the Judge asked to talk to Lexi. “

Hi, Lexi… I’m Judge Feyen. How are you?”

“HI!” said Lexi.

And there we have her confession of drug use on record. I don’t think it was taken that way, though.

Our psychologist/consultant for Lexi who testified said it was a pretty open and shut case. Nonetheless, we had to have all our ducks in a row a long time ago, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the day to come, all the while hoping that there wouldn’t be an unwelcome disruption to the whole proceeding. And, finally, we got the go. What a relief!

I won’t go too deep into the details, but it basically means that I have full legal (power? control? reign? I’m not sure what word to use yet) over Lexi. I can speak on Lexi’s behalf and conduct business in her name. I can set things up, rearrange stuff, and make life livable for her. In other words, Lexi went from being in some kind of limbo where anything could happen and 1,000 things could go wrong to — presto — being all set for life. Phew.

Today is a good day. God answers prayer. Things can come together. Redemption looks like this.

Lexi and B

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Diary of a Middle School Kid

Zac has a difficult job this year: full time 8th Grade Student. I don’t know what you remember about Middle School, but my memories are rather grim. Kids at my Junior High school made fun of me because — get this — they thought my eyes were too far apart. Today I can close my eyes, which are evidently too far apart, and envision the moment in my mind. An opinionated loud mouth wearing a red polo shirt, sporting the classic 80’s middle-part haircut that gave a look of curtains to his head, his quietly irritated girlfriend standing by. We were cued up and waiting for lunch in the hallway leading into the cafeteria, lined up next to an endless row of pea-soup green lockers. He kept asking me why… Why are your eyes so far apart? I mumbled something about cranial proportion, which did absolutely nothing to increase my credibility as a cool kid.

I dunno. Maybe my eyes were too far apart. Perhaps they still are. What they said sure didn’t feel good, but they certainly deserve credit for generating an original put down. I mean… have you even heard that one before?

I’d like to think that red-shirted bully is now a moderately successful optometrist. Instead of asking why a patient’s eyes are too far apart, he poses a far more stress-inducing line of questioning: Which looks better? One or Two? Three or Four?

Naturally I worry about Zac going to middle school simply because he’s our kid and, well, it’s middle school. But this year has a higher risk factor because he’s going to a new school, generating a multiplying effect on the power of awkward. The math looks like this:

Hourly classes + thin mustaches + locker combinations + charging hormones + everyone trying to prove something = the impossible task of adolescence, multiplied by the New School factor of at least 3.

I’m relieved to report that it’s been a good week, thank the Lord.

Zac says, and I quote, “so far, middle school is going a bit better than I expected it to be. I’ve already made a couple friends, and my teachers seem to like me quite a bit.”

Brittany: “who wouldn’t like you?”

Zac: [smiles] “I spoke with one of my teachers about Ben Folds, and to another about The Beach Boys, so that’s cool. Oh, and everyone is talking about how handsome and modest and humble I am.”

Brittany: “Narcissistic much?”

Me: “Do you guys think my eyes are too far apart?”

I’m so thankful that the first week of Middle School has gone well for Zac. Our family breakfast prayer times this week have included study of how Jesus “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was on him” (Luke 2:40). Human beings are designed to grow physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. Middle School Human Beings have a LOT of growth to manage at the same time. I’m grateful for God’s grace in our kid’s lives, for His help in smoothing transitions and growing us into Christlikeness, and for Zac’s sensitivity to God’s Spirit who is, whether we realize it or not, with us in the good times and bad.

There is nothing in our lives — especially the growth of our children in difficult times — that we cannot entrust to God’s faithful care.

Zac and I in the school gym for orientation. They had the lights off, perhaps as a way of getting new students accustomed to the dark aura of Middle School.

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First Day of School 2022

To my knowledge, I don’t have any pictures of my first day of K-12 school. In kindergarten (1984) pictures were taken with analog cameras with film that had to be developed at a drug store or a one hour photo shack in the mall parking lot.

The day I started college, mom took pictures of me with a disposable camera. Note: you were supposed to get the film developed before you threw it away — a rookie mistake. Maybe that’s why I can’t find that particular photo.

Now that our cameras are built into our phones, which are built into computers that fit into our pockets, pockets which are built in our pants, we find ourselves awash with Kodak moments — a marketing phrase that makes absolutely no sense to my children. “What’s a Kodak moment, Dad?” they ask, and I tell them to google it — a phrase that would’ve made no sense to me when I was their age.

Speaking of my children, today was the first day of school for our 4 boys. Lexi, the only girl, who more than holds her own, has been in school all summer, so today is no big deal to her. She’s off this week, freeing her to sleep in during the pre-dawn chaos. Mac, Carter, Zac, and Cam, however, started the year out this early morning in a mix of nerves, excitement, and hormones.

Here they are sporting their new school gear as some of them begrudgingly hold signs:

Cam, minus a freshly lost bottom tooth (Tooth Fairy value: $2.50)

Watch out, ladies. Also, why is the 8th grader taller than the 11th graders?

Merging a family is hard work. Mac and Zac were especially concerned about moving. New school, new neighborhood, new church, new friends. They dreaded this day and what it would mean. And yet, here they are, ready to go and even smiling. Sure, they were told to smile, but still… there’s acceptance and even excitement in this picture.

Carter, whose world has been altered in many ways by loss and the sudden infestation of four new people into his home, has been so helpful. He was ready to show Mac around the new school, a labyrinth of hallways and additions and mergers, not to mention a whole new bunch of kids.

Zac will find his people and, if I had to guess, form a band that will practice in our basement at some point.

Young Cam wasn’t all that happy about going to his kindergarten class this morning. It took some high-level negotiation to get him to stay in the building. Of course, he was more than fine by the time he got home, ready to hop on his bike and cruise the neighborhood, just like has has all summer.

Lexi took the absence of her brothers in stride, keeping an eye on the suddenly empty house, making sure to add random noises to the silence and do her Lexi thing with great joy.

The best part of this day, besides sending our lads off to another year in their quickly passing academic journey, was being on the same team as my wife Brittany. Our morning routine is a finely tuned mechanism that keeps everyone on track to be clean, deodorized, and at the breakfast table for food and a lil’ bible study by 6:40am. Like an airport, we’re shipping five kids to four buildings, and every second counts down to their daily departure. I love mornings, and I love routine, but I really love Brittany. She loves our kids — all of them — like her own. She does what only moms can do (I know nothing about hair styling, having lost my hair over 15 years ago). More than that, we have the opportunity to do the hard work of raising our kids together — to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6).

All in all, not a bad first day. Monumental, in fact. We made it over a huge hurdle. Thank you, Jesus. Now… 8 hours until we do it again.

I just hope there’s enough bacon.

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Old Job Nightmares

I’ve been out of work now for about six weeks. It is a planned sabbatical, focused on a new marriage to B Ritt, coparenting each other’s kids, and merging households. These challenges need a lot of energy, attention, and grace. You learn a lot when you move in with someone else. Turns out I got into the habit of leaving the seat up, which makes sense, given that it was me and Mac and Zac, a bachelor pad extravaganza where we sometimes wore shirts and ate over the sink. Sure, Lexi was there, but let’s face it: she’s cool, like one of the guys. She has no problem letting lose with bodily functions composed of pressurized air, attributing it as a compliment to the chef.

ANYWAY, last night, I had the first of what will no doubt be many strange dreams. Have you ever left a place of employment, or a school, or even a neighborhood, only to wake up weeks later to a semi-scary nightmare about the old place? For example, I had a dream in High School that I forgot to bring my trumpet to Mr. Sutton’s 7th grade band class and was severely reprimanded, having to clean the instrumental storage room and pick up Sutton’s dry cleaning. It was only a dream, but the emotion of dropping the ball was quite real. Similarly, I still have dreams of working at the radio station and forgetting how the sound board works during interviews with JJ Heller or David Crowder.

And I wondered… how long, (O Lord), until my first post Renovation Church dream? It finally happened last night.

In this dream, I was scrambling to finish some kind of church insurance paperwork, remarking to Brittany that it needed to be done before I was. While I was filling out forms in triplicate, boxes of books were moving all over the place, making it impossible to find the reference I needed. Of course, I have zero books about church insurance (well, maybe one), so it probably wouldn’t have helped anyway. I wasn’t in charge of insurance — we had much smarter people who did that. But the emotions and sense of doom were real. Proving unsuccessful at my paperwork task, I was given a new job at the church: caulk and seal the building where the foundation meets the parking lot. Again, this had to be done and it had to be done by me before my employment ended.

Now, I’m no interpreter of dreams (Genesis 41:1-36) but the connection is clear. When we move from one season to another, our brains are feverishly trying to maintain memories, pushing papers and images into boxes and cramming them on to hippocampus shelves. The demand of processing this information causes disarray, which is kind of like when you forget where you put your keys (garage workbench) or can’t remember what color your bike was when you were 8 (it was red). However, your dream machine likes to add some Mrs. Dash to that bland meatloaf, in the form of raw, unchecked emotion. Now, instead of misplaced keys or a forgotten bike, your keys are in the mouth of a giant crocodile and you’re conversing with the late great Steve Irwin who insists that you run for the office of Governor of America, campaigning only from your red Huffy bike.

All that to say this: I’m in a very different, very good life stage. Things are falling into place, by God’s continued grace, very beautifully. I love my wife and kids, and can’t wait to see how we launch into this new school year. Every day is a gift, and every day in this household is a brief but powerful testimony of how Jesus is continuing to redeem brokenness. In fact, I can’t wait to share what’s cooking in the background — more on that later.

It’s fascinating to see how we process new life stages. Dreams about insurance and structural repair, powered by anxiety and pressure, are the kind of dreams that are fun to wake up from. If only the job of ministry were that easy. Listen: pray for your pastor. It’s no simple task. And, if you think about it, offer to help them seal up that leaky foundation, but only after you get the insurance paperwork filled out. Remember: your keys are on the workbench. Take the red bike.

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Happy Birthday, Carter!

Something happens when a kid turns 16, and it’s probably because, back in my day, 16 was how old you had to be to get your license. I couldn’t wait to turn 16 and experience the freedom of the road that my parents did. This was a few measly years before the internet, which now gives most kids everything they need without the messiness of having to put their phones down and steer. As it was then, so it is now — 16 is like crossing a line. It is the evening hour of the day we call childhood.

We sang a song and ate cake. Sure, it was cheesecake, but cheesecake qualifies. This means that, yes, Carter is 16. He is officially 16 years old.

Carter is not officially mine. No. Carter tragically lost his dad, and there’s no filling that spot. I’m not his dad, but I am his Adam, and I’ll always look after him as I do my other kids, because that’s what I’d want a man to do if I were suddenly gone. It’s not a position I take lightly. I am honored to be Carter’s Adam, and I’m glad to have a Carter. It’s pretty fun, actually.

So, today, if you have a moment, wish my Carter a Happy Birthday. He gets super embarrassed by all the attention, but it’s good for him. It lets him know he’s loved, appreciated, that Brittany and I are proud, and that he matters. Everyone needs to feel special on their birthday.

Carter is special because

1) he’s brilliant, and can destroy all of us at chess without even having to think

2) he has dance moves that put all of us to shame — there’s just no point to trying to keep up

3) he’s funny and knows how to crack me up — and I hate laughing (just kidding)

4) he has moments where he’s the sage of the family, bringing just the right wisdom at just the right time

Happy birthday, Carter! I thank God for the privilege of watching you take steps toward manhood. I’ll do my best to be what you need. Know that I love you and I’m proud of you. Also, I just wanted to say, I know most people won’t get it, but you will, when I say:

Among Us.

Also, Amongst Us.

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Communication Principle: Keep Learning

I’m a lifelong student of communication. The way we function at work, the habits we have in our relationships, and the view we have of ourselves — all of this and more are shaped by how we learned to communicate. As a leader, a spouse, a parent, a friend… never stop learning to communicate more effectively. #leader #learning #communication #work

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CovidAGAIN

Zac asked “how’s Covid treatin’ ya?” and I said “like I’m it’s punching bag.” Thankfully Zac is at Nana’s house, 106 miles away, which keeps him isolated from our family’s 50% infection rate. Those of us who have succumbed to the viral load are laying low and making the best of it. For the sake of optimism, and in the practice of being continually thankful, here are three bright spots to having this disease… again.

  1. The fever dreams are awesome. I didn’t know that Covid=creativity. I’ve never dreamed of eating food via a mid-torso drawer rather than using our mouth. Yeah, it’s a weird dream, but it kind of makes sense: how do we eat and talk with the same hole? Also, it should be noted that I am still running a fever as I write this.
  2. Cam (5) can eat anything. “Can I have a popsicle?” is followed by “just eat whatever you want…” — a sure sign of parenting while sick. The rules go out the window with Covid. We’re in survival mode.
  3. We’re forced to slow down. I have a list of 17 things that need to get done in the next 72 hours, but guess what… you can’t use your limbs if you can’t feel your limbs. Take that, progress!

We are like many who had the disease, celebrated thanksgiving, had it again, went to Disney, had it again, went to a family reunion, had it again. It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all.

And now, off to give Cam another sucker while I hack up a lung.

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