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The Morning War
[A tired dad standing in a dark kitchen squinting against the interior fridge light.]
“Fuck. I thought I had more bread and more than one slice of cheese left.”
He shrugs his shoulders to no one and gathers some items that will be passable for a six year kid to pull out of a lunchbox five hours from now. He mutters a quiet prayer that his kids will not come down the stairs for another 30 minutes. He needs the thirty minutes to half listen to a gratitude meditation, scratch out a couple lines in a journal, and fill lunchboxes and backpacks.
This is the third morning in a row and the 211th morning this year that ol Dad has staggered down the stairs with an achy body that can’t wait to climb back into the sheets again in 17 hours.
Last night, the small lads started out in their beds but at some point in the night his own bed became a pile of squirming, kicking limbs in cute superhero PJs. The soundtrack went from soothing white noise to snoring, teeth grinding, and sleep talking.
Ol Dad gets his mise en place all squared away for another morning fire drill of trying to get kids off to where they need to be. He longs for an uncluttered kitchen island work station but his is buried under bills, remnants from last night's kids dinner, back issues of the New Yorker that he wishes he liked to read and some evidence of his own midnight snacking. He takes a forearm and clears a space to start his work.
First, he takes an aluminum mug and fills it with lots of ice. Then a trickle of water mixed with a few generous glugs of Grady’s iced coffee. He takes a sip and waits for the caffeine to do its thing. It’s unlikely to energize him in this condition but it will stave off a withdrawal headache.
The mise starts out as two separate piles. One for each kid. Two soft zipper lunch boxes sit open awaiting their bounty.
The dark blue lunch box gets a different set of items than the green one. Ol Dad’s got PTSD from the time when Keegan’s BCBA told him that Keegan peered into his lunch box one day and wept at his lack of options. Now he gets a lunch fit for a forty year old union tin knocker.
Into a plastic bento box he adds cold mac and cheese in one compartment and in another he shoves four chicken nuggets. Bell and Evans. The Cadillac of frozen chicken products. The remaining cubbies get fresh cut fruit that will come back untouched. Next, he fills three snack sized zip loc baggies with pretzel crisps, blueberry cheerios, and potato chips. He starts testing out how all this fits into the box. In the remaining space he adds two packets of Annie’s fruit snacks, a Whole Foods branded cereal bar, and a few slices of a pink lady apple tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. Lots of options. The lunchbox has swollen to carry on luggage size and needs to be stepped on to close it. The zippers are maxed out.
The box goes into the matching blue backpack along with a replacement t-shirt and shorts for the pee soaked set that came home tightly tied off in a plastic bag that’s been marinating in there since yesterday. He adds K’s 3 ring binder, an unspillable bottle of 50 percent water, 50 percent cran grape juice, his communication IPad, four diapers, and a backup chew necklace.
He sets the backpack over by the door and hears footsteps padding across the floor over his head. Fuck. At least one of the lads is up. He listens closely to the steps. He can usually tell which child it is based on the pattern. The steps cease at the top landing, a dead giveaway to their owner.
Ol Dad pokes his head around the corner into the stairwell to see who’s about to join him. The morning fire drill creates a lot of heartburn, so he works hard to find small moments of joy to bolster his patience. The first look at each kid starting their day is worth savoring. He sees Keeg at the top of the stairs prepping for his descent. He’s got a little smile on his face. He’s dragging a gigantic soft blanket behind him like a commercial fishing net.
During this mornings’ drag, the fleece blanket captured a couple dirty socks, a stuffed animal, and a sneaker. As he tip toes down the steps, the items get deposited in an avalanche at the bottom. This is the most calm he will be all day. The rest of his hours, he will stare at his fingers, chomp his chewy necklace, flap his arms, and skip from room to room without rest. But for now, he is quietly coo-ing like a bird and smiles when he sees me waiting. Keeg is non verbal but rarely silent. He makes lots of chatty noises and these morning ones are especially sweet.
“mum mum mum” and “Puh, Puh, Puh”, he says on a loop.
“Morning bud, I love your sounds,” Dad says. It’s so nice to hear your voice.” Dad’s hoping that the frequent affirmations will help coax some words out of him someday.
[From here on out, I give myself away as the Dad character. It’s easier to shift into first person to finish the story.]
I greet Keeg at the third step from the bottom where he trust falls into me. I catch him in a hug where we both get wrapped in his sleep warmed blanket. I can smell his morning breath. He wraps his legs around my waist like an anaconda and gives me a full body squeeze. He’s got a pretty heavy nighttime diaper that needs a change but I just want to go slow and feel his warm sleepy body pressed against mine. He loosens his grip and lets himself to the floor.
I head back over to my crowded center island station to resume my tasks. Jake’s bag is still zipped from yesterday, so I’ll start with a clean out.
[I’ll be double and triple tasking from here on out. Head on a swivel, steady drip of caffeine.]
I unzip the forest green backpack marked JTS, take a peek inside and remember that I need to get Keeg into a fresh diaper. I get him squared away and return to Jake’s bag. I look inside and smile with a slow shake of my head.
His lunch box is spilled open inside and there are wrappers and wet crumbs coating everything. The drink bottle is on its side and has dripped its contents into the bag all night. There are worksheets and artwork that have been shoved into the bag without regard for their condition. There’s the sweatshirt he wore yesterday crumpled in there as well. I start untangling the mess as Keeg joins me in the kitchen. While I’m working on Jake’s bag, Keegan drags his blanket into the kitchen and leaves it at my feet. He uses his iPad comms device to smash the [videos] button a dozen times, which means he wants an old cell phone connected to YouTube. I try to delay the inevitable screen time.
“Not right now, Keeg. How bout some breakfast?”
He doesn’t like this answer. Since he can’t speak, I’ve got no confirmation of what he likes to eat in the morning. I would happily make him anything he wants. He seems to prefer dry, crunchy textures.
I pause the backpack clean out to fill a small handled cup with blueberry cheerios, and brown some toast slathered in butter and open a couple of flavors of cereal bars. I set it on the kitchen table continental style so that Keegan can graze. Sometimes he will sample everything and other times all of it goes untouched until I scrape it into the bin three hours from now.
In addition to the blanket, he starts to deposit throw pillows, toys, three stuffed animals, and a well loved book at my feet. My work area now features a ninja warrior course. Eventually, I’ll give in to his requests for videos but I still hold out hope that he’ll find something else to pass the time.
I’m on the backpack project again. I take a quick peek at the artwork and worksheets that Jake brought home. He’s scribbled some misspelled words with backwards letters of various sizes. He’s working hard on his letters, spelling, and reading. I marvel at his progress. I scan the fridge for an extra magnet and some real estate and stick the best one on the fridge. The rest must go into the trash. There’s no room to save it all.
I hear the other set of feet touch down and scamper across the floor above me. These steps are distinct too. When Jake wakes up, I think he’s scared to be alone so he quickly tries to locate some of his people. He’s down the stairs and squinting painfully at the light in the kitchen. He staggers like a small skinny drunk guy as he wakes up. I try to stop what I’m doing and soak in the first interaction with my other son. This child is verbal.
“Hi Babe. Did you sleep?”
“Yes. Can I watch videos on your computer?”
“Jeez, man. You just got up. Why don’t you get settled first?”
I scoop him up for a hug. His hugs are a little more reluctant than Keeg’s. Little bit of a dead fish unless you ask for a squeeze. He worms his way out of my grip and rubs the crispies from the corners of his eyes. He’s pinching his crotch.
“I have to go to the bathroom, Dad.”
“Off you go.”
“After— can I watch videos on your computer?”
Back to the tasks. I wipe down the inside of the bag and replace any items that need replacing. An extra T-shirt, maybe a pair of shorts. In winter I stuff a fresh beanie and mittens in there. His lunch box usually looks like he ate half the food and then let the school bus run over the rest.
Keeg is now lying comfortably between my feet in the kitchen. Jake is out of the restroom but sent back to wash his hands. I hear the water turn on and off in the blink of an eye. No chance he did anything but dip his fingers into the stream for a moment. I need to choose my battles. I let that one go. I know that Jake will be hungry soon, so I preheat a frying pan.
Jake usually buys lunch. In his revived backpack I put a fresh drink bottle in the side holster. His red folder goes in next. The folder carries the communication between his teachers and home. Sometimes it’s loaded with stuff, sometimes it's empty. On the front of the folder, we tape a note for Jake so he knows what’s happening that day. He likes a plan. In colored marker I write…
Bus to school
Library special today
Lunch choice number 1: Tacos and fruit
Bus to Kids in Action [after school program]
Sleep at moms house
In light pencil and small font, I write “You are loved. You are safe. You belong.” I hope that the little note will find him if he needs it.
Jake’s got a laptop open. He yells for the password. I buzz over to type it in. If we aren’t in a rush I’ll tell him the keystrokes so he can practice but that can be slow. I need to be selective on where I spend energy in our quest to get out the fucking door today.
Keeg’s back on his feet and rips the fridge and freezer doors open to test the hinges. He does this at maximum force. He grabs an ice pack to chew on and pulls out a juice jug. He leaves the jug at my feet. He’d like a drink now.
I call out, trying to catch him before he’s accelerating into another room. Sometimes he will turn around and close up the doors but often they are left open to exhale their frosty air into the house.
I fix a drink for Keeg and watch him head up the stairs with cheerios and half a cereal bar. He found the red YouTube cellphone. I know that he’s off to my bed to watch videos and to have his snack and a lie down. On his way up the stairs he spills a few cheerios that I’ll step on later. [Landmines]. Another batch will be smashed into my sheets alongside the cereal bar. I won’t know this until I go to bed later.
It’s usually around this time that I start warning the kids about needing to get out the door.
“We have to leave in 35 minutes, guys. We need to eat breakfast, get dressed, and get out the door soon.”
I sing this sentence at the top of my lungs hoping that they hear me. Sometimes Jake will mutter, “Ok, Dad,” but usually it’s crickets. I read in a parenting book that transitions can go more smoothly with lots of warnings and less surprises. From now until we get out the door, I’ll issue roughly 11 more warnings. Still undecided if this works for us.
Back to Jake’s lunch box. Jake doesn’t get lunch food [he buys], but he does require many snacks neatly separated into two separate bags marked AM and PM snacks. In his AM snack bag I’ll put fresh cut fruit, a cereal bar and a little compartment of cheerios. In his PM snack bag…
“Can I have some pancakes?” [He never looked up from the Vids to place his order.]
“Yes. Gimme a couple minutes, please.”
I dreamt of the day when my kids would enjoy my cooking. It’s just starting to happen now, so I always have ingredients on hand to make pancakes from scratch for Jake. I usually offer one little mini cake to Keeg too, but he’s never interested in them. He’s busy upstairs filling my bed with food.
The lunchbox project goes on hold. I find six square inches of space to work on breakfast. Counter space is in high demand.
In a large mixing bowl
Cup and a half of AP flour
Punch of salt [punch or pinch?]
Three and a half teaspoons of baking powder
Tablespoon of sugar
Whisk it together to make a uniform dust.
Add an egg
Add a cup and a quarter of whole milk
A generous glob of melted butter [3tbsp I think]
Gently whisk this stuff together until it looks like pancake batter. Don’t overmix.
Transfer the batter into a clear condiment squirt bottle so that you can make pancakes that look like letters, shapes, and favorite characters from violent video games. I’ll take a sharpie and write the date on the bottle so I know how old this batch is. This recipe makes 8-10 normal pancakes so we’ll have some left for tomorrow.
I expertly drizzle the whole thing with expensive syrup that he couldn’t dream of appreciating and set his place with a napkin and utensils. I call him over to the high top to eat. Four minutes later, he’s eating pancakes with his hands and leaving paw prints of syrup on the keys and trackpad that will turn to hardened concrete that will never be able to be scraped away.
I can hear Keeg above my head jumping on the bed and roughly playing the blinds like a xylophone.
[back to try and finish the lunchbox for the 4th time]
For Jake’s PM snacks, I add fruit snacks, chips, sneak in a little piece of candy, a banana, and some pirate’s booty. I’ll add a little bottle of stonyfield yogurt smoothie, and slide in a flat ice pack. I’ll spend five minutes trying not to break the zipper getting this box closed.
Half of this stuff will come back uneaten but I want them to have options. I like to picture his teachers laughing out loud to the amount of stuff that I’ve packed.
Lunch box finally goes into the bag. Bag gets zipped.
Two bags by the door.
[Another loud warning]
“Fellaaaaaas, We gotta get out the doooooor in 18 minutes.”
Crickets. No one gives a shit.
I slug a bit of iced coffee and head upstairs to check on Keegan.
He’s lying in bed with his ankle crossed over his knee like a statesman. He’s watching and rewatching the same six second clip of secret life of pets for the 30th time.
While we’re here, I strip him nude and he giggles. He gets a fresh pull up diaper, a snap onesie, pants and a t shirt. He’s still in a snap onesie to keep him locked into his clothes. He will take everything off given the chance. I’ve learned to save his socks for the moment before we head out because any sooner and I can’t keep them on his feet. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, but we’ve got momentum now and I can’t afford to lose it.
I head down stairs and spend four minutes explaining to Jake why we need to put our own dishes in the sink. He’s not listening. I reach over and pause his video so that he hears me. He looks at me with pure venom.
He chucks his dish in the sink with a loud crash.
I try to tidy a little, put a few things in the hamper when I can, and head back up stairs to collect Jake’s clothes. I sit on the corner of the bed and try to belly breathe a few times.
“Siiiiix minutes guys, we are OUT the door, pleeeeeease.” [No response from anyone.]
Like a personal stylist at Nordstrom, I bring lots of options for Jake. I try to stay calm. I present the options. He’s not listening. I pause his video and set it on the table. He can have it back after he gets dressed. This deal never works that well but it’s the only way to get his attention. Sometimes I want to snap the screen free of the keyboard to show him that I mean business.
We’re now on the razor’s edge of being able to get out the door on time. It can go either way from here. If he cooperates, we’ll make it. If he doesn’t, we have a wrestling/shouting match on our hands which finishes in tears, and a tougher than necessary start to the day for us both. I’m not proud of the times when I yell. Getting dressed can be a war.
“No one ever fucking helps me!”
I’ll actually yell this on the verge of tears at a couple of six year olds. One of them is non-verbal autistic. As soon as I’m done yelling, I immediately regret it. I make a mental note to apologize for it on the drive to school.
I still need to bound upstairs and put my outside the house clothes on. I need to drag a brush across my teeth. Sometimes the first time I see myself is when I join a video call a few hours later; it can be startling.
We head for the door and this is the time Keeg selects to take his morning dump. We’re back inside for a three minute delay.
Our first stop is Keegan’s school, sixteen minutes away.
I hold his hand and take him inside. He’s very happy to see his behavioral technician and sets off through the doors to work on his stuff for the next five hours.
Like a blood pressure cuff being released, a small bit of tension leaves me. I’ve handed Keegan off to someone who loves him and will take care of him for the day. I feel so grateful to these humans who have dedicated their lives to helping our special kids. If I had the cash, I’d buy each of them a condo.
Sometimes Jake will come inside with me and play hide and seek behind a ficus tree or under a coffee table in the waiting area. We head back to the car and race off to the bus stop. After Jake gets on the bus, another hiss comes out of the blood pressure cuff. We made it.
I return home to the wake of destruction that we’ve left behind to try and get on with my day. The kids are at their Mom’s house tonight so the rest of the day feels like vacation.
I send these stories out when I can, I’d love to have you on the list.