American Anthem 2013

This past Thursday evening, the high school at which I work graduated 495 young men and women who, by all accounts, are ready to take the world by storm. I always find myself emotional at commencement exercises–there is no denying the years of hard work that have led students to that day.

This year was a particularly poignant ceremony for me–some of my students, whom I started with when they were 6th graders, marched across that stage at graduation. I had the privilege of helping another one of my students get to the stage and back to her seat without incident (I’ll admit, though, that I was beyond nervous about how it would go; now that it’s over, I’m so glad I could be a part of that moment).

In addition, our high school had an impressive number of students to enlist in the armed forces–with a record number of women. Some of those students already have earned impressive accolades, some have already left home, and some were presented with their diplomas at other events so they could get back to the business of serving our country. All of them, no doubt, are making their families, school, and community proud. And this year, as I entered the hall with my colleagues, all of us brimming with pride for our graduates, I thought back to the last commencement in which I participated–I was pregnant with Eli, knowing nothing more at the time than the pregnancy was off to a shaky start, and my brother was deploying to Afghanistan with the Marine Corps but I couldn’t be there to see him off. I struggled to keep my composure that day, as we could be given no guarantee that my younger sibling would come home to us safely, and I cursed my academic regalia for having no good place to hide my cell phone so I could keep up with my family as they sent me text message updates. This year, as we recognized our newly enlisted students, I smiled inwardly, thankful that my brother indeed came home to us in one piece, a little older and a little wiser than when he left us. The enormity of that blessing is not lost on me or my family. We know that many other families don’t get to welcome their loved ones home. They don’t get to release the breath they’ve been holding since the day they were deployed or relax because they arrived home safe and sound. They don’t get to wrap them in a warm embrace or pinch themselves that their loved one is really home. No, instead, they have to summon the strength–the likes of which they probably never knew they had–to get through one day at a time, supremely proud and painfully aware of the ultimate sacrifice their loved one made.

Here, in honor of that sentiment, is the piece I wrote for Memorial Day last year, with an update or two.

American Anthem
Originally published May 28, 2012.

Tomorrow is a hallowed day for Americans–a day for honoring the memory of our fallen brothers and sisters, those whose sacrifice cannot be measured.

For me, it is also a day of thanksgiving. While I remember those who lost their lives serving our country, I am also reminded that my family is blessed because my brother, a Marine, came home to us safely after two tours of duty.

Getting ready for deployment to Afghanistan – June 2011

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My brother, BJ Isner – June 2011

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Unfortunately, there are many American families living with the reality that their sons, husbands, and fathers, or daughters, wives, and mothers, are in harm’s way or won’t be coming home. Throughout the history of the United States, countless families have buried their loved ones, their heroes–our heroes–and others whose departed loved ones never made it home. We reserve the last Monday of May each year to commemorate their sacrifice and reflect upon those liberties many of us take for granted.

You see, for all the complaining we do here in America, I really believe we live in the greatest place on Earth. Our children have the opportunity to attend school regardless of their gender or creed. When I want to cook or get a drink or take a shower, I don’t have to think about where the water comes from or if it will be safe to drink. I don’t fall asleep at night to the sounds of gunfire and mortars, nor do I worry that my city will be home to a foreign occupation or that my house will be overtaken by rebels. I don’t fear for my children’s lives–or my own–and I am free to criticize my government without fear of retribution. I know that regardless of who assumes the office of United States President, there are certain rights guaranteed to me by the Constitution, no matter what some of those fear- and hate-mongering politicians would have us to believe. I am free to worship as I please, or I can refrain from worshiping.

In this country, my son has the right to live regardless of his Down syndrome diagnosis; in other parts of the world, children with disabilities do not fare so well–the Danish government, for example, has vowed to eradicate Down syndrome from their population by 2030, and that’s not because they have found a cure. Likewise, my daughter was not the target of elimination by virtue of her gender, nor was she shipped off to be raised by a family halfway around the world simply because she is female.

I’m not naive; I understand there are complex political and economic motivations behind every war. But I do believe the vast majority of those serving in the Armed Forces do so because they really believe in the ideals on which our nation was founded, on which she still stands today.

We are a generation desensitized to war. Many of us ignore it for the most part. But I can assure you that the families of servicemen and women do not ignore it. I can promise you that after burying their loved ones, those families that have been left behind do not ignore it, they can’t ignore it. But they can push aside political beliefs and ideologies, they can appreciate that regardless of one’s feelings about war, the members of our Armed Forces deserve our respect and support.

I have heard many people say they are sick of hearing that our military is overseas fighting for our freedom. They don’t buy it. And why should they? Most of us are so far removed from it that we can’t begin to wrap our heads around it. We were born free; we haven’t had to work for it. But we have a responsibility to remember this: these things are all wrapped up in unbelievable complexity. We may not know exactly what our military is doing overseas or at home, and we might not know why. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that these men and women–and their families–are making very real sacrifices so that you and I can continue going about our business, oblivious to where our water comes from. They do it so we can still fall asleep to the sound of crickets chirping, with threats of tyranny far from our minds. You can question the purpose of a war, but you cannot deny that our servicemen and women, along with their families, are giving the very best of themselves.

Take a moment this Memorial Day to think about the freedoms you have been afforded just because you were born in this great land. Be grateful. And say a prayer for the families carrying on without their loved ones. And while you’re at it, watch this.

On Friends (or thank you)

All my life, I’ve known amazing women. From my great-grandmothers–whom I’ve mostly gotten to know more from family stories than from my own time with them–to my grandmothers, and, of course, my mother. I’ve been surrounded by friends that are equally amazing women. My earliest childhood friends have grown up to be women I am proud I once knew (or still know, if Facebook can define those relationships these days). 🙂 My friends from high school are still the ones that know me best and love me anyway–an impressive feat (just ask my husband). And when I went to college, I was literally surrounded by amazing women, a handful of whom I count among my nearest and dearest. Of course, I met some impressive souls in graduate school and at every. single. job. i’ve. ever. had. AMAZING women. My lifelong friends. My best friends.

I think, as an adult, you kind of get to a point when you’re so comfortable with your relationships–friendships included–that it seems that all the bonds have been forged. You don’t think much about meeting your next–or should I say newest–best friends when you already have so many it feels like your heart could explode.

And then, you have a child with Down syndrome. And before you know it, women you’ve never seen before are bounding over to you at your first workshop to introduce themselves and insist that even though you aren’t from their side of town you simply must join their playgroup. You will get emails from women you’ve never even heard of, from cities you’ve never even visited, reaching out to you, welcoming you to the club. And women you’ve met only through social media are so excited to finally meet you in person that they announce with the sincerest of enthusiasm how nice it is to finally meet you and that you’re going to be best friends always. And you smile, taking it all in, wondering if having a child with Down syndrome suddenly transports you to a land of perpetual happiness where all the moms are BFFs… 😉 Of course, you’ll meet a few moms (and sometimes dads) here and there that you just aren’t so sure about. And that’s ok too. But the ones you really click with, well, you find out not very far into the journey how those friendships will come to sustain you.

Now, I know it might sound like the hokiest testament to friendship ever. And, in fact, we have laughed at ourselves, and exchanged some oh GAWD, you must have thought I was so weird moments. Sometimes I think we women try harder to impress new friends than new mates. 😉

But in all seriousness, I’m not sure if those women–the ones I described above–will ever really know how much it meant to me to be greeted with such gusto and warmth during what was certainly an unsteady time in my life, especially with Eli’s medical concerns. I didn’t really know then if those women would become part of my circle of best friends, but I knew that I wanted to be part of a group of women so willing to take in a stranger simply because of an extra chromosome in common. I knew these were good women. And now I know they are amazing women.

To say I don’t get out much is an understatement. Well, let me rephrase that–I actually get out quite often. But I’m carting kids around in my booger-smeared sweatpants in need of a haircut (again) and looking haggard and worn (my husband hates my “uniform,” as he calls it, and can’t believe I would ever go in public while wearing sweats…). But in the not-so-distant past, I actually got out. Without kids, without the husband, but with makeup! On this particular day, I wasn’t feeling so great and almost backed out of going. But I didn’t, mostly because I had been looking forward to it for a week. And I’m so glad I went because I left feeling like I needed to tell the whole world what an amazing group of women I’ve been blessed to know thanks to my son. (There’s that amazing word again. I’ve got to get a thesaurus…)

So let me tell you a little something about these women. These are women of grit. They are tough as nails and smart as hell and witty and brilliant and hilarious. They have plastered smiles on their faces while their babies lay in pieces in the NICU. Or after being cut wide open in surgery. Because they’ll be damned if they’ll let their own fear get in the way of comforting their precious babies. They have listened with fierce intensity and resigned stoicism to disappointing reports and bleak diagnoses. They have exercised the restraint of saints by not tearing apart inconsiderate doctors. Or nurses. Or people that stare at restaurants. Or grocery stores. Or pretty much anywhere.

They are beautiful. Benevolent. Tenacious. They are faithful. They are thankful. They don’t stop until every nurse, therapist, surgeon, and specialist that has loved (and helped) their child knows the depth of their gratitude. They are advocates. They will show up at the hospital to keep you company because they know waiting is hard. They will give you advice about marriage and diets and careers, and they will love your children almost as much as they love their own. They will be the first ones you run to when your child gets a bad evaluation. Or a good one. And you will trust them with things you aren’t even sure you trust yourself with. Because they just get it. Like no one else does. Because there is just something about friendships among women. They are like oxygen–necessary for survival. These women will inspire you. They will make you grateful, once again, for this child you never knew you wanted. And you will sit with them, drinking margaritas, laughing so hard you cry and crying so hard you laugh, thinking to yourself damn, these are some extraordinary women.

And you will think about your other friends. The ones from your past. The ones from your past and present. Who sent you cards and music and emails and gifts in an unexpected-but-not-out-of-character rally of support for the new adventure you’ve started. Friends from long ago will be there, and you’ll wonder how they got your address and you’ll think about how many years it’s been since you’ve even talked to them. And you will weep at your sheer dumb luck for meeting all of these remarkable women along the way. And you’ll think damn, these are some incredible women.

You’ll think about those best friends from home, you know–the ones that know you best and love you anyway–and you’ll remember their concern when they didn’t hear from you right away when your child was born. You’ll remember how they celebrated his life, how they did anything they could think to do from afar–sent gifts and food, prayed and had masses dedicated in your son’s honor. You’ll remember the first time they met your son, how excited they were, how they never for a second treated him with anything but love. And you will remember those moments when you face times that are filled with anything but love. You will think about how never in a million years could you live without them, these friends, because they are as much your heart and soul as your children. And they have known your heart and soul longer than almost anyone. And you’ll cry again, this time because you can’t believe how lucky you are to have these women in your life. And you’ll think damn, these are some exceptional women.

You’ll think about your friends from work, the ones that haven’t known you as long but love you as much. Who opened their home on Christmas to take care of your daughter while you were giving birth. Who showed up with bags of clothes and goodies and rallied the troops to make sure you had everything you needed, from a working breast pump to time off work. You’ll think of the ones that sat with you during your son’s first surgery, held your hand, and prayed with you and for you when you were so terrified you couldn’t even stand it. You will shed tears of gratitude once again, unable to make sense of how you–you–keep hitting the jackpot when it comes to friends. And you will think damn, these are some remarkable women.

You will lock these moments up in a vault somewhere deep down because thinking of them will make you emotional–these women were among the first to love your son. They are a part of everything you will always remember about that time.

And your new friends, well, you’ll soon feel like you’ve always known them. Their friendship is different. You share something with them no one else understands. It’s almost like a secret. And you get to walk around smiling because you’ve been let in on it. You. Who would have thought? Certainly not you.

I’m not sure I ever thanked my friends properly for all the love and support when Eli was born and in all the months since. So, thank you. Thank you, friends. Thank you, amazing women. My life is better with you in it.