Learning to Fly

“Mom, I have a question.”

This is how most conversations start with Ian. His questions range from “Mom, how did we get our last name?” to “Mom, do you know what superpower I want to have?” Most of the questions occur in our minivan as I race around after work driving kids to basketball practice, picking up a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store for dinner, and thinking about those work emails that I should return.

On this quieter Monday afternoon, I was headed to the library with Ian and Caitlin to drop off books that were due when Ian announced from the back, “Mom, I have a question.”

“Yes,” I responded.

“Do you think I can be a pilot in the military?”

I pause. I think about the military and their physical requirements to join. I think about how one learns to fly. I think about Ian’s limb difference. I also think that I am really tired, that I didn’t have my afternoon tea, and I really don’t know the answer to this question. So, I sigh and say…

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“Well, I don’t know. The military has special rules about becoming a pilot and I am not sure if they would let you.” I pause and sigh again. Then, I add the words that make my shoulders sag and my heart ache.

“I am not sure if they let people with limb differences learn to fly.”

Silence.

“I think you’re wrong, Mom,” Caitlin states breaking the silence as she looks at me with disgust. “I think anyone can learn to fly.”

“Maybe,” I reply feeling exhausted. Exhausted because this territory of raising children with exceptionalities never lets you retreat. Exhausted because fear seeps into every crevice of your life leaving you questioning your actions, worried about their future, and so wishing you had time for a comforting afternoon tea.

The discussion ends abruptly when I pull into a parking spot in front of the library. Distracted by the idea of picking out new books, Ian and Caitlin jump out of the van and run into the library. I walk slowly behind them wishing I had better answers for his questions.

7 books, 1 cup of tea, and 2 cookies later, back at home I hear a ding.  I ignore it and keep typing my response to a work email. Then Caitlin appears, standing over me at the end of the couch, she asks, “Did you see what I sent you?”

“No. I will in a minute.” Intrigued because Caitlin rarely sends messages from her iPad, I set my laptop down and look at my message. Here is what she sent:

See, Mom, Ian can learn to fly.

I have never loved Caitlin’s YouTube watching more. Jessica Cox, I have never loved being wrong more. Lastly, I have never been more proud of my kids and how they see the world! I hope they learn to fly and prove me wrong over and over again.

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When I took this photo, I thought I was capturing a moment of summertime joy. Now, I realize what they were trying to tell me. Ian was shouting, “Mom, Never doubt me!” Caitlin was growling, “Mom, I am more fierce than you ever imagined.” And, Nolan was sighing, “Mom, when will you ever learn? Trust us. We can do anything.”

How Long Did It Take?

Typically, when I engage in a conversation about the adoption of my youngest son, Ian, I am eventually asked, “How long did it take?” Since November is Adoption Awareness Month, I thought I would finally answer this question honestly. So here is my raw, unfiltered answer:

It took a lifetime to adopt Ian.

It took a lifetime because…

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It took falling in love with a man who embraced the idea of creating a family in whatever ways we were blessed.

It took having two challenging pregnancies filled with moments that terrified me. 

It took two premature deliveries, a stay in the intensive care nursery, and an ambulance ride with a newborn.

It took dreaming of having a third child.

 

It took being told we weren’t ready to adopt a sweet little girl from Korea.

It took tears and heartbreak as I recycled the paperwork confirming our failure.

It took a move to a new town.

 

It took a prayer in the quiet of the morning.

 

It took the courage to open my heart and an email.

It took a long Sunday walk with my husband.

It took talking with our son and daughter about a little boy with a limb difference across the world in need of a family.

It took my daughter saying, “We need to be his family. We know he can do anything.”

 

It took a nerve-wracking phone call to the adoption agency.

It took sharing this very personal dream with close friends to get our initial three letters of reference.

 

It took letters from our police department, our employers, and our doctors just to start.

It took ensuring every document was properly notarized.

It took trusting the UPS service representative with our life and dream in an envelope.

It took waiting and waiting.

 

It took getting a US seal on every document.

It took more waiting.

 

It took a code from the US consulate.

It took a visa from China.

It took a 16-hour flight over the top of the world.

It took sleepless nights.

 

It took courage and faith in the power of love.

 

It took a door to open and a little boy to walk through it.

It took the tears of the nannies who loved him for the first seven years of his life.

It took the incredible love of his birth mother.

 

So how long did it take? It took a lifetime. It also took the most intense love I have ever felt.

However, if you ask, I will simply smile and say, “It took some time…about a year.”

But please know, adoption is the journey of a lifetime.

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The Why

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Nick Springer, two-time wheelchair rugby Paralympian. This photo and Caitlin’s experience with it was why I started writing. Photo Credit: Vanity Fair

When I started this blog, I thought I knew why I was writing. My “Why?” was to raise awareness about athletes of all abilities. It was to share the incredible sports stories of what is possible when we redefine ability. My plan was to change people’s lives by changing how they viewed the world. My “Why?” was never intended to change me, my life, and how I viewed the world, but it has. And now, my blog must change…evolve to include this new perspective.

It seems a natural entry point for this new additional focus of the blog to be the answer to this question: Why did you adopt? I know many people have wondered “Why?”, however, only a few people have actually asked me about the decision. It’s the elephant in the room. For many, it didn’t seem to make sense. We had two beautiful healthy children, one boy, and one girl. We had successful careers, a nice home, etc. It appeared we had achieved the American Dream.

So “Why?” Well, the answer is easy because we were fulfilled and we realized that our dream was different. Our dream included finding a meaningful way to share our life, our children, our home, and our love. So, because we had two beautiful children, a home filled with love, careers and so much more, we decided to open our hearts to adopting an older child.

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Here is the photo of Ian’s smiling face from the email that changed my “Why.”

I know. This answer leads to the next question. “Why Ian?” Another easy answer. “The Universe.” Yup, you heard me, the Universe is responsible for Ian joining our family. Don’t believe me?  Then, how else do you explain that when you randomly open an email about a boy from China in need of a family he has the same birthday as your oldest son?  How else do you explain that as you read the description of this little seven-year-old boy he sounds like a perfect combination of the children already in your home? How do you explain that when you continue reading you learn he has an upper limb difference and you have spent the last two years hosting a blog on athletes with physical exceptionalities? Not the Universe? Then, tell me…Why else would you cry and talk to a computer screen saying, “I think we are your family,” when you learn that he has been asking the nannies in his orphanage to find a family for him? Why else would your heart literally burst with love when you look at the smiling face of this little boy who lives halfway across the world? I’m telling you… the Universe built my family. Sometimes, things are bigger than just you and you need to simply embrace it.

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Here is my family built by love, hope, and the Universe. Photo Credit: Deb Hanna Photography

So there you have it, the start of my new “Why?” and adventure in blogging about adoption. Before I go, I do have a few people to thank. Laurie, thank you for helping me give myself the permission to share the stories that I am scared to write. Brene Brown, Anne LamottGlennon Doyle, and Elizabeth Gilbert, thank you for honestly sharing your stories and leading the way in living a heartstrong life. Your writings give me the courage to share my own. Seth, thank you for walking this life’s journey with me. Nolan, Caitlin, and Ian, thank you for giving me the courage to be your mom. Readers, thank you for your support. I hope you enjoy this new addition to my blog. If you have any thoughts, stories or ideas to share, please let me know.

Keep Believing in the Possible!

Jen

 

Riding the Waves with AmpSurf

We heard about AmpSurf from a neighbor the summer before Ian joined our family. When she told me about their offerings, I couldn’t help but think that it was a little bit of fate. You see, AmpSurf is a non-profit organization that offers free adaptive surfing clinics to amputees on both the east and west coasts of the US, and they host one in Maine where we love to spend the summer months.

During a snowy January day, I registered for the August clinic hoping he would come to love the cold waters of Maine. Eight months later, after learning to swim and armed with a cozy black wetsuit, Ian was eager to try out a sport that his big sister loves.

The morning started with a warm welcome and an announcement that the best surfer on the beach is the one with the biggest smile. Caitlin leaned over to me and whispered, “I think that will be Ian.” The announcements were then followed by some dry land instruction on a wobble board and safety tips.  Then, in heats, each surfer clad in a brightly colored AmpSurf shirt hit the waves with their team. A team consisted of one surf instructor and four water volunteers who guided participants on their ride into the beach.

Ian was in the green heat and his instructor was Steve. He told us he was determined to stand up, and on his first wave, he DID. In fact, on every wave, he popped up and got into his best surfing stance. He did have one big wipe out, but a volunteer was right there and scooped him out of the water quickly. Then, in full Ian fashion, he stood up proudly and with a huge smile on his faced waved to us.

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Ian catching his first wave with AmpSurf with the help of Steve and his team of volunteers. Photo Credit: Proud Mom

As Caitlin, Nolan, and I watched Ian surf from the shoreline, we jumped, shouted, and cheered for him. There were even a few proud Momma tears. I just couldn’t believe how far my little boy had come! One volunteer working with Ian ran up and said to us, “I am not sure who had more joy on their face, Ian or all of you. This is just so beautiful!”

And it was beautiful, all of it. Even Ian agreed. On the car ride home, when I asked him what he thought of the AmpSurf clinic, he said, “Mom, it was beautiful.”

Surprised by his response, I asked, “Why? What made it beautiful?”

“It was so beautiful to see all of those people surfing. Some had one leg. Some were missing two legs, but everyone got to surf. Everyone got to have fun.”

Thank you AmpSurf for providing Ian, our family, and all of the participants with an incredible morning! We are already looking forward to next year!

If you are interested in learning more about AmpSurf, donating, or volunteering, please contact them at surf@ampsurf.org.

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Ian waiting for his turn with Caitlin and Nolan as the blue heat heads out into the waves. Photo Credit: Mom

 

The Game Ball

At the end of every baseball game in Ian’s Coaches Pitch League, the coaches select a player who gets the game ball. Often the game ball goes to the player who made a clutch catch, hit a double or tagged someone out during the game. It is an honor to receive the ball, and the young players cherish getting the game ball more than a win.

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In one of Ian’s recent games, he didn’t make a clutch catch or tag anyone out.  Actually, I’m not sure he even touched the ball when he was playing in the outfield. However, he did get a hit. It was barely a single, but it earned him the game ball. Let me explain how it all happened…

Ian walked slowly up to the plate dragging his electric-green bat behind him. He positioned his feet parallel to the plate, slung his bat over his shoulder, got his back elbow up and looked at his coach signaling he was ready. Kneeling on one knee, Coach Nick lobbed the ball over home plate. Ian swung…and missed. Ian swung at the next ball and missed. He continued to swing and miss until the fifth ball. This time he swung and tipped the ball only to have the ball hit him in the forehead. After rubbing his head and talking to Coach Rori who checked his head,  Ian once again took his spot at the plate. This time looking tired and a bit nervous. Ian held tightly to the bat, swung and missed.

By about the eleventh pitch, I was standing anxiously with my hands clenched when Ian looked up at me wondering what to do. At this point, Coach Nick wiped his brow and encouraged Ian to keep swinging. Then, from the dugout one of his teammates started to chant, “Let’s go, Ian. Let’s go!” Instantly, all the other players stood up and joined in the chanting, “Let’s go, Ian. Let’s go!”

On the next pitch, Ian swung and hit the ball. It wasn’t a big hit. It didn’t even get past the pitcher’s mound, but it is enough for Ian to make it safely to first. Once on base, Ian jumped up and down waving his arms triumphantly in the air. Everyone cheered, and I felt like I was in a Disney movie as the tears welled up in my eyes.

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At the close of the game, the coaches gathered all the players in the dugout. I didn’t get to hear what was said, but I will always remember Ian running up to me while holding a ball high above his head smiling and shouting, “Mom! Mom! I got the game ball! I got it for not giving up!”

I can’t thank the coaches enough for what they taught Ian at that game. He learned to persist. He learned that when you surround yourself with others who believe in you that you can exceed your own expectations. Most importantly, Ian learned that he can do anything.

I also want to thank all of the players and their families. I am so grateful for all of the support you have shown Ian throughout the season.  It makes me proud to be a part of this community where differences are celebrated.

And just when I thought I couldn’t be more amazed by this baseball season, Ian ended his last game by taking the mound and pitching. Watch out Jim Abbott!

Finally, keep believing in the possible! I do.

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Love + Joy = Ian

 

 

Next week, we celebrate Ian being in our family for eight months, and it has been a beautiful journey powered by love. The only way I can describe the journey is living intensely from the heart- making it absolutely joyous while being incredibly exhausting. But now that I think about it, I guess that is how one could simply describe parenting.

For a person who loves the written word, I often find myself unable to write or speechless over these past eight months. I catch myself just standing still in awe watching Ian redefine what is possible for himself and anyone fortunate enough to witness how he takes on this new world. For his peers, he does this in school when he bravely shares stories about his life in China during class discussion. For his teammates, he does this on the baseball diamond when he plays second base, fields the ball and throws a player out on first Jim Abbott-style. For me, he does it everywhere we go. I mean everywhere- at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, the YMCA…everywhere.

When I do force myself to take a moment to breathe deep and observe Ian with his siblings, my eyes well up with tears. Literally strangers only 240 days ago from vastly different cultures and life experiences, they now cuddle on the couch in their pajamas, fight in the car on the way to school and tease each other over dinner. They are your typically troublesome trio and when they team up, watch out! With their creativity, energy, and perseverance, there is nothing that will stop them…well, except maybe bedtime.

These eight months have been the greatest gift that I have ever received, and I will share a few of the moments with you here in pictures. I hope these photos fill your heart with love and joy. I hope they make you believe in the possible. 

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A Time to Dance

Over the past month, Caitlin and I were snuggled up in her bed each night reading, A Time to Dance, written by Padma Venkatraman. Inspired by the beauty of Venkatraman’s poems that create the amazing story of Veda, Caitlin wanted to craft her own book review written in verse. Here are her thoughts on the book.

 

A TIme to DanceThe Elements

Veda, a young dancer in India.

Paati, Veda’s grandmother and a spiritual leader to Veda.

Ma, came from the rich and left it all behind when she fell in love with Pa.

Pa, Veda’s father and Paati’s son.

 

Veda loses her leg in an accident.

She loses dance, too.

 

Govinda, a young man who dances from the heart.

He teaches Veda to dance again.

 

 

Why the Book Is Worth Reading

Written in verse.

Transports you to India.

The dancing creates beautiful images in your mind.

The story creates beautiful feelings in your heart.

 

Veda changes and her way of dance changes.

 

If you are interested in learning more about the book, you may want to watch the book trailer. If you have suggestions for other exceptional books that Caitlin and I could read together, please leave your ideas in the comments section below. Happy Reading and Keep Believing in the Possible!

Sled Hockey- Pushing to the Limits

This post is written in honor of the USA Sled Hockey Team who brought home the gold medal from this year’s 2018 Paralympics Games in PyeongChang, Korea with an overtime win defeating Canada, 2-1. GO TEAM USA!

 

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Team USA celebrates their victory over Canada for their third straight gold medal run. Photo Credit: Joe Kusumoto @TeamUSA.org

 

Since many families ask me how to get their children involved in adaptive sports, I wanted to highlight the power of local sled hockey teams. The Center for Human Development (CHD) hosts teams for juniors (ages 4-17), a recreation level and travel team (ages 17+) at a local accessible arena. Ryan Kincade, the CHD Outreach Coordinator and Captain of the Western Mass Knights, along with Kim Lee, Vice President of CHD, and Jessica Levine, CHD Program Manager, took some time out of their busy schedules to talk with me about their hockey program and the power of sports.

But before I share their insights, you should know a few basics about sled hockey: 

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  1. Most of the rules are the same as traditional stand-up hockey.
  2. The players use sleds with skates to maneuver on the ice.
  3. Players use two sticks about 3 feet long for passing and shooting. Picks on the end of the sticks enable players to propel themselves on the ice.
  4. Players wear body pads, helmets, and gloves. Goalies wear gloves that have picks on the backside to assist with movement.
  5. Most players have ambulatory impairments, but some players at the youth and recreation level are fully able-bodied.

So now is here is what Ryan, Kim, and Jessica have to say about the CHD sled hockey program…

What do you hope athletes will gain on and off the ice from your program?

It’s about a sense of community. For many of our participants, physical activity is not part of their normal routine. Through sled hockey, they realize that can do so much more than they imagined. Our athletes gain physical and mental strength. For our parents, they get the opportunity to root their child on and observe peer-social relationships through athletics. It is also unique because siblings with or without disabilities can participate. The program can benefit the whole family and lead to participation in other CHD family activities like rock climbing.

What do you love about sled hockey?

DSC_0902Ryan: I love the community. I love getting gritty on the ice and then after having fun together. Just being a part of a team and the physicality of it. I like being successful with other like-minded individuals. As captain, I try to motivate others. I try to be positive and teach them about the sport and how to be a good teammate. It’s about learning how to win and lose. It’s about being positive.

Sled hockey becomes and an outlet for athletes to talk about their journey and to learn from each other. In ways, it becomes a therapeutic group where athletes can share personal experiences. Sled hockey is altering for a lot of our players. For the first time, they are not being looked at as different.

What is your best training tip for interested athletes?

Ryan: Train off the ice,  just as hard as you do on the ice. Eat right and take care of yourself. Watch the sport, online or go to a game. Learn the positioning. Ask other players how to play and about the rules. Most importantly, be positive. Don’t implode and don’t show off.

How would you define ability?

Ryan: Ability is going beyond what you think is possible. It is pushing yourself just beyond your limit. It is individualized. Everyone has an ability and everyone needs to learn about their ability. Everyone can push a little harder to enhance their ability.

How would you describe your grittiest players?

Ryan: They have mental fortitude. They have a “Nothing can stop you attitude.” They take risks. They give hits and can take them. They don’t give up, not on the ice or in life.

How could community members support their local sled hockey program?

We believe everyone has the right to play and should have the accessibility to play. Therefore, we could always use hockey equipment. We accept donations of hockey pads, helmets, clothing and monetary donations to purchase sleds and sticks.

Check out these sites if you would like to learn more about local and national sled hockey programming: CHD Sled HockeyUSA Sled Hockey. You can also click here to watch highlights of Team USA’s gold medal win.

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CHD Sled Hockey Participants & Knights Sled Hockey Team Photo Source: CHD

Hope in Black and White: The Running Dream

The Running DreamAn Interview with Wendelin Van Draanen, Author of The Running Dream

Have you ever been reading a book and the words jump off the page and touch your heart like you have been searching for those words? Then, tears start to fill your eyes and stream down your cheeks because now you know someone else in the world understands your heart. This is what happened to me when reading The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen. 

Van Draanen wrote the book I had been searching for on the bookshelves for young people. On page 131 in black and white, she had presented the reader with HOPE. The kind of HOPE that I want to explore with this blog and someday present in my own books for young children. As a result, I had to reach out to the author about her work. She graciously agreed to be interviewed and share her secrets to writing The Running Dream. Here is Van Draanen in her own words…

What sparked the idea to write The Running Dream? I was on a flight home from the New York after running the marathon, and I was falling asleep with my head on the window, but I couldn’t get this character out of my head. There were many runners in the race with physical challenges. I was in awe of what the human spirit could accomplish.

This experience made me want to write a book an amputee that would be hopeful and not filled with darkness or despair. When I was a high school teacher I remember feeling guilty because I was not emotionally gritty enough to support a student with cerebral palsy. It was this culmination of the desire to write a book of hope, a character I could not shake from my thoughts and the memory of a student that prompted me to write The Running Dream. I then wanted to move the message of being inclusive from lip service into the heart. As a teacher, I wanted this shift, especially for my high school students.

What do you hope readers learn or gain from reading The Running Dream? I hope readers gain a broader empathy for others. I want readers to come away with a clear sense of hope. I want them to know that they can succeed at whatever they dream if they approach it step-by-step.

What advice do you have on writing, running and life for other aspiring writers, runners or life adventurers? It’s funny you ask that question. I am writing an entire book to answer that question. It is a book for readers about pursuing their own dreams step-by-step. They just need to do three things: dream big, work hard and don’t give up.

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Wendelin Van Draanen and her husband, Mark Parsons ready to run and read with Exercise the Right to Read.

In addition to writing, Van Draanen also is an avid runner and stars in her family rock band. Combining her passion for running and reading, Van Draanen founded Exercise the Right to Read, a non-profit focused on raising funds for school libraries by promoting reading and fitness among young people. The way it works is simple. Students read for 26 minutes a day and run or walk a mile a day for 26 days while raising funds through sponsorship. At the end of 26 days, the students have read and run a “marathon.” 90% of funds raised through the completion of the “marathon” go to the participating school’s library and 10% of the funds go to First Book, which provides books for children in underserved communities. Talk about a WIN-WIN!

I must admit I am a big fan of Wendelin Van Draanen and her passion for getting youth reading, exercising and contributing to the community. Thank you, Wendelin, for believing in and writing about the Possible!

Caitlin’s Life Lessons from a Cactus

There are many reasons why I recommend this book, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling:

  1. It’s really good.
  2. The main character, Aven, is funny, kind, interesting and cares a lot about her two best friends.
  3. It has really good mysteries in it.
  4. Aven has no arms and plays soccer.
  5. The story shows you what it means to have true friends.
  6. It teaches you not to be afraid and that you can do anything.

* Caitlin and I received this book as a gift from a friend. We have enjoyed talking about the characters, their struggles and trying to solve the mysteries in Aven’s life. When we finished the book, Caitlin immediately asked to write a book review. This is her first book review. I hope there are more reviews in her future.