As Ula’s vision increases, so does her imagination…and her independence. Where does that leave my identity as her mother?
Dad and I are standing in the driveway, having a heated discussion about some management decisions. The start of the season is fast approaching, and with the new farm store and cafe on the horizon, a freshly written novel in need of revision on my desk, homeschooling, Ula’s vision therapy, a second knee replacement surgery for him in four weeks, the post office building that Bob and I bought last year to manage, and the next phase of our farm transition plan looming in the coming months, there is incentive for me to identify “too much” before it becomes too much. I’m working at clearing my plate before it gets full. Dad is debating my choices with me when we both look up and see Ula sitting among the chickens in the side yard.
Ula goes to be with the chickens a lot. Or maybe its the other way around. They go to be with her. She has one, Rebecca, who perches on her shoulder, others that hop onto her lap and eat from her hands. She begs to go to the farm every afternoon to visit them. For the past hour, she has been out in the grass with them, sitting on an overturned feed bucket, singing to herself while she draws in a notebook and the chickens scratch and peck around her feet. She is unaware that Dad and I are watching her when she raises her arms grandly and begins to conduct a chicken orchestra, telling which birds to come in, which ones to stay silent.
Our conversation abruptly stops. We are in awe at her julbilant imagination. Dad turns to me, suddenly smiling. “What does any of it matter,” he asks, “so long as we have a chicken orchestra?”
His words are still in my head when I bring Ula down for her afternoon reading class at the school a few weeks later. She is homeschooled, but her cortical visual impairment led me to seek additional support services from the local public school two years ago. This past year she joined a Wilson Reading class (a special reading program for second graders through adulthood who have trouble decoding and spelling). Those 40 minutes of engaging with peers every day have made a huge difference in her progress. Being with other kids has sparked joy for her. That joy has made our morning vision therapy and homeschooling lessons much easier. Her vision has improved greatly, she is learning to read, and she is taking pleasure in eye-hand coordination activities, like knitting and weaving, that were heretofore impossible.
Ula’s special ed teacher agrees that she is flourishing. And she doesn’t beat around the bush with what she has to tell me. “Ula’s a sponge,” she says. “She soaks up everything we teach her. And she’s hungry for more. I think she is ready to come into the main classroom for guided reading.” She thinks, given time, Ula could even come to school full time, if she wanted.
But that was never my goal. My mouth opens and closes like a fish. She informs me that the meeting of Ula’s special ed committee is scheduled for one week later. “I just want you to know my recommendation beforehand,” she tells me, “so you can think about it. I wouldn’t recommend it if I wasn’t certain she would love it.”
I am silent as we leave the school. We drive up to the farm to pick up Bob, and as soon as I put the car in park, Ula is out the door and in with the chickens. Bob comes over to my window. “What’s wrong?”
“Ula’s doing well.”
“I thought that was a good thing.”
I tell him about the teacher’s recommendation, then I try to articulate my worries and concerns for her: That the classroom will be too visually chaotic. That she’ll get overwhelmed. That she’ll fall prey to the petty world of school politics and nastiness. But here’s what I also know: Ula loves being with other children. She loves it as much as she loves the chickens. She needs more challenges in crowded settings to build her confidence. And this isn’t a full day. It’s just two classes per day, instead of one. Nevertheless, I start to cry.
“It’s not about Ula,” I finally confess. “It’s about me.” I don’t want to lose her. I don’t want her to become so wrapped up in this school that we lose the chicken orchestra.
“This has been a huge burden on you,” Bob bends down and makes me look into his big brown eyes as he speaks. “And you’ve got a lot of other things that need your attention.”
“It’s….my identity,” I hardly recognize the words coming from my mouth. “It’s my ego….It’s who I’ve become.”
I had just finished writing my third book seven years ago when I noticed Ula’s two-year-old eye turning, and began to wonder whether her inability to sit still in a chair, her need for me to hold her still in order to sleep at night, were indicators that she was having trouble navigating her world. In time, her needs — the therapy, the doctors appointments, the driving to and from the school, the advocacy work, the help she required at night, the adaptations I had to make to her curriculum, the training and education I personally needed in order to help her — All of it became yet another full-time job. And everything else – the rest of the family, the farm, my writing…all came second.
And it is working.
And I am mourning.
So I cry for a minute longer. Then I dry my eyes, take Ula home, and we talk about what she wants to do. She says she wants to try taking the next class.
Several hours later, in the middle of the night, when everyone is sleeping, I creep downstairs and light a fire. I sit down in the dark with the dogs, and I cry some more. In the glow of the flames, I can see that this is important for Ula. She loves those children in her class. She is motivated by their presence. And her energy, her light and joy and curiosity, is a gift she brings to other people she meets. To keep that child forever by my side, insisting that she cannot take her next steps without my advocacy, therapy, protection and involvement, is to smother her light.
But I allow those tears to roll down my face anyhow. I need them at this hour. It is time to start saying goodbye to a part of myself, to prepare myself to let the identity that has grown inside me for the last seven years start to wash away. I am not finished with this work. I am nearing the end of a phase. Now my job is to help her continue to enjoy her chickens, to flourish in this farming life, while she balances it out with what she will see and experience as she reaches farther into the world. But unless I let these tears wash away this previous identity, I won’t be able to help her, or myself, move forward.
Allowing Ula that extra time at school will free me up to work more with Saoirse as we grow the cafe. It will allow me room to handle the paperwork and correspondence that’s required to take the family farm into its next phases. It is what I need: a critical step in avoiding too much, before it becomes too much.
Bob and I go to the meeting of her special education committee, and we agree to the recommendations.
The next day, Ula goes to a birthday party at a local hotel pool for one of the girls in her school class. I sit in a chair beside the water, overwhelmed by this new environment — all these school children, all this noise. I am still trying to wrap my mind around where she will go next, fearing that I will lose my brilliant little chicken lover to the throes of mainstream culture. An hour later, Ula slips out of the water and changes back into her clothes, then comes to sit beside me. For several long minutes, she says nothing. She just watches the children in the pool. Then she leans into me, her nine-year-old frame shamelessly taking a moment to breath in her mama’s scent, to hang affectionately on my arm. She nods to two boys rough housing in one corner, the only two boys in a sea of beautiful little girls.
“Do you see those two boys over there?”
“Why should I watch them?”
“They’re just like the roosters in with the hens. They act like they’re playing, because they’re boys. But they’re actually struggling for dominance. Just like the roosters do.”
I pull back and look at her again. And I see her more clearly than I’ve ever seen her. I see that this poultry maestro has so many layers, so much to see in this world, and so much to offer. We can’t lose her. We won’t lose her. The coming year may pull her farther from my side. It may pull her farther from the farm. It may pull her farther from the chickens. But no matter what, her family, her homeschooling, her farm, and her chickens will all continue to be with her. She will not be lost to these things, because, no matter what, they are part of who she is.